Two seconds into the showdown, this celebrity athlete is ablaze with urgency. Nearly four feet off the ground, his back muscles bow and flare while his eyes seem to beam pure calmness, masking the fury at play.
This superstar's known to be serene before hitting the bright lights. No hint of intentional intimidation, none of that flexing or grunting shown by his rivals – what some in the game call “trash talking.” But he is a massive brute, an American athlete born with what ESPN describes as “the baddest body in sports" -- and all that raw strength translates into big bucks for his handlers.
Seven seconds in, he’s violently whirling his head in a blur of strained angles, to the cheers of fans who track his every move. Down at the business end, he’s snapped off seven ferocious kicks, hips churning like racing pistons – springing and reloading before exploding again. Suddenly, the brawl is done. In the dirt, chest down, his foe is sprawled. He offers the beaten man merely a passing glance while continuing to leap and spin, soon to be relishing his favorite snack: a mouthful of hay.
Just another victory for Bushwacker, the brightest bovine star on the Professional Bull Riders tour. During his 52 rides last season, only one cowboy stayed atop him for the mandatory eight seconds – and most were hurled off in about three seconds. In perhaps his most lucrative season, 2010, he earned $335,000 in prize money. His athletic rivals began working to buck Bushwacker from his top ranking on Jan. 3 in the season’s opening event at Madison Square Garden.
"It's man versus beast. When you see the size of these animals and their muscularity, you can’t help but get caught up in how majestic they are when they perform their job."
“There are two athletes out there, two opponents. But the rider also needs that animal to have a high degree of difficulty to do his job, to try to throw him. So they’re also teammates, scoring together,” said Cody Lambert, a hall-of-fame rider who retired in 1996. “Bushwacker never has an off day. He is the greatest of all time.”
In this wild corner of the sports world, the nearly two-ton bulls are arguably more popular than the humans who strap in to conquer them. Bushwacker, born in 2005, has his own Facebook page, his own merchandise line of shirts, memorabilia and stuffed replicas, and career winnings estimated at about a half million dollars, say circuit insiders.
“It's man versus beast. When you see the size of these animals and their muscularity, you can’t help but get caught up in how majestic they are when they perform their job, bucking these riders off,” said Jim Haworth, PBR’s chairman and chief executive officer. “The bulls take that job seriously. They become celebrity athletes. That’s why fans are drawn."
Other beloved bulls in PBR’s Built Ford Tough Series include Smackdown, with his menacing, brow-furrowed glare, and Lightmaker’s Rango, with his chin scruff and wide, black-tipped horns. There's also Shepherd Hills Tested, who in his professional photos has a nose caked in reddish dirt, as if he’s just snorted through a rugged battle.
“I’ll have people ask me all the time: ‘Is Bushwacker going to be at that event? And if so, what day?’ But it’s not just Bushwacker the fans love,” said Jerome Robinson, a legendary rider. “In my opinion, there was a better bull than Bushwacker in the (world) finals last year – that was Shepherd Hills Tested. That's good, though. It’s like the NBA – LeBron James isn’t everybody’s favorite. Once in a while, fans like to see Kevin Durant get the best of LeBron.”
A bonus for a bull that wins the world championship, paid to the owner, typically nets $25,000, said Susan Bedford, director of communications for American Bucking Bull, Inc. Throughout each season, ABBI awards about $2 million to bulls aged 2 to 4 that perform well or win ABBI events. (PBR is a parent company).
“ABBI has the goal to support stock contractors (individuals who provide animals to rodeo competitions) so they breed and produce the best bucking bulls in the world,” Bedford said.
After 2010, the year Bushwacker raked in his $335,000, he “aged out” of that prime ABBI competition window, Bedford said. But Bushwacker fills the PBR seats and still earns prize money for his owner, Julio Moreno -- reportedly about $1,000 per ride. Moreno did not respond to an interview request from NBC News.
"I’ll have people ask me all the time: ‘Is Bushwacker going to be at that event? And if so, what day?’"
Throughout the pro tour, the muscled beasts bring dollars.
Last season, Bushwacker led PBR in merchandising and licensing sales, earning “in the $100,000 range,” said PBR chief Haworth. He explained that male fans are unlikely to don T-shirts sporting the image of a male rider but will happily strut through an event wearing a pic of a kicking Bushwacker emblazoned on their chests.
Then there are the bloodlines.
“Before ABBI, a great PBR bull made most of his money through his genetics – semen – if he was a proven sire,” Bedford said.
The ABBI runs a worldwide DNA registry for bucking cattle to confirm the genetic identities of the sport’s kings. That legitimacy, Bedford added, helped boost the price of sperm samples, or “straws,” as they’re known in the sport. One semen removal session can produce as many as 300 straws.
“Keep in mind, many people like to use two straws to guarantee they'll get a fertilized egg,” Bedford said. “If Julio (his owner) is even willing to sell, last I heard (Bushwacker’s) straws were $3,000 each.”
Do the math: That’s $900,000 for each retrieval. Talk about seed money.