Under the bright lights of the arena, rodeo crowds always cheer loudest for the sport’s brave bull riders. But beyond the dramatic sight of the bucking bull and the flying cowboy are the men who jump in right after to distract the angry animal and pull the dusty rider to safety.
“We are the Secret Service of the rodeo business,” said bull fighter John Copsy at the Davie Pro Rodeo held at the Bergeron Rodeo Grounds last month. “If someone is supposed to get run over, it’s supposed to be us.”
Bull fighters — also known as rodeo protection athletes — used to be the sport’s rodeo clowns. Their makeup and wigs are gone, and their role has shifted away from crowd entertainment.
Dressed in a black-and-white-striped referee shirt and a pink handkerchief tied around his neck, Copsy said he and other bull fighters often go unnoticed at the events. While piles of cash and gold buckles await the most talented riders, there’s a different attraction for the men who hustle to protect the cowboys.
“You get to see all the young guys coming up, and you get to watch them grow up,” said Copsy, who has been fighting bulls for 12 years. “If we’re getting run over, I’m going to be run over in there with them.”
Bull riding is one of the toughest events at rodeos, which also include bareback riding and steer wrestling.
Cowboys have the daunting task of staying on top of a bull, one-handed, for a full eight seconds to qualify for a score from the judge. If they stay on, the riders receive two scores: one rates their skill and control of the animal and a second score for the quality of the bull and how well it bucks. The rider with the highest average of both scores wins the event.
Even with the protection of the bull fighters, serious injuries are a common reality for all who compete in what’s known as the most dangerous eight seconds in sports. Between 1989 and 2009, bull riders suffered more fatalities than any other professional athletes, according to a study by Dale Butterwick, who teaches kinesiology at the University of Calgary.
Speaking between bull rides at the Davie Rodeo, David “Hollywood” Flores pointed to a freshly healed, pink scar on his forearm. A bull stepped on him after a ride at the Kissimmee Rodeo in late March.
“I ain’t going to a hospital. We’re gonna do it right here,” Flores recalled saying. “They pulled out a picnic table, stitched me right up, and I went and got on another [bull].”
In his more than 10 years of riding, Flores said he’s suffered numerous injuries, including a crushed sternum and a punctured lung. He said he knows that without guys like Copsy in the arena, he could have fared much worse.
“I feel less fear when he’s in the area, because I know he’ll get to me,” Flores said. “He does everything he can to get me away so that I may live another day.”
While in other sports it’s natural to keep an eye on your fellow competitors, in bull riding, the competition is always the bull itself, said Brian Courson, a champion rider who has been competing for 23 years.
“When kids first start out they think they have to worry about [veteran riders like] us,” he said. “The competition is your bull, not ever a rider.”
It’s commonly speculated that the testicles of a bull are tied together right before the metal gates fly open to release it from the chute. But bull riders are quick to dismiss that as pure rumor. The bull bucks because a flank strap is tied around its midsection that causes irritation.
“It’s like putting a tight belt on someone,” said Jim Bainbridge, the communications coordinator for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. “They’re inclined to buck anyhow, and the flank strap focuses their attention.”
Animal rights groups like PETA remain opposed to the sport, maintaining this practice can still hurt the bull, and animals may be injured during the events.
But Copsy said he knows the bulls have been well taken care of because he’s raised many himself. Sometimes he can also use this to warn riders about what they’re in for from a bull that he knows well, while he stays prepared with the right equipment.
Unlike the riders who are dressed in jeans and signature wide-brimmed hats, bull fighters like Copsy wear a uniform that’s designed to protect them from the heft of the animals that can weigh up to 2,500 pounds.
Underneath his loose, polyester shorts is a set of hard plastic pads as well as another around his midsection. It helps distribute the pressure of a bull’s weight if the hooves pin down his body, Copsy said.
Copsy started out as a bull rider, but he said he realized he wasn’t as talented as his fellow competitors and became a fighter instead. In protecting the cowboys, Copsy could still be a part of the rodeo world.
As Flores mounts a bull and waits for the chute to open, he said he can often hear Copsy there, ready to pounce once Flores hits the ground.
“As I’m getting down in the box, he says, ‘Take it to ‘em, Hollywood.’”
A previous version of this article misspelled bull fighter John Copsy's name.
If you go
What: Davie Pro Rodeo.
Where: Bergeron Rodeo Grounds, 4271 Davie Road., Davie.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 12.
How much: Adults $20, kids $10 (kids under 2 free).
More info: davieprorodeo.com/dpr/.