Rough Riders

A new documentary captures the grit, danger and passion in one of America's fastest-growing sports
October 08, 2006

When two-timeProfessional Bull Riders world champion Adriano Moraes talks about his sport,which requires a rider to stay on a bucking, spinning bull for eight seconds,he describes the adrenaline rush he gets when the bull charges from the chute;the pride he feels over conquering an 1,800-pound beast, even if it's onlybriefly; and the value of faith in facing injuries, which for Moraes haveincluded a twice-broken leg, a fractured collarbone and cheekbone and a goredabdomen. The surprise comes when Moraes likens the sport to ballet.


"It's a lotlike being a bailarino--the guy, not the ballerina," says theBrazilian-born Moraes, 36, who lives in Keller, Texas, and is featured in a newdocumentary called Rank, which airs this month on cable's Independent FilmChannel and is also available through Netflix. "Bailarinos have a lot ofstrength but also a lot of finesse. They're lifting a ballerina like they'relifting a feather. It's a lot of control, a lot of balance. That's bullriding.It's not brute force; it doesn't matter how strong you are, a bull will alwaysbe stronger."

Rank--a term thatbreeder H.D. Page says is given to a bull who "can jump the highest andkick the hardest and spin the fastest"--offers a good introduction to oneof the nation's fastest-growing sports, with more than 100 million viewershaving tuned in to its 30 events on Fox, NBC and OLN this year.

"What wetried to portray is how the riders' lives are made up of long, slow, quietperiods of ranching, hanging around," says director John Hyams,"punctuated by eight seconds of fierce, violent activity." Hyams, wholives in New York City and whose previous documentary, The Smashing Machine,was about ultimate fighting, says he wanted to capture on film a world that wasin large part alien to him.

Rank opens inDickson, Okla., on the Page family ranch, where some 300 bulls are raised. Inthese segments the film's pace is slow, its tone almost reverential as Page andhis father, Dillon, introduce their favorite bulls: Mudslinger, Western Wishes,Crossfire Hurricane, Hotel California. The film then moves on to the fast-paced2004 finals, in Las Vegas, where the riding is quick and the bucking isterrifying.

Hyams follows thefortunes of three riders: Moraes, Mike Lee and Justin McBride. (The three willalso be competing in this year's Las Vegas finals, Oct. 27-29 and Nov. 2-5.)Lee and his wife, Jamie, discuss a cracked skull he suffered that led to asubdural hematoma, surgery and the partial loss of sight in one eye. Lee, 23,still rides, knowing, he says, that "I'm gonna have a chance of dying, andI'm ready to die for something that I love doing. God gave me this talent, andI'm ready to die for Him, in the arena or out of the arena."

In some of Rank'smore moving scenes, Moraes plays with two of his sons, whom he first saddled upon ponies before their first birthdays. As he does, he talks about wanting toshow them more affection than his own parents showed him.

Comic relief issupplied by McBride, who strums his guitar and sings a vaguely obscene songabout putting his male ego on hold until falling for a barmaid. The 2005 worldchampion, he'll tell you that the sport is all about focusing on "thesimple steps of what it takes to stay on." (Keep your riding arm bent, yourupper body down, your chin tucked. Lean into the spin. Don't let your balancearm get too far behind you.) He's a third-generation bullrider whosegrandfather was killed by a bull, but ask the 27-year-old McBride if he getsscared when he lowers himself onto the back of a bull who'd just as soon gorehis innards, and he answers, "Scared? Scared of losing."

Bull Market

SinceProfessional Bull Riders, Inc. struck out on its own in 1992, splitting fromthe Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the PBR has grown tremendously. In1994, its first year of competition, total prize money for the eight-event tourwas $250,000 and gross revenues were $1.2 million. This year riders arecompeting in 30 events with $10 million in prize money, and revenues areexpected to be more than $46 million. Here's a year-by-year look at the PBR'stop earners.

1994 ADRIANO MORAES $ 79,090
1995 TUFF HEDEMAN 123,595
1996 OWEN WASHBURN 148,151
1997 MICHAEL GAFFNEY 243,251
1998 TROY DUNN 221,792
1999 CODY HART 347,860
2000 CHRIS SHIVERS 332,060
2001 ADRIANO MORAES 458,799
2002 EDNEI CAMINHAS 291,922
2003 CHRIS SHIVERS 1,202,478
2004 MIKE LEE 1,453,326
2005 JUSTIN MCBRIDE 1,519,631

PHOTOANDY WATSON/PBR (SHIVERS)UNBRIDLED Athird-generation rider, McBride is the brashest competitor featured inRank. THREE PHOTOSCOURTESY OF IFC (RANK); JAE C. HONG/AP (2);