The uninitiated still call them rodeo clowns, but the face-painted funny man that helped out fallen bull riders during the 1950s era of rodeo slowly evolved into the barrel man and the bullfighter.
The Bullfighter has continued to evolve into two distinct disciplines — the cowboy protector and the freestyle bullfighter.
Even within the rodeo community, where people know the difference, both the cowboy protector and the freestyle bullfighter are often referred to as “bullfighters.”
Dustin Konig of Eaton, Colo., is the 2012 American Bull Fighting world champion and also the 2013 reserve champion, and is uniquely qualified to explain the difference.
Konig is a PRCA cowboy protector, as well as a freestyle bullfighter.
“I grew up fighting bulls for Kevin Rich over at the Sundance and here in Greeley at the indoor barn, and Kevin and Lance Brittan, the last Wrangler world champion bullfighter, have kind of mentored me. Those two guys have both taken me under their wing and taught me a ton about fighting bulls,” said Konig.
“When you’re out there protecting cowboys, it’s you and your partner working. You’re there for a reason — to protect those guys. When you’re out there freestyling, you are there for your own well-being. Cowboy protection is more like a job than just fun to me, but I love to go do it, and it pays regardless,” said Konig.
“Freestyle is more for us like it is for the rest of the rodeo contestants. It’s competition. We pay entry fees; we have to pay to play. It’s more of a competition for us. There are some guys that don’t enjoy doing it, and then there are a lot of us that do enjoy it. I just happen to be one of those guys that crave it and love it.”
One reason that bullfighters do not like being called “rodeo clowns” is that there is nothing funny about the job that bullfighters do. Their job is not only serious; it is literally life or death, for themselves and for the cowboys that they protect.
Injuries are commonplace, especially for the freestyle bullfighters.
“It’s just you with the bull, one-on-one. There is nobody else, nothing else out there. You’ve got your barrel man out there, but he’s in the barrel and doesn’t move around unless you ask him to. It’s just you and the bull. It’s just a head-to-head battle with a 2,000-pound beast. It’s going to battle really. That’s what we all call it — ‘going to battle,’” said Konig
“There are some guys that are just absolutely scared to death of it. They don’t like it. They just don’t want any part of it. Then there are some of us guys like me, Nate Jestes, Evan Allard and Zach Arthur, who love it. There is nothing more we want to do than go to a bullfight,” continued Konig.
So what is it about Mexican fighting bulls that makes them so dangerous?
For one thing, these bulls are just plain mean.
“These are bulls from a breeding program and are specifically bred by Kevin Rich for aggression,” said Dwayne Odell. “What we are looking for in the aggressive side of it is that once that bull gets turned out, he wants to run over and get a hold of anything that is in his way. We want them to go out and find that bullfighter to keep trying to get a hold of the bullfighter.”
Mark Reinert, one of the partners in ABF, has this to say about the Mexican Fighting Bulls.
“They are mean. I’ve watched them get another bull down and they are like piranha or sharks when they smell blood. They just lose it. They are the meanest things I’ve ever been around. Bucking bulls might take a run at you and move on, but not these. If they see you, they are going to stick to you. They are going to stay with you until you are obliterated.”
Mexican Fighting Bulls are smaller, lighter and they make turns a lot faster than a bucking bull.
Reinert says, “It’s like comparing an F-16 fighter to a big C-130”.
A.J. Lutz from Peoria, Arizona, had the unfortunate experience of being the big wreck of the day.
As a cowboy protector, this was A.J.’s first freestyle bullfight.
He was doing really well and had made it to the final round, where he ran into (literally) one of the bulls that Kevin Rich holds back for the championship round. A.J.’s bullfight started in the center of the arena and ended with him out cold in the dirt of the back corner.
A.J. was the victim of the ability of the Mexican fighting bull to turn from either end so that bullfighters thrown into the air by its speed and power land on the ground only to find themselves face-to-face with the bull that just ran through them.
Only the quick thinking by bullfighter Derek Williamson of Fort Collins, Colo., saved A.J. from serious injury. Derek jumped into the arena and grabbed A.J. by the vest and pulled him to safety while the bullfighters stationed around the arena distracted the bull.
If you are beginning to think that a person would have to be a little crazy to do this, you are not alone. They may have a strange idea of fun, but to the cowboys that fight bulls, there is nothing they would rather be doing.
“I just love it. Just living my dream now, getting out there and fighting bulls all the time and just having a good time with it,” said Dustin Konig.
Justin Kreutzer of Ault, Colo., does it for “the adrenaline. The object is to get as close as possible without getting run over, and there’s nothing better than getting around the head and making good turns and that feeling of him wrapped up right there behind you. There’s nothing better.”
The ABF is continuing to grow and showcase outstanding bullfighters against some of the meanest and most athletic bulls ever to face off against a cowboy.
“Three years ago, Wes Sargent and I had a meeting at the airport, and two weeks later we put on our very first bullfight at the Weld County Fair. We sold 500 tickets and broke even. Last year we did 10 events and this year we have 14 lined up and we are just now getting into our Colorado run. We’ve been in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas so far.”
For those that have never seen a contest between an American Bullfighter and a Mexican Fighting Bull, they are nothing like Mexican bull fights.
Wes Sargent described the difference as, “In Mexico, they try to kill the bull. Here, the bull tries to kill the bullfighter.”
If you like fast-paced action with an element of danger, do not miss the opportunity to see an American bull fighting event when it comes to a city near you.
As Mark Reinert says, “this is nonstop action, and there is going to be a wreck.” ❖