American bullfighting competition wows the crowd at the Greeley Stampede
June 28, 2017
This ain't Hemingway's bullfighting.
That much was clear before the 15 contestants in the Greeley Stampede's American bullfighting competition were driven in Chevy trucks to a pen on the west side of the Greeley Stampede Arena and long before a country singer spontaneously led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance.
The most important distinctions between American bullfighting and Ernest Hemingway's beloved Spanish variant are matadors earn up to $75,000 a fight, and — unlike on the bloody sands of Pamplona — on the dirt floor of the Stampede Arena, the bulls aren't killed.
In American bullfighting, there is only man and beast, no swords nor feathered spears nor capes. The fighter stands in the center of the pen, the bull is released from the chutes, and the fighter must survive for 40 seconds while keeping himself as near as possible to danger at all times.
The fighters are graded on two criteria: the bull's aggression and their skill in evading it. The first variable may seem out of their control, but if the bull is passive, it's on the fighter to goad him into attacking.
Here's what matadors and American bullfighters — descended from the tradition of rodeo clowns — have in common: Their outfits, though they look nothing alike, are equally flamboyant. Surviving in the ring means little unless they entertain the crowd in doing so; and they are incredibly brave.
"Yeah, in a sense," said Noah Krebbs, the event's champion, when asked if he gets scared in the ring. "It's a not a bad scared. It's more or less, more of a scared that keeps you driving to keep going and push that much harder. Once you call for him, for me, all the nerves, all the worry, all the fear, it goes out the door, and it's just me and my bull."
Krebbs is 18 years old, from Jasper, Ark., and he's been bullfighting for two years. His older brother was a bullrider, and Krebbs, like any little brother, wanted to follow him into that career. There was only one problem.
"Mom wouldn't have it," he said. Bullfighting became the somehow-less-dangerous alternative, though Krebbs flirted with disaster to a degree his competitors didn't. He seemed in complete control the entire time, which is why he walked away with the purse. In the first round — where the 15 fighters were divided into groups of three, the top fighter from each group advancing — Krebbs awed the crowd with a move where he charged head-on at the bull, then ducked and slid underneath him at the last second. The public-address announcer, as astonished as anyone, bellowed "He did that on purpose!"
CONTROLLING A BULL
It's hard to execute a sport that requires the cooperation of a massive, angry animal. After Wayne Ratley, the fourth contestant of the day, finished his 40 seconds, his bull wouldn't leave the pen. Ratley put himself in the entrance to the chutes, trying to entice it in there, but it wouldn't move. A cowboy entered the pen on a horse and tried and failed four times to lasso it. He roped the bull on his fifth attempt, but even then, the horse struggled with all its might to move the bull, but it wouldn't budge.
Then, somehow, another bull got loose and decided to join its brother in freedom. It charged straight for the cowboy and rammed his horse in the flank; were the bull's horns not filed down, that might have been the end of horse and rider. The bulls clashed head-to-head — which is actually a sport in Japan, the Balkans and Southeast Asia — before Ratley's bull chased a rodeo clown into the chutes. The second one, finally, left on its own accord.
"There's only so much of a fight you can plan out," Krebbs said.
About an hour after that debacle, Krebbs climbed back into the pen for the final, the 40 seconds that earned him his prize money, of which every cent is going into savings. His mom, whom he called his biggest supporter, would be proud.
Krebbs danced with the bull, staying just ahead of it as it charged his rear, keeping a hand behind him to feel for when it got too close. When it did, he spun to the side, along the bull's flank, then started running again as the animal wheeled around to renew the chase.
When time was up, Krebbs was in the center of the pen facing the bull, which prepared to charge from the edge. Krebbs could have bailed out to any side and climbed the fence to safety. Instead, the bull sprinted at him and he sprinted at the bull. Just before impact, he leapt like a track hurdler, cleared the beast, landed on his feet just before the fence and scaled it in one motion.
With a howl audible across the arena, Krebbs threw his hat into the pen and pumped his fist in the air. He knew, right then, that he'd won.
"If you're not living on the edge," said the PA announcer like some cowboy sage, "you're taking up too much road." ❖