Back in the spotlight: Eaton family at forefront of freestyle bullfighting’s resurgence
Twisted X Boots ABF Finalists
1. Judd Napier
2. Jake King
3. Lelo Garcia
4. Dustin Konig
Freestyle bullfighting isn’t the attraction it once was.
Sponsored by Wrangler from 1981-2000 as part of the National Finals Rodeo, the event has existed since as part of singular rodeo events, with many of bullfighters serving as cowboy protectors, tasked with the duty of distracting a bull from injuring a rider or participant during an event.
Eaton resident Kevin Rich, however, is working to change that.
A former bullfighter and current stock producer, Rich helped create American Bullfighting (ABF) four years ago.
With input and help from promoters Mark Reinart and Wes Sargent, the company has steadily grown nationwide and recently enjoyed a return to a marquee event in Las Vegas in early December. The three-day event was held during the National Finals Rodeo and was seen as a huge step in bringing fans back to the sport.
“It’s unbelievable how many people out there have been contacting us wanting the bullfights at their rodeos,” Rich said. “My whole goal is to make (bullfighting) as big as it once was, and I think we’re well on our way.”
Rich produces the fighting bulls used in the ABF. He had to work hard at getting his event to Las Vegas, but the effort paid off.
The Twisted X Boots American Bullfighting event took place Dec. 6-8 at the Mandalay Bay. While not part officially part of the NFR, the event was free to the public and at capacity all three days.
2012 American Bullfighting world champion Dustin Konig finished fourth at the event and was elated a sport he’s been involved in since 2008 finally received the recognition he thinks it deserves.
“When you think about the rodeo industry, 80 percent of the people that are involved in rodeo travel to Las Vegas for the NFR,” Konig said. “So a sport that’s been forgotten, one that our generation hasn’t seen is gaining (attention). It’s awesome because we put it on a national stage.”
It’s not as though returning to Vegas was an easy thing to accomplish. Rich admits freestyle bullfighting competitions initially were tough to market to crowds because American bullfighting often gets confused with Mexican bullfighting. In Mexican bullfighting, the bull is killed. In American bullfighting, the bull is not killed and the events are centered on the skills of a bull versus the elusiveness of the bullfighter.
“I think people are getting to know what it is,” Rich said. “I do believe that people are starting to say, ‘Wow! (the ABF) is showing the athleticism of (the bulls and the bullfighters).’ The bulls are amazing athletes and these bullfighters are doing amazing things.”
While the exact rules for each competition vary from event to event depending on the number of competitors and bulls, the final round of the bullfighting in Las Vegas consisted of 40-second rounds in which the bullfighter was judged on how well he could entice the bull and then avoid getting hooked.
At the conclusion of 40 seconds, the competitor had the option of continuing for another 20 seconds to further impress the judges or exiting, content with his 40-second score.
It may sound crazy for someone to stare down a 1,300-pound fighting bull and tempt it to engage simply to show athletic prowess.
Go ahead, call them crazy. They don’t mind.
“It is crazy,” joked former professional bull rider Cody Gardner when asked why anyone would want to tempt a bull in any way.
Though not a bullfighter, Gardner has seen the job bullfighters have done from his time on the rodeo circuit from 2007 to early 2015.
“(Bullfighters and bull riders) have to be very athletic but the athleticism will only take you so far,” Gardner said. “It’s like any sport. It’s a mind game. The best guys in the world eat sleep and breathe rodeo. You’ve got to love it. That’s why I quit riding bulls. When I was working out it became ‘I have to do this’ rather than ‘I want to do this.’
“When you lose the love of it you may as well give it up.”
The danger of bullfighting hasn’t kept Rich’s son Ryder from participating in bullfighting competitions.
The 16-year old sophomore at Eaton said he never really hesitated in adopting the hobby from his dad.
“I’ve been around it my whole life,” Ryder said. “My dad brought me up in the rodeo with my brother. There wasn’t much discussion about it. I always knew I was going to do it.”
His father certainly knows the risks but understands why his son would have an interest. Admittedly, Kevin said when he was bullfighting from 1986 to 2004, he, too, didn’t have a second thought about the risk. Now that Ryder is involved competitively, and, to a lesser extent his younger son, Roper, Kevin is pleased they are involved and that he has the opportunity to teach them how to be as safe and successful as possible.
“From an American Bullfighters standpoint, I love having guys like Ryder and all these young guys in the sport because its going to grow the sport,” Kevin said. “From a parental perspective, if I can’t keep him from doing it, I want to be able to teach him the best that I possibly can.”
Having only been involved in “big rodeos” for a little more than a year, Ryder is pleased with his progress but doesn’t shy away when asked how he deals with the fear that would paralyze most who step in front of a bull.
His straightforward approach is one many can appreciate and relate to.
“I’m trying to get the crowd into it and I’m trying to think of doing anything else besides fighting this bull,” Ryder said.
In addition to his dad teaching him moves, Ryder also is appreciative of his dad for improving his mental approach.
“He’s always told me to have a strong mental side and, once you go out there, how to slow everything down,” Ryder said. “It’s a great feeling.”
While too early tell how big the ABF or freestyle bullfighting in general can grow, the company is making moves to once again place freestyle bullfighting in the center of the action at big rodeo events throughout the country.
“I truthfully believe the sky is the limit,” Kevin said. “This sport can be back for at least six days of the 10-day NFR. I truthfully think it can really take off.”
“I’m not surprised (by ABF’s early success),” Gardner said. “Kevin Rich in his era was one of the top bullfighters. I’m not surprised at all. I love Kevin Rich. (The ABF) is in the best hands it could be.” ❖