Every Thursday night at the Carbondale Wild West Rodeo, bull riding is the final event. Why do we love watching brave athletes ride 1500 lbs of rank meanness? For the same reason we slow down on the highway to gaze at a multi-car pile up: we want everyone to survive, but we also want to see a little glorious carnage.
The cowboy gives a nod. The gate clangs. A bull rockets out of the chute spinning, dropping, kicking and bucking, hell-bent on giving that rider a dirt bath. The bull rider has one rosined hand gripping a braided rope and his free hand points heavenward. For this timed event, the bull rider must stay on for eight seconds. Judges assign a score – a perfect ride is 100 points. Every single ride ends with the rider coming off. That’s when the bullfighter goes to work.
For the last three years, local bullfighter José Cano has kept cowboys, cowgirls and mutton-busters safe at Gus Darien Arena as well as rodeos in Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada and California. While attending Glenwood High School, Cano competed in football, soccer, wrestling and baseball. He became a welder and dabbled in bull riding. While he enjoyed riding roughstock, “I wasn’t super natural at it,” and about six years ago a buddy told him to check out bullfighting. Says Cano, “I made a save on a kid at a practice. I just reacted. I touched the bull on his head and he chased me instead of the kid. I saved him from a mauling.” After that day, he has followed his dream. “I’m so passionate about it. We’re cowboy protectors. I take pride in helping people. It’s fulfilling.”
Dusty Tuckness, seven time PRCA Bullfighter of the Year, explains the difference between bullfighters and rodeo clowns in a 2018 video by Gary Freeman: “a bullfighter’s main objective is to keep cowboys safe by distracting. Rodeo clowns’ main objective is to entertain the crowd, tell jokes and work the barrel – an island of safety for us out there.”
Ethan Cooke is a bull rider who has worked alongside Cano. “There’s nobody I feel more comfortable with. José has had my back in a lot of sticky situations. He’s the kind of guy that will jump in and take a hooking for anyone. You can always count on him stepping in and getting the job done.”
While a bullfighter must be in top physical condition, his mental focus is equally as critical in this high-intensity, high-stakes job. Cano works out with his younger brother who is training to be an MMA fighter. He also tries to meditate every day. Cano walked me through the moments before he stares death in the face: “Just before the chute opens, I’m looking at the rider getting ready. I give him some words of encouragement and step back to my position next to the bucking chute. I’m focusing on taking deep breaths to control any nerves. I clear my mind of any thoughts or predictions of what’s about to happen. I’m looking at the rider’s head, waiting for the nod. When they leave the chute, I’m watching everything collectively with my peripherals, focusing on the rider’s shoulder and hips, looking for indications he’s about to be overpowered and thrown. My goal is to understand the physics and know where he’s going to land before he hits the ground, so I can position myself between the bull and fallen rider. It happens so fast, there’s no time to think, only react to what’s unfolding in front of me.”
For José, it’s just another day at the office.
“If you can’t control your mind in the arena, you’re not going to react the right way.” -José Cano. Photo by Paula Mayer.