Wrangler Bullfights: Gladiators of rodeo started at Black Hills Stock Show Rodeo
January 28, 2016
People have always been drawn to dangerous things.
Whether it's auto racing, climbing mountains, or hunting grizzlies and alligators, danger keeps people tuned in to the action.
And it's no different in rodeo.
In the late 1970s, Jim Sutton of Sutton Rodeo Co. wanted to entertain rodeo fans at the Black Hills Stock Show Rodeo in Rapid City. He wanted to give them something to talk about, something that brought them back, with their friends, the next night
So he began a bullfighting competition. Not cowboy protection-style, where the bullfighters step in at the end of a bull ride, but the freestyle, where it's just a bullfighter and a bull in the arena.
It started in 1979, with Sutton inviting six bullfighters, all who had worked the National Finals Rodeo before: Larry Clayman, Missouri; Johnny Tatum, Arizona; Skipper Voss, Texas; Wick Peth, Washington; Bob Donaldson, Colorado, and Miles Hare, Nebraska.
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It was a success. People flocked to the Black Hills Stock Show Rodeo, and Sutton believes the bullfights helped the rodeo grow. "I would give the bullfights all the credit for making the rodeo what it is today," he says.
He began discussions with David Little and David Allen, both from Wrangler, about sponsoring the event. In 1981, Wrangler took on the events, calling them the Wrangler Bullfights.
Allen, who grew up in Deadwood and had known Jim and his wife Julie for years, was open to the idea. It "was a great idea," he said. "Jim and Julie have always been so promotionally oriented, and ahead of the curve in terms of rodeo entertainment. This concept made sense, and it turned out to be extremely popular."
They grew to include twenty to thirty bullfights at PRCA rodeos across the nation. Bullfighters were judged for their style and daring in getting close to the bull, and at the end of the season, the top six bullfighters went on to compete at the Wrangler Bullfights at the National Finals Rodeo.
Fans loved the Wrangler Bullfights, Allen remembers. "People would not leave their seats after the bull riding was over. They stayed for the bullfighting. It was great entertainment, great competition, and it was a pretty simple overhead. You needed guys with lots of athletic ability who were willing to play tag, you're it with a cross bred bull that wanted to run over them."
One of the main reasons it appealed to people was that it was dangerous. "The element of danger is always public appeal," Allen said. "The age-old saying, that nobody wants anybody to get hurt but if it happens, they don't want to miss it, is true."
Critical to the success of the bullfights were the bulls. "You had to have the right fighting bulls," Allen said. "Every rodeo had one barrel bull they would turn out so that the barrel man could have some fun. Those were the types of bulls you needed, and you needed a fresh one that kept coming at you, that didn't get too smart at the game."
Not only were the bulls excellent athletes, the bullfighters were, too. Some of the legendary bullfighters in the rodeo world were around in the early '80s: Hare, Voss, Peth, and others, including Steve Mowry, Rob Smets, Rick Chapman, Michael Horton, Leon Coffee, Butch Lehmkuhler, and others.
Hare, who grew up in Gordon, Neb., loved the Wrangler Bullfights and was one of the guys to work the first event in Rapid City in 1979. "I enjoyed working them and there was good money in bullfighting," he said. Hare won the inaugural Wrangler Bullfights World Championship in 1981, and worked the Wrangler Bullfights for about ten years. There was a tight bond between bullfighters, and Hare and another bullfight world champion, Rob Smets, had it. "You had some exceptional guys that did something (fight bulls) that not very many people are willing to do," Smets said. "There's a brotherhood there."
Presho, South Dakota's Steve Mowry was one of those Wrangler Bullfighters. He worked for the Suttons at the Black Hills Stock Show Rodeo, helping with timed event cattle and working the bull riding event. Mowry got onto the Wrangler Bullfights tour in 1983, qualifying for the bullfights at the NFR in '83-'84 and '86-'88. In 1984, he won $12,000 at the NFR, and that money bought him his first 46 bred heifers, the start of the Mowry Angus Ranch.
Mowry was known for jumping bulls, and he, Leon Coffee, and Butch Lehmkuhler did a special event in Rapid City at the rodeo in 1982. Lehmkuhler rode a bull backwards, jumped off, Mowry jumped the bull, and Coffee wrapped up the act by "dancing" with the bull.
The Wrangler Bullfights continued for twenty years, with the Black Hills Stock Show Rodeo one of the annual stops along the tour. They were discontinued in 2001, and for a while, the art of freestyle bullfighting subsided.
But it seems to be emerging again, with the event taking place in Las Vegas during the Wrangler National Finals last month. And it's back to the Stock Show Rodeo. Sutton Rodeo hosted an invitational bullfight last year, and this year, bullfights will end the rodeo performances on Feb. 4, 5 and 6, with finals during the evening performance on Feb. 6.
People still love to see the element of danger, Sutton says. "It isn't any different than car racing. People like to see wrecks, and the bullfights have as many as anything else." Hare said, "You can't stop the action, and when something goes wrong, it's scary, and the bull is still on the fight, and the game's still on."
Mowry gives credit to Sutton for bringing the bullfights to the fans. "There wouldn't have been a Wrangler Bullfight without Jim Sutton. He gets the credit for bringing it to Rapid City."