A DOZEN ATTRACTIVE young women on the arena floor shimmy to an impromptu number that announcer Boyd Polhamus calls a Himalayan tribal dance, while a beer-blitzed Bubba joins in. Under the plank-board press box, riders lick their wounds, wrap their wrists, and rosin their ropes. It’s intermission time at Del Rio’s nineteenth George Paul Memorial Bull Riding, a.k.a. the Super Bull, a two-day event that brings together the top 45 bull riders in the world to vie for a $65,000 purse. “It’s a big fiesta,” says Stephenville’s Ty Murray, a six-time world-champion all-around cowboy.
The granddaddy of the non-rodeo stand-alone bull-riding contests, the competition honors Del Rio native George Paul, the 1968 world champion bull rider who was killed at age 23 when his twin-engine Beechcraft crashed. Three decades later, his record of 79 consecutive eight-second bull rides still stands, and many of his contemporary counterparts regard him as the best ever. El Paso native Tuff Hedeman, the three-time world bull-riding champ who won last year’s Super Bull, has been able to muster only 48 consecutive rides. Paul’s string, he says, “is pretty close to a miracle.”
The Super Bull courts a renegade image as the only outdoor stop on the sixteen-city Bud Light Cup Series tour. What also makes it renegade is the calcutta that takes place across the border on the eve of the event. This year on Friday, April 26, beneath the soaring palms on the patio of Ciudad Acuña’s La Macarena restaurant, gamblers bid big bucks to “own” the rights to various contestants. On a perfect violet night, the total wagers topped $107,000, with North Carolina phenom Jerome Davis fetching the high bid, $8,750, and Hedeman landing $8,250.
Come Saturday, a crowd of three thousand—each of whom paid $20 a ticket—roared wildly when announcer Polhamus shouted, “Let us hear you, Del Rio!” Rodeo clowns shook their fannies and high-fived as combatants showed why bull riding is sometimes called a contest of wild men on half-wild beasts. Cowboys endeavored to endure a one-handed rope hold astride two thousand pounds of savage rage, earning points along the way for form, positioning atop the bull, and even how the bull bucked. To be in the serious money on Sunday, they had to ride three bulls in a row.
By the next afternoon, only seven of the riders had made the cut. Hedeman wasn’t one of them. Murray, in an impressive performance, placed second, earning $12,093. And the star, as expected, was 23-year-old Davis. A flashy powerhouse in black chaps with spangled purple neon streamers, he walked off with the coveted buckle and more than $17,000. Last year he was a world champion bull rider, but he would have traded that honor for this one. “A bull rider would pick the George Paul,” he says. “It’s like the Kentucky Derby—it’s the big one.”