This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's July 22 Body Issue. Subscribe today!
BUSHWACKER HATES IT when the humans try to ride him. In the moments before the gate opens, muscles ripple on his sides, half a dozen or so horizontal lines, the bovine six-pack. He's built like a day-shift stripper: high ass and thick legs, swaying his wide hips without conviction or enthusiasm. He weighs nearly 1,700 pounds, stout and unbothered by the arena's pyro and grinding rock 'n roll. He snorts out damp breaths -- not shallow pants of fear, more like a muscle car in neutral. He stands perfectly still in the chute, which is odd, since most bulls squirm and twitch under the weight of a rider. This freaks everyone out.
Nobody knows if he remembers the rides when they're over, regardless of how many hundreds of thousands of times they're watched online. Pick a YouTube video at random. They're all the same, like this favorite from 2011 in Anaheim, Calif.: Champion cowboy J.B. Mauney cinches his rope tight. Bushwacker is a statue, until the hinges open with a squeak. The first step out is a long leap, the length of a Ford F-250 or thereabouts, and when his front legs hit the ground, his big thighs explode and he bucks his back hooves high into the air, starting a hurricane of pumps and whips and spins. He loves to kick. A brain scan taken midride would look very different from one taken if he'd been cornered in a pasture by a predator. He understands the cowboy isn't trying to hurt him. He knows it's a game.
Mauney lasts 2.67 seconds.
Bushwacker bucks exclusively at the championship round of the sport's most elite circuit, the PBR Built Ford Tough Series. He earns $1,000 a ride, plus bonuses, paid to his owner, Julio Moreno. Only the best cowboys in the world ride him. Try to ride him. Only two dudes have succeeded, going the full eight seconds on Bushwacker; the last time it happened was four years ago. Forty-two times since then, cowboys have climbed on his back. Almost immediately, all of them have flown ass over teakettle into the dirt. That's a PBR elite series record. For his work, Bushwacker has earned nearly $500,000 in his career.
For some reason, he never bucks the same way twice. His doctor, a former college football player named Gary Warner, knows he shouldn't wish intelligence on his favorite patient, but he thinks Bushwacker can tell which cowboy is sitting on his back, adjusting his bucks accordingly. "If cows have memories," he says, "I think he remembers these guys. He understands what's going on."
Mauney tried again last year and made it 7.22 seconds. The humans knew it was 7.22. Bushwacker can't tell time. He is the greatest bucking bull on the planet and he doesn't know it. But he does sense something about himself, a tiny spark of self-awareness. Every time he enters the holding pen at an event, the stalls groaning with nasty, badass alpha bulls, Bushwacker lifts his head and bellows, starting as a Waylon Jennings rumble but ending as a James Brown scream. It's his way of announcing his presence to males he wants to brawl and females he wants to bang: "I am here!"
BUSHWACKER, 7, RIDES in the back of a trailer to a dozen or so rodeos a year, which he's been doing since 2009. The rest of the time he's searching for shade in his small pen in Dublin, Texas, built from highway guardrails and cattle fencing. He sleeps a lot. He likes hay. He likes digging his feet into the dirt and kicking it on himself. Anything involving digging in dirt is pretty awesome. Rubbing his horns on metal feels good: Streaks of color mix with the scrapes and gouges, like an offensive lineman's football helmet. The blue comes from a pole holding up his pen's roof, and the green comes from a paddock in Holbrook, Ariz., where he always spends the night on the way from Texas to the PBR World Finals in Las Vegas.
Bushwacker has no opinion on the color red.
He doesn't like getting his picture taken, turning his rump to the camera after about 15 minutes, then trying to hook the offending rubberneckers if that doesn't get the message across. He doesn't like visiting Dr. Warner. He hates it when people grab his Little Bushwacker, which is roughly the size of a gymnast. Having his bullhood manhandled is just part of his job; the humans prize his genetic batter. A single straw, the diameter of a coffee stirrer, goes for $3,000. A good load can produce as many as 300 straws.
To get all technical, Bushwacker's seed is more valuable than truffles.
The first time they took him to a breeding facility, a Holstein in heat stuck her rear end in the air. Bushwacker sprang to attention, climbing onto the cow's back. But just before the moment of sweet consummation, a man grabbed him. Bushwacker freaked out and fired his legs, which caught the man in the chest and sent him helicoptering through the air. He skipped on the concrete floor like a rock on a lake. He moaned while Bushwacker stared him down as if to say: What the #@!& was that? He's calmer now when his DNA is harvested, but they've never let him actually have sex.
The baddest bull in the world is a virgin.
RIGHT NOW, on a day exactly like every other day of his life, he's underneath his metal lean-to; most other bulls don't get shade. A hackberry tree stretches over the back part of his pen, offering even more relief from the sun, which bakes the ground outside. Bushwacker sticks his head in his water pail. It's almost empty. He snorts, which means that he wants something or wants people to watch themselves around him.
"What?" says Kent Cox, a former rodeo rider who trains bucking bulls for a living. Cox, who works for Moreno, knows Bushwacker about as well as a human can know a bull. They've been together for five years. Bushwacker snorts.
"Yeah," Cox says, leaning up to the fence. "I'll fill your water up later."
Bulls talk all the time, mostly to each other. In the rodeo holding pens, if you could speak cow, you'd hear a bunch of studs bragging about their conquests. It's remarkably like an NFL locker room. Sometimes the bulls talk to the humans.
Bushwacker snorts again.Cox nods and says, "Flies are bugging your face, aren't they?"
Every day, Cox measures out breakfast and dinner: a load of hay and 14 pounds of a feed mixture, which sticks to Bushwacker's wet muzzle as he chews. This afternoon, when Cox takes in dinner, he pets Bushwacker once on the way out of the pen. He's surprised he gets away with it. "Sometimes he just wigs out," Cox says. "He doesn't want to have too much to do with people. He just wants to be left alone."
Bushwacker is not a person. He doesn't know his name. His mother, Number 13, could walk up to him and he wouldn't show a flicker of recognition. His actions are caused by genetic triggers, the breeding of which is big business, just like thoroughbred racehorses. His daddy, Reindeer Dippin', loved to buck too and did it almost as well as his son. Bushwacker's kicks are not the result of decisions or thoughts, just instinct.
Everything Bushwacker does is about surviving, about establishing dominance. But there's no way to know if dominance against a cowboy somehow translates to the barnyard. Do the other bulls know Bushwacker cannot be ridden? Does he use the rodeo to measure himself? He's not the meanest bull on the farm, or the toughest. Cox says he wouldn't be the alpha if they all lived in a pasture in the wild. But in an arena, with the pounding speakers and flashing pyrotechnics, Bushwacker is the king.
BUSHWACKER WATCHES the action in the ring next to his pen.
Three 2-year-olds stumble toward the practice chute. They need to become desensitized to the logistics of the rodeo, which today involves the mechanics of the chute itself: how to maneuver through it and how to stand before the gate swings open. A son of Big Tex, a famous bucking bull, panics in the chute. He's crapping himself, his breath turning to ragged, thin gasps. He turns his head, trying to hook his strange attacker, wailing and screaming.
Bushwacker stands beneath his sheet metal shade, 15 or so feet away, his tail slowly moving from side to side. He's staring at the chute, or at least he seems to be staring. Scientists say he cannot see that far away. Certainly, he can hear and smell the fear. Finally, Bushwacker turns away and rubs his face into the dirt.
Then it's his turn.
He's in the chute, knowing just when and where to move, turning his head slightly to fit his wide horns through an opening. The longer he waits, the more he thinks he's going to get to buck. The muscles in his neck quiver. His tail swishes back and forth, adrenaline pumping. His breath comes in fast snorts, like he's revving. But no cowboy climbs on. Cox opens the gate, and Bushwacker takes a tiny step out, a shuffle moving slow from the ring, and ultimately walks to the fence, facing a nearby paddock holding the three young bulls, each of whom wants to be king of this barnyard.
Bushwacker tilts his head back. "I am here!" he bellows in their direction, then struts back into the shade.