On Saturday night, after he posted a rousing score of 90.75 aboard a snorting hunk of beast called Breakdown to take control of these PBR World Finals at the Thomas &Mack Center, the bull rider J.B. Mauney from North Carolina had some huggin’ to do.
First he hugged the bullfighters Jesse Byrne and Frank Newsom, probably because they were the closest ones to him and this bull called Breakdown, and because they might have to save his life one day. And also because Frank Newsom is the uncle of Mauney’s wife, Lexie, and Lexie was the one who straightened him out.
Then Mauney went over to the bucking chutes to embrace another fellow wearing a cowboy hat and a shirt with a patch for Big Tex trailers on front named Kent Cox.
Kent Cox is a bull contractor from rural Texas. He is part owner of Breakdown. And he is the handler of Bushwacker, the Mike Tyson of PBR bulls, the Baddest Bucking Bull on the Planet from the Julio Moreno stable. At least he was that, until Mauney rode him in Tulsa, Okla., in August — that was the first time a brave soul had stayed on Bushwacker’s back for eight seconds in 43 consecutive tries.
But Bushwacker still is a bad-ass bucking bull, and that’s why he is pictured on the official PBR website in front of an ominous sky backdrop. That’s partly why Mauney went up to Cox and hugged him on Saturday night.
The first time he had hugged Cox right there in the open like that was on that night in Oklahoma, when Mauney showed that it could be done, in the manner Buster Douglas showed Iron Mike Tyson in Tokyo that it could be done.
And, I don’t know for sure about this, but I think Mauney also hugged Cox because he knows the history — he knows Cox might have been where he was standing, doffing his white cowboy hat with the diamond pattern and waving his hand and bowing to the raucous crowd, had things only turned out differently.
Until 1997, Kent Cox rode bulls, too. But then one caught him in the face with a horn, and now he doesn’t ride bulls anymore; he trains them and feeds them and literally hitches them to his wagon, or at least to the back of his pickup truck.
Cox’s cheekbone, eye socket and nasal cavity had to be rebuilt, and he has 13 plates in his head following five surgeries. He has suffered 11 concussions. That he remembers.
The bull-riding people said Cox got all choked up after Mauney climbed aboard the chutes to hug him like that in front of all of those people on Saturday night.
The bull-riding people call Kent Cox the Bull Whisperer — or, I should say, at least one bull-riding person does. That’s what Gina Cox calls her husband.
Gina Cox is from a rodeo family in Illinois — now there’s something you don’t read every day — and she has a prosthetic left forearm, the result not of getting too close to Bushwacker when he was hungry but of some guy in a truck getting too close to the center line on a highway in 2004.
So bull riding has taken something from Kent Cox, and being in the wrong place has taken something from his wife. “We don’t do very well at airports,” Gina Cox told me in the media center on Sunday afternoon.
I was talking to her husband, who was super polite and called me “sir” and thanked me for talking to him, because that’s just how bull-riding people, and rodeo people in general, are.
In a few minutes, J.B. Mauney would duck inside the curtains in the PBR media center to speak to the bull-riding people, and he would call them “sir” and “ma’am,” and he would say this title and the gold buckle and the giant trophy — and the equally giant $1 million check — were nice, very nice indeed. Especially that check.
But Mauney said make no mistake about it: The highlight of this season, for him, was riding Bushwacker, the Baddest Bucking Bull on the Planet, in Tulsa, Okla.
“Riding a bull like that makes you feel 10-foot tall and bulletproof,” Mauney said.
Maybe Kent Cox would have been the one, the one that felt 10 feet tall and bulletproof, the one smiling for the bull-riding people with a big, toothy grin with his hat pulled down close to his eyes had that bull not crushed his face back in ’97.
“Oh, yeah — there’s still a lot of bull rider in me,” he said, and so when J.B. Mauney, the new king of the bull riders — better than all those boys from Brazil, at least this season — went over to the chutes to give Kent Cox a hug on Saturday night, a lot of the bull-riding people thought it was pretty cool.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski