Bull-riding champ J.B. Mauney on the intelligence of bulls, disregard for broken bones, and cowboy tattoos
Why are those bulls so eager to throw you? Are you doing something to them?
Nuh-uh. I don’t mess with them. They know their job, and they like doing it. I raised bulls for a while too, and some of them like bucking, and some of them could care less and run down the pen.
You won the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) championship last year, partly by being the first in more than 40 riders to survive eight seconds on the back of Bushwacker. What makes him such a difficult bull to ride?
He’s got brains. He’s smart. You can watch 20 videos of that bull, and he’ll never do the same thing twice. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s got the power. And when the gate opens, you can’t really set a game plan for him. He’ll feel you. Say you’re sitting to the left a little bit–he’ll hit and go right.
Do all the good bull riders have some abilities or qualities in common?
In my eyes, it’s more the try and the heart than the talent. You get on and tie your hand in there and don’t quit until they stomp you loose. When I was younger, I had to work at it a little harder than some other people did. I didn’t ride pretty. I whipped around and made moves that I really didn’t need to, but the one thing I did have was try. I never quit until my head hit the ground.
What was your worst injury?
Oh, probably right before I started really getting into the PBR. I had a bull stomp me in the belly and lacerated my liver, broke all my ribs on my right side and put me in the hospital for a while.
How many bones have you broken since then?
I have no idea. That’s a long list, because half of them I’ve never had cast or fixed or anything. If they’re small bones, I’ve just let them go. I wasn’t going to take a month off just because my finger wasn’t straightening out. This hand is not in the best of shape. I had a plate and screws put in it.
So does that tattoo on your hand say “This finger here doesn’t work?”
No, that’s my wife’s initials.
You’ve been married 18 months. With all the travel and a daughter from a previous relationship, how do you manage the blended-family stuff?
Whew! It was hard at first because I was used to just being by myself all the time. I was pretty wild. But it changed my whole outlook, you know, having a daughter and getting married. I was having a hard time with it, but I kind of wised up. My wife, she’s given up a lot to help me do what I love doing.
There are groups of fans with names like Mauney’s Loonies and Mauney’s Minions. What’s bull-riding fame like?
Where I live it’s kind of more NASCAR country, which doesn’t bother me. It kind of lets me off the hook when I’m at home. But Texas and Oklahoma, those places you can be walking through Walmart and people will recognize you.
So where are the best bull-riding crowds?
In New York. Whether they know what’s going on or not, they’re still a-hoopin’ and a-hollerin’ and cheerin’. Vegas, it’s the same way.
You’re saying New Yorkers will clap at any old thing.
Maybe, but I like it.
Why don’t you wear a helmet anymore?
That helmet made me feel like I couldn’t control my head as good, and as soon as I took it off last year, I went to riding good. I felt a lot better. It went in the garbage. It’s not the smartest decision I ever made, but …
It did make you at least a million dollars richer.
So it balances out.
This appears in the January 27, 2014 issue of TIME.