Inside a tight steel chute on a late-September night, Sunshine–1,450 lb. of ironically named aggression–is thrashing and fuming with everything he’s got. He rams his thick horns against the gate, desperate to get out into the ring. Finally it opens, and Sunshine darts into the dirt arena. The bull bucks and heaves while the 165-lb. cowboy on his back tries desperately to hold on. Douglas Duncan needs to stick it out for just eight seconds to score points, but Sunshine won’t cooperate: he ditches Duncan in three and then bounces around the ring in a dirt-kicking victory lap.
The crowd erupts, hooting and hollering like seasoned fans, writes Sean Gregory. Yet this scene was playing out not in Oklahoma, Texas or any of rodeo’s other traditional hotbeds but inside a hockey arena in Allentown, Pa., some 50 miles north of Philadelphia. At this stop on the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) Built Ford Tough Series, the seats were filled not only with machinists in cowboy hats but also soccer moms, suit-wearing businessmen and 20-somethings dressed for a night on the town.
Bull riding has become an attractive sport for Hollywood heavyweights and talent agencies. In April, WME/IMG, a sports-and-entertainment agency known for marketing stars like Oprah Winfrey and Ben Affleck, purchased PBR from a private-equity firm for around $120 million.
To photograph the story, TIME’s photo editors turned to Thomas Prior, a portrait and documentary photography with a particular interest for all kind of intense sports – bull riding being one of them. “I’m interested in the brutal nature of it,” he says. “You have eight seconds. You have this one ride to make it to the next round and you might get thrown off in half a second, you might get injured or you might make it. It’s just intense.”
Photographing at Tucson, Arizona, Prior remembers having the shakes “when you’re watching the guy adjust his hand,” he says. “I just like the dynamic nature of it, visually.”
Caroline Smith, who edited this photo essay, is a special projects editor at TIME.