The Bullfighters: Inside the world of rodeo's unsung heroes

Bullfighters are a staple in one of America's true past times. Here is how it all works.

Posted: Jul. 12, 2018 12:14 AM
Updated: Jul. 12, 2018 12:27 AM

Eugene, Ore. -- It's the classic faceoff for time immemorial. Man against beast. 

"For me it's like...I want the dirtiest, meanest one to come out first so that way we can get our hands dirty right off the bat and set the pace for the rest of the rodeo," says Matt Akers.

In a sport where the fan is distracted by the bull rider, the bull is distracted by the bullfighter. Matt Akers has been a bullfighter for nearly a decade. He's been partnered with Sean Peterson for about four. 

"If the bull is spinning a certain direction, you're supposed to go a certain direction," Peterson explains. "Basically you wanna head and tail, stay 180 degrees away from your partner and work that bull." It's a simple idea really. When the bull bucks off the rider, Matt and Sean come in to distract that bull and get the rider away safely.

"We don't even notice," continues Sean. "We click so well together , we're constantly pulling bulls of ech other. We're always in the right spot. It's always easy with him."

Good partners are as indispensable in the arena as they are outside of it. Watching Matt from the announcing stand in Eugene is his wife Sharee. Their relationship, as it happens, started with rodeo too.

"It was kind of a date and then we talked about it on the way home and stuff and she thought it was interesting," recalls Matt. "Never been to a rodeo before so I don't really necessarily know what was going on in her mind."

According to Sharee, it was something along the lines of 'what did I get myself into?'

"And I was like yup I blew it. That...there it goes. There goes my shot," he jokes.

"Like, that was...I had a two year old at the time so I was like oh gosh what're we gonna do if he got hurt," remembers Sharee. "We'd only been together for a little while and it blew my mind"

The first year Matt and Sharee spent on the road was about picking up gigs whenever they became available.

"We slept on floors, we slept in truck tents, we slept under the truck, we've slept about everywhere so that first year that we just kinda knew that we were it together and we just traveled."

Sure it's been 10 years and one kid later since they got started and sure, Sharee has become accustomed to the rodeo lifestyle, but that doesn't make it any easier when Matt's out there.

"You get hit up in the air and you can't decipher if you're going upside down or you're going rightside up, you're just spinning in the air", explains Matt. "I think it's for me that oh god I just hope I don't land on my head and I can get to my feet and scramble quick."

"Not being here is the hardest thing because you have to wait for that phone call and when you don't get that phone call right away it is hard," echoes his wife. "I know just when I had our daughter I couldn't go because she was only a month old and it was an indoor arena. I got the text message that he was going to the hospital and that was one of the hardest things because I couldn't do nothing." But Matt and Sean are pros continuing that long tradition of one of the American West's last true athletic hallmarks.

"You don't have to worry about concentrating on the bull and wondering if you're gonna run into the other bullfighter which sometimes happens," says Sean. "You don't have to worry about any of that."

"We didn't really get this job to be in the limelight per se so it's kinda nice when someone does here about it and then that's just one more person that might watch us out there," Matt concludes.

Watching them engage in that classic faceoff for many years to come. 

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