By Lew Freedman
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CODY — Almost every night there is a four-alarm emergency when Dusty Tuckness works the rodeo arena dirt. Someone’s life may be in jeopardy.
The guy whose clothing ensemble is halfway between Raggedy Ann and Bozo the Clown will metaphorically run into burning buildings, perhaps 10 times a night.
It is often said bull riding is the most dangerous event in sports. So where does that leave an emergency responder like Tuckness, who mediates between 2,000-pound angry animal and 150-pound woozy man?
When Tuckness works Xtreme Bulls and the Cody Stampede Rodeo on June 30-July 4 at Stampede Park, his home base since 2004, the nine-time Professional Cowboys Rodeo Association world champion bullfighter – regularly referred to as the Greatest of All-Time – will routinely race to the rescue in superhero fashion.
The man from Meeteetse is 33, on top of his world, reputation secure, but driven by faith, fearlessness and sacrifice still determined to add to the best resume in history.
“God gave me the passion for fighting bulls,” Tuckness said recently on a visit to Cody on a break from his on-the-road tour of America’s biggest rodeos.
He sat makeup-less in the storage garage at Stampede Park wearing jeans, a black T-shirt and a baseball cap, not even wearing his usual white cowboy hat.
“I felt this was part of my plan. Everybody’s got a choice in life. My goal is to be better than I was yesterday.”
Tuckness may drive 60,000 miles annually between rodeos, but that personal itinerary is dotted by a gym in every town for workouts to stay strong, limber and light-footed in his quest to stay at the top. He is chasing excellence more than additional titles, even if others think that is the same thing.
Elsewhere, bullfighting pits matador against a bad-tempered bull and the bull dies in the end from sword play.
The object of rodeo bullfighting is to prevent death or serious injury through distraction and ingenuity, to keep eight seconds from turning into eternity.
Cowboys may stay aboard a bull’s broad back to the buzzer, or may be tossed overboard quickly, but in either case may land awkwardly, vulnerable to bulls not content to trot away.
The bullfighter steps in at his risk to protect the prone man, tapping a bull with a hand to gain its attention, dancing side-to-side, essentially becoming a human cape.
At 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, Tuckness, who played high school football and other sports in Meeteetse, has an NFL strong-safety body with broad shoulders, well-muscled arms, narrow waist and powerful legs.
“I’m probably faster and stronger than I’ve ever been in my life,” Tuckness said.
Rodeo bullfighting emerged from the once-dual role of rodeo clowns required to tell jokes and also serve as secret service agents for bull riders. Now one person is a funnyman and the other is deadly serious.
Tuckness’ father is Forrest “Timber”Tuckness, a clown-bullfighter. His mother is Shawna Williams. As a kid church was attended, but Dusty did not get the word until later.
Timber, 59, who makes regular clown appearances at Cody Nite Rodeo, said as a little boy Dusty trailed him around during performances.
“He fought sheep when he was 5 years old, all dressed up,” Timber said.
Dusty’s brother Jesse did so as well, but did not stay in rodeo after high school. He is a civilian employee for the Navy.
When Dusty was about 14, Timber said, “he started hounding me. He wanted to do the big bulls.”
Timber features an award-winning clown act, but Dusty being acclaimed as the GOAT (Greatest of all Time) bullfighter means he has exceeded dad’s fame.
“You always hope that it does (go that way),” Timber said. “He’s the best now. We raise our kids to be better than us.”
Kanin Asay, the champion bull rider from Powell, said he and Tuckness became best friends as teens while competing in junior rodeos in Meeteetse and attending rodeo Bible camps together. Tuckness said the religious camps imbued him with stronger beliefs.
“I was riding bulls, he was fighting them,” Asay said.
Mirror image roles, bullfighter-bull rider friends.
“A bullfighter of Dusty’s caliber is an angel,” Asay said. “He is protection sent by God.”
Asay cited Bible verse John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” To Asay, Tuckness is the embodiment of that statement.
An anonymous bull rider once told a national magazine he would ride a mountain lion if Tuckness was the protector.
Tuckness does not brag about his record-breaking and ongoing reign as the top bullfighter. Yes, helping fallen bull riders is the job, but lumping Tuckness in with all others is like saying 007 was just another agent.
“That’s what they’re paid to do,” Asay said, “but you can’t put a price on it. Dusty has set the bar so high.”
If that bar was the Olympic high jump, Tuckness would be collecting gold medals like M&Ms.
Tuckness’ friends understand he maintains his towering standard through maniacal workouts.
“He works harder than anybody,” said Cody Nite Rodeo stock contractor Maury Tate, whose family is close to Tuckness. “There’s 365 days in a year. There’s not one day he’s not working to get better. I bet on Christmas Day he’s doing something.”
“Something” might be sweating in a gym, or studying his own or other top bullfighters’ performances on video.
Tuckness is sometimes based at the Tates’ Apache, Okla., home and helps Tate with his livestock.
“Every bull he’d help me feed, he’d throw a fake at it,” Tate said, and painting an unforgettable image, added, “In Oklahoma, I’ve seen him throw fakes at the dog like it’s a bull.”
Tate, the Nite Rodeo operator for 15 years, said this is the heyday of athletic bullfighters.
“There are more great bullfighters than ever,” Tate said. “To be the greatest of them is even more impressive.”
Timber said previous era bullfighters were not comparable.
“In the past, you didn’t see bullfighters work out,” he said.
Tuckness’ workout schedules seem as diverse as a decathlete’s.
He runs for cardiovascular strength, does gymnastics, lifts barbells and adheres to a CrossFit lifestyle with a nutritional plan. Tuckness refers to his eating habits as smart nutrition. You won’t catch him bingeing on chocolate.
“It is a full body deal,” Tuckness said of bullfighting prep, including mental focus.
He may spend 14 hours in a vehicle, but will squeeze in a workout before or after the drive by himself, pushing back against any thought of, “I don’t feel like it.”
He admits it is easy for some to choose a party over a workout, or laziness over industriousness.
“You’ve got to be ready mentally,” Tuckness said. “It goes back to self-discipline.”
Sometimes he has workout companionship.
Hadley Tate, 18, Maury’s daughter, has known Tuckness since she was 3.
“He is the greatest person you want to meet,” Hadley said. “He is the greatest big brother you could have.”
When the younger Tate turned pro in May, Tuckness helped map out her first rodeos.
“He calls me when I’m driving to make sure I’m all right,” she said.
During a recent overlap in Cody, she joined Tuckness in a gym doing squats and plyometric exercises, an eye-opener for Tate at 8 a.m., 6 a.m. and 5 a.m.
“He is so happy when he is working out,” Tate said.
Given Tuckness is a nine-time world champion – and the GOAT phrase sneaks into announcers’ introduction – she would expect him to be more boastful.
“You would have no idea he is that person (perennial champion),” Hadley said. “He is so humble.”
For someone who calls himself a spiritual person and recognizes being a bullfighter is a selfless job, it comes more naturally for Tuckness to push harder, think about the next bullfight, not dwell on accolades, notwithstanding the nine-straight Decembers receiving the top bullfighter honor.
His stature was recently acknowledged at a 100th anniversary celebration book signing at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West by Stampede copresident Marc Thompson.
“We’re incredibly proud of your success,” Thompson said in remarks directed at Tuckness but delivered to the whole room.
Tuckness has accomplished much, but isn’t satisfied.
“I don’t have that kind of mindset,” Tuckness said. “You level out and plateau if you stop trying to pursue excellence. That award is a blessing. I’m thankful for it. It doesn’t change my outlook. Each January is a whole new year. I want to be the very best me, day in and day out.”
Not all non-rodeo people know what bullfighters do and sometimes he hears he must be crazy.
“I’m not crazy, I’m a professional,” Tuckness said. “That goes back to they really don’t understand it.”
When he ponders bullfighting, Tuckness first thinks of the word “fun. What’s not fun about it? The people, the driving, the lifestyle. We laugh out there.”
Well, significant injury is not about yuks. Tuckness is not immune to being head-butted, caught by bull horns or flipped over. He has broken ribs and other bones, undergone right shoulder surgery and had his right ear ripped off and repaired.
“I don’t necessarily get scared at all,” Tuckness said. “You’ve got to fight that demon.”
Tuckness is practically a YouTube movie star. Some of his greatest hits, and some of his greatest bruises are viewable.
That’s one way Timber keeps up. When he watches Dusty pull off a phenomenal move, “I’m usually on my feet. I’m excited.”
Tuckness started bullfighting at Cody Nite Rodeo in 2004, and noted he has been around Stampede Park for half his life.
During a recent break in his schedule, Tuckness spent time in Cody, but didn’t stray far from rodeo activities.
Besides the book signing, Tuckness also helped Maury Tate in the arena sans bullfighter gear, but cowboy hat back on, judging events and offering advice to younger bullfighters.
“Americans are more aggressive,” said Australian bullfighter Edward Hordern, 27, working this summer’s Nite Rodeo. He definitely heard of Tuckness before meeting him. “He’s got a big reputation.”
One night a bull rider got hung up, hand caught in the rigging, and the two on-duty bullfighters could not free him. Acting instinctively, Tuckness raced into the arena to help.
Tuckness said he prefers to be identified by his relationship with Jesus Christ than with bullfighting trophies and that he is uncomfortable with the GOAT label. Yet he admitted when Boyd Polhamus, the star announcer, makes that observation at the Stampede, “It sends chills up and down your spine.”
Pitcher, quarterback or roughstock rodeo man, all face professional mortality. Tuckness is not bored or tired, merely awaiting the next challenge.
“Oh yeah,” Tuckness said. “Everyone’s career starts and ends sometimes.”
There was nothing in his voice suggesting he is on the brink of departing the game. “I feel like I’ve got quite a few good years in me.”
They all issue such platitudes. But the sweat Tuckness sheds in 5 a.m. workouts, his laser focus, and deep-seated convictions speak sincerely.
Tuckness has worn shoes in the arena with “Jesus Saves” written on them. But bull riders believe it is Tuckness who saves.