No Clowning Around

Rob Smets may put on the face paint and wear the baggy pants, but he's no clown. He's a bullfighter, thank you very much, and he'll have you know he's not out there risking his neck, quite literally, for the sake of comedy, but for cowboy protection.

"My job is to provide myself as a better target to the bull than the rider," the five-time world champion bullfighter explains. He does this with a combination of misdirection and anticipating where and when a rider's going to fall. Four legs will run down two any time, so Smets uses his superior maneuverability to spin in as tight a circle as he can, while keeping himself between the head and shoulder of the animal.

According to the Justin Sportsmedicine Program, an organization devoted to patching up rodeo professionals, bullfighters most frequently damage their knees (specifically ligaments), lumbar, ankle, lower leg and the thigh or groin area to keep the cowboys safe. Nicknamed the "Kamikaze Kid," Smets has taken advantage of the program on two separate occasions -- after breaking his C-4-5-6 vertebrae in 1992 and then his C-1 in 1996. (The former injury paralyzed Detroit Lion Mike Utley and the latter left Christopher Reeves in a wheelchair.)

Quite rightly, it is the riders who decide who'll take a horn for them, and at the age of 41, Smets has been voted to work the Professional Bull Riders finals for the fourth time. The motion in his neck isn't what it used to be, but he can still dodge a steer as good as any upstart veal chop. "I really feel if [God] had meant me to stop, I would have been in a wheelchair," Smets says. Of course, Smets is open to subtler signs that it might be time to retire: "When my heart quits pounding, and I don't get excited anymore."

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Dylan Otto Krider