By Kristy Koehler, July 16 2019—
The Calgary Stampede debuted a new event during its finale weekend this year, Bulls After Dark. Capitalizing on the rising popularity of bull riding, the sold-out event combined a nightclub atmosphere — complete with a DJ, rock band, pyrotechnics and adult beverages — with sporting spectacles fit for an adrenaline junkie.
Bull riding was on full display alongside a new, up-and-coming sport — freestyle bullfighting.
“It’s basically a 60-second dance between man and beast,” explained Aaron Ferguson, founder and CEO of Bullfighters Only (BFO). “It’s probably the most primitive sport there is. You have the meanest animal possible — a Spanish Fighting Bull — out in the arena and an athlete has 60 seconds to manoeuver around him, jump over him and do it with style and control and their own certain flair, and then they’re judged for all of those elements. It’s a game of inches and finesse when it’s done correctly.”
Created in the 1980s by rodeo promoters as an extra, end-of-rodeo event for rodeo clowns — now known as bullfighters, the people who protect the bull rider from the bull should he fall off — the sport has grown in popularity since BFO put their first event on in 2015.
“That first event was the biggest freestyle bullfight in the history of the sport and we’ve tried to maintain that pace in everything we do. We try to make it bigger and better,” said Ferguson.
Ferguson himself grew up in High River, Alberta, before moving to the United States to focus on his own bullfighting career. He started the BFO brand and it grew into an organization that put on almost 70 shows in 2019.
Spectators shouldn’t be deterred by the name. This is not the hotly debated event that takes place in Spain every year, ending with the death of multiple animals. In fact, the animals participating in BFO events are often bulls spared from the matador’s spear.
“Our bulls, their fate is very uncertain if not for our sport. They’re Spanish Fighting Bulls. They come from the bullfighting ring where they get killed by the matador — they fight one time and then they’re gone. We give them an opportunity, let them out in the arena unhindered.”
Ferguson prefers the term “bull freestyling.” It’s enough to pique curiosity without giving the impression that the sport is cruel or harmful to the bulls in any way, something that is categorically false.
BFO’s website lauds the animals as athletes who are “just as popular as their human counterparts, garnering serious reputations among bullfighters and fans alike.” Of the bulls, Ferguson says “they win every time.”
With events all over North America and a world championship taking place in Las Vegas in December, BFO looks like it will only continue to grow. While most of the events are more traditionally reminiscent of a rodeo atmosphere, Ferguson says the Bulls After Dark event was something truly special.
“I guarantee that nothing like this has ever been done,” said Ferguson. “The audience that was there got to see something nobody’s ever seen before.”
Indeed, Bulls After Dark was incredibly well-received by the Stampede crowds. It was a unique experience that showcased the best of western sports alongside the party-going vibe of the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth. The Calgary Stampede should certainly incorporate bull freestyling into its annual repertoire in some format.
For more news and information on the sport, visit bullfightersonly.com.