Retired Professional Bull Rider Michael Gaffney on Revolutionizing the Sport

Bull rider Michael Gaffney
Margo Harrison/Shutterstock (left); Courtesy Image (right)

The Talking Series is a weekly segment that delves deeper into topics discussed by guests on the Men’s Journal Everyday Warrior Podcast.

Imagine climbing onto 2,000 pounds of lean muscle, raging testosterone, and ravenous horns, knowing that once the chute opens, an onslaught of violent bucks and kicks will make eight seconds feel like an eternity. Now imagine doing that for decades, relentlessly pursuing your dreams. For Michael Gaffney, cofounder of Professional Bull Riders, there’s no need to imagine. He lived it.

Professional Bull Riders (PBR) is the world’s premier professional bull riding organization, complete with televised events, a subscription-based streaming service, and 83 million loyal fans in the United States alone. The company is wildly successful by any definition, but in 1992 it was just a handful of cowboys with little money and even less chance of making it. During a recent episode of the Men’s Journal Everyday Warrior Podcast, I spoke with one of those cowboys, Michael Gaffney. In this article, I look at where his love for bull riding originated, what it takes to disrupt an industry and revolutionize a sport, and what he values most in life.

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Why Bull Riding?

When most of us were deciding who to play with in kindergarten, 5-year-old Gaffney was competing in his first rodeo. Instead of the massive beasts that would one day define his career, the future legend rode a 500-pound wrestling steer, “It was more like a large dog than anything with horns,” says Gaffney. That day’s ride only lasted a couple of seconds, but it sparked a love of the sport that’s lasted a lifetime. What followed was an incredible career that included earning the elusive golden buckle as the 1997 PBR World Champion and his record-tying ride on the legendary Little Yellow Jacket in 2004. Gaffney retired after the 2004 season but returned in 2018 for one last go-round.

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Professional Bull Riders

Before PBR, professional bull riders risked their lives each night for barely enough to cover their travel expenses and entrance fees—if they were lucky. In April 1992, 20 of the world’s top bull riders, including Gaffney, decided to stand up and challenge the companies getting rich on the backs of hard-working cowboys. Although walking away from the established rodeo circuit was a considerable risk, they each invested $1,000 to start their own company. “I called [my wife] and told her that I wrote a check for a thousand dollars,” explains Gaffney. “It was not a good night in the Gaffney household.”

Despite the momentary hardship, these visionaries knew people were coming to see the cowboys and the bulls, not the promoters, which meant they had an opportunity to make a significant difference. They took the risk and changed the world of bull riding. Treating the athletes like the professionals they are and bringing customers a better product has undoubtedly paid off; since its inaugural season, PBR has exploded in popularity and taken the great American tradition of bull riding worldwide.

After three decades, PBR is shaking things up again by adding the Team Series to the lineup. While rides will still be one cowboy trying to cover his bull for eight seconds, each rider’s performance will accumulate points for the team. The season will run from summer to autumn and consist of 10 regular and one championship event. Having been such an integral part of the sport’s history, Gaffney is excited to be a part of its future as the head coach of the Austin Gamblers, one of the league’s eight teams.

Father and Son

You’d think Gaffney, the 2005 PBR Ring of Honor inductee, comes from a family steeped in bull riding tradition, but he doesn’t. His father, a tough guy who served two tours in Vietnam as an F-4 fighter pilot, was so afraid that his son would get hurt that Gaffney suspects he intentionally made him miss his first high school competition. Although angry at the time, Gaffney now says, “I didn’t know how fearful he was until I had my own son…you know true vulnerability when you have a child.”

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As Gaffney speaks, you can hear reverence for his father and sense just how much his dad helped shaped the man he is today. While growing up, his father impressed upon him the importance of treating others with respect. Now a father himself, Gaffney passes this wisdom down to his son along with lessons from his own life. He reminds the 14-year-old to always “pull up his bootstraps… and be deliberate about” everything he does because he can be both a fierce competitor and a good person.

The Future

What a person is most proud of says a lot about their character. While Gaffney is proud of what he’s accomplished in the arena, he values two things far more, “I’m proud that I’m a decent dad and that my wife is such a big part of my life; she’s been my best friend since we were kids, and I look forward to seeing her every day,” he explains. Although putting his family above all else speaks volumes, those who spend their life riding bulls can never walk away entirely. It’s a passion that seeps deep into their heart and soul. Gaffney may have traded in his resin, chaps, and spurs to begin the next chapter of his life, but the sport he helped revolutionize will forever be a part of him.

Check out my entire conversation with Gaffney on The Men’s Journal Everyday Warrior Podcast, available now.

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