Longform

Bullheaded

To see him today is to see him as Charlie Sampson did in 1991. Back then, Adriano Moraes was 21 but already the best bull rider in Brazil, dark and handsome, with a square, dominant chin and closely cropped black hair and a build more linebacker than bull rider, more compact explosiveness than lithe plasticity.

Sampson, a bull-riding world champion, was in Sao Paulo that summer to host a three-day riding clinic. On day one, he and his interpreter sat in the stands of an empty 9,000-seat arena. The nation's expansive, uninterrupted ranch country is a fine place to breed rank bulls and the people who ride them. As Sampson looked on, he thought there were some potential pros in the bunch. Then Adriano's turn came. Sampson's interpreter leaned in.

"This is the guy I was talking about," he said.

Adriano took his time over the bull. Made sure his gloved hand had a firm grip on the rope. Dug in his heels. And then he nodded his head and the chute flew open.

Brazilian bulls are different from American bulls. Brazilian bulls tend to hop; they don't spin as much when they buck. They don't duck and dive. So the Brazilian bull riders Sampson came to teach, about 20 in all, rode straight up--that is, with their chests out, their free hand raring back. Sampson told his students if they wanted to make it in America, they'd have to learn to hunch their backs over their bulls, "stay out" over them, as Sampson said, because American bulls will spin, belly roll, duck, dive, kick, hop--do anything short of killing you to get you off, and sometimes even that.

But the riders had trouble with this new technique. They hit dirt almost as soon as the gate opened. Yet when Adriano's gate popped open, three seconds passed...four...Adriano's chest was close to parallel with the bull's back; the kid looked steady over him...six seconds...seven...eight.

"He was a natural," Sampson says today from upstate New York, where he lives. "What I like to say is, he was already a good bull rider. I saw where he was going to be a great bull rider."

What's most revealing about Adriano Moraes happened next. Three days later, at a rodeo, before the bull-riding event Sampson was to judge, he looked to the pen that held the bulls and saw a cowboy with a crowd gathering around him. It was Adriano. He pulled them close and showed the cowboys who missed the clinic how to stay out over a bull. Showed those who made the clinic how to improve their form. And these were the people he'd soon compete against.

Today, Adriano lives in Keller and has a family of six, but little else has changed. He's still, at 34, one of the greatest riders ever to straddle a bull's back. He's the first to win two Professional Bull Riders Inc. world championships--world championships that truly are global: Cowboys from Australia, Canada, Mexico and the United States compete annually. He's one of three cowboys to ride all 10 bulls at the National Finals Rodeo, the year-end event of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), the league against which the PBR competes. "He's definitely a legend," says Ty Murray, the "King of the Cowboys," a seven-time PRCA all-around world champion who's now the president of the PBR. "I'll match Adriano in his prime against any bull rider of any time in their prime." Last year Adriano rode 67 percent of his bulls on the PBR Tour, nine points better than the next closest competitor, 21-year-old Mike Lee.

And Moraes still has the energy of a 21-year-old. To see him at a bull-riding event is to see him on the move. This bull rider needs a rope fastened; that one could use some encouragement. There's a corporate sponsor who'd like a word over there. A reporter needing a quote over here.

Then there's all that he does for his brothers, literal and otherwise. First, for his kin, Andre and Allan Moraes, both of whom ride bulls on the PBR circuit, Adriano provides whatever they need. He helped secure visas, PBR cards (it's the only league the brothers ride in now; the money's better), apartments in the Fort Worth suburbs near Adriano's home, cars, clothing, "everything," Allan says through an interpreter, the interpreter himself a man for whom Adriano helped secure a job when he moved to Fort Worth.

Then there are Adriano's figurative brothers, the ones he talked into moving to the United States. These guys ride bulls, too. Paulo Crimber, Ednei Caminhas, Guilherme Marchi, Rogerio Ferreira--all of them owing something, if not everything, to Adriano. He worked as Caminhas' interpreter for the media. He's finding Crimber a doctor for his pregnant wife. Last month, Adriano worried over four young bull riders who had moved to the United States without Adriano's knowledge.

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Paul Kix