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American rodeo comes to the Washington State Fair

American Freestyle Bullfighting comes to the Washington State Fair Sept. 9. Photo credit: Phillip Kitts of Avid Visual Imagery, LLC

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The term bullfighting tends to evoke images of brave, Spanish toreros in traditional Andalusian costumes called trajes de luces (suits of lights), flamboyantly sweeping their gold and magenta capotes (dress capes) to misdirect angry bulls. (Fun fact: Bulls are color blind. The capotes are red only to obscure bloodstains.) Indeed, the bulls in Spanish tauromaquia have reason to be angry. In the third and final stage of such contests, the tercio de muerte, a torero impales the bull between its shoulder blades to mortally pierce its heart or aorta. If that ritual, the estocada, fails to kill the bull quickly, a second sword called a verdugo (executioner) may be used to slash the bull's spinal cord. Even then, the grisly death can take up to 15 minutes. This flamboyant blood sport dates to pre-Roman times and is still popular in the Latin world, despite decades of protests from activist animal-rights groups. Luckily, our homegrown variant is far more humane. That's the version coming to the Washington State Fair in Puyallup next month. In American freestyle bullfighting, not only is the bull alive and kicking the next day, he receives half the points.

In the late 1970s, Jim Sutton launched the Wrangler Bullfighting Tour, which evolved into the present-day Bullfighters Only series promoted by Wrangler alongside Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association events. As VICE News put it, imagine "the skateboard vent-ramp event at the X Games, except the ramp has two massive horns, weighs 1,500 pounds and desperately wants to kill you." A few years ago, California-born bullfighter, rodeo clown and roper Shorty Gorham formed his own brand, American Freestyle Bullfighting, or AFB, and that's the event that'll grace the Puyallup grandstand.

An AFB bullfighter must spend 40 seconds to a minute in the ring with a charging toro bravo. Each participant contributes half the maximum total of 100 points, which are awarded to the former for athleticism and creativity and the latter for speed and aggression. Points are deducted for such behaviors as running aimlessly around the arena and hopping the fence, and for perilous moments when a bullfighter gets "hooked" (that is, caught by a bull in an unfriendly manner). AFB athletes wear baggy, modern Western wear or extreme-sports outfits rather than Andalusian capotes, but they do emulate classic matadors by waving their hands over the bull's back (called "caping"). Canadian bullfighter Kristopher Buffalo even dazzles crowds by performing his "Tomahawk Flat Foot Jump," in which he meets a bull's charge head-on, then leaps over its thundering length as it passes. No bulls are killed at the events, and some become stars in their own right.

In his quarter-century career, Gorham has dislocated his left foot, shattered his left shoulder and broken vertebrae and his sternum. Whoever first dubbed American bullfighting "the most dangerous dance on dirt" wasn't exaggerating. In Cowboy Journal, bullfighter Weston Rutkowski called it "the most dangerous 60 seconds in sports." Yet both Gorham's kids have gone into rodeo: His daughter London is a barrel racer, and stepson Tanner is a tie-down roper. Apparently, they too were hooked.

"This ain't no bull ride," says Gorham. "It's the bullfighter's turn to shine."

AMERICAN FREESTYLE BULLFIGHTING, 7:30 p.m., Monday, Sept. 9, Washington State Fair, 110 Ninth Ave. SW, Puyallup, $25-$30, 253.845.1771

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