Concussions, broken bones, getting stomped on the head by a bull — life as a rodeo clown is no joke. But that hasn’t stopped Jesse Vick, the head bullfighter at Billy Bob’s Texas and Cowtown Coliseum, from getting back into the arena and fighting again and again. Seventeen years into the job, Vick says he still gets butterflies when he faces a bull, but he’s also learned to fight smarter.
Q. What got you into bullfighting?
A. I grew up going to rodeos, and of course, you always idolize the clowns. They’re funny, they’ve got this makeup on and they have a daring job. I wanted to be in rodeo, but I didn’t want to compete. I wanted to fight bulls. I started going to practice pens and picking up things that were working for me from all the good guys.
Q. When you’re getting ready for a rodeo, what do you do beforehand backstage? Do you have pre-show rituals?
A. I tape up the same way, I put my makeup on the same way, I wear the same hat — that’s pretty superstitious. When I get in the locker room, it’s a lot of joking around. I try to get everybody’s mind in that locker room off of what could happen ’cause that might be the last time they laugh.
Q. What about your makeup? Is there a method to the way you put your makeup on?
A. It’s more of a trademark. I wear the same exact makeup every single time I fight. It’s like putting on your war paint. It’s more or less for the kids. The only reason you wear makeup is for the crowd, for the kids, for pictures, for recognition. If somebody sees me on a video, and they don’t tag me or nothing like that, they’ll be like, “Ha, that’s Jesse.”
Q. There’s a science behind your outfit though. How does your outfit work for you in a bullfight?
A. Bulls, they see black and white. So, unless they see something move, they can’t see it. Like, if I’m standing next to this bull, and he is spinning 2 feet from me, as long as I don’t flinch, he will not see me. If a bull is trying to hook you, and he sees these bandanas flying behind you as you’re running, he may throw his head up at those bandanas instead of hooking you, ’cause he’s looking at the easiest thing to hook. Just like the matadors in Spain — they use a cape. They can be standing right over here, but as long as you’re wiggling that cape, they’re going to go to that movement.
Q. Do you ever get nervous right before going in?
A. Yeah, I get butterflies. It depends on what’s about to happen — if you know a cowboy is injured and he’s still riding, or if you know a bull is notorious about hurting people, you’re going to take a little different tactic about it. Like, if you’re a cornerback covering a receiver, and you know he’s fast, you better be fast. Don’t let him go by and say, “He’s just too fast.” When you’ve got somebody’s life on the line, you can’t say, “The bull was just too fast.” You have to figure out how to beat that bull. How to outsmart him. How to either cheat him to get there faster. You’re going to be nervous, but if you’re scared, then you’ll get hurt. There’s a difference in being scared and being nervous.
Q. So when you’re down there, what usually goes through your mind?
A. Tunnel vision. I don’t worry about the crowd. I don’t worry about anything but that bull. How that guy has his hand wrapped in the rope, because there are certain ways that they wrap [that] are a little more dangerous than others. Or if I know the bull, that he’s going to turn back this way or turn back that way, then I want to be sure we have this game plan within 10 seconds. I just want to be sure that we’re not going to interfere with that bull ride and give that bull rider every chance to win.
Q. What would you say makes someone a good bullfighter? What separates a pro from an amateur?
A. Smarts. It’s not two guys out there running around — there’s a lot of art to it. You learn how to make that bull move and what you can and can’t do with that bull. Then, the guy over here is the same way, and he learns to pick up on your movements and react and go the other way — ’cause otherwise you’ll just go and head-butt, and then you got two guys in the middle, and the bull just gets to pick one.
Q. With such a dangerous job, have you had any close calls?
A. Yeah, I’ve been in the hospital. On one incident, I was there for eight days, and they didn’t know if I was going to live or die. I’ve gotten my ear ripped off. Had surgery on my wrist. Broken both my ankles three times. Shattered my shoulder, my eye socket. Multiple concussions just from getting hit in the head, or stepped on, or whatever. A month ago, I got stepped on in the leg, ripped my leg open and had to have that stitched up. And most guys, they’ll end up quitting over something like that. I love it too much just to quit.
Q. You’ve been doing this 17 years. How would you say that you’ve changed as a bullfighter?
A. You see scenarios … so, in the given time that you have that you keep fighting, you’re going to see that scenario more often, and you’ll know more how to take care of it. You go into it smarter. It’s kind of like having a dream. When you have a dream about something, and then something happens exactly like that, you know exactly what to do because you’ve already seen it in your head. I can fight 100 bulls in my head a day.
2. Tape. Like an athlete, Jesse tapes up his wrist, ankles and fingers.
3. Belt buckle. He won this one from a freestyle bullfight.
5. Makeup. Ben Nye Clown White is Jesse’s choice shade.
6. Baggies. Loose clothing can help protect the bullfighter from getting hurt, so the bull hooks the clothing but not the fighter.
7. Cleats. Because bulls only see black and white, Jesse wears black cleats and white socks to get the bull’s attention.