Mark Woods

Mark Woods - Only in America

Mark Woods is a freelance writer and broadcaster, based in Edinburgh, United Kingdom.

My Only in America column appears weekly in Scotland on Sunday

October 12
Rodeo riders emerge bruised but bullish from extreme venture

IT’S time to talk Bull, ladies and gentlemen. Or more precisely, to say good-bye to them. This weekend, we must mourn the end of the first season in the life of the colourful bovine extravaganza known as PRCA Xtreme Bulls, a tour created by the marketing honchos at the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

Yee-ha, we say. All the top John Wayne-wannabees in one place, battling it out for a share of the £50,000 pot and the right to be called World Champion (although given that all ten events were within the USA, all competing claims from overseas will be given due consideration). Each Xtreme Bulls stop features 30 bull riders, 15 of whom advance to the semi-finals. Yee-ha, we say again.

It’s the fulfilment of many a kid’s dream, yanking on a Stetson and heading out into the wilds with a posse. To be at one with nature and living an existence off its fruits. Except these all-American guys do it for real, modern day idols thanks to olden day challenges.

Living up to the billing, it is genuinely extreme, sporting a guarantee that these are the scariest creatures around. And that’s just the cowboys. As for the bulls, they’re unbroken, dangerous and anything but co-operative. Neither saddles or spurs are allowed, nor are there reins attached. All that the riders have got to cling on to is a lasso pulled around their mount’s torso, hardly a reassuring thought when a strap is pulled tight near the bull's hind legs to draw his ire and "encourage" him to buck.

On the Xtreme circuit, the Formula One of rodeo competitions, staying on for eight seconds is impressive. Heck, it even has a Schumacher – BJ in this case – challenging for the title. Yet with names such as Smoke and Howdy Cloud, the horned heroes have attained celebrity status in their own right. Take Smoke for instance. "He's one all the guys really want, so I had to bear down and make a good ride," top rider Cory Melton said after one event, taking care, one trusts, to ensure he wasn’t quoted out of context.

So far, the spectacle has been astonishingly successful as a new arm of the rodeo circuit which already commands vast crowds in America’s frontier land. In March, a record 60,278 fans filled Reliant Stadium in Houston while other PRCA events are regularly televised nationally. There’s even a world rankings list – sponsored fittingly by Jack Daniel’s – which appraises such disciplines as Barrel Racing, Saddle Bronc Riding and Tie-Down Roping (not to be confused with any sport allegedly practiced by the Premiership’s party animals).

The risks are considerable. Leading rider Tyler Fowler recently had a portion of his left ear reattached after a nasty clash with a horn and continues to suffer the after-effects of falling off his steed and suffering a concussion. "There have been times where I haven't been able to remember stuff, everyday stuff like writing a cheque or tightening a bolt, which way to turn it." We promised these guys were crazy. That’s really wasn’t bull.

TRASH talking is as much a part of the NFL as it is in boxing but one piece of verbal sparring could end up in a punch-up tonight. Tampa Bay Buccaneers star Warren Sapp received a ticking off from the league’s overlords this week for his antics before last Monday’s game with Indianapolis in which he disrupted the Colts pre-game warm-up by running around their half of the field.

Sapp, who is anything but, has since also been warned not to try the same thing twice by Washington Redskins behemoth LaVar Arrington when their two teams meet today. Staring straight into a television camera, he sneered: “Sapp, I'm going to get you,” adding “You come out there, you've got some killers on the other side of the ball.”

For most mortals, such a threat from the Skins man mountain would pre-empt a plea to enter the FBI’s Witness Protection Programme - or even the lesser trial of Xtreme Bull riding. “You tell Mr. Can't Get Right, I'll be there at 10:30 a.m. sharp, Eastern Standard Time,” retorted Sapp. “Tell him don't be looking for me because I'm easily found.” Don King, are you taking note?

SPENDING a few pleasant autumnal days in Paris this week at the NBA Europe Games between the Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs, one had to admire how the players from both teams quickly adapted to the shock of being plonked for three days amid a frenzy in a foreign land.

However some almost never made the trip. One as yet un-named Grizzlies player reputedly pulled off the splendid feat of packing his passport in the team’s crated cargo, necessitating some diplomatic intervention on arrival. Another Memphis genius, Ryan Humphrey, went one better by neglecting to realise he required any such documentation to leave the country. Hence his trans-Atlantic voyage included a quick stop in Chicago where he was issued with the necessary in record time.
Others admirably carried on regardless, refusing to mend their ways in the face of French sensibilities.

When asked if he planned to do any sightseeing, Grizz centre Lorenzen Wright merely shook his head and said: “Nope. I saw the Eiffel Tower on the trip to the hotel.” Those who did venture afield did their best to acclimatise.
Had, enquired a colleague, Wesley Person sampled the French cuisine? “We found a McDonald's," he gleefully reported. Sacre bleu, monsieur! To Person’s credit, he did call it the Best Big Mac he’d ever had. “The bread is great over here,” he claimed. Thus we give you the new star of French cuisine… the McBun.

November 2
Tennessee event proves sizzling success

WAKING up bleary-eyed of a Saturday morning, that inner child in me still hankers for the sheer madness that was Tiswas, the dear furriness of Gordon The Gopher, or even the dear loveliness that is Cat Deeley. Nothing though is as much lamented as that balm of obscure sporting activities which Channel 4 used to provide to ease the pain of a sore head or bruised ego from the night before.

Surely, the station that was once the preserve of all things alternative could have found room yesterday for action highlights from the recent Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue Contest, direct from the backyard of Lynchburg, Tennessee. Saucy AND Hot – what more could you want from a televisual experience?

This year’s contest – the 15th in history – was truly a clash of the titans, featuring the victors of the previous three Majors: the American Royal Open Competition (Royals in America - since when?), the Memphis in May World Championship and the giant cook-out that is the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo Barbeque. However as Robert Richter, the ‘pit master’ of the Big Island Bar-B-Que underlines, The Jack “is the real fall classic. This is the world series of barbeque.”

51 crack teams– including a hardy bunch from our own fair land - had their charcoal and tongs at the ready, steak-ing their claim in the blue riband events of Pork Ribs, Pork Shoulder, Whole Hog, Beef Brisket and Chicken. Emerging victorious were the Smokin’ Triggers who pipped the Texas Rib Rangers by 1.7142 points in a display which, apparently, delighted the cognoscenti.

One definitely shouldn’t scoff at their gifts, just their food. “Lighting a grill on your balcony and throwing a steak on it, that ain't barbecuing, that's grilling,” emphasised Roger Brashears of Jack Daniel's Distillery.  “We got some good old boys down here who make barbecue so good, it'll make your tongue jump out of your mouth and slap your eyebrows.” Which is no doubt a trick popular with the ladies, presumably referred to in such spheres as the barbie dolls.

ONE of the great delights about hitting the fairways across the Atlantic is the availability of chilled alcoholic drinks en route. Beverage carts ping around the course, their mobile bartenders quenching the thirst of golfers in distress and ensuring that no-one need wait until the 19th hole before finding the necessary lubrication.

In the search of the perfect Christmas gift, our attention was thus gladly drawn to the 2004 Arizona Beverage Cart Girl Calendar which is positively over-flowing with stocking fillers. On its promotional website, it proudly celebrates that, lest we forget, “these women attend to golfers' refreshment and nutritional needs at critical times during their games.”

In addition to their food and beverage responsibilities “these women contribute to the golfers' enjoyment of the wonderful and often frustrating game of golf. They are there to provide you the golfer with moral support and humour, whether you are celebrating a great shot or cursing the wrath of the golf gods.”

Amazingly, the final 12 were chosen from employees from over 250 courses in golf-mad Arizona and they feature in a variety of poses, including Miss March’s illegal lie and Miss June’s bunker shot. Golf has never looked so good and so we confidently predict on-course sales of beer to duly rocket as a result.

BOARD in one hand, a towel in the other, in Hawaii kids take to the waves in the same manner in which Scotland’s bairns belt a tennis ball around the playground before sneaking off for a quick smoke. Surfing is an enshrined part of traditional culture in America’s 50th State, as memorable a symbol as flowery neck-chains or Magnum PI’s shiny red convertible.

Yet it may surprise you to learn that the sport is not actually on the curriculum of the state’s schools. That, however, may change next week when the Hawaiian Board of Education sits down to consider whether surfing should take its place along side reading, writing and arithmetic, opening the path to a new era of inter-scholastic competition.

Opponents are concerned that such sanctioning would destroy the purity of the dance between man and ocean, sparking the kind of frenzied rivalries regularly established in high school gridiron and basketball. “I know some surfers who say, 'No way, brah, it's not about competition,'” argues state Representative Marcus Oshiro. “It's not about trophies or winning, it's about character.”

Regardless, there is already a competitive schools circuit both in Hawaii and on the mainland and supporters of the motion are merely arguing that it will just give surfing the same status as other sports. You said it, dude. Beats cross-country any day of the week.

SO far, hugely hyped $100 million NBA rookie LeBron James has lived up to his billing with some tremendous scoring feats. Incredibly, the presence of the Cleveland Cavaliers teenage idol alone has ensured that every one of his team’s road games have sold out this season. Has anyone, we wonder, actually noticed that the Cavs have yet to win a single game?

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