Championship cowboy Rob Smets on bull fighting: “The wildest game of tag you’re ever gonna see”

National Champion Bullfighter Rob Smets jumps over a bull. Photo courtesy Andy Watson.

The SA Rodeo Extreme Bulls show featured not only bull riding, but Bull Fighting, for the first time in many, many years. It certainly kept rodeo-goers hanging on the edge of their seats at times.
One of the judges of the Bull Fighting event was Mr. Rob Smets, who himself has spent many days going face to face with some of the meanest, baddest bulls you’ve ever seen. Just a glimpse at Smet’s impressive biography will tell you that Smets is a 5-time World Champion Bullfighter, “known worldwide as one of the toughest and most fearless athletes in the world. These traits earned him the nickname ‘Kamikaze.’ His inspirational “comeback story” after surviving two broken necks is chronicled in the documentary Rob Smets, the Kamikaze Kid featured on the Discovery Channel.”
And this champion cowboy has local ties, residing just down the road in Rossville, TX.
Smets love for competing against these thousand-pound animals started when he was just a teenager.
“I did a little bull riding in high school, and one year I popped off a little bit to the rodeo clown, and so they told me to get out there and see what I could do,” Smets said.
He soon fell in love with what he calls “the wildest game of tag you’re ever gonna see!” He points out that unlike bull fighting in Mexico, PRCA Bull Fighting in the US doesn’t involve any blood-shed. The sport of bull-fighting has become so much more specialized over the years as well.
If you think watching an 8-second ride and the courageous rodeo clowns escorting bulls out of the arena is an adrenaline rush, wait ’til you see the talented cowboys who take the bulls head-on for a 70-second free-style bull fight. It takes several courageous fighters and clowns to get those bulls out of the arena.
“The thing about these bulls is they don’t listen to whistles or know the word ‘timeout.’ The bull decides when the game is over,” Smets adds, “And these bulls aren’t taught to fight–they are bred to fight. This year at the SA Rodeo we had six really good, quality fighting bulls. There was some fender rubbin’ and got a lot of people on the edge of their seats.”
Smets won his first National Championship in 1983, at the age of 24. One of his other favorite bull fights came a few years later, when he deceived all odds and cowboyed up at the National Finals in ’94, after recovering from a broken neck in ’92.
“I broke my neck in 1992, and I had several guys say I was done and that I’d never bull fight again, but I came back and won my 3rd National Championship in 1994. That was a proud day, but of course, that first National Championship buckle is the one I wear, day in and day out.”
Smets qualified for the National Bull Fighting Finals 17 of 20 years. Even when he didn’t make the finals, he is proud to be chosen to work the National Finals many years as well, “Taking care of cowboys is what it’s all about,” he said. “Next time it might be you on the ground.”
He retired from fighting bulls at the young age of 46, and had the great honor of being inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in 2006.
Smets now enjoys the opportunity to speak at cowboy churches and judging bull fights throughout the year as well as announcing at rodeos 8-10 times a year.
“In my 35 years of bull fighting I’ve broken my neck three times (’92, ’94, and ’06), my leg once, and I was gored once, so a total of 5 major injuries in 35 years,” Smets said. “It’s hard for any athlete to walk away from something you love. The 3rd broken neck was when the Lord and I decided it was time to move on, and close that chapter of my life.”
He admits, that he and his wife Carla had already talked about 2006 being his last year, but had it not been for that injury, he’s not sure he could have walked away.
One thing is clear though, this cowboy doesn’t regret a second of it, and his love for bull fighting shines through.
“I don’t have quite the range of motion in my neck that I might have had, but I’m not in a wheel chair and I’m not in a box! Some people say bull fighting is crazy, but if I was crazy I wouldn’t have lasted so long. Every sport has a basic set of fundamentals. There’s a method to the madness,” Smets adds.
When it comes to bull fighting, “you plan for the worst, and hope for the best” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of bulls mop the floor with cowboys, and a lot of them won’t ever fight again. But Bull Fighting is like other sports. If you’re boxing–sooner or later you’re gonna get hit, and you’re going to find out how much heart God gave you. God gave me a big heart.”
“Bull fighting has taken me to Hawaii to Florida, from Alaska to Brazil and almost every state in the United States,” Smets said.
As much as he loves the sport of bull fighting, there’s one thing he loves more–his family.
“The best thing that ever happened in my life is a school teacher in Devine named Carla Smets,” he said with a chuckle. “We live in Rossville (between Devine and Pleasanton), and I work in Pleasanton at Atascosa Dodge.”
This cowboy is originally from California, but he moved to Texas long ago when he realized, “Texas is a great place to rodeo.”
“I love Texas, and everything it stands for,” Smets adds.
Befittingly, he was inducted into the Texas Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2010, among many of his other huge accomplishments.
How is Bull Fighting Judged?
Much to my surprise, I learned that the bull’s performance is just as important as the cowboy’s. There are two judges, who each score the cowboy’s performance and the bull’s performance from 1-25 points in two different categories. So there’s a total of 100 points possible.
If you’d like to see a bull fight sometime soon, there will be one at a PRCA rodeo in Uvalde on the first weekend of May.
Putting country back in country
The Extreme Bulls rodeo this past February was an action-packed, great rodeo all around with an awesome concert by country artist Aaron Watson to top it off. Putting country back in country music was the theme of Watson’s show. Watson shared so many wonderful stories behind the songs he sings including his song about the great bull rider Lane Frost and a touching song called “Bluebonnets in the Spring” which he wrote for his daughter that he lost so tragically, reminding us all to let God help carry the burdens that are too heavy for our shoulders alone.
Save the date…
Make sure you don’t miss out on the fun next year. Tickets for next year’s rodeo are already on sale! Save the Date for the 2018 SA Stock Show and Rodeo February 8-25, 2018.