TOP BULLDOGGERS RACE FOR TITLE; OKLAHOMA COWBOYS RETURN TO GLORY DAYS
OKLAHOMA CITY – In all likelihood, the race for the International Professional Rodeo Association’s steer wrestling world championship will be between four cowboys.
Canadian Cody Mousseau owns a small lead over Brian Barefoot of Dunn, N.C.; Brad Stewart of Mt. Ulla, N.C.; and Justin Thigpen of Waycross, Ga. Thigpen is the two-time reigning steer wrestling and four-time reigning tie-down roping world champion who also is a tie-down roping qualifier for International Finals Rodeo 45, set for Friday, Jan. 16-Sunday, Jan. 18, at Jim Norick State Fair Arena in Oklahoma City.
Less than $2,000 separates the top four cowboys in the IPRA world standings, so the dogfight begins in a week when the top 126 cowboys and cowgirls in the Oklahoma City-based association battle for rodeo gold.
Thigpen isn’t the only world champ in the steer wrestling field. In fact, he’ll be joined by three-time bulldogging titlist Ronnie Fields of Oklahoma City and another top local cowboy, Danell Tipton of Spencer, Okla., who owns one gold buckle … in bull riding.
Next week marks the second straight steer wrestling qualification for Tipton, who won the 1995 bull riding world championship.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that I’ve been bulldogging for a while, since the early 1990s,” said Tipton, who also qualified for the National Finals Rodeo twice. “In 1993 and ’94, I started bulldogging a lot. I was entering rodeos in bulldogging then, but bull riding was more important than anything.
“As I’ve gotten older, I just made the transition. I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do riding bulls. I still get on bulls now, but I pick the ones I want to get on.”
At 41 years old, getting on the right bulls might just be Tipton’s best decision, though jumping off horses and wrestling 500-pound steers to the ground isn’t exactly easy on the body. He also is on the smaller size of the bulldogging list – most bull riders are about 5-foot-5, 135 pounds, while steer wrestlers tend to be much bigger.
That’s a perfect fit for Fields, a three-time IPRA champion (2000-2002) who also qualified for the NFR three times in the mid-2000s. Since then, he’s qualified for the IFR three times, 2009, 2014-15.
“I work in the oil field in Oklahoma,” said Fields, 6-foot, 235 pounds. “The enjoyment of actually being at home has been kind of irreplaceable. Until a couple years ago, I rodeoed full time. I still love to rodeo. With me working, I can still go to the IPRA rodeos, going on the weekends, then go home.
“I can still get the feel of the addiction that I have, but I can work. It makes me feel good. It’s hard to think about going back to rodeoing full time. I get to experience the things with my family, the things I missed when I was gone all the time.”
It’s like living the best of both worlds for Fields, who will begin the IFR competition 10th in the standings with nearly $7,000 in earnings. He is one spot ahead of Tipton, a cowboy with whom he has had a friendship since they were youngsters.
“The IFR is good,” said Fields, 41. “I don’t get to practice as much as I’m used to, but I’m still able to compete and try to qualify. I’m not as sharp as I used to be. I’ve been able to go to enough rodeos and compete well enough.”
That’ll help when the first round begins next Friday featuring a large purse that is aided through sponsor relationships with Love’s Country Store, RAM Trucks, Tener’s, Graham’s, Oxbow Tack, OG&E, Langston’s, Cattlemen’s Steakhouse, the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Harrison Manufacturing.
The biggest difference between Fields’ run a decade ago is in the time he spends on the rodeo trail.
“That was my job then, and now I have a job, so rodeo is a back seat to that,” he said. “I would rodeo for a living, which is what I’ve done up until now. There was a lot of pressure a guy takes on. I was fortunate that I didn’t have kids. It was a gamble I could afford to take.
“I still plan to go, but I have a job that helps me. It’s a comfort zone.”
Even though he’s ridden bulls for decades, Tipton’s comfort zone comes on horseback, which has been beneficial. He rode several horses through the season in order to earn the trip to the IFR.
“I’m just a cowboy,” he said. “You can put me on anything. This is nothing I’ve just jumped off into at my older age. I was horseback since I was born.”
Now he’ll show off his cowboy skills inside Jim Norick Arena. He’s been successful there before.