Gay won his first world championship in 1974, his third year on the circuit, after losing out the year before on his very last bull. He and Bobby Steiner were in a virtual tie in the 1973 National Finals at Oklahoma City after nine bulls, when Gay drew that year's Bull of the Year, Mr. Bubble, for his final ride. For six seconds the bull spun to the left, "then he cut back to the right and slam-dunked me," Gay recalls. "I thought I'd choked under pressure until I had a chance to ride that bull again the next year in Fort Madison, Iowa. So I chartered a plane just to have another crack at him, and that time he Hula-Hooped me in about two seconds. But getting so close in 1973 made me tougher mentally than anything else that has ever happened to me."
In 1974 Gay broke Shoulders' record of $28,700 earned in a single year of bull riding, which, astonishingly, had stood since 1954. Gay's total was $32,917, a record he has broken every year since, culminating with his $63,908 for 1981. Usually, world championships are determined by the total earnings for a single year, but between 1976 and 1978 the PRCA awarded the titles to competitors who won at the National Finals. The top 15 money-winners in each event qualified for the tournament, and then everyone started from zero; in bull riding that amounted to a 10-bull ride-off for the championship. Gay continued to dominate the field under the new format, winning in both '76 and '77, but in 1978 he lost his crown when he finished second to Butch Kirby at Oklahoma City, despite setting another earnings record of $48,275. The PRCA reverted to the old system in 1979, and Gay has won the bull-riding title for the last three years—in 1980 by a scant $188 when he had to turn out his last four bulls in the National Finals after breaking several ribs and tearing the surrounding cartilage.
"I'd have won eight championships by now if they hadn't changed to that sudden-death format those three years," Gay says. "But no sense crying over spilt milk. It only cost me one championship, and it cost Joe Alexander [a bareback rider] three. I figure I'll just go out and win another one, since I still like to ride bulls. I'm tied with my hero, and I've gone too far to back out now. I've told everyone I'm going to win eight, and I don't care what it costs me."
Gay has never been a shrinking violet when it comes to making predictions or blowing his own horn. Now that he's 28 and a seven-time champion, people are used to it, but in his early years—well, let's just say that, historically, cowboys have always leaned toward understatement. The damndest, rankest bull that ever walked into a rodeo arena might be described by one cowboy to another as "a pretty fair money-bull." But not by Gay. "I always liked Muhammad Ali," he says. "Instead of waiting for everybody to tell him how tough he was, he told them. I'm more or less the same way. It's all right to talk like that if you can back it up, but a lot of people have said, That little loudmouth, who's he think he is?' I've been called the John McEnroe of rodeo a time or two."
Gay has a film of himself on a bull called Red One on which he scored 95 out of a possible 100 points, the most awarded any ride in the 1976 National Finals. It's a spectacular performance, the bull spinning and twisting and bucking under him with incredible speed. "I don't know how I stayed on him," Gay says as he watches the movie. "Of course, I'm probably prejudiced, but I'd say that ride there is the greatest bull ride that's ever been made."
So much for the old days when men were men and bulls could buck. Gay says that the '76 National Finals ride on Red One was a far better ride, for instance, than the one that he later made on the famed bull Oscar, in San Francisco's Cow Palace in 1977, in which he scored 97 points. On that occasion, Gay took off his hat and fanned Oscar after the eight-second whistle (signifying an official ride) had blown, to the utter delight of the Cow Palace audience. Buck, you Oscar! This here's fun! It was a page right out of Ali's book—Ali, standing over a stricken Sonny Liston, screaming at Liston to get up and fight, get up so Ali could show the folks how great he really was. Buck, you bull!
"Rodeo has always had one envoy at a time," Gay says. "First it was Shoulders, then it was Larry Mahan. About the time Mahan was getting ready to retire, I won my first title, 1974. Since I'm pretty much a hot dog, I started to gather some ink. By the time I'd won my fifth title—well, I'm pretty much it, as far as envoys go." Now when Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett want to talk with a rodeo cowboy, Gay's their man.
"I learned how to ride under Shoulders," Gay says, "but I learned how to go out of my way to talk to people and the press under Larry Mahan. That Mahan was an animal, a physical and mental animal. He could ride an All-American bronc, then a bareback, and then he'd get on a bull. I'm not that tough. And anyway, the days of guys like Shoulders and Mahan being able to win consistently in three events are pretty much over. I traveled with Mahan a lot my first year; he kinda took me under his wing. Before him it was considered non-macho to talk to the press, probably because Shoulders never did. The feeling was, 'This is interrupting my drinking time, just one more thing I don't get paid for.' That's all changed. Now you get guys like Bobby DelVecchio, a bull rider who grew up in the Bronx, blowing kisses to the crowd. That's how rodeo's different now. The events haven't changed."
Actually, even Shoulders has come around. The legend who never gave the press the time of day now grants interviews and makes promotional appearances on behalf of Lite beer from Miller in small towns throughout the country. He travels with his pet Brahma bull, Bufford-T-Lite, which he leads into cow-town bars to liven up the evenings. Gay, ever the Shoulders protégé, is sponsored by Miller High Life, and there is a shade of irony here, because alcohol wasn't allowed in the Gay house when Don was growing up. It wasn't that Neal Gay didn't enjoy drinking beer, he was simply keeping his end of a deal. After a rodeo, years ago, an off-duty policeman shot Neal in the belly with a .45 during a bar fight. Neal had to walk up four flights of stairs to wake a doctor. He was told he wasn't going to live. "My dad asked the Man Upstairs to get him out of that one, and he'd take care of the rest of it," Don Gay says. "Hasn't touched a drop since."