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Of the several dozen stout little dudes clad head-to-toe in rawhide on the USAir Arena floor, Tuff Hedeman stands out. Not for his hat or his boots or his chaps, frilly and flowery as they are. No, it’s that hunk of metal covering most of Hedeman’s abdomen that sets him apart.

“A gold buckle makes you a lot prettier,” says Hedeman, fingering the—what else?—gold buckle at his waistline.

Fashions often trickle up from society’s nether regions to the mainstream. Crack retailing, for example, begat superbaggy jeans. Lonely lumberjacks bequeathed so much grungy flannel. Before either, there was rodeo chic. Urban Cowboy both lampooned and liberated a sliver of culture so low it probably should have stayed in a petri dish. Garish boots and 10-gallon hats became darn near acceptable, and even chaps gained favor in certain cosmopolitan cliques, although many urban chap wearers disdained the pants that real cowboys generally wear underneath.

Some western apparel never achieved mass appeal—bulky belt buckles, for example. But, just as they were before the boom, buckles are still handed out to cowboys in lieu of trophies or plaques for the mantel. Win a rodeo, get a buckle. The talent on the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) tour—a collection of 45 pokes named Spud and Tater and Tracer and Wayde and (every saddle-sore rider’s favorite) Royd—go from town to town strapping themselves onto the backs of filthy, deadly 2,000-pound animals for so-so pay and ornate beltwear. None of them boasts a buckle collection nearly as gaudy or large as Hedeman’s. He’s got four world bull-riding championship buckles under his belt. Hedeman sported his 1995 title buckle around town this weekend, as the PBR flock risked life and limb and otherwise entertained a sold-out house in the tour’s first-ever Landover Open.

“This is our Stanley Cup, our Super Bowl trophy,” Hedeman explains after a scoring ride aboard Rodeo Weaponry in the preliminaries. “And I get to wear it. Cool!”

If buckles really do make you prettier, well, this 35-year-old son of Red and Clarice Hedeman of Morgan Mill, Texas, needs all the prettying up he can get. Much like Evel Knievel’s, Hedeman’s considerable renown—he’s easily the most famous bull rider in the world—comes less from his successful rides than from his failures, from those occasions when he “got turfed” by bulls before the eight-second buzzer sounded.

The bad rides are all over Hedeman’s face, which

was crushed and only partially rebuilt after a bull named Bodacious threw him and then made a place mat out of him in 1995. The crushed mug didn’t keep him out of the chutes for long. Neither did the broken spine he got via an earlier role reversal nor the death of his best buddy in

bull riding, Lane Frost, whose heart was punctured

while dismounting from Taking Care of Business at the 1989 Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo. (Hollywood immortalized Frost in the 1994 flick 8 Seconds, with Luke Perry cast as the fallen rider. Stephen Baldwin played Hedeman.) Hedeman, who won his first rodeo at the age of 5, learned about the beautifying capability of buckles back

in Morgan Mill. There, as in any teeny western town, buckle envy was a very real thing. Everybody at the

dance hall knew who had a buckle and who didn’t, which

is why young Tuff never had trouble landing a two-stepping partner.

At this point in his career, Hedeman (the oldest cowboy in Landover) isn’t the best bull rider, but he’s the highest-paid, thanks to all his endorsement deals. Companies that make snuff and Kevlar rodeo vests and “tender beef jerky,” whatever that is, pay Hedeman to hawk their wares in the official PBR program. But he still remembers that it wasn’t money that put him in the saddle that first time.

“I wanted a buckle,” he says.

That same pursuit must be what keeps a lot of riders from permanently dismounting. Adam Carillo, a 26-year-old from Stephensville, Texas, is now in his sixth year on the PBR tour, but he ranks just 43rd among the 45 regular riders. Since Chuckie turfed him right out of the chute in Round 1 of the Landover Open, Carillo’s ranking isn’t going up. Neither will his standard of living: Only $75,000 was up for grabs among all participants, so Carillo’s meager earnings here won’t come close to covering expenses. But he seems anything but unhappy.

“Everybody here feels the same way about buckles,” says Carillo, stroking the buckle he earned in a preliminary round at last year’s national finals and soon thereafter wore to his wedding.

Carillo’s affinity for big buckles isn’t necessarily shared by nonriders. Up in the arena concourse, PBR paraphernalia vendors are enjoying very brisk business in $35 T-shirts and $15 hats, but having almost no luck moving the tour’s official souvenir buckle, tagged at $100. Just one buckle, in fact, was sold on the night, though the traveling sales manager doesn’t think overpricing caused the slump.

“I’ve paid that much for dumber things,” she says, packing all the unsold buckles into boxes for shipping to the next stop on the PBR tour. Of course, even the greenest greenhorn will tell you that a buckle bought at some souvvy stand ain’t gonna shine like one that you lived through eight seconds of hell to claim. And Landover’s a long way from Stephensville and Morgan Mill.—Dave McKenna