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Larry Mahan, rodeo cowboy whose fame transcended the arena, dies at 79

He won an unprecedented five straight all-around world championships, started his own clothing line and appeared on ‘The Tonight Show’ with Johnny Carson

Larry Mahan puts in a typical day's work in Oklahoma City, Aug. 6, 1974. He was a six-time all-around champion. (AP)
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Larry Mahan, a six-time world champion rodeo cowboy who bucked his way into American stardom, starring in an Oscar-winning documentary, endorsing his own line of Western wear and appearing on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, died May 7 at his home in Valley View, Texas. He was 79.

Mr. Mahan had bone cancer, according to Bobby Steiner, a close friend and bull-riding contemporary who confirmed his death.

More than any cowboy before or since, Mr. Mahan’s fame transcended the geography and conventions of traditional rodeo. He grew his hair long, wore bright-colored shirts and psychedelic chaps, and piloted his own Cessna to competitions. Sportswriters likened his fame to Elvis Presley’s and his achievements to Hank Aaron’s.

“Even for people who didn’t know what rodeo was or about the cowboy thing at all, he was interesting because he just carried himself like a real successful cat,” Steiner said in an interview. “The smile, the gleam, the sparkle he had — he was just the whole deal. He made rodeo cowboys cool.”

Mr. Mahan began competing professionally in the early 1960s, quickly establishing himself as one of the sport’s biggest headliners. As a rookie, he won first place in bull riding at the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association championships. He also competed in saddle bronc and bareback riding.

Starting in 1966, Mr. Mahan won an unprecedented five straight all-around world championships — a streak that ended only after he broke his leg in two places. (During his career, he also broke his foot, his jaw and at least three vertebrae.) He won the all-around a sixth time in 1973. He also won bull riding championships in 1965 and 1967.

Mr. Mahan attributed his success to entering as many rodeos as he could, typically 90 a year. He learned to fly and bought his own plane, which allowed him to compete in several competitions per weekend. Unlike other cowboys, he avoided saloons. He stayed at Howard Johnson motels because he liked the ice cream.

Mr. Mahan was a bull savant, keeping notes on their mannerisms and tendencies. He both respected and feared them.

“Bulls are the meanest, rankest creatures on earth,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1973. “Horses don’t try to step on you when they throw you off. They don’t want to trip. Bulls love to step on you, or whip your face into the back of their skull and break your nose and knock out your teeth.”

To hang on, “You have to transform yourself into some kind of a small beast,” Mr. Mahan said. When mounting a saddle bronc, he’d tell himself, “Some people can make every right move and come in second. I make the same moves and come in first. I am a winner.”

Larry Edward Mahan was born in Brooks, Ore., on Nov. 21, 1943, and grew up on his family’s farm not far from Salem. His parents bought him his first horse when he was 7.

“She was half Arab, half quarter horse, no papers, and we had her around three or four months, five months, and she had a colt — we didn’t even know she was bred — and I was just so in love with horses and riding,” he told Cowboys & Indians magazine last year.

In 1957, he entered his first rodeo, winning $6 and a belt buckle that is now displayed at the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado. After graduating high school, he moved to Arizona, where he hoped to join a college rodeo team, but tuition was too expensive so he joined the rodeo circuit.

While competing at an event in Oregon, announcer Mel Lambert told the audience: “That cowboy who just finished his ride is Larry Mahan. Now don’t you forget that name, because someday he is going to be the all-around champion.”

Years later, Lambert told Sports Illustrated, “You could just see it — the way he sat on a horse and spurred, he was all business and he had the try [a cowboy’s term for never-say-die] to get him wherever he wanted to go.”

In 1973, Mr. Mahan was featured in “The Great American Cowboy,” which won the Academy Award for best documentary feature. A Los Angeles Times review called it an “exceptionally well-made documentary about rodeos and professional cowboys which captures the carnival-like atmosphere and deadly seriousness of the sport as well as the compulsive, competitive psyche of the professional cowboy.”

Mr. Mahan capitalized on his fame like other professional athletes of his time, endorsing a line of clothing, boots and cowboy hats. “Generation after generation wear Larry Mahan Western Wear,” one ad said. “Rodeo champ Larry Mahan is one tough dude with a lot of style,” another ad said. “He makes looking good look easy.”

His boots made an appearance in Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel “No Country for Old Men” when a customer asks a shopkeeper, “Do you carry the Larry Mahans?” (The store did not.)

Mr. Mahan also recorded a country music album titled “King of the Rodeo” and acted in several films and made-for-TV movies, including “The Good Old Boys” starring Tommy Lee Jones, Frances McDormand and Sam Shepard.

Mr. Mahan was married several times. A list of survivors was not available.

His greatest ride was probably atop a bull named Old 27 — the second time he rode him. The first time Old 27 knocked him off in three seconds. Mr. Mahan was ready when they met again the next year.

“The battle that followed is considered to be the greatest that has ever taken place in man’s uneasy quest for riding room on the back of a bull,” the Saturday Evening Post wrote. “The instant the gate opened, Old 27 became a flowing mass of muscle, cat-quick and violent.”

Mr. Mahan held on until the 8-second buzzer, and the judges awarded him a score of 92 — the highest ever.

Asked later how he defied the bull, Mr. Mahan said: “Positive thinking. I just positively thought I’d better stay on.”