Even though the sport of rodeo has been around for decades, the National Finals Rodeo, or NFR as it is commonly called, has a much more recent history. The first National Finals Rodeo was held at the Dallas State Fair Grounds in 1959, and since then, the NFR has gone through many interesting changes including a name change in 2001 to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
Said to have been the brain-child of South Dakota legend Casey Tibbs, the idea behind the first ever National Finals Rodeo was to bring together the bets rodeo athletes and the toughest livestock in the world. Many now-famous cowboys competed at that first NFR including Tibbs, Jim Shoulders, Jim Bynum, Jack Buschbom and Dean Oliver. No one quite knew what to expect but hoped for the best since this was the first ever world championship of rodeo. The cowboys who entered competed for the first NFR purse of $50,000!
Shoulders, still considered the most successful cowboy ever with 16 world titles, placed in six bull riding rounds in 1959, walking away with the NFR prize money and the world championships. In 1979, Jim Shoulders was honored in the inaugural class of the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Placing sixth in the rankings, Tibbs rode in his final saddle bronc riding world championship during that 1959 National Finals Rodeo. Today Tibbs is remembered as the first cowboy to capture the hearts and attention of the media. Tibbs was also inducted into the Hall of Fame, with the additional honor of being depicted in the museum’s signature statue — a 20-footer of Tibbs riding a bronco named Necktie.
Jack Buschbom won in the first round of the 1959 National Finals Rodeo’s bareback riding and continued on to claim the NFR average crown and world title. Twenty years later, he, too, was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.
For many years the NFR flourished, spending a few years in Los Angeles and then another 20 years in Oklahoma City. Cowboys still worked toward what became known as “the Last Rodeo,” but the media attention and purses did not really grow until the NFR moved to Las Vegas, Nevada in 1985. The NFR always appealed to those cowboy athletes as a culmination of that year’s hard work. With the move to Las Vegas, the appeal doubled — in the form of a total of $1.8 million in prize money.
The performance of rookie calf roper Joe Beaver was arguably the most unpredictably exciting event in that first Las Vegas Finals. Very few had heard of him before that week, but with a roll of Vegas luck Beaver took the world championship and became one of the best known cowboys in rodeo. In that very same 1985 Vegas NFR, rough stock sensation Lewis Field of Elk Ridge, Utah, easily captured the world bareback riding title in what became his first of three world all-around championships.
The 1998 National Finals Rodeo counted Ty Murray as the new champion when he won an unprecedented seventh world all-around title while Dan Mortenson garnered his fifth world saddle-bronc riding title, falling just one short of Tibbs’ long-standing record.
Many rodeos have come and gone since then and world titles can be won and lost in less time than the 8 second buzzer but the excitement never dims at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, and the lights never go down even after the cowboys go home.