Match Roping for the Ages

The first time I ever used the term Dream Team I was talking about Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper. It was half a decade before Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were dubbed the same name during their gold-medal run at the 1992 Summer Olympics.

Jake and Clay’s dynasty and total domination of their sport was simply amazing. No one team ever owned it all like that before, and I laugh when I think about all the shy pauses the three of us had back in those early-day interviews.

I say no team had ever owned the throne like those two before, but one team has found out what it’s like to walk that walk since. Speed Williams and Rich Skelton tied Jake and Clay’s seven-title feat last year, and in seven straight years. So when I heard about the Match of Champions between these two team roping super powers, which was held in June between the second and third rounds of the Reno Rodeo Invitational, I-like everyone else-got very excited.

What a blast it was to watch team roping’s clash of the titans, and RRI Producer Perry Di Loreto’s take on Jake was the same thing I saw.

“The thing that stood out for me more than anything else was Jake’s intensity,” he said. “That’s as intense as I’ve ever seen him. Jake was into that match 110 percent, and the sweat was pouring off of him. He was in the zone. It was so neat to be able to showcase all four of those guys. What ropers. What people.”

The match was run over the 13′ 6″ RRI scoreline and out of the 19-foot box at the Reno Livestock Events Center. Three loops were allowed, with a 30-second time limit in place and no-times translated into a 30-second run. Jake and Clay roped first the first five rounds, then they traded steers and Speed and Rich went first the second half. Flying T Cattle Company’s BFI short-round steers were used for the match.

In the end, Jake and Clay won the $10,000, winner-take-all match, 97.64 to 1:15.22, but all four walked away winners for the show they put on. Jake and Clay also promptly donated their $10,000 haul back to Perry’s charity efforts.

“This match, which was sponsored by the Reno Rodeo Invitational, Wrangler and Merlin Jones, was (Wrangler’s) Karl Stressman’s idea, and it was a good one,” Perry said. “We knew it’d be entertaining, and it was. These four guys aren’t just the champs, they’re absolute solid citizens and great role models for our kids. They’re class acts, all four of them. We had a chance to show them off a little bit, and they did us all proud.”

That’s for sure. And they had fun doing it.

“This was like Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier-the two heavyweights,” Jake grinned. “Clay and I are always compared to Speed and Rich, so all of us getting together like this was good for the industry. It could have gone either way. If we did it again tomorrow, they might beat us by 50 seconds. You never know in these deals. That’s what makes them good watching.”

Jake rode former NFR steer wrestler Terry Lee Thompson’s 10-year-old chestnut head horse Peppy Doc. Cooper rode daughter Bailey’s 13-year-old palomino, who goes by numerous names.

“We call him Yeller, Blondie and Habanero,” Clay said. “But today I called him Atta Boy.”

All four cowboys said they felt honored just to be a part of the popular RRI tradition addition.

“For the top two teams from different eras to come together was fun for everyone,” Clay noted. “Speed and Rich are the greatest team in the world today. No one’s been able to touch them in the last seven years. I came here knowing we were the underdogs, but I also knew if we roped our roping we had a chance. We just made the fewest amount of mistakes today, but we all had a good time, so everybody wins.”

I’ve seen Jake and Clay make hundreds if not thousands of runs in the practice pen over the years, and if you get the feeling they can be 6 or 7 all day long it’s because they can. That makes them prime match material, but these two will never tell you much about themselves or how undeniably great they are. They’re more interested in the big picture and turning the spotlight on the sport.

“Days like this are what make the sport grow,” Clay continued. “Everyone loves a good rivalry. Speed and Rich are great champions. They’re flawless at a rodeo or a jackpot. They’re the greatest team in the world, and I have the utmost respect for them.

“It’s easy to win. What’s hard is to suck it up, put a smile on your face and lose with grace. We’ve all had our butts kicked. Jake and I just made the fewest amount of mistakes today. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Speed and Rich are great champions and great guys.”

Clay looks so cool on the outside. But his competitive fire is always burning on the inside.

“I get nervous when I rope,” he said. “I was afraid of that early in my career, but it’s part of the game when the juices are flowing and you’re fighting to concentrate. You get into your own zone. That’s what competitors crave.

“There are two sides of the ditch, and the road’s in the middle. Early in my career I thought of myself as a Rocky-type underdog. That’s how I like it. I like to tackle the mountain and face a challenge. I always like a challenge. I don’t always come out on top, but when I do it’s very rewarding.”

The only other time Jake and Clay squared off against Speed and Rich one-on-one was at the Victory for Val Benefit at Cowtown in Fort Worth a couple years ago. The event was a fund-raiser for Karl’s wife, Val Stressman, who’s bravely battled breast cancer the last few years. Jake and Clay won that one, too.

“It’s interesting when you’re matching people you’ve always looked up to,” Speed said. “Consistency is Jake and Clay’s strong suit, and being fast is ours. Jake and Clay practiced for years to go make clean run after clean run, and that’s how they dominated in their era. I’m a gambler. Like, I should have taken the time to get my stirrup on that second one instead of creating my own mistake.”

Speed speaks of losing his right stirrup coming across the line in the second round. He didn’t want to spot Jake and Clay the extra seconds it would have taken to kick up and take a higher-percentage shot, so he took a risk and being off balance caused him to miss his slack and roll that first loop off the horns.

Speed rode the 15-year-old black horse, Moon, that wife Jennifer rode in the RRI on the first five steers, and an 8-year-old sorrel
heel horse by the name of Flint
on the second five.”There was a lot of pride on
the line today, and a lot of pride
got kicked away when I lost that stirrup,” he said. “That’s where
I shot myself in the foot. I hope
we can do it again. I want a

Rich rode an 8-year-old bay horse he just bought from J.D. Yates. He came with the name Conley, but Rich just calls him J.D. Like Speed, he always takes his hat off to Jake and Clay. “Jake and Clay are the two

greatest ropers ever,” Rich said. “They’re unbelievable ropers and good people. Even though we lost, roping against them is still a great honor. That was fun.”

That was a fact for all the fans who pulled up a seat to take in the match, too, and Jake and Clay felt equally honored to share the arena with Speed and Rich.

“To still be able to compete at this level against the young guys feels good,” said Jake, who’s 45 now. Clay’s 43, Rich turned 38 four days before the match on June 18, and Speed’s 36. “And it’s always

an honor to rope with Clay. He’s awesome, and it’s neat to know we’ve still got it. The main thing is we just wanted to put on a good show. Drama is good, no matter who wins. This was fun. I hope we can do it again.”

Since they generously “just said no” to all the loot, this one basically came down to bragging rights. But in this bunch, bragging rights are one thing that will never be exercised.

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