What does everyone do while the large corpse lies in the ring waiting to be hauled away? They come up with a verdict, that’s what. And they award prizes if it feels the bullfighter had done a good job. Actually it’s not the crowd who hands down the prize, but the president of the fight that day, who is often a high-ranking member of the local police force or government. If the people feel the toreador should receive an award, they appeal to the president by waving white handkerchiefs. The more you see, the stronger the appeal. If the president finally agrees to their calling, then he too will let a white handkerchief drape over the edge of the balcony. So, what is the prize? A weekend away at a bungalow in the Costa del Sol? A pair of running shoes? 100,000€? Yeah, right.
They get an ear. One of the bull’s ear. It’s lopped off right there and then. The crowd can continue to petition if they feel the bullfighter has done exceptionally well, and if the president agrees, then we’ll repeat the action and the other ear will come off too. And if it was an outstanding performance, the tail may be added too, but that never happens in Madrid. It would have to be something which would go down in history. You see one of the biggest factors is the importance of the ring. A small town might mete them out for any ordinary bullfight, but in the big rings it’s a totally different story. The crowd in Madrid’s Las Ventas is not easily impressed, which is why more often than not the reaction is that of disinterest. Maybe a light round of applause at best. And if it’s a botched job, you can expect lots of insults and booing.
That’s why Madrid’s venue is so important. Other’s include Sevilla, Pamplona, Barcelona, Valencia (just to name a few), but Las Ventas is the most rigorous test. It’s kind of like Broadway for a stage actor. If you don’t make it there…well, you know how it ends.
The bullfighter is to be carried out of the arena on the shoulders of his assistants, which signifies that he has triumphed that afternoon. For this to happen, you need to have had at least two ears cut off in the same event. They can be two ears taken from one bull or an aggregate of the two bulls (one from each) that he faces. To have this happen at Las Ventas is the dream of every bullfighter, as it will mean he knows how to stand up under the greatest pressure.
Does the bull ever get a fair end of the deal? Normally not, but on rare occasions, the crowd and torero may feel that the animal is so especially brave that its life should be spared so they will ask the president to pardon it. If he agrees, he will draw out an orange handkerchief.
But I tell you. That ain’t often.
You have to wonder what really goes through your mind when you see a bull get killed for the first time. It’s been so long that I can’t quite recall, but I think I was almost excited by the idea, which disturbs me somewhat. It wasn’t horror. It wasn’t pleasure either. I know it wasn’t pretty since it was a regular Sunday afternoon off-season bullfight, which is sort of like going to a Friday night welterweight bout in Poughkeepsie, New York. You keep your expectations low and even then you are let down. It was butchery. It explained why those guys aren’t in the big time.
The importance of the kill can depend greatly on how well the bullfight has gone so far. That is, if the bull has responded well and the toreador performed well and, here’s the key, there is a chance for prize to be awarded, then we can say that everything rides on this moment, because to earn a prize (I’ll get to that in a second), in a bullring as prestigious a Madrid’s Las Ventas, the matador has basically got one chance and one chance only to get it right.
He steps over to the wall and switches swords; then he returns. The reason for this has little to do with some ancient tradition and more to do with an everyday problem known as weight. The muleta, or cape, is no wafer-thin silky flag, but rather a thick cloth resembling something along the lines of a drape, a curtain suited for a palace. It weighs in at around 10lbs. To that you can add the pole that supports and a steel sword. That’s a lot to tote around, so they tend to lighten the load with an aluminum substitute.
Anyway, the man comes back, makes a round or two more to get us in the mood and then lines up for the kill. He lowers the cape before him, squares himself with the bull, lines up the handle of the sword before his face, with the rest of the blade aimed in the direction of the animal’s back, bends one knee and lifts the foot so that the toe touches the clay earth…and waits. If there is a moment when silence can reign over an arena filled with 20,000 spectators this is it. Especially if the bullfight has been interesting and there is a chance for a prize to be had. Honest to God, you can hear the toreador’s footsteps on the dirt ground. You could literally hear a pin drop.
Then the two lunge at each other. The key here is to keep the cape low so that the head stays low and allows the matador to get at the back where he can plunge the sword known as the estoque into the right part of the back and kill it quickly.
Oh, if only these things really went as well as we hoped. More often than not, the sword doesn’t go through the right spot, which is through the heart, at least very close by. In many cases because the man is trying to keep a sword from smashing his heart, and the weapon ends up doing a number of different things like…strike a bone and bouncing off, or stopping halfway there and doing little else but cause pain, or, and this is the ugliest of scenarios, puncturing the heart and having the bull cough up gallons of blood before keeling over. That doesn’t always happen, but I tell you, that really gets the tourists filing out and looking for something else to do that evening.
Speaking of the crowd, let me make it clear from here on in that what everyone wants is for the bull to be killed quickly and cleanly, for the bull’s sake more than anything. Four or five stabs can get a round of jeers and protest whistling. The inability to perform this task effectively is an insult to the bull. If the sword doesn’t go in the right way and the bull stays on his feet, or the is down and unable to die…they go for a solid pole which looks like a fire stoker and poke at the back of the neck until they snap the nervous system. Sometimes they have to do this with a dagger at the very end.
When done the right way, the killing can be impressive, a kind of crowning moment. When done the wrong way it can get pretty gruesome, when not horrific.
A team of horses come out to drag the dead animal off the stage. Even though the crowd may applaud as a show of appreciation for the bull’s bravery, the final scene is a pathetic sight and a wholly undignified way of going, especially considering that up to that point has been hanging out in a lush field for four years and had no choice about the matter.
Well, as I was saying, the last phase of bullfighting is the most complex and certainly the most perilous for the bullfighter (not to mention for the bull). This is truly where just man and beast confront each other. The word “bullfighting” has always been an unfortunate term in my opinion because there really isn’t a “melee” between the person and the animal at all. You don’t see the toreador with a switchblade in his hand taunting the bull to bring it on, nor will you see him attempt to pin its shoulders to the ground for three seconds. Years, more like centuries ago, that was not the case, but today many unnecessary risks have been removed. After all, bullfighters are celebrities too, and they’re of no good to anyone dead.
By no means do I wish to suggest that the bullfighter is home-free. They get gored, and get gored a lot. Matadors like José Tomás have been perforated so many times that whenever they have a glass of water, the drink pours out of their bodies in all directions. Obviously, that is not true, but many have come to look as if they have been pulled from a grave and sutured by a mad scientist named Dr. Frankenstein. If you don’t believe me, look at what happened to Julio Aparicio a year ago when he lost his footing in a bullfight in the San Isidro Fair in Madrid.
Yes, that’s a horn going in his throat and coming out his mouth. Gross. This photo made several trips around the internet world. It is truly one of the most spine-chilling images in the history of bullfighting. It seems almost the figment of some gore-flick director’s imagination. And yet it was very real. Miraculously less than two weeks later, he was released from the hospital and on the road to recovery, with dreams of returning to the ring again some day.
Still, for all the hoopla about the ever-present dangers of the profession, for all the severe injuries inflicted on these brave individuals, all things considered, death is remarkably elusive. If there hasn’t been a fatality in some 15 years, it is due, in part, to vastly improved medical care at the bull rings and, this is especially worth noting, a hell of a lot of luck. It really baffles the mind sometimes. All it takes is for a horn to go through the heart for even the world’s best surgeons to be rendered useless.
In fact, if you look around, you see that compared to other otherwise innocuous activities, bullfighting could almost be considered safe. Just the other day I read a tragic story about a 13-year-old boy who was killed while playing baseball when a pitch hit his chest just above his heart causing it to stop right there and then. Death was instantaneous, as it usually is. The boy was a victim of what is known as commotio cordis, which is a disruption of the heart beat due to a direct blow over the area. After a little research, it turns out that, though this is a rare physical reaction requiring numurous unfortunate factors to converge at the very some moment, it can and does occur and it does take the life of about two dozen people every year, most of them young boys. In this sense, you could argue that stepping up to the plate at a Little League baseball game is statistically far more life-threatening than standing alone dressed in tights in front of a full-grown menacing bull.
Just a thought.
The name of the third and final stage of the bullfight doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to announcing what lies ahead: El Tercio de la Muerte (The Third of Death).
This is the true moment of truth. All the excitement, all the emotion; all the spectacular feats that have lead up to the events so far, the entrance, the capote, the picadors, the banderilleros, etc., are nice and interesting, but absolutely none have such great a bearing on the outcome on the bullfight as the final stage.
Everything up to this point may have been done extraordinarily, but they will mean nothing if the matador doesn’t know how to step up and deliver. Especially if it’s a good bull. In a similar fashion, an unpromising animal rendered worthless in the first two parts of the bullfight can turn noble if the bullfighter finds a way of getting it to respond.
What we know up to this point is a little about the bull: its behavioral patterns, its strengths and weaknesses, its potential. Now it is time to put all of that to the test. There are no two ways about it. It’s hit or miss; make it or break it; sink or swim; do or die. Well, actually, dying is what the bull always does, but you know what I mean.
There are really two parts to this final third: one is called the suerte de la muleta, where the famous red cape is used. The second part involves actually killing the animal. For that you need something sharper.
When we think of bullfighting, at least when most of us think of it, what universally comes to mind is the duel between the wounded beast and the bullfighter. This is that moment.
No one doubts the fact the bull has been stripped of much of its power and its strength and fight have been sapped, but trust me, the animal is still a mean killing machine. Those who wish to call me on this point are welcome to descend upon any arena and stand in front of 1,300lb irked bull. But if you do, tell me, because I want to know how you plan on spending your final minutes of life. I could think of better ways.
During this prelude to the execution the bullfighter tries to gain the respect of the crowd as well as of the president’s. Here the matador gets his chance to show that magical combination of seemingly reckless bravery with artistic class. The bullfighter leads the bull this way and that, switches hands too. All of this is done for a number of reasons:
1) To show off their versatility as a bullfighter
2) To keep the bull second guessing (remember, we don’t want it suddenly think, “Screw the cape. I’m going for the dork holding it.)
3) To further tire out the animal before death.
This stage is technically the most challenging and the most subtle too. How many times have I seen what I thought was a perfectly fine bullfight get received by the crowd with total silence. Here the torero tries to show off his talent by guiding the bull around his body through different techniques. If he holds the cape with his left hand it is known as naturales, and if it with the right hand, it is called derechazos. He might approach from different angles, different distances and even adopt different postures, like getting on his knees. There are two basic schools of thought: the toreros that stick to the classic style and those who try to be innovative and will put on a show. Similarly there are fans who prefer the traditional use of the cape, while others who favor the spectacle.
Regardless, a responsive bull is important for a successful finale. If not, things can get complicated. One setback is when the bull is just worn out and no longer in the mood for chasing around a useless piece of red cloth. Another may have to do with erratic behavior. The animal may move unpredictably or raise its head too early. This is particularly complicated because that means the bull won’t pass by the torero cleanly and the raised head means it will be particularly difficult to kill in the end.
But there is a lot to this stage, so I’ll tell you more later.
As a learner of Spanish, there are few words as difficult to pronounce as banderillas; and you can just plain forget about the term for the men who use them, the banderilleros. To non-users of Spanish, please note that the double ll is basically the equivalent of a “y” in English and the “r” is somewhat similar to an American “t” in words like “letter”. That should help you appreciate the obvious phonetic challenge at hand. It’s like trying to speak with a clothespin clipped on your tongue. If I tried using that word in a random conversation about daycare centers in the middle of, say, the Prado Museum, I can assure you no one would understand what I was saying. It is only in the tightly knit context of the bullfighting world would someone be able to, after a few seconds of undeniable perplexity, figure out what I was getting at.
The suerte of banderillas makes up the second part of the bullfight. Banderillas are miniature harpoons which can be likened to long, ornate shish kabobs. An object that dainty just doesn’t seem fitting to be stuck into the back of a profusely bleeding full-grown bull, but their colorful appearance belies their wickedness. At the tips is one razor-sharp toothed point which is specially designed to go in easily but not let go. Sort of like a Rottweiler or certain shirts made of polyester.
The act consists of the following: Either the matador’s assistants, or the very man himself, takes a pair of banderillas, one in each hand, and when the bull is close enough, attempts to plunge them into the back. This is repeated three times, and if my math serves me right, that comes to six poles in all. High marks go to those who manage to pin the sticks close to each other and on the upper back. Some bullfighters are very good at this technique and are especially adept at standing high and stiff some twenty yards away and getting the bull to start for them just after a few calls. If the bull doesn’t oblige, they may begin to take a few steps closer to further provoke the beast. Sluggishness on the part of the bull, or possibly boredom combined with poor eyesight, may require that the bullfighter continue his approach until he is nearly right next to it, at which point he kind of just says, “Oh, friggit. Take your goddamn stick.” For the most part, though, the bull falls for the bait and goes for the attack.
That’s when the meeting of the two becomes imminent. The torero usually skirts off at an angle so as not to take on the bull frontally, after all he isn’t a defensive end for the New York Giants, and he might even twirl around a couple of times as the animal approaches for cockiness’s sake. Then he gathers his bearings and just as the animal gets close enough, he drives the sticks into the back and finishes off the job with a great deal of elegance. Usually.
When well done, it can be one of the most spectacular parts of the fight, and I have admiration for the real pros. But there are two major factors that can prevent this fine spectacle from taking place: a dull bull and a cowardly torero. When you get the latter, the event turns comically pathetic. Sometimes this is valid because the animal can take an unexpected cut towards the man, but all too often the bullfighter’s flight starts the minute the animal starts its charge. The toreador starts high-tailing it toward the fence, on occasion throwing the banderilla behind him in the general direction of the bull without even looking behind. I have actually seen this happen, so this time at least, I am not exaggerating. And I think to myself, “This guy gets paid to do this? I could do this. And after a hernia operation.”
Which doesn’t mean being a banderillero doesn’t have its occupational hazards. In fact, six out of the last eight toreros to get killed by goring were banderilleros, which is surprising statistic because the matadors are gored far more often. All the time, really. I cannot say if the reason for this is lies in the fact that bulls have a special aversion towards men in tight suits taunting them with little twinkle-toed dances, or that the toreros position themselves in a way that makes them especially vulnerable to receiving a mortal wound, or whether it’s just plain bad luck. But I can completely understand the plight of the humble banderillero as he darts off to the safety by leaping over the ring wall and seeking protection, for he knows that if he somehow gets caught, there is a far greater chance he will be the object of a memorial service within a week than his colleagues. And no one likes to die on the job especially by having their heart mutilated by a horn. I can relate.
You have to wonder that at some point the bull comes to the conclusion that something awfully wrong is going on. After about six minutes of galloping around the ring chasing a big pink cape, plowing into an enormous horse and having a lance stuck in its back several times certainly these thoughts must come to mind: “This is not what I planned on doing when I woke this morning.” And he’s right, because in about fifteen minutes, he’ll be dead.
Unless fate has something.
You see, up to this stage, the experts have been eying the animal carefully and pointing out its strong points as well as its weaknesses. They analyze the size of its neck, its horns, its musculature. They watch how it runs, how it charges, how and when it lifts its head, and so on, all to test how it will perform as the encounter progresses. If any major defects appear, i.e., unquestionable signs of weakness, the crowd begins to get restless and protest. They whistle, shout, wave their white handkerchiefs and beg the president for a change. If he agrees, then he tosses a green handkerchief out and the bull gets yanked from the ring. To get him out, a team of steers trots out onto the arena and lure him back into the corral. Disgraced, possibly, but still alive. But he doesn’t know the difference.
This is not the case for most bulls. In a sense, we are at the point of no return. Once you’ve made it that far, there is no turning back.
Stage Two: the banderillas.
Once everything has settled down, the heavy wooden gate swings open and a few seconds later a mammoth beast appears often snorting and looking like it’s ready for business. They usually come out at this point with the cocky attitude that so characterizes them throughout the world, as if to say, “That’s right. I’m bad. What fool is looking to mess with me?” Within a few seconds, though, the true nature and stature of the bull comes to light. Many start charging around wildly at anything that moves, making a great impression on the crowd but at the same time tiring itself out. I can assure you that this is intentional. Others trot around with a look on their face that says, “What the hell is going on here?” Which makes sense, because they have been plucked from some remote field and dumped into an arena surrounded by 20,000 onlookers…looking upon them. And if you’re Ferdinand the Bull, you just sit your butt down and smell the flowers while the matadors futilely try to rouse into chasing them around. I have never quite seen that, but I do recall a couple of occasions in which the animal would wander back to the way it came in…but this time there is a difference: the gate is shut. That kind of bums me out because you can sense that the animal is scared and doesn’y like the looks of things and yet its fate is practically sealed.
Most bulls, however, enjoy a vigorous sprint towards a lare pink cape known as the capote, that’s right, as in Truman. In this preliminary stage, the bull charges full steam at the cape whose owner takes the time to show off a little and at the same observe the behavior of the animal. This is the moment to decide whether or not it should continue…if I were the bull and understood the rules of the game, I know what I’d pick.
So what is bullfighting all about anyway? I mean, what actually happens other than a dozen men dressed in tights taunting an animal with capes and weapons on a hot afternoon until it becomes so weary they are able to stick a sword in its back and through its heart until it dies? A lot, actually. Quite a lot. And it helps to know what they are so as to understand more fully the spectacle. It is a blood sport, a bloody sport no doubt, but one with a lot of technique and bravery involved. If you do not believe me, I invite o step into the ring and stand face to face with an angry bull and then have the guts to say to the world that these men (and sometimes women believe it or not) aren’t putting there lives on the line. Then, and only then, are any doubters are welcome to try and prove me otherwise…By the way, here’s one of my favorites of matador macho man Jose Tomás driving a sword into the bull:
Yes, that’s his body leaning against the animal’s head (no one in their right mind gets that close) and yes, those are the bull’s horns wrapped around his body. Don’t be deceived by the blunted tip of the near horn…with the neck muscles the bull possesses, it could impale him with just a little nudge.
Anyway…back to what I was saying. A normal bullfight consists of the following: 6 bulls taken on by three bullfighters, and, if your mathematics are correct, that comes to two bulls per toreador. It goes like this:
Bullfighter 1 takes on bulls number 1 and 4
Bullfighter 2 takes on bulls number 2 and 5
Bullfighter 3 takes on bulls number 3 and 6
Each bullfight is broken up into three main parts known as tercios, or thirds, but there is a little more to it.
But before that, the show has to begin, which is when all the fanfare marches out onto the sandy arena and greets the crowd and the president of the bullfight. He will be the one who awards any prizes and makes any major decisions regarding procedure. Each torero leads his respective team out of helpers. The blare of brass instruments and the thumping of drumbeats set up the drama for the tension and excitement that is about to unfold. In the center a man turns a pole with a large sign hoisted on it for everyone to see. It informs of the bull’s name, its weight and the ranch from which it comes. While the first can be interesting, the last to bits of information can tell us more. There are ranches and there are ranches, and in San Isidro, not just any one will do. As for the weight, a full grown bull usually weighs in between 500-600 kgs. That’s 1,200-1,500 lbs. That’s a lot of steak, I tell you.
You’ll get more later.
Yesterday a friend asked me if I wanted to go to the bullfights on Sunday and I had to decline, much to my disappointment, because it looks like I just may have to forego a visit to the bullring during San Isidro season this year.
Though not a major enthusiast of the custom, I do appreciate bullfighting, know a thing or two about it, and enjoy a good bullfight from time to time. I fully realize that this means I am condoning slaying an innocent animal as a form of paid entertainment. I do. But that is just one of the mysteries of this world.
Nonetheless, I have to admit there is something naturally unusual in this day and age about a friend asking, “Hey, Brian, would like to go watch six bulls get stabbed to death?”; it’s Something that doesn’t quite jive with the general thinking of today. And yet, bullfighting continues to lure endless numbers of tourists from all over the planet and visions of life.
This comes and doesn’t come as a surprise. There is so much legend and lore shrouding this tradition that people are inevitably drawn to it. There’s also a lot of morbid instinct influencing too. I can’t tell you how many times I have had conversations with people who are clearly defenders of many of the current universal causes – human rights, civil rights, respect for global diversity, save-thises and save-thats, and then out of the blue I heard, “So, my wife and I have bought tickets for the bullfight this afternoon. What do you think?”
“What do I think? I think you’re in for a big shock.” I mean, what would they be expecting? A tag football version of ritual slaughter? No, folks, this is the real thing. You go and will witness how half a dozen animals are rather slowly executed. There will be blood, sometimes plenty of it. And the animal will at times also display unquestionable signs of suffering. “If this is what you are willing to take, then by all means, be my guest. But don’t expect some kind of clever editing that will spare you of the gory details. It’s all there happening before your very eyes and that’s that. There are no two ways around it.”
Invariably, most people return wishing they had not gone in the first place. No, kidding. Still, if you are willing to accept it, then you can move on to the next step of trying to find out just what it is all about. I’ll get to that at a different time.