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.