Bullfighting has been called Spain's favorite sport. But to call it this is wrong for two reasons: first, soccer (called fútbol in Spain) is the most popular sport; and second, bullfighting cannot really be called a sport. It should be called, more properly, a spectacle, an exhibition, or a performance, like a ballet. However, this ballet is like dancing on a tightrope, because if the bullfighter makes a mistake, he is likely to be injured or killed.

A bullfight is not really a contest between a man and a bull. Actually it is a contest between a man and himself. The audience goes to the ring to see a man conquer his own fear of the horns and take as many chances with the bull as possible. The men who most gracefully execute the most daring maneuvers become the stars.

Bullfighting is one of the few ways a poor boy can become rich and famous in Spain and Latin America--and many matadores have become millionaires. But for every successful matador, there are hundreds who have fallen by the wayside and are forgotten. Many do not have the necessary grace and skill. Some are crippled by the bulls, and some are killed.

How Did Bullfighting Begin?

Bullfighting has existed in one form or another for more than 2,000 years. The ancient Cretans used to perform what they called bull dancing. Both men and women would leap over the bulls' horns in graceful, reckless exhibitions.

One of the reasons that Spain has been the leading place for bullfighting is that the fighting bull first lived there. Bullfighting cannot be done with ordinary animals. It requires the special toro de lidia, or toro bravo, which is as different from a domestic bull as a cobra is from a gopher snake, or a wolf is from a dog. For centuries, herds of these fierce bulls roamed wild over Spain. The Romans imported them for their savage battles against men and other animals in the Colosseum. The bulls usually won, even when pitted against lions and tigers. The Arabs in Spain helped make bullfighting popular around the early 12th century. In those days the spectacle consisted of a skillful horseman killing a wild bull with a lance while guiding his horse so as to avoid injury both to his mount and to himself. It is said that the famous cavalier El Cid was the first Spaniard to take part in organized bullfighting in an arena.

Bullfighting quickly became very popular, and for centuries rich Moors and Christians, nobles, and even kings practiced it. No feast day was complete without a corrida de toros.

The common people used to help the nobles fight the bulls, but they did so on foot. They used capes to distract the bull and keep it from charging at their bodies. Little by little this became the more exciting part of the act, and the ritual developed as we know it today.



The Arena and the Toreros

The first thing a person sees in the plaza de toros, or arena, is the gaily dressed and excited crowd. When the band strikes up, toreros stride into the arena and parade around it while the aficionados, or fans, cheer.

All people who fight bulls are called toreros. The matadores are the stars of the show, and there are usually three in an afternoon's program. Each one has two picadores and three banderilleros to help him. It is old-fashioned and incorrect to refer to bullfighters as toreadores. (The "toreador" of Bizet's opera Carmen is actually a matador.)





The Contest

The men stride across the sand of the arena, and then the ring is cleared and the bull charges in. The bull has not been trained or tortured or starved; yet, because of its centuries of breeding, it knows it is supposed to fight. A banderillero will run out and swirl his cape a few times in front of the animal to demonstrate to his matador how this particular animal charges, since each bull has a different style of fighting.

Now the matador goes out. Where the banderillero was awkward and stayed safely away from the bull's horns, the matador, being the star, must stand very close to the animal. He swings the cape gracefully and lets the horns slice just by his legs. On each pass that the matador performs well, the crowd yells and cheers. If the matador bends over awkwardly and steps back out of the path of the bull as the banderillero did, the crowd boos loudly. The audience would like to see the bullfighters behave exactly opposite from the way they would behave if they had to stand in front of a huge bull with only a cape for protection. The bull goes at the cloth not because it is red, but because the matador knows just how to shake the cape to attract the animal and make it go at the lure instead of his body. The cape is yellow on one side and red on the other, but because bulls are color-blind, it makes no difference which side the matador presents to the animal.

After the matador does several passes, called verónicas, a trumpet blows and the picadores enter on horseback. They prick the bull with their lances in order to weaken his neck muscles. They do this so that at the end the matador will be able to reach over the horns and place the sword blade where it should go--between the bull's shoulder blades. The horses have been safely padded since 1930, so there is less chance that they will be injured by the charging bull.

Next, each of the three banderilleros places two banderillas ("barbed sticks") in the animal's shoulders. These further weaken the bull's neck muscles.

Finally the matador goes out with the sword and a little cape called the muleta. This is the most dangerous time of the fight, in spite of the fact that the bull is tired. There have been about 125 great matadores since 1700, and 42 of them have been killed, generally during this part of the bullfight. This is because the little cape is so small, the bull has learned so much during the course of the fight, and the man must make his most dangerous passes at this time.





The Kill

Killing the bull, called "the moment of truth," is the most dangerous maneuver of all. The man must run at the bull at the same time that the bull runs at him, and plunge the sword between the shoulder blades. When this is done correctly, the bull will drop over dead almost instantly.

If the matador has done his job well, the crowd applauds, and he is awarded the ear of the bull as a trophy. If he has done a superior job, he is given both ears and the tail. The meat of the bulls is sometimes given to the poor, but usually the animals are butchered in back of the arena and sold for steaks.

Joselito and Manolete, two of the greatest bullfighters of the 20th century, were killed by bulls. Joselito died when he was only 25; Manolete at the age of 30. Many other matadores, like the great Antonio Ordóñez and El Cordobés of Spain, have been severely injured in the bullring. The ambition of most bullfighters, who usually come from poor families, is to make enough money to buy a bull ranch and retire at about the age of 30.

The best fights in Spain are held in Madrid, Seville, Valencia, and Málaga during the spring and summer. In Latin America the best fights can be seen in Mexico City or Lima, Peru. In Portugal the only ring of importance is in Lisbon.

Barnaby Conrad
Author, La Fiesta Brava, The Death of Manolete