Bullfighting basics: It's not a competition, it's a show
Stars and Stripes June 19, 2003
American author James Michener once wrote that a bullfight is a “theatrical display, not a sport.”
Many people who have never attended a corrida, or bullfight, have the misconception that it is a competition.
But those who have a fondness for the event say it is more, as Michener wrote in his book “Iberia,” like a ballet on sand or a play with three acts.
Bullfight aficionados affectionately regard the ritual as an art that should be appreciated.
While animal-rights activists would certainly disagree, bullfighting continues to draw crowds. Although even many Spaniards oppose bullfighting for its cruelty, it lives on in Spain and matadors are considered celebrities.
A trip to Pamplona, where writer and bullfighting enthusiast Ernest Hemingway often visited, would not be complete without seeing one bullfight.
The running of the bulls is just one part of the city’s famous San Fermín festival.
“You have to see the bulls run, run with the bulls or see a bullfight to appreciate San Fermín and really have fun,” said Jeffrey Rath, a California professor who runs with the bulls every year and attends the bullfights.
There is much more to a bullfight than most people think.
While it is possible to attend a bullfight and enjoy it for its pageantry, to truly appreciate it, you have to understand the different parts and the customs that go along with the Spanish tradition.
Most people who attend a bullfight for the first time are dismayed by the fact that it isn’t a fair fight. Although the bull occasionally gores a matador, the bull is supposed to lose.
If a bullfight is a play, the script calls for the toro to die in the last act.
A complete bullfight always has six bulls and three matadors. In Pamplona, during the fiesta, the six fighting bulls that run the street route in the morning ceremoniously meet their fate in the late afternoon.
Each bullfight is broken down into stages, or tercios.
Each stage is designed to slowly sap the strength of the bull, leading to his scripted death.
The first stage begins when the bull charges out from the darkness of its pen to the blinding brightness in the center of the ring.
The matador or one of his assistants, called peones, usually greets the bull to scout how it reacts, its speed and its tendencies. The job of the peones is simply to play with the bulls with their capes so the matador can see how the bull turns and uses its horns.
After the matador has gone to school on the bull, a horseman with a lance, called a picadore, enters the ring. He attempts to draw the bull to the side of the horse, which is padded, so he can drive the steel-pointed lance into the bull’s meaty upper shoulder. The aim is to weaken the bull’s back muscles. The darts typically are decorated with colorful ribbons and remain in the bull’s back until the final stage.
In rare cases, the matador plants the darts. For example, the prodigious Spanish matador Julian Lopez, “El Juli,” who is only 20, usually sticks in the pairs of banderillas by himself.
On the sixth day of the San Fermín festival, he did just that. He stood at one end of the ring, waited for the right moment and charged at the bull. At the last second, he stepped to one side and plunged the banderillas into the bull’s back, drawing a roar from the crowd.
The main purpose of the darts is not really to weaken the bull, but to prevent it from hooking when it passes the matador in the third stage.
The final stage is the moment of fate for the bull.
The third tercio begins with the matador taking off his hat and asking permission from the president to kill the bull. Sometimes the matador will flip his hat onto the sand. If it lands right side up, it is supposed to be good luck.
This is the climax of the bullfight and the time in which the matador can really show his skills.
He uses his muleta, a small red cape, to bring the bull closer to him for a series of passes. After nearly every pass, the crowd shouts “Olé!” If he performs a perfect pass, the band sometimes strikes out a tune. The matador will do dozens of passes to delight the crowd.
When the bull is at its weakest, the matador will stop and switch his wooden sword for a steel one.
The matador uses his cape to square the bull. The goal is to get the bull to charge, bowing his head down so the matador can drive the sword into a small section in the bull’s back — between the cervical vertebra and into the heart — to deliver the final blow.
If the sword is put in successfully, the peones rush in and attempt to get the bull to chase their capes to the point when it collapses and dies. On a few occasions the bull doesn’t die, coughs up blood in a horrible display that will make first-time spectators wince. In those cases, a dagger is used to kill the bull and horses drag the animal out of the ring.
If the matador did well, he will parade around the ring to a rain of flowers and offers to drink wine from a bota bag. If he does poorly, spectators boo him and sometimes shower him with flying seat cushions thrown into the ring like Frisbees.
As a final trophy, the president of the bullfight determines whether the matador should be honored with one or both of the bull’s ears or the tail. When “El Juli” performed in Pamplona, the president honored him with two ears, a photo of which was published in nearly every paper covering the corrida.
There are a few times when the bull lives because the president has determined that the brave bull should be spared. The bull is then allowed to return to the farm and live life as a stud.
Those who aren’t as lucky are taken to the butcher — the final act in the four-year lifetime of the toro bravo.