THE LAST SPORT OF KINGS
THE LAST SPORT OF KINGS
In March 1993, I went to Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico for the
bullfighting season. The sun was merciless, much like the deadly spectacle
about to unfold. Jugglers, fire eaters, sword swallowers, and stilt walkers
entertained the traffic for pesos handed out windows, before finding
parking outside the stadium. Cars snaked their way past geyser water
fountains and topiary bushes of matadors and bulls. The precisely clipped
shrubs seemed almost alive in perfection.
The bullfighting ring was circular, seats tiered far up into the sky
on all sides. The shady side, la sombra, was more expensive, but well
worth it. Beer and sodas in ice filled buckets, mouth watering tacos and
tamales, tequila, wine in goat skins, miniature bullfighters and bulls were
all hawked in a cacophony of sound. A Mexican orchestra filled the air
with mariachi ballads. The sound of coronets and trumpets signaled the
parade or paseillo, before the cuadrilla or entourage entered the deadly
The parade was a blaze of color, with costumed marching men
and animals. A charro wearing an immaculate sombrero rode a
magnificent cream gray stallion leading the procession, followed by three
matadors, the toreadors, the banderilleros, and the picadors. These men
all waved and smiled to the crowd. They were followed by the cleanup
crew, dressed in red livery jackets, red caps, and white pants leading
three flower bedecked mules. A hush of anticipation followed their exit.
The horns blared Paso doble in perfect unison to signal the first fight.
The bull thundered down a narrow alley into the ring, hooking
horns left and right. It looked enraged and pawed the ground with its
hoofs, looking for someone or thing to charge and bury its horns in. With
large flaming red capes, three toreadors lured the bull around the ring.
This displayed the bull to the crowd. Each man shook a cape, as the bull
charged they stepped behind a wooden partition and let the next toreador
take over. Sometimes the bull would crash into the wall. Narrow escapes
were common for the toreadors, if they misjudged the bull’s speed or
temper. The bulls used for this day were famous for being unpredictable
and ferocious. Only the week before a bull from the same rancho had
tossed a toreador into the fifth row of seats, luckily it was with the head
and no horns pierced the man.
Riding a blindfolded horse and carrying a lance or pike, the
picador entered the ring next. He was a massive, muscular man wearing a
round gaucho-style hat and a black jacket trimmed in gold sequins. The
horse’s body was protected by a thick padded blanket. The picador wore
metal leg and foot armor and huge spurs. He resembled a partially
assembled medieval knight, minus the shirt of mail and helmet. Toreadors
stood alert to distract the bull, should the picador be rammed and
dislodged from his mount.
The bull charged at full gallop, there was a tremendous crunching
impact as the bull banged into the horse. It was sickening, as the horse
staggered and whinnied in pain, baring its teeth in agony and terror.
Horses were known to fall and die from this initial impact, but this horse
stood its ground. The picador plunged his lance between the bull’s
shoulders, guiding his mount with his thighs. He worked the lance back
and forth in stabbing motion, gouging the wound. Blood spurted and
dribbled down the sides of the bull, spraying the picador and horse. Urine
squirted from the bull’s penis, its long pink gray tongue hung from its
mouth. The bull was weakened and mad. The picador rode from the ring
to great cheers.
Wearing tight fitting sparkling gold and white jackets and pants,
two banderilleros entered the ring. Their movements had to be lithe, with
twists and turns and swiftness of foot. They would be exposed to extreme
danger. With colorful, short dart-like spears called banderillas in each
hand, they danced in front of the bull. Enticing the bull close enough for
them to pierce it with their short metal darts, this weakened the bull and
infuriated it. The stamina of the animal determined the amount of
banderillas required. Sometimes it could be as few as four or as many as
twelve. If the bull hooked unexpectedly a banderillero could be killed
instantly. Most wounds were to the buttocks, stomach, or thighs. The
toreadors, stood by much like rodeo clowns for distraction, armed only
with capes and courage. In this deadly joust between man and beast,
anything was likely.
As the toreadors left to wild applause, the matador or killer, mata
meaning to kill, entered. Dazzling sunlight reflected off his diamond
sequined jacket. Black gleaming hair tied in a knot behind his head and
velvety hat. Skin tight satin pants and what appeared to be ballet slippers
completed his attire. Pacing the ring with a strut and a look of macho
defiance, he examined the audience and ignored the bull. Slowly removing
his hat, he occasionally smiled or bowed his head at a beautiful woman.
With cape, voice, body movements, and eyes the matador
controls the bull, trying to take command of its soul, if it has one.
Teaching, training, and learning at the same time, he entices the beast.
With Veronica butterfly-like cape maneuvers, the man and bull become
one. On its first reckoning and subsequent pass, the bull’s horns miss the
man by only by a hair. The crowd goes crazy, screaming olé with every
charge. After sufficient display of courage and skill, the matador asks for
the muleta and estoque, the small cape and sword. He does several more
dangerous tricks, going down on one knee and turning his back on the
charging bull, in feigned contempt, only to evade death by a second.
Finally he takes his crucifix from his shirt and kisses it, luring the bull for
its final charge. The matador faces the animal as it gains speed, he takes
the killing stance, cocking one knee and placing the weight of his foot
upon the ball. Reaching between the charging bull’s horns, he slides the
gleaming steel sword into the bull’s spine. Blood spurts high in the air and
the bull’s front legs buckle. It drops to one side and dies in less than a
minute. The crowd is on its feet, the matador salutes them with the
bloody sword. They await the judge’s decision.
The cleanup crew scurries forth, the bull’s horns are
unceremoniously wrapped in chains and the flower bedecked mules drag
the carcass away. The dead animal no longer holds any interest, it is only
food now. Men rake and shovel the blood and urine into carts. Smoothing
the trampled earth and redrawing the fighting arena with sprinkled white chalk.
The charro rides into the ring after a bull to pass on the judge’s
decision of awards to each matador. Most corridas consist of three
matadors fighting two bulls a piece, as in most sporting events the best is
usually saved for last. Today, the first three encounters were mostly
routine, some good cape work and clean kills. This elicited enthusiastic
cheering from the crowd, but no awards were given.
The fourth bull was enormous and it charged like an enraged
rhino. A toreador waved his cape at it and stepped behind a wooden
partition. The bull crashed into the wall so hard its left horn exploded in a
splinter of wood. The bull’s horn was split and smashed, hanging like a
ragged whisk-broom. This only infuriated the animal more. The picador’s
horse was almost gored to death by the one remaining horn. The damaged
horn was just a ragged bleeding stump. The banderilleros used twelve
banderillas. Almost everything that could go wrong did. The matador used
five swords, never placing one in the correct place. The ring, the bull, and
the men were a bloody mess. Finally the judges sent forth a picador with a
huge dagger. He drove it into the bull’s brain and ended the catastrophe.
In the fifth fight the picador and banderilleros must have bled the
bull into a much weakened state. The bull was staggering after only two
banderillas. As the matador entered the ring, the bull stumbled down on
one front leg. The matador was furious, he asked for the killing sword
after only three charges. The bull was in a daze, the matador slapped it on
the ass, to the cheering of the crowd. The killing thrust was perfect,
blood engulfed the matador’s hand and arm up to the elbow. The judges
awarded him one ear, he marched around the ring, holding his trophy
Anticipation prevailed for the final spectacle. Paco Doddoli, a
world class matador was to perform last. His first bull, he put away easily
and with finesse, making it look like mere child’s play. The last bull was a
monster, snorting and pawing the earth, like a runaway freight train. The
picador and banderilleros went through their motions, having been
warned not to weaken the bull too much. Doddoli’s cape work was
magnificent and flawless. Shouts of olé filled the air, as the bull passed
dangerously close. On the sixth pass the crowd looked on in awe, as the
bull gored a furrow of blood down the matador’s arm and took away part
of his sleeve on the end of its horn. Women were standing, clutching their
chests. Men looked on smiling, some with moist eyes in admiration. The
cape work was a choreographed symmetry of man and death. The
matador thought he owned the bull, until his confidence must have
overpowered his judgment. The bull unexpectedly hooked his horn,
catching the cape and throwing Doddoli off balance. The bull tossed its
head, its horn burying in the matador’s thigh, throwing him backwards
into the air.
Everyone was standing in absolute silence and watching in
fascinated horror. The matador was in big trouble and could be gored to
death in a fraction of a second. Somehow he regained his footing and
limped and danced out of his predicament. Asking for the sword early was
tempting fate, but Doddoli did just that. The aficionados shook their
heads in disbelief. The bull charged and he didn’t move a muscle. Horns
surrounded his unflinching body on either side, as he sheathed the razor
sharp sword into the killing spot. Blood gushed and spewed out, soaking
both man and animal. The bull swayed for a few seconds, before toppling
over, not realizing it was dead.
Time slowed and came to a stop, the bull was down, and
pandemonium broke out. The crowd screamed, stomped, wept, howled,
laughed, and danced in approval. Sombreros, cowboy hats, roses, money,
and wine skins were flung into the ring. The matador was awarded both
ears and the tail. He tilted back a wine skin and let a stream of burgundy
Mexican wine disappear past his white shining teeth. An adrenalin cloud
floated up from the ring and disappeared into the heavens.
©2012 This work is the property of the author.