Search

ONLY THE BRAVE

Jan. 17, 1955
Jan. 17, 1955

Table of Contents
Jan. 17, 1955

Pat On The Back
  • A salute to those who have earned the good opinion of the world of sport, if not yet its tallest headlines

Table of Contents
The Wonderful World Of Sport
Soundtrack
Spectacle
  • Bullfighting is a spectacle of violence. Some who watch it are revolted; others are enthralled. Here, in words and eight pages of superb color pictures, SI shows what a bullfight is: blood and fury against grace and courage, a supreme test for animal and man, a moment of truth known to

Sport In Art
Tip From The Top
Sporting Look
Bowling
Under 21
Snow Patrol
Fisherman's Calendar
Acknowledgments
Health
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

ONLY THE BRAVE

Bullfighting is a spectacle of violence. Some who watch it are revolted; others are enthralled. Here, in words and eight pages of superb color pictures, SI shows what a bullfight is: blood and fury against grace and courage, a supreme test for animal and man, a moment of truth known to

He is the enemy. He is a bull—big, perhaps 1,000 pounds of lightning speed and smashing power. The whole top of his neck is a tossing muscle capable of flinging a horse into the air. The muscle flexes and humps tight when he is angry. He comes trotting out of his dark box into the bright sunlight of the ring, head up, looking nervously about. He charges and the sand sings under his feet.

This is an article from the Jan. 17, 1955 issue Original Layout

In Mexico City now the high season for killing this bull is at hand. All the campaigning in the country's 200 provincial bull rings—in one of which, Tijuana, Photographer Mark Kauffman took the brilliant series of bullfight pictures shown on the following pages—comes to a grand climax in the big, 50,000-seat Plaza Mexico, the largest bull ring in the world. The young bulls, fought here from spring until December, have been swept away. The plaza has been spruced up; the statues of the famous bullfighters of the past have been properly burnished; the band has been practicing new trumpet trills to go with the traditional Spanish two-steps. And for the season the impresario, Dr. Alfonso Gaona, a good optometrist turned much better bullfight promoter, has assembled some of the best of the world's current crop of officially invested Killers of Bulls:

Cézar Girón, the cheerful, tousle-headed Venezuelan, will be there. He failed to impress Mexico last year but since then he has cut 109 ears, 39 tails and 10 hoofs from 108 bulls in Spanish plazas, collected a whopping $60,000 for just three afternoons' work in oil-rich Caracas, and become about the hottest thing in the bull ring.

Present also will be Rafael Rodriguez, the young Mexican. He is shown on the cover taking a bull past his exposed body in a right-hand muleta, pass, and on pages 36 and 37, killing volapié (in running flight). He is very knowledgeable, very cool, very brave, a student of Fermin Espinosa (Armillita Chico), who once fought bulls with a cold, almost mathematical precision. In his great days Armillita could mark a small cross in the sand far from the bull, hold up three fingers in a signal to the crowd, and then in three passes bring the bull swirling and snorting to a stop with his front foot planted firmly on the little cross.

Another to appear will be Amado Ramirez, the phenomenon of Mexico's recent novice season. He makes his passes with a stylized, classical grace that catches crowds by the throat, and if he proves, now that he has become a full-fledged bullfighter, that he can manage the bigger bulls he may, everything in this world being possible, turn out to be great.

Don Alfonso will pay these young men, and the other stars now gathered in Mexico, from $4,000 to $6,000 per appearance, and since theirs is a year-round business, carried on in countries in which income taxes are matters for gentle laughter, they take home very large sums indeed—Manolete netted $250,000 yearly for his Mexico City appearances alone—larger than those of any other professional athlete in the world. The bullfighter who survives at or near the top for eight or 10 years can expect to buy his own castle in Spain or Mexico's elegant Jalisco and settle in very comfortably.

Don Alfonso has also searched the breeding farms for brave bulls, offering prices of from $500 to $1,000 per animal. He takes the biggest and hottest-tempered beasts he can find, buying them up in braces of eight—six for fighting and two for spares. Don Alfonso and his customers are finicky; they are never completely satisfied by his bull-shopping tours. Sometimes Don Alfonso has even been known to fight small animals himself in privacy just to see what it feels like when horns come close. He once was gored while engaging in this pastime, and since few promoters are ever gored, morale among the bullfighters rose hilariously.

For the past three years Don Alfonso has received no bulls from La Punta bull-breeding ranch, Mexico's biggest, whose bulls are shown fighting on these pages. La Punta's peppery owners, Don Paco and Don Pepe Madrazo, are furiously angry with the impresario for selling the reservations to their traditional seats in Plaza Mexico to former U.S. Ambassador Bill O'Dwyer and others, and they won't sell him any bulls. Even so, from now until the end of April six large and indignant animals from one ranch or another will be present and ceremoniously slain at Plaza Mexico every Sunday afternoon, beginning promptly at 4 o'clock.

THE CLASSIC "THIRDS"

The Spanish historian, Don José Maria de Cossio, has written: "The festival of bullfighting is not merely a pastime, debatable from moral, pedagogical, esthetic and sentimental points of view but [is] a fact of profound meaning in the Spanish way of life and possessing roots so deep and extensive that there is no social or artistic activity, from the language to industry or commerce, where traces of it cannot be found." Anyone who has ever watched a Spanish businessman flourish his pen like a sword over a contract that puts his whole fortune at stake, or had his speeding automobile breathtakingly "passed across the chest" by a small boy with a bit of a rag, will understand exactly what Don José Maria means. Wherever the Spanish writ once ran there are people, not the majority of people but many people, who passionately want to see bulls killed beautifully in the classic "thirds" of the ring—the Third of the Pics, the Third of the Banderillas and the Third of Death.

Nowadays they want to see it done with the slow, low, graceful, death-teasing techniques evolved in this century by Rafael Gomez y Ortega (El Gallo), the Precursor; Juan Belmonte, the Prophet; and the Gods Jose Gomez y Ortega (Joselito), El Gallo's brother, and Manuel Rodriguez (Manolete). These, and two others who helped evolve cape and banderilla forms—Rodolfo Gaona, a simple Mexican, and Marcial Lalanda, a sophisticated Madrileno—made modern bullfighting. After them there is little to tell save anecdotes—how Armillita Chico was the least gored bullfighter and Luis Freg the most, and precisely how Antonio Mantes suffered his final wounds while sitting atop a bull's horns, and the fact that two of the greatest, Joselito and Manolete, were also killed by the bulls.

But alive or dead the greatest have all left ghosts in the ring to haunt young bullfighters. Girón and Rafael Rodriguez are good bullfighters and there will be fine bullfights in Plaza Mexico this season, but how is a young fellow going to light the eyes of an old man who, 40 years ago, saw Juan Belmonte, Joselito and Rodolfo Gaona all on the same card? Or how set fire to a town that only six years ago burned to the mastery of Manolete, the Monster, greatest of them all?

Sunday after Sunday, with tickets costing up to $300 each, Manolete would pack the 50,000-seat arena until the merchants, who themselves were letting their insurance lapse rather than miss a single corrida, protested that all the money was being drained out of the national economy and into the bull ring.

He was slim, unsmiling, with a tragic air about him. Perhaps it was partly drilled into him by a shrewd manager, for bullfighting is a cynical business at best, and perhaps it was partly born in his own spirit, for he could see the end coming.

He would stand in front of the bull, the thousands around him dead silent, sword in his right hand, and offer the muleta with his left, low, inches to the left of his thigh and groin. The bull would charge and there would be one agonized grunt of "olé" from 50,000 throats and then silence again as he turned to face the bull. The tension would build, bit by bit, tighter and tighter, until he killed the bull, and then people would explode. Crying men would throw their hats and coats into the ring. Shivering women would throw their undergarments to him as he walked in sad triumph around the ring. He would pick them up and, with a gesture half salute, half as if about to drink a toast, throw them back to their owners. But there would be no smile; just the same somber look with which, at Linares, Spain, on Aug. 28, 1947, he killed a Miura bull in the same instant that the bull mortally wounded him.

Afterward his rivals, the Mexican Carlos Arruza, and the Catalonian Luis Miguel Gonzalez (Dominguin), carried on for awhile, then retired. New young stars, Miguel Baez (Litri III), and Julio Aparicio, arose and things seemed almost the same. The matadores were bringing the bulls in closer and closer until suddenly Antonio Mejias (Bienvenida), head of the bullfighters union and descendant of a long line of Mejias bullfighters all calling themselves Bienvenida, blew the whistle. In Spain corrupt managers and promoters were shaving a few centimeters off the bulls' horns before each fight. As a result the bulls were not only slow to strike with the cut horns but when they did they were apt to misjudge the thrust needed to connect. New regulations were promptly set up requiring post-mortems by registered veterinarians on all dead bulls, with heavy fines when any were found horn-shaven. Thereupon casualty figures began to mount; there was an average of one serious goring in every four bullfights in Spain last year, and two bullfighters were killed. But it was honest.

It is, perhaps, hard to understand. Many Americans will see some part of the bullfighting proceedings in Mexico or in Spain this year. Most will turn away from the blood and pain, utterly revolted; an attitude, it should be hastily explained, that is perfectly normal; in fact it is shared by many Spaniards and Mexicans. Others will recognize in the elaborate formalism of the bull ring the need for a special knowledge, somewhat like the special knowledge one must take to the ballet or to a baseball game; their interest will drift off. Some, following recent literary trends, will swallow their squeamishness and declare themselves delighted. A few, having had the good luck of running up against a good bullfight first crack out of the box, will fall enraptured and become aficionados. Unfortunately this is usually the first step toward becoming a villamelon, a boastful fellow who loftily pretends a highly dubious expertese in the ancient arts of tauromachy. In fact the new aficionado will soon discover that he has joined a cult whose members spend their time, while the bulls snort in the background, disdainfully sniffing at one another.

NINE WISE MEN

In Mexico City's Tupinamba cafe, which is comparable to New York's Lindy's, the Nine Wise Men, all elderly gentlemen who broadcast to the nation every Sunday night on what they thought of the bullfight Sunday afternoon, sometimes invite SI Reporter Rafael Delgado Lozano to voice an opinion—but within limits. At 46, Rafael is judged far too young to speak of any bullfighter who has not worked within the past 20 years. Let him say one word comparing what he saw in the afternoon to what he has heard Joselito used to do, and his hosts will throw him out. They even snoot Impresario Gaona, telling him, politely enough, that he is a mere Barnum, a panderer to the masses, with no true understanding of how to bring bull and bullfighter together in perfect combination, like a rare old wine and an even rarer old cheese.

This horrible snobbism reaches its height in the porra and contra-porra, the shirt-sleeved gentry of bullfighting's left-field bleachers who occupy the sun-drenched seats on either side of the judges. They express their opinions brutally. They make shocking references to intimate parts of the human body. But always and inevitably, their attention, their emotion, the compelling force of those demanding and bestowing instincts which center in the guts, will finally focus on the bull.

He is implacable, magnificent. He may spot a piece of paper floating down from the crowd. He will spear it on one horn and rip it to shreds with two angry shakes of his head. Seeing the profferred cape of one of the bullfighter's assistants he charges, head down and horn hooking. From behind a fence the bullfighter nervously studies him: does he charge straight? Which horn does he favor?

He is death; and therein lies his final fascination. The crowd, shrill and excited, looks at him and shivers. And then, to conquer death, to bring him to his knees with grace and beauty, the matador steps swiftly into the ring.

In Plaza Mexico the porra and contra-porra remember the day they jeered the great Manolete for refusing to place banderillas, and assigning the job to one of his assistants. He took the bull directly before his critics. There he executed one of the most beautiful and dangerous passes in bullfighting—the natural. It is dangerous because the cloth is in the bullfighter's left hand and the sword, which must remain always in his right, cannot be used to spread the cloth wider. The bull comes very close. Manolete did this with slow, certain grace; but it differed from many others he did during his career in this way. Not once as the bull roared past him did he look at it.

He was staring with cold contempt up into the seats at the people who had jeered him. They gasped. Still with his head back, staring up at the people, he turned and brought the bull by again. That wrenched the first "olé" from the crowd. Nine times he passed that bull and not once did he look at it. Then, fixing it in one spot, he turned for one last stare. He touched his body, where, according to Spanish mythology, human courage resides. Then he turned and killed the bull.

SIX ILLUSTRATIONSROBERT RIGERILLUSTRATION

SIX CLASSIC PASSES

WITH CAPE

VERONICA
This is basic pass with which control is established over the bull. Some say the name derives from St. Veronica, often pictured similarly holding the cloth with which she wiped Jesus' face.

FAROL
The farol is a fancier veronica. It starts as a veronica, then the bullfighter swirls the cape around his head and behind his back, with the bull following it closely around.

REBOLERA
The rebolera is a pass used to end a series of veronicas in spectacular grace. Letting one end of the cape balloon completely free, the bullfighter spins and brings the bull to a halt.

WITH MULETA

POR ALTO
Working sword in hand at the opening of the final phase of the fight, the bullfighter sends the bull chasing the muleta toward the sky in a pase por alto, thus further weakening his neck.

NATURAL
The pase natural, done with the left hand very close to the bull, is the fundamental pass of the bullfight, very dangerous and very beautiful.

POR PECHO
The pase por pecho, which is shown here in its final phase, is the classic ending to a series of naturales, with the bullfighter sending the bull across his chest and straight on out.