April 30, 2004

Bullfight World
By Lyn Sherwood

Reflections on the Last ‘Golden Age’

And a Lament For The Current “Bronze Age”

Every era has had its “Golden Age.” The most recent, in both Spain and Mexico, was that of the mid-60s through the mid-80s.

Ah, what a time it was! Spain had the maestro Antonio Ordoñez, perhaps one of the greatest toreros of all time; the “Beatnik Bullfighter” Manuel Benitez “El Cordobés, who was and continues to be the most controversial of all toreros; the great Paco Cam-ino, who couldn’t turn in a bad afternoon if he tried; the master of the verónica “El Viti”; the superb “Torero de Madrid” Antonio Bienvenida; the elegant Gregorio Sánchez, Fermín Murillo, and Antoñete; the frequently punished Diego Puerta; the matador-turned-monk-turned-Matador Mondeño; Julio Aparicio, and so many others, including the forgettable ones, such as the lunatic Fernando Dos Santos.

Mexico still had stars from the 50s (and before), including Luis Procuna; Manuel Capetillo; Rafael Rodriguez, the wonderful matador-turned-rejoneador Carlos Arruza; the master of the cape, “El Calesero”; Antonio Velasquez; Andres Blando, Jorge “Ranchero” Aguilar; Eliseo “El Charro” Gómez; and many others. The greats of the previous era, such as Armillita, Silverio Pérez, and El Soldado, appeared only in charity festivals, but they were magnificent.

THE NUMBER ONE matador of the world was Antonio Ordoñez.

Still filling bullrings was the incredible “Ciclón” Carlos Arruza. Three times, he had retired, and three times, he came back. But, the last time was not as a matador, but as a rejoneador. He was becoming as good on horseback as he had been on the sand when, on May 20, 1966, he was killed in an auto crash.

And, there were the newcomers, including the cute-as-hell Eloy Cavazos; the sable-eyed Antonio Lomelín; the Armillita Brothers; Gabino Aguilar; Antonio Campos “El Imposible”; the irrepressible Jaime Bravo; Mario Sevilla; Mauro Liceaga; Antonio del Olivar; gringos John Fulton, Robert Ryan, Walter de La Brosse, and Diego O’Bolger, soon to be joined by Jeff Ramsey, Richard Corey, Raquel Martinez, and David “El Texano” Renk; Jaime Rangel; the slightly flippant Raul Garcia; the serious Joselito Huerta; Juanito Silveti; Jesus Peralta; Pepe Luis Vásquez; Alfredo Leal; José Ramon Tirado; Raul Contreras “Finito”; the Benitez look-alike Efren Adame “El Cordoméx”; the wonderful “psychedelic torero” Curro Rivera; the incredibly talented Mariano Ramos; Manolo Mejia; “Caleserito”; the potentially great Jesus Solorzano; the terribly underrated Manolo Arruza; the enthusiastic Rogelio Leduc; the diminutive “El Minuto”; Gabriel España; Manolo Mejia; Rejoneadores Gastón Santos and the brothers Felipe and Ernesto Zambrano; and the occasional appearances of South Americans Curro Giron and Pepe Cáceres.

We had our favorite subalternos, too. Picadores El Guero Guadalupe, Sixto Vásquez, Coca Cola, Carmona and Carmona Hijo; banderilleros El Chaval de Orizaba, Flaco Valencia, Ricardo Aguilar, Pinochito, and “El Gripa.”

And, our ganaderías, such as Mimiahuapan, Peñuelas, Tequisquiápan, Piedras Negras, and others.

EL CORDOBES, dubbed “Spain’s Beatnik Bullfighter” when he adorned the cover of Life Magazine, became the most popular and highest-paid matador in the world.

It was Manolo Martinez who set Mexican bullfighting on its heels in the 60s and beyond. Yes, he was controversial. His negative personality interfered with his greatness. But, never has this reporter seen a man so naturally born to be a torero. He was on the verge of becoming one of the world’s greatest when his mentor, Pepe Luis Méndez, was killed in an auto crash and initiated one of the most tragic stories in Mexican bullfighting, a man who had it all, but—due to the lack of proper administration—wasted it on living the high life. After punishing his body for so many years, he finally died, at Scripps Hospital, in La Jolla. Yet, he cut more ears, earned more money, and killed more bulls than any torero in Mexican bullfight history.

Also of special note, is David Silveti, perhaps—at least, in this observer’s opinion—perhaps the greatest Mexican torero who I have ever seen. He had it all. But, injuries plagued him. He committed suicide. His brother, Alejandro, was talented, but never came close to the excellence of David.

In this reporter’s opinion, the best Mexican toreros of the past era have been Manolo Martinez and David Silveti. Could you imagine what would have developed had we been able to combine the natural talent of Martinez with the heart, soul, humility, and integrity of Silveti? Ay!

I’m certain that I’ve left off many names that are still etched in our memories, but which escape that of this aged reporter.

For all intents and purposes, the last Mexican Golden Age came to a close on Oct. 12, 1979, when the last herd of Casablanca bulls was presented in Tijuana. The Casa-blancas—which were the Mexican equivalents of the Spanish Miuras and Túlio Vásquezes—were such tough animals that no Mexican figura—including Manolo Martinez—would face them. I have seen Casablancas accept six or seven pics and still be looking for horses. John Fulton performed with the last six herds of them, but for political reasons, he was still not permitted to confirm his alternativa in La Plaza Mexico. What a waste!

‘EL PRINCIPE’ Alfredo Leal was one of the most honest toreros in Mexico.

On that Oct. 12 date, in Plaza Monumental, illegal pics were used, to try to discount the bravery of the Casablanca bulls. Saying that he could no longer fight the “Mexican Mafia”, Ganadero/Empre-sario Major Salvador López Hurtado then shot and killed all of his seed bulls.

And, that brings us to the current era. Spain is on the precipice of another Golden Age, with toreros such as Enrique Ponce, “El Juli”, Rivera Ordoñez, and many others, filling the rings and earning as much as $100,000 per afternoon. The biggest problem in Spain is the public’s demand for bigger and bigger bulls, animals that fall down because they can’t support their own weights.

But, Mexico’s La Fiesta Brava is in the doldrums. Oh, sure, we still have the old timers, such as Eloy Cavazos, Jorge Gutierrez, and Armillita Chico, who —in spite of being rather long of tooth— continue to do their thing. For certain, we have some fine toreros in Mexico, but they pale in comparison to most of the Spaniards. The Mexican “número uno” is probably El Zotoluco, because of his excellent seasons in Spain, but although technically excellent, he isn’t the most exciting, or even the most artistic, matador that we’ve ever seen. Rafael Ortega is, by far, a more artistic torero, but only when he’s appearing in interior plazas; otherwise, along the frontiers, he usually allows tremendismo to overwhelm his performances.

Fernando Ochoa is a wonderful torero, but political problems have kept him from progressing beyond working many bloodless bullfights in the United States. Amaya presents a decent hope, but has yet to really set the world on fire. El Zapata is a fine torero, reminiscent of Raul Garcia, but his performances are mostly limited to the small towns. There’s José Luevano and a few others, including Geronimo. But, the truth remains: only a Spanish matador can fill most Mexican plazas de toros. And, outside of Cavazos, they are the only ones who earn a decent wage in Mexico.

What has happened to Mexican toreo? Well, as the Chinese philosopher once noted, “The fish smells at the head”. Those in charge, those who look upon an afternoon of the bulls as nothing more than an opportunity to sell beer, are those who must be held accountable. The goose that laid the golden egg is terminal.

La Plaza Mexico is closed, most of the season, due to political problems and constant charges of presenting as genuine toros, underage, underweight, shaved novillos. Most Mexican novilleros must purchase all of their opportunities. There are few, if any, novilladas without picadores, which are the principal training and learning grounds for Spanish novilleros. Mexican novilleros who show any promise are rushed, prematurely, into their alternativas. There are no decent taurine schools in Mexico. Fine toreros, such as Fernando and Antonio Sánchez, Fermin Armillita, Mauricio Portillo, El Zapata, and several others aren’t afforded enough opportunities to have a decent chance at stardom. “Indultitis” is a scourge that is infecting the entire republic. If a bull performs the way that a toro bravo should, the public immediately demands that the life-sparing indulto be granted. Empresarios have too much influence over plaza judges.

Much of the taurine press is corrupt. In far too many cases, it’s not what a matador does in the arena, but how much he has bribed the critics, that get him good reviews and coverage.

Is there an answer? Well, a problem is only something for which a solution exists. But, under the current circumstances in Mexico, no solution will be allowed to emerge. Mexico needs a star, but will not allow one to emerge.

Alas, Poor La Fiesta Brava. I knew it.

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