Publish date:


The great Dominguin, the great Girón—and a ghost—meet in the bull ring

Over twisting mountain roads, 60 miles from the capital city of Caracas, lies the lovely little Venezuelan city of Maracay. It is not easy to reach, not even easy to find on your map. Yet one day last week Maracay was the focus of the Spanish-speaking world—and of men everywhere who are drawn to the encounter of the matador and the fighting bull.

For in the world today two matadors stand together as the greatest. Never until last week had they matched their talents directly against one another in hand-to-hand (mano a mano) competition. Last week Spain's Luis Miguel Dominguin, 30, and Latin America's César Girón, 22, had an appointment in Maracay.

Their ages and temperaments whetted expectations. Dominguin was born, as Spanish-speaking people say, to silken diapers. He is the son of a famous Spanish family of matadors and bull-ring impresarios. When he retired, a multimillionaire, three years ago, he was the world's acknowledged Numero Uno. César Girón's diapers were old flour sacks. The son of a Venezuelan carpenter, he began life hawking peanuts on the streets of Caracas. But after Dominguin retired, Girón fought his way to the very top.

I had come from Mexico, two thousand miles away, to watch them decide which, now that Dominguin has returned to the ring, is Numero Uno. And, like everybody else within the confines of Maracay, I had come to watch for a ghost, the ghost of Manolete, the greatest bullfighter of them all.

Nine years ago Manolete was alive, 30 years old and the king of the plazas. The pushing young rival then was the 21-year-old Dominguin. In one bullfight after another, pressed by Dominguin, Manolete carried the fighting closer and closer to the bull's horns, anxiously trying to reprove something that had been proved a long while before, that he was forever the best. Then one afternoon at Linares, Spain, with Dominguin in the same ring, Manolete came too close to the horns. Next morning, hopelessly bleeding from wounds in his viscera, Manolete died, and cast the Spanish world into long mourning.

The hand to hand between Dominguin and Girón would have packed the plazas of Madrid, Barcelona and Mexico City with crowds up to 50,000. But, thanks to Venezuela's prosperity, the test fell to Maracay, and its little 8,000-seat Moorish jewel of a plaza, patterned after Seville's Plazadela Maestranza. By charging $13 for the poorest seats and $75 for the best, Maracay was able to guarantee $30,000 each to Dominguin and Girón.

Tension built up as the Sunday of the fights approached. People waited for hours in the lobby of his hotel for brief glimpses of Dominguin, tall and imperious, as he glided off in a big black Cadillac to hunting parties on the ranches of old friends or returned in the evening for sleep. Sipping sherry with friends, Dominguin addressed himself to why he had returned to the ring. Money was the main reason; he used a lot of it. But there was something else too—the gusano, the worm that gets inside a man and brings him back again and again to the bulls. "As a matter of fact—" he smiled—"I never really lost sight of the bull's face. On my ranch I've fought them. I never really retired. You'll see."

César Girón, meanwhile, awaited the day in a house jammed with his relations, 11 of his brothers and sisters, two cousins and his parents. He spent long hours in hard training, up every morning at 7, a swim, then a game of fronton tennis and a couple of miles of roadwork. After breakfast he stood for hours in front of a mirror, practicing his passes. He complained that though he has adopted Maracay, the city has not properly adopted him. "They boo me here," he said. "I had to go to Spain to be somebody."

They are very different, these two. Girón smashed through to success and pulled his whole family out of the gutter. He has a poor man's love of possessions. He talks for hours about his television set, his deep freezer, his Mercedes, Hispano-Suiza, Fiat and Buick. At a gas station he is immediately out of the car to talk with the attendant about the exact pressure that must go into his tires, the exact oil for the engine. He is jovial, shouts cheery "How art thou, my loves?" to girls who giggle or scream at him from passing cars. Dominguin would die first. He does not shout at girls. Women come to him, and if they are worthy of it he kisses their hands. He has not the slightest interest in what makes his car run. If it stalled, he would walk away without a glance backward. It is the difference, people agree, in their diapers years ago.

They are strange figures, dwellers in a land where death can come any Sunday afternoon after 4 and they lead lives straight out of grand opera. Dominguin was scarcely 24 when the Duke of Pino Hermoso in great agitation called on Generalissimo Francisco Franco to save his daughter from the wiles of the bullfighter who was, the Duke agreed, charming but a commoner. The generalissimo waggled a warning finger at Luis Miguel. For months Ava Gardner, who has a great feeling for bullfighters, followed Dominguin from one corrida to the next, later switching her allegiance to Girón. Meanwhile, when Dominguin's marriage to Lucia Bose, the Italian movie actress, was announced, Miroslava Stern, a Mexican movie star, committed suicide with a picture of Dominguin in her hands.

But in their lives Sunday always comes. On Saturday Dominguin went to the estate of a Venezuelan friend, don Alfredo Acero, outside Maracay. There on Sunday morning he went to Mass in the family chapel and then, stripped to swimming trunks and slippers, lounged around the house. Toward noon he went out for a swim in a stream on the Acero estate. It was full of neighborhood youngsters who flocked around for a scar-by-scar examination of the matador's body. Dominguin obliged by describing in detail just how and where and from what bull he had received each wound, then got his revenge by ducking as many of the kids as he could get his hands on.

Till well past noon Dominguin was calm, relaxed. His brother, Dominguito, once a bullfighter himself, came in from the sorting where the bulls had been divided between Dominguin and Girón. The two brothers kissed in greeting and Dominguito said, "You have a chestnut and two blacks." Dominguin shrugged and talked of something else. Not far away Girón was spending his morning in bed, joking with his brothers and sending them for more and more orange juice. Both men wanted people around them and light talk. Each bellowed if by chance he was left alone for a second or two.

At 2 o'clock the tension stiffened in both camps. Noises died down. A man singing on the lawn near Dominguin's window was harshly hushed. Almost unconsciously people began to whisper, and the matadors themselves, suddenly silent and strained, began the long and elaborate process of dressing for the fight. Dominguin stripped himself naked and started pulling on and working smooth his rose-colored stockings. His valet handed him long white underwear pants, rather like the affairs worn by girls in the Nineties. Dominguin pulled them on and tied tight the ribbons just above his knees. Next came the taleguilla, the outer pants, skin-tight, all but iron-stiff and heavily embroidered in silver and black. Dominguin worked himself deeper and deeper into the pants, the valet first pulling fore, then rushing around to pull aft, then bending to smooth the cloth in a glove fit to the skin.

The only talk in the room came in grunts from Luis Miguel. "Too loose," he said. "Smooth those wrinkles." The valet began helping him into his shirt, heavily laced and starched like a coat. Suddenly Luis Miguel exploded in exclamation.

A wrinkle wouldn't smooth down. He ripped the shirt off his back, tore it into two pieces and snapped, "Bring me another." The valet flushed red and looked as if he might suffocate. But Dominguin, calm again, continued dressing. He spent long minutes getting his thin black necktie just to his liking, and then a tinkling sound filled the room. The host, don Alfredo Acero, walked in carrying a decanter of cognac and a trayful of coffee in demitasse. Now Luis Miguel was pacing, sometimes pounding the palm of one hand with the fist of the other. He sipped coffee and cognac, walked to the window and checked the wind, the bullfighter's worst enemy. Wind fluttering a cape can cause the matador to lose control of his bull, and increases the chance for a serious goring. Luis Miguel sipped coffee and cognac again and returned to the window. He had eaten nothing all day, lest the surgeons might later have to open his stomach.

The valet called him back to a chair and began to wind up a lock of hair at the back of his head to which he would attach the añadido, the bullfighter's false pigtail. Once it was in place Dominguin jumped up and walked to a dresser on which he had arranged, row on row, more than 50 religious articles, pictures of saints, crucifixes, rosary beads, medals. Places of honor went to the Virgin of Macarena, patroness of bullfighters, and to Jesus of the Great Power, patron of the city of Seville and of bullfighters. The valet turned, signaled with his eyes, and the little group that had been watching Luis Miguel dress walked out leaving him to pray alone.

A few moments later Dominguin rode to the ring. There was a long moment of extra anxiety. More than 1,000 people, some brandishing $50 and $75 tickets, were in pandemonium outside the bull ring, unable to get in. Twice the great doors of the plaza were opened to admit Dominguin's car and twice they swung shut before he could enter, lest the crowd rush the entranceway. Dominguin waited in the car, biting his lips, until a way could be cleared.

Inside, the crowd overflowed the seats and spilled dangerously into the narrow circular alleyway that surrounds the fighting area. If a bull cleared the fence, as bulls often do, there might be slaughter. After a worried conference with Girón, Luis Miguel, as the senior matador, warned the official judge that he and Girón could not be responsible for accidents. Then Dominguin turned to the two teams of helpers who were standing, hats respectfully off, in a little group. "You will try to keep the bulls away from the fence," he ordered. A murmured "Sí, matador" went up from the group. Outside, the band blared the first brassy notes of Under Andalusian Skies, the two-step that by tradition opens bullfights the world over.


Dominguin in black and silver, Girón in lemon-green and gold, strutted across the ring at the head of their squads of helpers, afoot and on horseback, both looking stern and withdrawn. Between them and a step or two to the rear walked a third bullfighter, Carmelo Torres of Mexico. He was the extra sword who, if both great matadors were disabled, must kill whatever bulls remained. They bowed in salute to the judge, tossed their dress capes to friends in the seats, who spread them out fan wise on the railings.

The crowd roared again and Dominguin saw the first of his three bulls, Castañoso, the Chestnut One, flash into the sun, head up and looking for trouble. That was the moment for which Castañoso and all the other bulls who were to fight this afternoon had been born for four years ago on don Manuel Labastida's Santo Domingo hacienda in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. He was ready for it. Running full tilt around the ring, the big tossing muscle atop his neck bunched tight, he probed the air with his horns in short slashing motions. Every skyward jab was a challenge, a signal, "Here I am. Who dares come against me?" To Dominguin's left a helper dragged his work cape along the ground, and Castañoso charged, charged straight.

His face suddenly all alight, Dominguin walked into the ring shouting, "Enough! Enough! Let him alone. Let me have him." He stood for a second or two, his work cape held high in his hands, biting his teeth into its collar in the traditional gesture, a classic picture, a memory for the fans to treasure. Then he took tight and wide hold, lowered the cape and called, "Mira, torito"—look, little bull, look, look. Casta√±oso whirled and charged, his feet spitting sand behind him. Moving the cape slightly, shifting his feet by quarter inches, Luis Miguel centered him as he came and received him with the great fanlike swirling pass, done low and slow, that is called the veronica, basic to all cape work. It wrenched the first ole from the crowd.

The bull turned and charged again, and now Luis Miguel was cooing at it like a pigeon in passion, "Ha-ha-ha-ha, toro. Ha-ha-ha-ha, toro." Seven times in seven straight verónicas, each one closer and tighter, Luis Miguel drew the bull past him. Then he brought the charging animal to a stop, turned his back and walked away from it. The crowd sent hats sailing into the ring. His head thrown back, Luis Miguel shot a quick insolent glance at Girón as if to say, "Did you like them, young sir?" Girón stared back, his face showing nothing more than a polite interest.

Moments later Dominguin and Girón came briefly into direct competition, each in his turn trying to outdo the other in elegance in drawing the bull away after he had charged the picador's horse and been pic-ed. Luis Miguel, moving with a dancer's grace, drew the bull to him with three magnificent pirouettes (chicuelinas), with the bull following a cape flaring out from his hips. He stopped the bull's charges with the cape wrapped around his body. The crowd scream ed approval. When it was his turn to divert Casta√±oso, Girón chose a series of verónicas. They were able verónicas, fine verónicas, and they were applauded. But after Luis Miguel's performance of the same pass earlier, they seemed flat and uninspired. Girón walked thoughtfully back to the circular alleyway, leaving Luis Miguel alone with the bull.

Dominguin placed his own banderillas, a task Spanish bullfighters usually delegate to a helper, and the crowd, pleased, cheered him for it. With the first pair he met the charging bull on an oblique line, in a spectacular shock, but the barbed sticks were not well placed. He played with the second pair, showing them to the bull, forcing him to follow in short zigzagging charges. Then he put them in well.

You could feel the happiness in the plaza as Luis Miguel took sword and the small red cloth muleta in his right hand for the final phase of the fight. The bull had been well handled, was untired, still full of strength and valor. Luis Miguel walked in front of the bull, planted his feet on the ground and took him through eight passes, head and horns up, one after the other. He transferred the cloth to his left hand and put the bull through three superb passes (naturales), close, very beautiful and very dangerous. The crowd went wild. Luis Miguel walked away, let the bull rest a moment, then returned and sent him through four more left-hand passes. Still full of fight and power, the bull raced himself to his knees in one dash for the slow, graceful cloth. The crowd's oles came in short, explosive bursts. Luis Miguel took the bull four times again on the left side, then eight on the right side and then dropped to both knees for three breathtaking passes (molinetes) in which he three times drew the bull completely around him. By now the crowd was screaming, "Maestro! Maestro!"

Like all the rest in Maracay that day, Luis Miguel remembered Manolete. He rested his bull a few seconds, then called it through a set of six decorative and dangerous passes developed by Manolete himself. In it (the manoletina) the bullfighter stands in front of his own muleta in high good faith that the bull will keep its eye on the muleta and not on the exposed body of the bullfighter.

Then Luis Miguel killed. His final pass had squared the bull off, brought its feet together so that the shoulder bones on top were apart. Luis Miguel sighted down his sword, went up on his toes and moved in directly over the horns to thrust in the sword halfway to its hilt. Manolete had been in just such a position, over the horns, when the dying Miura bull Islero hooked upward suddenly and eviscerated his enemy. But now it was only Castañoso who died.

The crowd roared approval. Hats and coats came flying into the ring in tribute. From the judge's box came permission to cut two ears off the dead bull and to parade twice around the ring, taking the applause of the crowd.

Then it was time for Girón's first bull, a black named Indiano. Now and then it seemed that Girón might match the heights of Luis Miguel. He received ovations for a chanting, side-to-side, swinging march in which he led the bull away from the mounted picador, for a pair of well-placed banderillas and for a series of pendulum passes with the muleta, swinging it to take the bull first across his chest, then across his back. But he was booed for a prolonged series of awkward testing passes and for a grotesque kill. He drove his sword into the base of the bull's neck and out its side. Desperately trying to retrieve his sword, he chased the dying, retreating bull this way and that, until suddenly Luis Miguel, nearer and more opportune, rushed to his aid, pulled out the sword and handed it to Girón.

Girón was hardly happy—but the thanks he offered Luis Miguel were genuine. Dominguin had saved him from what might have been a prolonged and ludicrous situation. It was a friendly act.

Dominguin came to his second bull, a black named Saleroso, determined to show Girón once and for all who was best. With the muleta he took the bull six times by his right side, six times by the left, then six times more on the left. The bull, which had been charging straight, began to hook with his left horn. Luis Miguel ignored it and went into a series of ornamental manoletinas, his body forward of the cloth muleta.

It was on the fourth that the ghost of Manolete himself suddenly darkened the sun. In the blink of an eye the bull hooked Luis Miguel under a leg and sent him pinwheeling into the air in what bullfight fans call the church-bell turn. He was still in the sky when the bull's horns reached him a second time, ripping his pants and opening a long and bloody scratch across his belly. For just a moment, it was 1947, and Linares. Hoarse shouts and screams rose from the seats. "The bull has him!" men cried. "He's had it!" Women shrilled, "Take him out! Take him out of there! He's hurt!"


In the ring Luis Miguel had hardly hit the ground when his brother Dominguito, in civilian clothes, and Girón were with him, Girón to take the bull away in a series of fast passes, Dominguito to help his brother up. Hurt and dazed by the bull's blows and the heavy fall on head and shoulders, Luis Miguel climbed to his feet furiously angry. He was screaming himself—"Out, everybody, out of the ring! Give me the muleta and get out."

His tattered clothes flapping about him, staggering a little, Luis Miguel went back to his bull. He passed him three times more, and killed him. Then he limped off to the infirmary for examination and rest.

The bullfight went on. Girón killed a stubborn, uncooperative bull and returned to the alleyway cursing the bull and cursing the crowd which refused to understand his problems. Wearing white trousers borrowed from a bullring attendant, Luis Miguel killed his third bull. Girón paced the alleyway, paying very little attention. His afternoon seemed lost. Dominguin had won two ears, endless ovations and, through his accident, the sympathy of the crowd. Despite skillful bullfighting, Girón had won little applause and large boos.

Suddenly Bellotero, his last bull of the afternoon, roared into the ring. At the sight of him, Girón's eyes began to sparkle. The bull was aggressive, full of fight and it charged straight. Here was opportunity. Transformed, radiating confidence and grace, César Girón went out to meet it.

It was then that I saw something about Girón that was not apparent in his corridas in Mexico. He is still, basically, the methodical dominator of bulls, following one mechanically skillful pass with another in foreordained order. But there is a good deal of the angels in his soul too. When he catches fire, as he never has in a Mexican plaza, he runs his bulls with passion.

And now he was afire in Maracay. He pulled the crowd out of their seats with the first slow, stately verónica and held them there, exploding oles, as he passed the bull four times more. Saving the bull's strength for his muleta, he would permit only two lancings by the picadors.

He opened his muleta work with three magnificent passes, drawing the bull head and horns high. He switched the cloth and took the bull past seven times left-handed, then took him five more times on the right in one set, then moved the bull to another part of the arena and took him by five times more. Now the crowd was chanting, "Heeee-ron! Heee-ron! Heee-ron!" Girón stopped and looked up at them with a small boy's grin.

Now everything was working for him. He dropped to his knees and passed the bull in six head-high rushes. Hats, coats, women's shoes were being tossed into the ring and—as of that moment—he had won two ears and a tail.

But his kill flawed it. Twice he went in over the horns and twice his sword hit bone and failed to sink into the bull. On the third try he succeeded.

From the judge's box came the verdict: one ear. Girón, riding the shoulders of the crowd, stared up at the judge in angry disbelief. Then he slid down, disappeared momentarily into the crowd, and a moment later was lifted triumphantly aloft again shaking what he believed to be his due: both ears and the tail. He lifted one finger, the bullfighter's traditional boast of, "I am Number One," and shook it at the judge's box.

Some were shouting, "Not the tail, not the tail," but most did not care. It had been a great afternoon. Dominguin and Girón were both Number One.

A couple of hours after they were carried triumphantly from the plaza I met Girón at a lakeside resort. He was drinking Coca-Cola. He said: "It was a great afternoon. Dominguin was superb and I was superb."

Not far away Luis Miguel nursed his wounds. He was drinking an excellent wine. He said: "It was a great corrida. Girón was great and I was great." I agree. I must agree.














BULLFIGHTING BUDDHA, Dominguin relaxes in home of friends on Sunday morning. He is calm now. Late afternoon, the time to face the bulls, is still hours away.



Rafael Delgado Lozano, for 11 years a TIME Inc. reporter in Mexico, began as a bullfight writer for Claridades, a Mexican sports paper. Nowadays he also writes about crime (low), politics (high), and art (sublime), but he regards all these things as issues apart from life's main concern—the brave festival. To this he brings the mystic devotion of the real aficionado.