LAST SPRING, before the bullfighting season began, Antonio Barrera went home to see his father, and once again he was under the eyes of Jardinero. The stuffed head of the old bull had become a member of the family. Antonio's father, José Manuel, was a truck driver, and every time he moved his wife, Dolores, and their four children to find work, he made sure Jardinero went with them. The best times in Antonio's childhood were when the walls of their home were painted. His father would remove the mount and place it on the floor. Antonio would run for the muleta José Manuel had given him, and holding the scarlet cape in his fingers, he'd summon Jardinero to charge.
¬°Venga! ¬°Vamos ya!
Come. Let's go now.
Then Antonio would prance around like the matadors did, with dandy steps and sashays and half twirls. Next came the passes: derechazos on the right, the riskier naturales on the left. Then Antonio would sidle up to the muzzle, inching closer, closer still, between the massive horns.
And Jardinero would watch the boy with his glassy eyes.
The news from the hospital was grave. The cancer in José Manuel's lungs had spread. Antonio walked into his father's room and sat by the bed. "Papà," he said, "I've been offered a date with Miuras."
Bulls of Death, they were called. Miuras were different from other fighting bulls. They were huge, and they were so smart, matadors said, that they knew Latin. They hooked in, up, stopped, studied. The Black Legend—that Miuras killed all the best matadors—was confirmed by the names of their famous victims: Pepete. Espartero. Manolete.
José Manuel looked up from the bed. As a matador, Antonio was his creation. José Manuel's first three children were girls; he could not share his bullfighting obsession with them. When Antonio was born, his father wasted little time in baptizing him into the fraternal world of matadors, breeders and aficionados. After corridas, when Antonio was no taller than his father's waist, they would race back to the horse stables and to the chapel where the matadors prayed. Antonio heard the bells on the mules that dragged the dead bulls to the slaughtering trucks, and he saw the butchers hose the blood off the cobblestones. Then came the matadors with the glittering gold brocade in their suits of lights, hoisted on the shoulders of aficionados. Antonio knew then that he wanted to be one of them.
To make this dream come true, José Manuel borrowed money from friends to buy livestock for Antonio to practice on. By age seven the boy was performing in their town, Mairena del Alcor, outside Seville. Later José Manuel started his own trucking company and was able to buy Antonio's capes, swords and suit of lights, and to pay the wages and expenses of his support team, the cuadrilla.
Like his son, José Manuel had dreamed of being a matador. He had been a novillero, a novice bullfighter, but he had lasted only a few performances. When Antonio asked why, his father said he had lacked the necessary courage.
Antonio was different. In front of bulls he was, some said, foolishly brave. At 35 he is a decade past a matador's peak, and many aficionados believe he should have retired years ago, considering the punishment he has taken. To date Barrera has been gored 23 times, more than any other active matador. The unusually high number still doesn't do justice to the seriousness of some of the wounds, and it doesn't reflect the 18 follow-up surgeries Barrera has undergone, nor his many broken fingers and ribs, bruises and tears. Carne de toros (bulls' meat), he has been called. The Rocky Balboa of bullfighting.
In an earlier era a bullfighter like Barrera would not have lived long. During the so-called golden age of bullfighting, from 1914 to 1920, medical attention in plazas was primitive. Matadors on operating tables watched as doctors rested their cigars on surgical tools. Wounds from bacteria-laced horns became infected. Many of the most beloved matadors died because of inadequate medical treatment. By the 1950s, after the advent of penicillin, doctors at the plazas were able to stave off infections, but as recently as the 1980s top matadors such as Pacquirri (Francisco Rivera) still died while being raced to city hospitals an hour or more from the ring.
In recent years infirmaries at some bullrings have taken on the look of first-rate surgical suites. The doctors are getting so good at cleaning and repairing wounds, grafting ruptured veins and performing transfusions, that matadors are healing faster. Instead of spending months recovering from a goring, a matador is now back at the plaza in weeks, often days. The injection of modern medicine into this ancient spectacle has created a kind of Bionic Matador, titanium-plated and surgically fused.
The art of the bullfight has always been for the matador to impart a sense of immortality. Now, as the danger of death is mitigated, matadors can take greater risks in front of the bulls. And for better or worse, journeyman matadors such as Antonio Barrera can prolong their careers.
Over the years Barrera had received offers to fight Miuras, but he had turned them all down. Why fight a breed famous for killing matadors? His father had disagreed. "All matadors must fight Miuras at least once," he said. To dominate a Miura was good for a matador's confidence.
When José Manuel was a boy, facing a Miura was considered a test of a matador's bravery and skill. But as the spectacle changed, fans lost their appreciation for the arduous, ugly struggle of man against such a beast. A bullfighting ticket costs as much as a Broadway play, and for their money aficionados want to see pretty passes, close passes, magical passes. To deliver them, bullfighters seek animals bred to be matador-friendly—that is, bulls that will follow the cape, not see through it. The top matadors do not appear with Miuras; second-tier talents, desperate to book performances, do.
After so many gorings and broken bones, with his reflexes not as sharp as they once were, Barrera had no desire to test himself against Miuras. It felt like a suicide mission. But now that his father was so sick, and his career was flagging, how could he turn down the challenge? To face a Miura would be the ultimate gesture of appreciation, a final gift before his father departed this world. So as they sat together, Antonio told José Manuel that he would face his first Bulls of Death at a corrida on Aug. 15.
Where? his father wanted to know.
Béziers, across the French border, Antonio said. The animals would be the biggest of the season.
José Manuel wanted to be sure his son knew what he was doing and wasn't just trying to please a dying man.
No, Antonio said, he needed the Miuras—only once, as his father had stipulated, before his body broke down any further.
Fifteen days later José Manuel was dead, and a few months after that Antonio was in his van on the way to Béziers, where the Black Legend awaited him.
His most dramatic feature, other than his amber-green eyes, are his scars. A few, above his nose, are from his estoque, or killing sword. When he attempts to plunge it into a bull's withers—the Moment of Truth, it is called—he can miss. Instead of piercing an artery, the steel shaft ricochets off bone, and the pommel of Barrera's sword smacks him in the face.
He is the ideal height for a matador, about 5'9". Small bulls look big when they pass his body, and big bulls look enormous. He's as skinny as a fashion model, with a 28-inch waist that makes it easy to slip into the skintight suit of lights. His chestnut hair sweeps down around his neck, and he feathers it just so. Outside the ring he wears snug shirts, tasseled loafers and aviator sunglasses. After a corrida he lassos a pink tie around his neck like a flamenco singer.
He is not a bad matador. Barrera has good timing, impressive technique and a thorough understanding of bulls, a knowledge that comes only from experience. Among aficionados he is known for his resiliency, which is herculean, and his luck, which is terrible.
The first goring occurred in Leganés, outside Madrid. Antonio was a 15-year-old novillero. As he tried a chest pass, the bull's horn ripped through his scrotum. The wound in his groin was eight inches long, and one of his testicles was exposed. Three years later, in Girona, a horn plunged into his thigh twice, leaving a gash six inches long. When he was 20, Barrera was gored again and nearly bled to death.
That time he was performing in El √Ålamo, a town outside of Madrid whose environs were known as the Valley of Terror because of the large-horned bulls that fought there. To get the crowd's attention, Barrera knelt in front of the bull chute and waited for the bull to storm out. Once it did, Barrera whipped the pink and yellow capote (large cape) around his head to induce the bull to pass. ¬°Olé!
Except that instead of following the cape, the bull trampled Barrera and then dug his horns into the young fighter's crumpled body. Barrera began losing blood rapidly. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors found that his left femoral artery had been severed. They were not sure he would survive. If he did, it would be a miracle if he could use his leg again.
It took Barrera nine months to recover. For the first time he doubted his path. Was his life really worth risking for these animals? Then again, what was his life without them? What else would he do for work? Drive a truck like his father?
His first performance back, he attempted a risky behind-the-back pass—el péndulo, the pendulum—and was gored again in the scrotum. He remembers killing the bull with his testicle exposed, getting stitched up in the infirmary and then kneeling in front of his next bull. He was awarded two triumphant laps of the ring.
Once he became a matador, at age 23, Barrera faced another set of troubles. Like the major studios in Hollywood, bullfighting in Spain is controlled by a handful of promoters who prefer established stars. Barrera struggled to book appearances. Instead of waiting around he moved to Mexico. There he developed a following with gritty performances in which he was gored, refused treatment and killed the bulls with a tourniquet wrapped around his leg. Back in Spain promoters were impressed and signed him to a management deal. It was the most promising moment of his career. But the promoters eventually dropped him. Barrera couldn't finish a season. He kept getting gored.
His body is a map of the bullfighting world. The gash that runs under his chin: Maracaibo, Venezuela, where a horn hooked him in the throat. The scar on his scalp: Guadalajara, Mexico, where ... he has no idea what happened. He was tossed so high by the bull and landed so hard on his head that he suffered amnesia for three days. The puncture wound on his chest: San Sebastiàn, Spain, where a horn hooked his clavicle and left the broken bone jutting out from his suit of lights. The gash on his hip: Barcelona, where the bull also fractured his tibia. (Thirty-eight pins and a few screws hold the leg together.) The graft in his leg: √Åvila, outside of Madrid, where a horn removed a section of his saphenous vein. There are track marks from stitches along his stomach (Barcelona again, Guadalajara again), and his thighs are gnarled with scar tissue (Pamplona, Tijuana, Monterrey).
Barrera does not complain about his wounds. He laughs them off, as if he's under a cosmic curse. In Mont-de-Marsan, France, he was violently tossed. Rolling away from stomping hooves, he saw one of his testicles in the sand. He snatched it up for the doctor to reattach. "Doc," he said in the infirmary, "don't tell me my kids are going to be born with sand in their eyes."
A horn wound from a fighting bull is like no other injury. On the surface it can be as small as a quarter. A doctor unfamiliar with horn wounds might merely sew it up. But underneath the skin, a goring can result in a labyrinth of lacerations as the horn tears the matador's soft tissue in different trajectories. When a matador is gored, the doctors who watch nearby hope he is tossed high and quickly, which means he will not get caught on the bull's horn. The matador's weight and the pull of gravity as the horn rips upward into his body makes for a nastier wound to repair.
Most gorings are bloodless. The friction of the horn against the matador's skin creates a burn so hot that it cauterizes most wounds, at least temporarily. The first task for a bullring surgeon is to determine the full extent of the wound. The tips of the horns contain bacteria that cause infections. Surgeons often have to cut into a matador's body to expose the wound and then clean it. Matadors say that surgeries to clean wounds hurt more than the gorings themselves.
There are no books or guides: The medical techniques of bullring surgeons are passed down from fathers to sons and shared among colleagues. And like other professional athletes, matadors in recent years have been stepping out of the bullfighting world to see other sports doctors. In 2007, after he was gored in the leg in Ciudad Real, Barrera was rushed to the emergency room of a local hospital, but the on-call doctor had never treated a horn wound. With the wound still open, Barrera rented his own ambulance and rode through the night to Madrid, where he was treated the next morning by √Ångel Villamor, an orthopedic surgeon whom Barrera credits with extending his career.
Villamor is not a bullring doctor. He learned his trade treating professional motorcycle racers, who couldn't afford to sit out important races with broken bones. Villamor's services are now sought by many of Spain's top matadors. In 2005, after a bull in San Sebastiàn shattered Barrera's collarbone in two places, Villamor fashioned a titanium plate that ran almost the entire length of Barrera's clavicle. With the lightweight metal holding his bone together, Barrera was free to perform before he fully healed. Villamor also injected hemoglobin-rich blood (sometimes he uses stem cells) into the marrow of the fractured bone to speed up Barrera's recovery. Barrera was back in the ring in three weeks. For the first time in years he was able to finish a season.
In 2008, Barrera was feeling extreme pain in the tendons of his right elbow. Villamor flooded the inflamed area with fresh blood cells. In 2009, Barrera was back on the operating table, this time getting a meniscus tear in his right knee repaired. Of all the ruptured parts of his body, Barrera's right knee is the most delicate. Every tendon and bone in it has been ruptured or broken at least once. Finally, after so many visits, Villamor recommended that Barrera line the breeches of his suit of lights with a layer of Kevlar. Barrera rejected it. There's a tradition and purity to bullfighting, he said. The suit of lights has always been the same. So has the risk of death.
The rise of the Bionic Matador has changed the spectacle of bullfighting. Aficionados now expect matadors armed with titanium plates and pumped full of fresh hemoglobin to take more risks in front of the bulls, which have also changed. In recent years the animals have been bred for their ability to fixate on the cape. Some bulls appear so obedient that matadors can wrap them around their bodies like bath towels. But the closer matadors get, and the more slowly they guide the bulls past them—often the most ecstatic moment of the bullfight—the more they get gored. The quicker they recover from their wounds, the more they are apt to get gored again.
Last year was unusually bloody. The bullfighting season in Spain runs from March until October, during which matadors and their cuadrillas travel across the country and into southern France to fight bulls at hundreds of festivals. In April one leading matador, José Tomàs, who has a cultlike following in Spain for the closeness and stillness with which he passes the bulls, needed a transfusion of eight liters of blood after a horn punctured his left femoral artery. It's unclear when Tomàs will be able to fight again.
A few weeks later, in Madrid, matador Julio Aparicio was clipped by a bull's hind leg. As he scrambled away in the sand, the bull thrust its right horn into Aparicio's throat, through his tongue and out his mouth. Photos of the horrific injury ran in newspapers around the world. Aparicio recovered, but during the summer scores of other matadors and banderilleros (who rush the bull on foot to place colorful barbed sticks in its withers) were tossed and seriously gored. Aplausos, a bullfighting weekly, estimated there had been roughly 250 gorings a year over the past 10 years, the most ever.
Barrera, of course, was part of the statistics, even as he struggled to book appearances. He was bumped from the most important festival of the season in Madrid. He fought with his French manager to secure more performances in the south of Spain, where he grew up and where the bulls are more manageable. But the better dates and better bulls go to the top matadors, and Barrera had to follow journeyman bullfighters to southern France, where fans flock to see bulls that are still bred to be big and challenging.
Last June, in the town of Istres, near Marseilles, Barrera attempted a basic righthand pass. Then he felt something—a gust of wind? Next, a horn was on his belly. The bull spun him around and then picked him up. He tossed Barrera once, then again. A horn slammed against his eye. Barrera broke two ribs, damaged a ligament in his right knee and temporarily lost his vision.
The timing of the injuries was devastating. Barrera missed the heart of the season. Three weeks before his date with Miuras in Béziers, he had regained his sight, but his knee hadn't healed properly. Still, he had no choice. He had to start training.
Zahariche, the Miura ranch, is a prickly sweep of dry grass and cactus an hour's drive northeast of Seville. In Spain a bull breeder is allowed by law to shoot intruders, but the Miura family doesn't worry about vagrants. The rabbits on Zahariche, it is said, are the biggest in Spain because no hunter or poacher dares go near Miura bulls. They are so violent that they have been known to kill each other in the corrals before a corrida.
In the pastures, the bulls destined for Béziers leisurely swatted flies with their thin tails under a late August sun so hot that the fields of sunflowers nearby were charred black. Cubeto, number 2, was the smallest bull at 1,312 pounds, which is still several hundred pounds heavier than the average fighting bull. Manzanito, number 79, was the biggest at 1,412 pounds and the oldest at 5½ years. Older bulls are more dangerous because they are smarter, more suspicious, and know how to use their horns better.
All the Miuras had massive front legs. Their skeletons were unusually long, and their thin glossy pelts revealed ripples of vein and muscle like those of thoroughbreds. One reason Miuras are so strong is that at Zahariche the drinking basin is at the bottom of a hill, which means that every time a bull wants a sip of water he has to walk down the hill and back up.
Then there are the Miuras' eyes. They look almost human. In Seville around the turn of the 20th century, it is said, the famed matador El Gallo (Rafael Gómez Ortega) lined up in front of a Miura to kill it—and then walked away. El Gallo was arrested and spent a night in prison for not fulfilling his contract. Asked why, he said that when he looked in the bull's eyes he saw the eyes of his wife, the fiery flamenco dancer Pastora Imperio.
The Black Legend is a myth, of course, and aficionados will argue that the reason the best matadors were killed by Miura bulls is that they made errors and received poor medical treatment. But matadors are notoriously superstitious. What is true is that among the thousand or so ranches that raise fighting bulls around the world, the Miura ranch is different. Unlike other breeders, who blend the blood of their bulls like wine, the Miura family has not changed the bloodline of its animals in 150 years. A geneticist found DNA strains in Miuras from aurochs, the extinct European long-horned oxen. "These are a little below the elephant in size," Julius Caesar wrote of aurochs. "They spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied."
The founder of the breed, Juan Miura, was a Basque hatmaker. In the 1840s he bought a herd of 220 cattle that had once been owned by monks in monasteries around Seville. At the time bullfighting was conducted mostly on horseback and required a bull that could endure the many strikes from the picador's lance. The bulls Juan Miura and his family produced were so fearsome that Zahariche became the most prestigious ranch in the bullfighting industry.
Jocinero was such a bull. In 1862, the Miura stud was sent to Madrid to appear in a corrida with Pepete (José Rodríguez), a matador so courageous he was said to pass the toughest bulls with a handkerchief. By this time matadors were becoming as important as horsemen in the ring. Jocinero charged the horse and sent the picador flying. Pepete leaped into the ring to protect the fallen horseman and soon found himself stuck on Jocinero's right horn. He pried himself off it, walked over to the ring wall and collapsed, blood gushing from his chest. "Is it anything?" Pepete asked. Moments later he was dead.
Espartero (Manuel García) met the Miura bull Perdigón three decades later, also in Madrid. Espartero was arguably the leading matador of his era. During his attempt to kill Perdigón in 1894, Espartero was tossed. What happened next is a mystery. According to one report, "With no control of himself [Espartero] literally threw himself on the horns of Perdigón, making no attempt to use the muleta."
The Miuras were so dangerous that, over the years, the leading matadors demanded double pay to fight them. Manolete (Manuel Rodríguez Sànchez), a grand-nephew of Pepete, avoided the Bulls of Death throughout his career. In 1947, however, he couldn't resist a challenge from a younger rival to appear with Miuras. As Manolete placed the sword, the bull Islero gored him in the groin.
"Did the bull die?" Manolete asked in the hospital. Two hours later, he was pronounced dead.
The drive to Béziers was a 10-hour haul over the Pyrenees. At the wheel of the matador's van was √Ålvaro Corral, the chubby, muttonchopped assistant to César Pérez, Barrera's childhood friend and now sword handler. The relationship between the matador and his cuadrilla is akin to the one between a medieval master and his servants. Corral sees to it that the capes are neatly folded, swords cleaned and slippers polished. Pérez ensures that all of Barrera's wishes and orders are fulfilled. Pérez also plays the roles of adviser and cheerleader, stroking his boss's ego so he steps into the ring with the proper confidence and pomp.
The mood in the van was pensive. Senior banderillero Paco Pe√±a, who is also a flamenco singer, had had nightmares about Miuras for four nights. Banderillero Manuel Hernàndez, who moonlights as a ham carver, worried about the wind. Wind is the matador's enemy. It can blow the capes onto his body (making him the bull's target) or away from it (exposing his body and, again, making him the target). All week the gusts in Béziers had been so strong, the ring felt like the bow of a clipper ship. Straw hats blew off aficionados' heads. The wind turned muletas into useless flapping rags. It was a miracle that no matador had been seriously gored.
Barrera's training had not gone smoothly. He had spent most of his recovery time on La Campana, his father-in-law's bull ranch outside Salamanca, in western Spain. In the bullfighting world, marriages are often political unions. It is common for matadors to court the daughters of bull ranchers for the many perks of living on the ranch, such as free cattle to practice on. Barrera's father-in-law, José María Sànchez Martín, is also his close adviser, traveling with him and overseeing his career. Each morning at La Campana, Barrera ran through the bull pastures with Pérez and listened on his headphones to songs that inspired him as a novice, such as Survivor's Eye of the Tiger.
With his sore right knee, Barrera could not get the exercise he wanted. As ranch hands, friends and his wife, Maider, watched, he was magnificent on his first practice cow, passing the animal in mesmerizing circles for what seemed like an hour. But his second cow was difficult on the right side. It cut in. "¬°Cuidado!" (Careful!), Maider called out.
Barrera insisted on passing it on the right side, to challenge himself. His kids were crying. "¬°Cuidado!" The cow cut in again. Barrera slipped in the sand and tweaked the right knee. Practice over. His four-year-old daughter, Carmen Guadalupe, and one-year-old son, Antonio Manuel, leaped into his arms and crawled onto his shoulders and stuck their fingers in his ears and refused to let go.
Maider closed her eyes when her husband practiced. As the daughter of a bull breeder, she has been trained to tolerate the boundless ego of a matador, the insatiable desire to be with bulls. It's like living with a drug addict. When the bull passes a matador, its power is transmitted into his body, and so much energy and adrenaline pump through his wiry frame that he is transformed. His nose and eyes are contorted, his lips puckered in ecstasy.
Maider does not go to Antonio's performances. Not after she watched him leave the plaza in an ambulance one day in Mexico. Now she hides in a room and waits for the phone to ring. When it does, she prays it is her husband. Too many times it has been a member of the cuadrilla, telling her that Antonio has had more bad luck.
Barrera's first corrida after the injury was in Santander, on Spain's northern coast. Before he arrived, he fired his manager. Barrera wasn't worried. "Mi apoderado es Dios," he said. My manager is God.
In Santander the conditions were miserable. It was rainy and windy and cold. The corrida was a charity event, and the bulls would be derided as invàlidos (invalids) in the next day's newspapers. One bull plopped down and refused to get up. The matador whacked its horns with his sword. The bull still didn't get up.
After his performance Barrera emerged from his hotel room with the pink tie around his neck and went to a dinner in the hotel restaurant with other matadors and the hotel owner. At a table nearby, a taurine journalist of many years wondered why Barrera did not retire before another serious goring. Compared with Miuras, he said, the bulls in Santander were sheep.
A week later Barrera was in Barcelona. The plaza was nearly empty. Days before he arrived, legislators had voted to ban bullfighting in Catalonia in 2012. Barrera cut an ear—a trophy granted by the ring president to a matador who has performed impressively—but he was in a glum mood, knowing that soon he could not even appear in Barcelona.
Dinner was an elaborate spread of prawns and clams. Barrera didn't touch any of it. For a nightcap he ventured to a disco on the beach. He ordered a bottle of white wine and found a place in the sand. It was late, and as the music pumped around him, Barrera pinched the air with his fingers and made a long, exquisite imaginary pass as a Miura picked up speed and charged through his mind.
Perpignan. La Palme. Sigean. The road signs of the Languedoc flashed by in the high beams of the matador's van. This area of southern France is where, 2,000 years ago, aurochs were sacrificed in underground temples. Now, at the weeklong bullfighting festival in Béziers, the bull is still the featured attraction. The newspapers print bulls' stats and photos and interviews with breeders. In the taurine bars criadillas (bull testicles) are served fried or poached, and paired with a chilled rosé.
Barrera's hotel was a two-star on the exit ramp of the freeway. His room faced the parking lot. On the morning of the bullfight he wore a large wooden cross outside his shirt. He was silent and rattled a spoon around a glass jar of yogurt on the way to the bull lottery.
It is not customary for a matador to view bulls before the corrida, but how could Barrera not take a peek at the Miuras? At the plaza he and his senior banderillero, Pe√±a, climbed the metal plankways over the corrals, and there they were. Barrera wanted to get closer. He climbed down an old ladder and into the dark passageway beside the corrals. As his loafers crushed the gravel underfoot, the eyes of the Miuras followed the sound.
In his mind Barrera could see Jardinero, the old bull whose stuffed head had hung on his father's living-room wall. Jardinero, of course, was a Miura. He had appeared in the ring in Seville in 1918. He was such a monster that he killed three of the picador's horses. (This was in an era before horses wore protective mattresses.) Barrera's hero, the famed Sevillian matador Joselito (José Gómez Ortega), had performed so well that he cut an ear off Jardinero. Now Barrera tugged at the skin of his neck and studied the bulls. Would he soon finally know what it was like to fight Jardinero? And would he have the courage?
Barrera left the choosing of his two bulls to his cuadrilla and went back to the hotel to rest. Outside his room the wind riffled the branches of the oak trees in the parking lot. Barrera closed the blinds and cried in the dark. He thought of his father and wished he were there to watch his boy.
Around noon there was a knock on the door. Pe√±a, the banderillero, and Pérez, the sword handler, burst into the room. Pe√±a had chosen a good lot of bulls: numbers 14 and 6, not the biggest, not the smallest. He showed Barrera photos on his digital camera. Hocicudo (Big Snout) weighed 1,347 pounds, and his horns pointed more outward (toward Barrera's cape) than up (into his armpit). Chinito (Little Chinaman) was 1,332 pounds. His horns also pointed out.
Pe√±a and Pérez left, and Barrera was served lunch: steak rare, a salad of lettuce and tomatoes, water to drink. After the meal he tried to sleep. He thought of his father and cried again.
At 4:10 p.m. Pérez entered the room with a cup of black coffee. It was time to get dressed. He asked which suit of lights Barrera wanted to wear. The white? Or the mauve? "White," Barrera said. It was lighter and would afford more mobility.
First to go on was the skintight leotard, next the pink stockings and the glittering breeches. Pérez made sure there were no creases or wrinkles. After 45 minutes Pérez slipped the jacket on Barrera, and the matador knelt before the small altar with which he travels. Then he turned to Pérez. "Motivate me," Barrera said.
The matador needed to get the Black Legend and his father's death and Jardinero out of his mind, Pérez said. Barrera had killed around 900 fighting bulls in his career. These were only two more.
Barrera listens to the same flamenco song, Alfileres de colores (Colored Pins), on the way to each bullfight. The lyrics are a poem in praise of the fiesta. "Fuerte, fuerte," Barrera said, commanding the driver to turn up the volume. The music was so loud that Barrera had to scream to sing along with the refrain, "¬°Olé! ¬°Olé! ¬°Olé!"
The plaza was almost full, and the crowd was loud and raucous. To study the wind patterns, the matadors' helpers crumpled up small pieces of newspaper and let them flutter in the air along the ring wall. They swirled in different directions like confetti. The first Miura to enter the plaza looked so menacing that it received a standing ovation. The ones that followed seemed only stronger.
Barrera was a blur of fidgets and tics. Before his first Miura came out, he took off his montera (bullfighting cap) and feathered his hair, flicking the tips with his right hand, then the left, placing the hat back on, taking it off, readjusting. He rolled his neck. He rolled his chin.
Barrera does not fear bulls. He fears failure: delivering a performance that others find lacking. He considers the bull his only friend in the plaza, and the moment it enters the ring, he tries to connect and understand, to earn the bull's trust.
Soon he heard the trumpets and drum roll announcing his turn. He rested his chin on his pink and yellow cape and watched the Miura gallop into the plaza. Hocicudo looked as tall as Barrera. As its hooves beat the sand it sounded as if a herd of bulls was charging by. Finally Barrera went out and gave him a few passes. He tried to stand still, but the sheer force of the animal made him jump back.
Suddenly the months of anticipation were over, and he was passing the bull and it was charging and he was passing it again. The crowd erupted. Before the final act, Barrera marched to the center of the ring, removed his montera and pointed it toward the heavens, a tribute to his father. The story of José Manuel's death and Antonio's decision to challenge the Miuras had been reported in the bullfighting blogs, and he received another ovation for the gesture. Then, with the muleta, he made six straight passes with his right hand. Hocicudo was game, charging in rhythm.
Then more right hands and roars from the crowd. With the wind riffling his muleta, it was not wise to attempt too many lefthanded naturales. Barrera did six, pulling the Miura past him. He lost himself in the ballet. He sidled up close, as he had with Jardinero, passed the bull by his navel, then turned, another pass, then back again. He was in ecstasy, even when his muleta snagged on a horn and he lost the cape. He didn't want the moment to end. He knelt in front of the bull and rocked his head back.
The problem was the kill. Barrera placed the sword too far back. Hocicudo did not fall immediately. Barrera lost the ear he would have cut, but he was awarded a lap around the ring for a gutsy performance.
Chinito, his second bull, was more dangerous. It jumped and veered. It cut in. It followed Barrera. It was learning too fast. The best part of the performance was the lancing by Tito Sandoval, Barrera's picador: clean, neat. And Pe√±a placed his banderillas with such skill and daring that he received a standing ovation.
In the final act Barrera knew it would be impossible to cut an ear. He could see the Miura anticipate his movements. He gave it one pass with the right hand, and Chinito looked under the muleta at Barrera's skinny waist as if checking out the plumbing under the kitchen sink.
Barrera tried another righthand pass. Chinito refused to charge. The matador shook his head in frustration. He put his hands on his hips as if to say, What else can I do?
The kill was not a noble thrust over the right horn. Barrera went the safe route, darting off to the side. The bull fell quickly, and Barrera and the cuadrilla earned another honorary lap of the ring.
Back at the hotel Barrera closed the door to his room and called his mother. He was crying, telling her what had happened. He felt satisfied with his performance but not complete. He had wanted to cut an ear off a Miura, as Joselito did with Jardinero. He did not have anything to show for having met a challenge that few people in the world can meet and that had haunted him since childhood.
It didn't matter that he hadn't earned an ear, Dolores told him. His father would have been proud of him.
The following week the bullfight magazines wrote a few lines about Barrera's performance. Sure, he was brave in facing the Black Legend, the critics said, but he lost it all with his sword. He should have killed better.
Still, his father had been right. Facing the Miura had been good for Antonio's confidence. After Béziers he had one of his best performances, in San Sebastiàn. He was executing a daring péndulo when the bull, instead of going for the cape, butted him in the chest and toppled him. Rolling around in the sand, on the verge of being gored yet again, Barrera found his muleta, rose and executed a sequence of breathtaking passes.
After a few more dates Barrera was off to Mexico for the winter season. One afternoon in January, in León, he was feeling particularly inspired against a bull called Artista. He knelt and gave a pass. Suddenly Barrera was in the air, thrown backward as if shot from a cannon. He crashed upside down against the wood planks of the barrier wall. After being rushed to the infirmary he returned to the plaza without his shoes or jacket, his shirt ripped open to the waist, and resumed his performance. He knelt again, exposing his bare chest to the bull's horns, before killing it and being awarded both ears. Afterward the ring doctor found that Barrera had five broken ribs and a broken clavicle.
In the spring he returned to Spain for the new season, and last week, almost a year after his father's death, he performed in Seville. As a tribute to José Manuel, he is planning another date with Miuras in Béziers later this summer, and perhaps every summer. If his doctors can keep him pinned and plated together, Antonio Barrera might finally cut that ear.
Barrera is not a bad matador. Among aficionados he is known for his resiliency, which is herculean, and his luck, which is terrible.
Barrera's body is a map of the bullfighting world. The gash under his chin: Maracaibo, Venezuela. The scar on his scalp: Guadalajara, Mexico.
The rise of the Bionic Matador has changed the spectacle. Fans now expect men armed with titanium plates to take more risks in front of the bulls.
When the bull passes a matador, its power is transferred into his body, and so much energy pumps through his frame that he is transformed.
Maider does not go to the plaza, not since she saw Antonio leave it in an ambulance in Mexico. She hides in a room and waits for the phone to ring.
Barrera considers the bull his only friend in the plaza, and at the moment it enters the ring, he tries to connect, to earn the bull's trust.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB MARTIN
GEOFFREY GRAY (BULL'S HEAD)
Barrera (left, in '09) has been gored by bulls far inferior to Miuras (above).
[See caption above]
Barrera began feeling the bulls' horns as an apprentice matador in the '90s.
MARCELO DEL POZO/REUTERS
By kneeling in the ring, Barrera (in '03) challenges bulls and thrills fans.
Barrera (in '09) fears disappointing the fans more than he fears the bulls.
Though gored in the leg, Barrera was not badly hurt by this tossing in '02.
MARCELO DEL POZO/REUTERS
Barrera has considered retiring, but doesn't know what else he could do.