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There Won’t be Blood

Revered by some and condemned by others, bullfighting is nothing if not controversial. But can a more humane, Velcro-tipped version of the sport take off? One Las Vegas promoter hopes so.

Author Edward Lewine Illustration Sean McCabe

Image – Sean McCabe

THE BULL bursts out of the corral like a snorting runaway semi, 1,000 pounds of muscle and bad attitude topped with horns.

The matador—a slender Spaniard in a spangled orange suit—strides out to meet it. We’re not in Madrid or Tijuana, but the indoor rodeo stadium at the South Point, a hotel and casino off the Las Vegas Strip, and this is Vegas’ latest attraction: a bloodless bullfight, meaning no assailing the bull with swords or spears the way bullfighters usually do, no “death in the afternoon,” as Hemingway put it.

Advantage Ferdinand.

Without having been weakened by the gory stabbing that bulls suffer in traditional fights, the beast is free to do what it wants. Evidently, what it wants more than anything is to hook its left horn around the nearly helpless matador’s legs and jerk the poor fellow skyward. I’m impressed. At the bare minimum this is more interesting than, say, a kick line of Elvis impersonators. The crowd—many from corrida-loving countries such as Mexico and Portugal, along with a handful of curiosity seekers who’ve pried themselves from the gaming floor—is sparse, scattered throughout the 4,400-seat arena. But this is a bold new idea, and a new frontier for bullfighting. Sometimes it takes a while for bold ideas to catch on.

Three twentysomething guys are perched on seats near me, washing down popcorn with bottles of suds. “That dude’s insane,” one of them observes, as the matador, who has just come crashing to the ground, staggers to his feet in obvious agony and lurches back toward the bull for another go.

The fight ends around 10 p.m. As the crowd files out, the man behind the event, a large, baby-faced 48-year-old named Pedro Haces Barba (though he goes by Don Bull), sits in the grandstand, sipping a tumbler of tequila. He operates more than a dozen bullrings in Mexico, but he always wanted to break into the American market. So in the spring of 2009, he approached Michael Gaughan, owner of the South Point Casino, about doing a continuing series of monthly bullfights in the facility’s rodeo arena. The idea was to sign up the best Spanish and Mexican matadors—which he did— and market the bullfights as an elite event with special VIP seats going for hundreds of dollars. Together they’d finance the events, and before long…olé!

“This is my dream,” he says earnestly. “To host bullfights in America’s entertainment capital is something you will never forget.”

The spectacle of bullfighting in Vegas may not be drawing the big crowds yet, but it does make a certain kind of sense—and with the right marketing, it just might work. After all, visitors to Sin City have been lining up to see Siegfried & Roy don spangled suits and tangle with dangerous wild animals for years.

Consider Don Bull’s Las Vegas bullfights the sport’s “soft” opening in America. Sure, there are dozens of small-time bloodless bullfights held in the country each year, put on mostly by central California’s Portuguese community. But those are held with little fanfare and zero press. What makes these Vegas bullfights diff erent is they are being widely advertised, offered as a monthly attraction in America’s entertainment capital and starring top matadors.

Not unexpectedly, these bloodless bullfights have stirred up controversy. Animal activists have protested that even without the evident cruelty, the Vegas events exploit the bulls. But the most vocal protests have come from the bullfighting community itself, which complains that the fights aren’t cruel enough. The bullfighting press has described bloodless bullfighting as a buffoonery, and consequently some of the big stars who initially agreed to appear—Don Bull’s prize acquisitions— have withdrawn.

“I think this is a definite step toward the disappearance of bullfighting within the next ten to fifteen years,” the renowned French bullfighting promoter Simón Casas told the Spanish press. “The danger here is that you have big stars taking part in what amounts to a pantomime of a real bullfight.”

To understand what he means, it helps to know what a “real” bullfight is. Firstly, it is not a sport; no one who loves it pretends it is. In fact, a bullfight is a spectacle in which six bulls are ritually dispatched. It unfolds in three acts, with several main players. The bull charges a padded horse, and a mounted picador spears the bull’s neck; bandilleros then place three pairs of barbed darts in the bull’s back; finally, the matador emerges and uses his cape to “dance” with the bull before killing it with a sword.

Aficionados say bullfighting is an intricate brush with death for both the bull and the bullfighter, and a crucible that reveals the qualities of an animal bred for fearlessness. To them, the violence isn’t gratuitous. Charging the horse and facing the spear reveal the bull’s bravery. The fighters use the spears and banderillas to lower the bull’s neck and slow it down so the matador can “dance” with it. The bull is killed, they say, because it has learned the trick of the cape and can never again appear in a bullfight.

“It’s actually a complex and technical art,” argues Robert Weldon, a New Yorker who teaches Spanish and takes part in amateur bullfights. “It doesn’t make much sense to people who haven’t grown up with it, and that’s part of the reason why it rarely does well outside the Spanish-speaking world.”

Even so, bullfighting is in no danger of dying out. There are twice as many corridas per year in Spain and France as there were 40 years ago. European bullfights alone generate billions every year, and the tradition continues to thrive in Central and South America. Mostly, what has changed is the scope and volume of anti-bullfighting protests, especially in western Europe.

The Spanish government recently removed live corridas from state television for the first time since TV was invented. Calls to ban bullfighting and end agricultural subsidies to bull breeders have become an annual ritual in the European Parliament. There’s a growing movement afoot to ban bullfighting in the Spanish region of Catalonia and its capital, Barcelona.

“Bullfighting is under attack like never before,” says Stephen Higgins, an American filmmaker whose 2008 documentary, The Matador, about a Spanish bullfighter, won rave reviews. “People in the bullfighting business have become quite sensitive about it, and with good reason.”

The tension over the Las Vegas bullfights has played out against this backdrop. Is Don Bull the savior of bullfighting or the herald of its demise? In Vegas, the bull has a Velcro patch glued to its back. There’s no horse, no spear, no barbed banderillas. The matador—who puts himself at risk, since the bull is never speared—“kills” his prey symbolically. In short, Don Bull’s spectacle violates the very essence of bullfighting: It removes the crucible of bravery—at least for the animal.

Bullfighting advocates worry that what Don Bull is trying to do—somehow render bullfighting acceptable outside the Spanish-speaking world—will actually achieve the opposite. Without the drama of the dance, the advocates argue, what’s the point?

This was the note sounded by Spanish star matador Julian Lopez, El Juli, when he announced he’d be withdrawing from the Vegas bullfights.

“When they first put me under contract, they assured me this would be the first step to implanting the full Spanish bullfight in America,” El Juli told the bullfighting website www.Burladero.com. “It hasn’t worked out that way.” He was disappointed by the bloodlessness, he explained, which he didn’t find to be at all “Spanish.”

Nonetheless, fans who attended the first four Vegas bullfights were pleased with what they saw. The matadors were legit stars and the bulls were brave specimens from the ranch of Manuel Costa in Los Banos, California, the most respected breeder on American soil. “Don Bull put on as good a bullfight as you can in Las Vegas,” says Lydia Ackerman, 61, a New Yorker who attends corridas all over the world.

Only a handful of people have shown up; and the corridas scheduled for December were canceled. A notice on the Don Bull website says bullfights for 2010 are “being prepared,” but Gaughan worries about about the project’s future. “We put on a great show,” he says. “But we’ve each lost at least a hundred thousand dollars. I’m not sure how much longer this can go on.”

One group who’d like to keep it going are the Spanish matadors. They were well paid, to the tune of $50,000 each, and Vegas is a convenient stop between regular seasons in Mexico and Spain.

It’s 10:15 a.m. on the day after the bullfight, and matador Juan José Padilla, a Spaniard known as the “Cyclone from Jerez,” has been up all night playing blackjack. He’s the one who was tossed by the bull, and I can see he is still in considerable pain. But despite having flown from Spain to risk his life in front of just a few hundred people, Padilla is smiling.

He wins $50 in chips, puffs his gigantic cigar and rattles off something in a thick southern-Spanish accent to the dealer. The dealer looks at me, uncomprehending. “He just told you he loves you,” I tell her. “And he loves Las Vegas.”

EDWARD LEWINE is the author of Death and the Sun: A Matador’s Season in the Heart of Spain.

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