Bullfighting: Should I Be Watching This?

The future of bullfighting is unclear, but withering attendance provides a bold clue while Spaniards who have spent years at the bullring cling to tradition.

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It’s perhaps one of the most controversial sports in the world.

On a hot night in early June, the heart of bullfighting season, I went to a Novillada con Picadores at La Maestranza with a friend. The show featured three young, unpolished bullfighters looking to make a name for themselves. The oldest was 24, the youngest 19.

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The venue, La Maestranza, in Sevilla is one of the oldest and most revered bullrings in the world. An impressive win here can boost a bullfighter’s standings for years. Perform poorly, and the fighter will receive the famous “Silence of the Maestranza,” a show of ruthless indifference to the fate of the matador, administered by the most knowledgeable and unforgiving audience in all of bullfighting.

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The event began at 9:30. The last bit of natural light was blown away by a halo of floodlights, and three toreros, complete bullfighting teams, filed into the arena through an opening on the far side. In silence, they saluted the president’s box, the seat of the event organizer, before returning to the ring’s hidden interior. Almost every seat was taken, which surprised me a little. Attendance rates have been plummeting since the 70s. When the modern form was invented in the 18th century, it spread like wildfire from the Andalusia region in the south through the newly unified country. Noting the public craze, political and intellectual leaders quickly seized it as a rallying point for establishing a much needed national identity. In modern times, animal rights groups and the political left have dismissed it as barbaric and anachronistic. Still, many Spaniards view it as an indispensable part of their identity.

Surrounded mostly by well-dressed families with children and many older Spaniards referencing the fight’s information sheet, there were also plenty of nervous-looking tourists, sipping their beers a little too quickly.

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A horn sounded and the first bull charged wildly into the center of the ring. It was charcoal grey with muscular, bulging shoulders. The first of three acts began: Tercio de Varas, the “Third of Lances,” in which the matador gauges the bull’s habits and ferocity before toreros, sporting lances and riding padded horses, begin their work. In the second act, Tercio de Banderillas, the “Third of Flags,” toreros side-jump the charging bull while attempting to plant colored flags between its shoulders. In the final act, Tercio de Muerte, the “Third of Death,” the matador engages the bull alone, performing a series of ritualized passes with a red cape, called a muelta, before attempting an estocada, a precise sword attack meant to pass through the shoulders and strike the bull’s heart. In six fights, we only saw two successful estocadas. The attack would miss the mark and the sword would be sent flying. In one fight, the bull took advantage of this error and swept the feet of the bullfighter, sending the crowd into a frenzy, while the matador dodged the furious searching of horns from his back. Toreros distracted the bull with capes enabling the matador to find his sword and continue the fight.

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Two hours later, six defeated bulls had been dragged from the ring by horses, which is a striking sight to say the least. Public sentiment surrounding this aspect of bullfighting has been shifting more with every passing year. Protests around the sport are increasingly common, especially around major festivals like the Festival San Fermin in Pamplona, which hosts the world’s most famous encierro, or running of the bulls event. In 2010, the Catalonia region in northeastern Spain imposed a ban on bullfighting, but the Constitutional Court in Madrid repealed the ruling in 2016, stating that bullfighting is a “common cultural heritage” of Spain. In the Canary Islands, a ban on bullfighting has held since 1991.

Still, many argue in favor of the tradition, claiming that the fighting bulls were raised in vastly superior conditions to the majority of animals raised for slaughter, and that their sacrifice serves the higher purpose of affirming the heritage of the attendant Spaniards. But even supporters hope for a quick, clean estocada. It’s easy to understand the crowd’s anger when the matador fails.

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The future of these events is unclear, but withering attendance rates provide a bold clue. The only certain thing is that for Spaniards who have spent years at the bullring, who are familiar with its storied history and famous feuds, it represents one of the final threads uniting modern Spain with its chaotic inception many centuries ago.

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