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Homage to a Peerless Matador
Barnaby Conrad
August 01, 1966
To many people in the Spanish-speaking world Carlos Arruza was numero uno, the greatest of all matadors. When he died in an automobile accident last spring, his coffin was borne through the streets of Mexico City, watched by thousands of mourners who felt sure they would never again see Arruza's equal in the ring
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August 01, 1966

Homage To A Peerless Matador

To many people in the Spanish-speaking world Carlos Arruza was numero uno, the greatest of all matadors. When he died in an automobile accident last spring, his coffin was borne through the streets of Mexico City, watched by thousands of mourners who felt sure they would never again see Arruza's equal in the ring

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Few people in the U.S. ever heard his name, but to Spaniards, Portuguese, Mexicans and South Americans, Carlos Arruza was a giant, the greatest matador in the history of Mexico. His dark good looks, his athletic prowess and his warm, elegant charm, combined with the mystique of the bullring itself, placed him in a category that simply does not exist in this country. During his career he earned an estimated $4 million fighting the bulls. Half a dozen books had been written about him, and a movie based on his fantastic life was being filmed. But last May, on a wet road outside Mexico City, a car in which he was riding spun out of control and crashed, and Carlos Arruza was crushed to death.

The afternoon it happened I had put in a call for him from San Francisco to Mexico City. I wanted to know if it was definite that he was fighting in Tijuana on the 29th, as I had four people who wanted to fly down for it with me. His wife, Mari, said that he'd taken the children out to the ranch but was expected home any moment.

Two hours later Jim Fergus of Toros magazine called to tell me he was dead. I sat stunned. Then, when I could, I phoned a friend who also knew and loved him. After the first intake of breath and a long pause, he said, "Well, he'd been asking for it for a long time."

And it was true. He'd started asking for it when he was very young.

"Hunger wounds worse than the bulls," the aspirant toreros like to say, but Carlos was not the archetypal, hungry-poor matador. He was not like Belmonte, who saw his 12 younger brothers and sisters carted off to the poor-house and swore he would become the greatest and richest bullfighter in the world in spite of his puny body. He wasn't like the current star, El Cordob�s, who, to get himself out of his hopeless squalor, marched off to the taurine wars vowing significantly to his sister: "I'll either dress you in gold—or I'll dress you in black." Although now a multimillionaire, El Cordob�s still keeps a smoked ham hanging in his hotel suite to remind himself that he can now afford the whole jam�n Serrano when as recently as five or six years ago he couldn't even afford a slice. No, Arruza was unlike other toreros in the reasons for his drive—but the drive was there, and unmistakably there, right up to the moment of his death.

He was born of a middle-class family in Mexico City on Feb. 17, 1920, the son of immigrant Spaniards. His mother, a modern, capable businesswoman, owned successful stores carrying children's clothes, while his father was a custom tailor. Carlos was a vague, purposeless, happy-go-lucky boy until he was 13. Then one day his father took him and his brother, Manolo, 15, to a bullfight. That was the day, as he was to say later, "I grew up."

From then on the Arruza boys thought of nothing but bullfighting. They contrived to get themselves flunked out of several conventional schools so their father would let them join the bullfighting academy of Veteran Matador Samuel Sol�s. Maestro Sol�s worked the boys unmercifully with the mechanical bull and the various cape maneuvers and exercises necessary to the profession. But on the first day that Carlos came to the act of the banderillas Maestro Sol�s saw he had a genius on his hands. Even as the Maestro was saying: "The way one places the banderillas is..." Carlos snatched up a pair of the frilled sticks and loped gracefully out toward the boy pushing the mechanical bull. Lifting the sticks above his head he jabbed the barbs perfectly into the cork shoulders of the contraption, letting the horns graze his rib cage. The amazed Maestro turned to the rest of the class, cleared his throat and said: "That, gentlemen, is the way banderillas are placed." The Maestro's amazement would never lessen. Arruza became one of the greatest banderilleros of all time.

A few months later the Arruza boys heard that a festival—a bullfight with small bulls and no picadors—was going to be presented at the big Toreo Plaza. Manolo and Carlos decided to become espont�neos—they would jump into the ring for their first encounter with a live animal! They hid their capes under their jackets and set off bravely for the arena. But the small bulls seemed to have grown as big as trucks when the time came for the boys to confront them. On the second bull Manolo whispered to his brother, "You could do better with the cape than that matador!" Carlos answered, "So could you! Go down there!" Manolo, wet with perspiration, hissed back: "You go down there!"

Finally they agreed to go together. Worming their way through the crowd, they jumped down into the ring passageway and vaulted the fence. Carlos got to the bull first, flourishing his cape and shouting to attract its attention: "Toro ah-haa!"

He wrote in his autobiography: "As I watched the bull wheel and start to charge, the horrible thought struck me: this was not a friend of mine pushing a mechanical bull—this was a real and vicious wild beast. I froze for a fraction of a second. My first reaction was, God, he's going at this cape, so if I clutch it to me he won't see it and then he'll go away and leave me alone! That would have been fatal, of course, as the bull, following the movement of the cape, would have crashed straight into me. My next reaction was, God, he's going at the cape, so if I fling it from me he'll attack it and leave me alone! And as I watched the animal bear down on me, I thought. Mother, help me, this idea of being a bullfighter was complete insanity! Mother!

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