SI Vault
John McCormick
June 14, 1971
A rivalry between the world's top matadors was building, a duel of skills that promised the best toreo in decades, but then Antonio Ord��ez was caught by a bull while making a too-brave show
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June 14, 1971

On Offering The Bull His Body

A rivalry between the world's top matadors was building, a duel of skills that promised the best toreo in decades, but then Antonio Ord��ez was caught by a bull while making a too-brave show

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Talavera was to provide a clue about the upcoming season. If the bulls were underbred and the matadors perfunctory, no one would take seriously the notion of a significant rivalry developing between Ord��ez and Camino. On the other hand a magnificent program at Talavera would signal the beginning of noteworthy toreo.

The day of the memorial program dawned gloomily. Spain was having her wettest May since the 18th century, but by late morning Talavera was sunny, and the plaza, in a pretty grove of trees crisscrossed by pleasant walks, sparkled with raindrops. The good weather continued during the choice by lot of the bulls, but the hour of the corrida was still far off.

Usually in May, the town is a dusty uninviting little place, apart from the park and the tree-embellished plaza de toros. But now it was lush from rain and interesting, for crowds of countrymen had come to see the cattle fair, the circus and the sideshows. Tourists do not visit Talavera much, and in spring only Spanish is heard in the streets. Spreading through the park in military rows were show cattle, horses and a few prize sheep. Years ago the bullfighting programs were put on as an appendage to the cattle fair but now tractors are making inroads, and the cattlemen lament the decline of their place in the order of things. More lamentable was the knowledge that the farmers, with the twisted bodies of men who work hard all day every day, from childhood to the grave—the men for whom the bulls were originally a diversion—could no longer pay the price of a ticket into the plaza. They shook hands, their skin like a bird's claw, and with remarkable sweetness explained their situation. They could not even afford the sideshows, the cooch dance tent with its promise of voluptuous sin redeemed only by the fact that the cooch dancers were dwarfs. But the peasants walked the paths of the park among the town girls who promenaded in pairs and clusters. There was safety in numbers. At the trinket stands, toy bulls were hawked while one entrepreneur combed the plastic hair of stuffed spitz dogs.

In the bar of the hotel were men down from Madrid, uncalloused, with the paunchy appearance of city dwellers on a provincial spree. They told lies and truths about bulls and speculated about whether it would rain. An hour before the program started, the sky was uniformly black and huge, intermittent drops began to fall.

There were ritual visits to be made to the matadors' rooms to witness the dressing in the suit of lights. Ord��ez' hair is thinning, Camino's is graying. Neither has to face bulls for money anymore. Each is rich. With luck the crowd would see two men at a point in their lives when they go about their craft or sullen art not for further plaudits, not primarily for money, not even perhaps for fame but for the most interesting of motives in any artist—to demonstrate something to themselves about themselves and their relation to reality.

On the way to the plaza it rained with tropical intensity. The only hope for the day was that it would rain itself out and the sun would follow. In the plaza, attendants in visored caps and corduroy suits frantically soaked up puddles in the sand with large hunks of sponge, while others were spreading dry sand from handcarts. Men from each of the camps came into the arena to test the surface with ice-skating motions, shaking their heads dubiously. Storks, unconcerned, nested in the bell tower of the adjacent church, straw in their beaks.

Then the bugle sounded. There would be no postponement, no rainout. The bulls were not as old as might ideally be desired, nor as anxious to go to the horse. But their horns were satisfactory. And two, at least, Camino's first and Ord��ez' second, were a good 4 years old. In fact, the animals were anything but easy. They turned fast and tossed their heads as they charged, "eating the cloth," as the Mexicans say. They demanded good technique from the matadors if they were to extract from the bulls the design that their qualities and defects permitted.

The ritual parade began, Ord��ez on the left as senior matador; a minor bullfighter, El Puno, in the center as junior; Camino on the right. They entered wearing black armbands, reminding the spectators of Joselito's presence looming over the Talavera plaza.

Ord��ez' fame is so widespread that the public is more exigent of him than of any other matador. His work to the first bull, finished by a single fine sword, would have won almost any other man at least one ear. As it was, the crowds wanted more than Ord��ez gave them, and he heard unmerited whistles. By the time of Ord��ez' second bull, the fourth on the program, it was raining apocalyptically. The bull was difficult, and Ord��ez kicked off his slippers and went all-out, demonstrating that even with water running into his eyes and before sodden spectators he could still generate a remarkable, almost unanalyzable degree of emotion. He needed two swords but the crowd petitioned for and got from the judge two ears for him.

Camino's work on both his bulls was uniformly better. Although flashier than Ord��ez, Camino has two styles—a restrained one for Madrid and a florid one for the provinces. For Talavera he turned on the latter. He lost ears from his first bull because he had trouble lining up the bull and more trouble in killing it. On his second, he too kicked off his slippers and extracted a fine series of right-and left-handed passes. He finished with the pass invented by Joselito, the ki-kiri-ki, figure eight flourishes of the muleta to indicate total domination. He killed well and was awarded two ears. What made both Ord��ez' and Camino's performances different from most was the sense of control, together with the impression that either man could turn on or off his finest work at will, a sensation that goes against a demanding public's instinct but one that is the inevitable result of mastery.

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