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In 1961, the American matador John Fulton, who hadn't fought a bull in eight months and was suffering from a sprained ankle, hobbled into the Madrid bullring, fought miserably and was gored by a critic: "Mister Fulton has proved once again that a North American has no business in a bullring." While Fulton eventually redeemed himself, he spent years breaking through the prejudice that anyone born without sangria in his veins couldn't possibly be an acceptable bullfighter.
Twenty years later, on Easter Sunday this year, a restless crowd of 10,000 in Juarez, Mexico watched as a gangly, blond, blue-eyed gringo from Texas named David Renk stepped into the bullring there to take his alternativa and thus become a recognized, full-fledged matador. An 18-year-old high school senior from Houston, Renk had spent four years training for this moment. He had fought in 40 novilladas on the rookie circuit in Mexico and had killed 50 bulls. At 15 he had become the youngest member of the Asociación de Matadores, and now, under the tutelage of Pepe Luis Vazquez, an esteemed senior matador, he was considered one of the most promising novilleros in Mexico. But Vazquez was worried about the Juarez fight, worried they were rushing things. "David hasn't fought that many big bulls," Vazquez said, "and we've had only two months to really train together."
Sharing the ring at Juarez with Renk were Fermin Espinosa and his brother Miguel—heirs to the famous "Armillita" dynasty of matadors and two of the hottest "swords" in the land. They greeted David cordially before entering the ring, but one couldn't help but wonder what they were thinking. Would this gringo fade into mediocrity, as so many had before him, or would he one day compete with them for top billing? Whatever their feelings, their mere presence in the ring was competition enough for a novillero of any nationality.
A few hours before the fight, Renk was a Yankee kid through and through, with his Texas drawl and his fondness for Mad magazine and Coca-Cola, but in the bright sunlight of the bullring, wearing "the suit of lights," walking into the arena with dignity, he was different. It didn't matter that he once had had club feet and might still fail English this semester at Cy-Fair High School—now he was El Texano, scheduled to fight Pepete, No. 84, a coal-black, half-ton bull. If David could dominate Pepete and perform well, he would make history. But as the bull came out of the gate and charged the preliminary cape of a banderillero, Vazquez shook his head and said to Renk, "He's hooking to both sides, David. It's a bad animal. If the picador doesn't punish him well, you'll have trouble."
That David Renk was walking—much less fighting bulls—was something of a miracle. At the age of nine he underwent eight hours of surgery to correct deformed feet that had left him walking like a crab since early childhood. From the time he was a baby he'd gone to bullfights with his father, a Houston water-conditioning executive and part-time rancher, and he'd reveled in the spectacle. One Sunday in 1972, after his operation, he was taken by his father to watch Vazquez, an old friend, in the Juarez bullring. Before killing his first bull, Vazquez walked to the side of the ring, where David was sitting in his wheelchair, encased in plaster from hip to toe. "What happened to you?" Vazquez asked. David told shyly of the operation. "Well," said Vazquez, in his perfect English, "you'll accomplish whatever you want. You'll be whatever you want to be."
"Even a matador?" asked David.
"Even a matador," said Vazquez. "I dedicate this bull to the success of your operation."
The kill earned Vazquez an ear. As he walked around the ring in the traditional ceremony he paused as he passed David and tossed the ear to him. It was a scene out of a Frank Capra movie, but the next episode was pure Sam Peckinpah. When Vazquez was in the ring again later with his last bull, he was gored in the groin. He staggered to his feet, blood pouring from the wound, killed the bull and passed out. The goring was so bad that it was two years before he fought again.
Meanwhile, David had been fighting his own battle: learning to walk for the second time around. His father recalls, "When the casts came off, I'd stand him up against the wall like a 2-year-old and make him walk to me." After regaining strength and balance, David began to walk properly and was no longer the butt of schoolroom jokes, although it was some time before he was able to run. Even then he knew he'd rather fight bulls than throw footballs, although he was a student-trainer of his high school football team for four seasons. "Play football?" Renk says, mockingly. "Me? That game is really dangerous." (Actually, a tossed football broke his index finger in a freak sideline accident.)
At 14, he began bullfighting in earnest, taking six months off from school to live in Mexico with the family of another novillero. He began to fight in novilladas—the testing circuit for rookies—and when he proved he was serious about what he was doing, his father called on his old friend, Vazquez. Vazquez's name, after 40 years on fight posters, unquestionably helped to open doors for his gringo protégé, but it's his knowledge of the bulls that young Renk values most. "Every move I make in the ring I owe to him," he says, "from the way I walk to the way I kill. He's like an encyclopedia of the last four decades of bullfighting."