Spanish Matador Juan José Padilla 'Injuries Are My Medals - Now I've Won the Gold'

Spanish matador Juan José Padilla, 38, suffered a horrific goring during a bullfight last October. In a SPIEGEL interview, he talks about his decision to make a swift comeback, his struggles to overcome his fears in the arena and his views of the sport's critics.

The animal's swollen tongue is hanging from its mouth, its saliva is dripping into the sand and its back is glistening with blood as it stands in the ring breathing heavily with a racing heart. Standing opposite the beast, waiting, is Juan José Padilla, a slender, 38-year-old man wearing pinstriped linen trousers, a white shirt and brown leather shoes. He also has a black patch over one eye. He is holding a silver sword and a muleta, the red bullfighter's cloth hanging from a stick. The animal paws the ground with its hooves -- and then attacks.

This duel is taking place at the Finca Los Alburejos, an estate near Medina-Sidonia in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia. Padilla, the matador (known in Spanish as a torero), makes a few practiced flourishes, directing the animal like a marionette. On this afternoon, he is training with two-year-old cows, trying to determine whether they are courageous, powerful and persistent, and therefore suitable for breeding fighting bulls.

In early October, a bull slammed its horn into Padilla's jaw and gouged out his left eye. The matador barely survived. He made his comeback five months later. Since then, those who consider bullfighting worth protecting as part of Spain's cultural heritage have worshipped Padilla as a living legend.

His grandfather was a matador, and so was his father. "You can be run over by a car, or you can be in a plane crash. I was run over by a bull," says Padilla. "I rarely think about that disaster." The left corner of his mouth hangs down, and the entire left side of his face seems paralyzed. He looks like an unemotional poker player, speaking slowly and mumbling a little because his tongue isn't working quite as well as it's supposed to yet. "The eye patch -- I think it looks good on me," he adds.

SPIEGEL: Señor Padilla, are you a fearful man?

Padilla: No, I'm not.

SPIEGEL: The Feria Taurina de Abril, one of the world's most famous bullfighting festivals, is taking place this week in Seville. You will appear there in front of 18,000 people, even though a bull almost killed you at a corrida, a bullfight, six months ago. And you're not afraid?

Padilla: Oh, that's what you meant. Yes, of course, I'm always afraid when I'm working. Fear accompanies me like a shadow in the ring. But that has nothing to do with my accident. It was like that before the accident. Every torero is afraid.

SPIEGEL: Of what?

Padilla: Mostly of the audience. It expects me to fully execute my movements. I feel obligated to offer the audience a good fight, and I have a responsibility to entertain the fans. But I also can't make the mistake of underestimating that bull. I would be stupid if I did. No matter how well prepared I am for a bullfight, I never know what will happen in the ring. I don't know how the bull will react and whether he'll give me an opportunity to display my skills. Perhaps he'll be too stubborn for that. And then there's also the wind that makes me afraid. It's a torero's greatest enemy.


Padilla: Because the wind can surprise you. It's possible that a gust will suddenly lift the muleta (the matador's cloth) and deprive you of your cover. Then you're suddenly standing in front of the bull with no protection. It isn't pretty.

SPIEGEL: There was no wind on Oct. 7 in Saragossa, when a bull almost killed you, as the fight took place in a covered arena. Do you remember exactly what happened?

Padilla: I was very confident in the arena at the time. I had had a good season up until then. There were a few critical situations, but I was always able to cope with them. Maybe I felt too secure that day, too superior. As I said already, one should always have respect for the bull. The bull is there to get you. That's what he's there for. It's his nature.

SPIEGEL: Was the bull more aggressive than you'd expected?

Padilla: It was my second bullfight on the day. The bull I had been allotted was named Marqués. He weighed just under 600 kilograms (1,320 pounds), had a black hide and was actually fairly reserved rather than a passionate attacker. That makes the performance complicated. I had trouble judging Marqués; his movements were unpredictable. I didn't take any big risks, and I had the bull under control. The fight was going well.

SPIEGEL: And then you made a mistake?

Padilla: No, it was just bad luck. I had already placed four banderillas. The colorfully decorated sticks have barbed hooks, and they were stuck in the bull's left shoulder. I wanted to place the third pair of banderillas, this time in the right shoulder, but the bull cut me off. I was on the verge of aborting, but my pride tempted me to try it anyway.

SPIEGEL: So you did make a mistake.

Padilla: No, I didn't. When I had placed the third pair of banderillas and backed off, the bull knocked me over. I fell, and he rammed his horn into my head, below the left ear. The horn came out again through the eye socket. The left side of my face was in shreds. It was a massive impact, as if a hand grenade had exploded below my mouth. But it was an accident. Things just happen.

SPIEGEL: You say that so nonchalantly. But it's a miracle you're still alive.

Padilla: I know. The bull crushed my jaw and cheekbone with his horn, and he tore open the skin along the lower jaw. I was very lucky. It wouldn't have taken much for the horn to hit my brain. In that case, I wouldn't be sitting here.

SPIEGEL: Was it immediately clear to you how severely the bull had gored you?

Padilla: There was blood everywhere. I still remember how I stood up and picked up my eye off the sand. I took it to the medical station at the arena. I walked on my own at first, but then four people came and supported me. In the end, they had to carry me. I shouted: "I can't see anything! I can't see anything at all!" After that, I had trouble breathing because one of my carotid arteries had been damaged. I still remembering saying to the doctor: "Now I'm in your hands -- and the hands of God." Then everything went dark. I woke up in the ICU (intensive-care unit) two days later.

SPIEGEL: How did you feel then?

Padilla: Not bad, I think. They operated on me for five hours on the day of the accident. The surgeons implanted titanium plates and tissue, and they reconstructed the nose, jaw, cheekbone and eye socket. They also tried to save the optical nerve. They transplanted nerve pathways from one of my calves into my face. I can no longer hear in my left ear, and I have a terrible ringing in my ears. My jaw doesn't close well; it stays open a few millimeters. I have to use my hand for support while eating, drinking and talking. My tongue is numb, and the entire left side of my face is paralyzed and devoid of all sensation. I can pinch myself and feel nothing.

SPIEGEL: How long were you in the hospital?

Padilla: A total of four weeks. I lost 18 kilograms (40 pounds). When I spoke with my wife for the first time in the ICU, I told her I wanted to fight again as soon as possible. I had a commitment in Lima, Peru. I wanted to go.

SPIEGEL: How did your wife react?

Padilla: She changed the subject.

SPIEGEL: Were you ashamed of what happened to you, embarrassed about being wounded by the bull?

Padilla: Quite the opposite. I was proud and felt bathed in glory.

SPIEGEL: Really?

Padilla: A torero lives with the knowledge that he can die at any moment and in any fight. But a torero is also a person with an invincible will. He doesn't want to be injured, but he is proud of having survived an injury.

SPIEGEL: How often has that happened to you?

Padilla: I have been injured 37 times, in seven cases seriously. I've already had a cornada (horn-wound) at stomach level. A bull's horn once struck me in the neck, just below the larynx. And once I was hit in the upper leg, where he damaged the femoral artery and the saphenous vein. Injuries are my medals. This last one is my worst cornada. Now I've won the gold.

'I'm a Special Attraction Now.'

Padilla pulls up his shirt to bare his torso. A scar runs across the stomach from the chest down to below the navel. There is an indentation in the skin -- almost round and about the size of a two-euro coin or a US quarter -- below the right ribcage. A brown wooden cross hangs from a chain around Padilla's neck. "This is the eye of the tiger," he says. No one can touch the cross, he says, or else it will lose its power and no longer protect him from death.

SPIEGEL: Have you ever thought of giving up?

Padilla: What are you talking about? I now have a chance to prove that I can dance better with the bull with one eye than with two. It isn't the bull that decides when my career is over. I decide.

SPIEGEL: So, in the end, you're even happy to have lost your eye?

Padilla: Logically speaking, it was worth it, very much worth it. I should have died, but God didn't want me to join Him. I bow my head before his decision.

SPIEGEL: Have you profited from your injury?

Padilla: Yes, yes, yes. I'm a special attraction now. I can only fight against the bulls from the best blood stock, and I start alongside the most famous toreros, who are much further along than I am. I've always made a good living as a bullfighter. But not like this. I have contracts for Valencia and Seville, in Spain, and for Arles, in France.

SPIEGEL: When did you first start training again after the accident?

Padilla: When I was still in the hospital. I practiced with a friend, either in the room or in the hallway of the ward. He pretended to be the bull, and I used a towel as a muleta. I was in the ring for the first time on December 30. But it was a private corrida. I gathered my family, my closest friends and my doctors together and dedicated that moment to them.

SPIEGEL: During bullfights, do you notice that you're missing an eye?

Padilla: No. I still have trouble seeing three-dimensionally, but I've been able to estimate depths fairly well. I've also regained my self-confidence vis-à-vis the bull. I am capable of mastering him. If that weren't the case, I wouldn't go into the arena.

SPIEGEL: But if the bull comes at you from the left, you can't see him.

Padilla: A torero is constantly watching the bull. He studies him and tries to fathom his weaknesses. The trick is to slow the bull down and guide him past you in such a way that he doesn't touch the cloth but comes as close to it as possible. This results in a dance between the bull and the torero

SPIEGEL: … a dance with death for two …

Padilla: … a ballet. But if it's the torero's destiny that the bull is going to get him, it doesn't matter how many eyes he has -- three, six or 13. The bull will get him either way.

SPIEGEL: Do you have dreams about your accident?

Padilla: No. And I don't see a psychiatrist or do any mental training, either. I looked at the video of the attack: no problem. I've put it behind me. A torero has to overcome his fears every day, going eye to eye with one of the most powerful creatures on Earth. That's his therapy.

SPIEGEL: How do you train?

Padilla: At the moment, by going to speech and physical therapy. I work with my fitness trainer in the afternoon. I bike a lot, and I do Pilates and yoga to develop body control. I'm trying to improve my ability to react quickly. At the Toreo de Sálon, a person attacks me while pushing a cart with real horns on the front. Or I train in the ring with real animals.

SPIEGEL: How many animals have you killed since leaving the hospital?

Padilla: There were two in the arena, at official events. And about 40 while preparing on the field.

SPIEGEL: And how many bulls have you killed in your career?

Padilla: Certainly more than a thousand.

SPIEGEL: Do you have a different relationship with bulls now that one of them has gouged out your eye?

Padilla: I'm always tense shortly before the corrida; every torero is. Now I'm more excited than I used to be. But I don't harbor any feelings of revenge.

SPIEGEL: Is the bull in the arena your adversary or your partner?

Padilla: We're a community, and he's my ally. The bull fully participates in the triumph of the torero.

SPIEGEL: The bull's role is to lose its life. Is killing one's ally something you can learn, or are you simply born that way?

Padilla: Let me answer your question like this: It's a fixed element of the corrida that the bull dies -- unless, of course, he is pardoned for being extraordinarily strong and courageous. But that happens very rarely. Otherwise, it's the bull's destiny to die in the ring.

SPIEGEL: You're a hero among bullfighting fans. But animal rights activists think you're a murderer.

Padilla: A murderer? I don't like that expression at all. I refuse to accept this word. We toreros are people who look after the animals. We care for the bulls. We love them.

SPIEGEL: Really?

Padilla: Yes. The bulls live in groups in the pasture, in nature. They receive no hormones or other substances. Everything is 100 percent organic. The bull enjoys a life that every chicken and cow destined for slaughter can only dream of. It's part of our culture that this life ends with death in the ring.

SPIEGEL: The bullfight is an archaic performance. In September, the parliament of the northeastern autonomous community of Catalonia banned the corrida in all four of its provinces.

Padilla: I deplore the situation. I regret that there are people who have a contemptuous image of the corrida. These people are not familiar with our art. They reject bullfighting out of ignorance.

SPIEGEL: Isn't it obvious that the animal is tormented?

Padilla: You don't understand the full picture. We toreros have a different view of things. The bull doesn't suffer because he's in a state of complete abandon. And that state gives rise to beauty.

SPIEGEL: You and your assistants spend about 20 minutes exhausting the bull to the point of apathy. The mounted picador mauls him with his lance, the loss of blood weakens the animal, and the muscles in his neck are so mutilated that he can hardly lift his head anymore. During the deathblow, the sword penetrates between the shoulder blades, going past the spine and into the intestines. But the blade is often deflected by a bone, and the matador has to try again. The stab wound usually doesn't kill the bull outright, which is why the assistants goad him on to move his head back and forth and to keep moving until he falls to the ground. Only then is he deliberately killed with a thrust of the sword to the neck. How is this abandon? And where's the beauty in it?

Padilla: I won't answer that question. I'm not sitting here to begin an argument with opponents of bullfighting. I won't waste any time addressing the arguments of bullfighting opponents.

Padilla gets up, saying that he has to go somewhere now, and that he's in a hurry. He motions to his driver, who will take him home to his house in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where his wife and their two children are waiting for him, and where rows of mounted, preserved bull heads line the walls. "We've covered everything," says Padilla, who clearly wants to leave.

SPIEGEL: We have one more question: Do you like eating meat?

Padilla: Oh yes. Very much so.

SPIEGEL: Señor Padilla, thank you for this interview.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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