In the morning, Julio Aparicio had knelt to pray in front of a portable shrine, one that he always takes along to his bullfights. He knelt for longer than usual that morning, he says.
Aparicio has been a matador for more than 20 years. He has killed hundreds of bulls in his career, and the excitement shortly before the corrida, or bullfight, is nothing new to him. But it's different this time, nothing like the tension he's experienced so many times before, the feeling of anticipation while he waits in the hallway for the fight to begin, the cheering crowds, the shouting fans, the music.
The arena smells of horses, hay and bulls. Everything becomes intermingled: the summer heat, the noise, the smell of the matador's outfit. Nothing is really different about this day. In a few moments, someone will push open the red wooden gate, and Aparicio will be able to see the yellowish sand of the arena. The band will start playing and the applause will begin to build.
In the past, this was the moment when all the tension would slip away. The past, for Aparicio, consists of the years leading up to May of this year. But the feeling he has at the moment doesn't seem to want to dissipate.
The matador is afraid.
Nerves Ahead of the Fight
It's early August, shortly before 7 p.m. Aparicio's face looks frozen, and his hair is combed stiffly back with pomade. He will later say the hours of that bullfight were the "worst since I was born."
But at this moment, everyone around him is behaving as if this were a completely ordinary workday -- as if it weren't the comeback of a matador who ought to be dead.
Aparicio's new manager, a young man in a summer suit, glances back and forth between his iPhone and his Rolex. He too is nervous, even though this is only Pontevedra, a small coastal city in the northwestern Spanish region of Galicia. It's a second-class arena, but the money for Aparicio -- or, more accurately, for Aparicio's comeback -- is first class. He'll reportedly take home more than €10,000 (about $12,800) for today's bullfight.
Pontevedra is ideal because it's far away from Madrid. Fans in the Spanish capital expect to see perfection in a matador's movements. Those who are less skilled are forced to get so close to the bull that they can be gored at any moment.
In Pontevedra, on the other hand, the provincial fans are less sophisticated and more grateful. They are friendly aficionados who want to see blood, not art. They howl with delight when the matador slaps the bull on the rump as it rushes past him. It has nothing to do with bullfighting, but they seem to think that it looks good.
Making Money from Bulls
The men by Aparicio's side, his assistants, have been stretching their leg muscles for the last few minutes. Aparicio looks at them. He's known them for years. After a while, Rafael, Angel and David will poke colorful hooked rods into the bull's shoulders.
But today Francisco, the fat one, is more important. He is wearing a light, cream-colored outfit that looks as though it has grown too small for him over the years. Francisco is the picador. Later on, he will sit on a horse and jab a lance into the bull's neck, decisively weakening the animal. The matador wouldn't stand a chance without the picador. Francisco has to do a particularly good job today. It's important that he doesn't overdo it, though. Fans don't like it when the picador is too aggressive, because it would make the bull too weak to put up a good fight. But today Julio Aparicio doesn't look like he could survive a bullfight without a strong picador.
The roar of the crowd in the stands grows louder. The music begins.
An elderly man they call Don Eduardo is sitting in the first row of the arena, one of the best seats in the house. Eduardo Lozano Martín is the empresario, the man who stages the bullfights. As the owner of the Plaza de Toros in Pontevedra, Don Eduardo signs the contracts with the matadors and collects the profits from the corrida. He spent 15 years managing fights in Madrid, and he was once the world's most prominent empresario. He is now 75, an expert in the art of making money with bullfights. Don Eduardo is all smiles today, looking like a man who is about to witness his plans coming to fruition.
It couldn't be a better time for this fight. In the middle of the week, the Catalan parliament issued a ban on bullfights in all four Catalan provinces. Once again, there were heated debates between animal rights activists and those who see bullfighting as a part of Spain's cultural heritage that is worthy of protection. Artists and intellectuals fought to preserve the corrida. The philosopher Fernando Savater wrote: "It is not abuse to receive eggs from the hen, ham from the pig, speed from the horse and courage from the bull." But their efforts were in vain. The ban was not good news for Don Eduardo.
He presumably came up with his plan around the end of May. It was shortly after an image circled the globe that many find difficult to look at. It's probably the most famous bullfighting photograph of all time, and it's the reason Aparicio is standing in the arena in Pontevedra today, and the reason he is afraid.
A Celebration of Spain
The photo was taken on May 21, 2010, a pleasant spring day in Madrid. A festival in honor of San Isidro, the patron saint of Madrid, was underway in Las Ventas, the city's bullfighting arena. There are bullfights every day throughout the three-week festival.
But this year football was on the minds of most people in Madrid. Bayern Munich would play Inter Milan in Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in the Champions League final the next day. Many in Madrid were happy that FC Barcelona had lost to the Italians, which meant that the Catalans would not be winning the cup in Madrid this year.
Football is more important than bullfighting in Spain. Bullfighting is not viewed as a sport, but as a cultural spectacle, a celebration of old Spain, particularly beloved among conservatives. Among Spanish newspapers, the right-wing daily ABC devotes the largest amount of space to the corridas. It critiques the fights in the arts section, right next to the theater reviews.
Aparicio was wearing a black-and-gold outfit for Las Ventas. If all went well on that day, it would soon be "raining contracts," so to speak. Empresarios from all over Spain come to Las Ventas, where they sit in the stands and decide which matadors to book for their plazas.
So far, 2010 hadn't been a good year for Aparicio. He had been booked three times in March and once in April. He fought two bulls each time, and perhaps two of his eight fights were favorably reviewed. He was booed at his last fight, in the southern French city of Nîmes. Frenchmen booing a Spanish matador -- it was the ultimate disgrace, he thought to himself at the time. On this day in Madrid, Aparicio knew that he would have to put in a strong performance -- this was the day that would shape the rest of the season.
He has never had a problem with nerves. At 41, Aparicio is no longer a young matador. He made his debut at 18 in a small arena in Gandia, not far from Valencia. Bullfighting runs in the family. His father, Julio Aparicio, a famous matador of the 1950s, was carried out of the arena in Madrid by adoring fans seven times. Not surprisingly, the senior Aparicio married a flamenco dancer. He was a darling of the press.
Julio was born in 1969. Julito, as he was called, was never as good as his father. He was never particularly glamorous, never the sort of daredevil to come dangerously close to the bull, and never one to force the bull to dance. But Julito became a solid fighter. He could put on an acceptable performance when the bull behaved predictably. But even those performances had become rare. People who mean well call Aparicio an artist of a matador, because of the way he sways and the lost look in his eyes when he stands in the arena. Nerves have never been his problem, but talent was. If things had gone differently on May 21, Aparicio would have been known, and perhaps gone down in history, as a matador whose claim to fame was his famous father.
The bull assigned to him in Madrid was named Opiparo, a light-colored, 530-kilogram specimen produced by the breeder Juan Pedro Domecq. Everything went well at first. Neither of the two -- Aparicio or Opiparo -- was exactly wowing the audience. The matador wasn't taking many risks, but he had the bull under control.
Aparicio performed a few derechazos, the classic right-handed flourish, with his cape. Opiparo charged. Aparicio switched sides and presented the cape with his left hand, holding the dagger in his right hand. The bull charged again.
During one of the movements, just as the bull's horns had passed the cape, Aparicio took a step back and tripped over one of Opiparo's hind legs. He had failed to notice that the bull had turned around.
The matador fell to the ground. At that moment, he made a critical mistake: He tried to stand up.
Miracle in the Arena
From an early age, matadors are constantly told not to get up if they fall to the ground. Those who stand up will more than likely be killed, whereas those who remain motionless stand a good chance of surviving. Bulls are not known to gore a matador in the back -- at least not usually. A matador who stays lying down has a chance, because his helpers will quickly run over to lure the animal away. Good matadors fight in the middle of the plaza, because it means that their assistants will have to cover the most ground to rescue them.
Perhaps, in the heat of the moment, Aparicio believed that he still had a little time left to get up. He will never quite remember the details of what happened next. He was sitting on the ground and he tried to avoid the bull by moving backward just a little. His head was bent slightly forward at about knee level. Opiparo, who had been tortured for about a quarter of an hour, turned around and ran toward Aparicio. He lowered his head, snorted, quickly approached the matador -- and rammed his right horn into Aparicio's neck, directly below his chin. The horn re-emerged from the matador's mouth. The resulting photo looks like a caricature of a bullfight.
The miracle, as it would later be called, was that Opiparo didn't do what comes naturally to a bull. He didn't shake his head back and forth. If he had, he would probably have ripped Aparicio's head to bits. Instead, the bull took a few steps forward, pulling Aparicio with him like a piece of beef on a hook. Then he pulled his horn out again.
At that moment, Aparicio's helpers arrived and distracted the bull. Everything happened so quickly -- in a matter of seconds -- that most of the people in the arena didn't even see it. Nevertheless, two fans with particularly good seats fainted at the sight of the goring.
'We Had to Act Fast'
A few minutes later, Aparicio was lying in the infirmary at the bullfighting arena.
"We had to act fact," says Máximo García Padrós. "They had placed a piece of cloth on his neck, and when I took it off, blood gushed out at me." García Padrós, the chief surgeon at the arena, is a calm, older man whose father held the same position. He is 62 and has been working at Las Ventas for 34 years. He has made it a habit to watch how the bull injures the matador, which makes it easier for him to decide what to do next. For that reason, the doctor always sits in the front row.
Aparicio lost a lot of blood very quickly. García Padrós had to stop the bleeding. The matador's entire mouth was shredded. The horn had penetrated below the left side of the face, passed through the lower jaw and split the tongue in half. Parts of the upper jaw were shattered. Five teeth were sitting loosely on the jaw and protruding horizontally out of Aparicio's mouth.
The doctor operated on Aparicio in the infirmary an hour later. He performed a tracheotomy and tried to stabilize Aparicio as quickly as possible so that he could be moved to a hospital. Four other doctors and two anesthesiologists were also in the room.
When García Padrós found a piece of the bull's horn in Aparicio's mouth, he placed it onto a gauze bandage and decided to keep it as a good-luck charm. The doctor is a little superstitious. If the horn had not reemerged through the mouth, perhaps puncturing an artery or the brain instead, his patient would now be dead.
But he didn't have much time to think about how lucky the man had been. Outside, the corrida continued. One of the doctors announced that another matador, the one who had killed Opiparo, had been gored by the second bull.
"It was one of those days," says García Padrós.
More Famous than His Father
By the time the ambulance left the bullfighting arena, the online editors of the Spanish newspaper El País had already placed the photo on the Internet. For the photographer, Cristóbal Manuel, it was the shot of a lifetime. He had simply pressed the shutter release when he saw Aparicio fall to the ground. The camera shot dozens of photos. When he looked at the display a short time later, he couldn't believe what he was seeing. The next day, the shot appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world. Julio Aparicio was now Spain's most famous matador, much more famous than his father had ever been.
He spent six hours in surgery that day. There were complications a few days later, but he recovered surprisingly quickly. The doctors ordered him not to speak for a while, but they also said that he would recover -- with nothing but a small scar. Every conversation ended with the comment that he had been incredibly lucky.
"Of course, I was overjoyed when I heard about his recovery," says Don Eduardo, the empresario of Pontevedra. He has taken off his white hat. He looks younger than 75, which is something he hears often. "You just have to keep moving, or else the bull will get you," he says. Don Eduardo has known Julito since he was a child. His brother and Julio Aparicio's father stood in the arena together in the 1950s. "I called Aparicio and asked him if he wanted to do Pontevedra. He said yes five minutes later. We're old friends." Don Eduardo recognized the story's potential right away. He's been in the business long enough to know how to make money with bulls.
A Story of Courage
When Aparicio was able to speak again, he gave many interviews. The accident was turned into the great epic that bullfighting in Spain needs so urgently. It took bullfighting back to its most basic, archaic principles. The animal earns respect by trying to survive, and the matador becomes an object of publish adoration for vanquishing the bull. There is great power in the relationship between the two. It was the inspiration for paintings by Picasso and Goya. Even when the balance between the matador and the bull is upset, the respect for the animal remains. The injury or death of the matador is a nothing more than one of the rules of the game.
Aparicio quickly realized that he had an opportunity to deliver a great story -- a story of courage in the face of adversity, and of the triumphant return of a matador only 10 weeks after having a horn jammed through his face. But everything had to happen very quickly.
First he fired his manager, who had said in an interview that a bullfighter couldn't recover that quickly from an accident like Aparicio's, at least not psychologically. The new manager says it is possible. In recent weeks, his job has consisted of arranging interviews and signing contracts. Aparicio will fight in August in Vitoria, Marbella, El Escorial, Gijón, Torremolinos, Málaga, Antequera, Ciudad Real, Requena and Palencia. He had had only six bookings by May. He is now scheduled to appear 11 times in August alone. In the last few weeks, the media have featured a number of human-interest stories about the matador: Aparicio exercising, Aparicio on his ranch, Aparicio the man.
Like Being Run Over
He has even managed to find the right words to describe what happened to him. "Imagine you get run over by a car. It's the same thing," he says. "Except that the car leaves you alone after it has run you over."
Has his relationship with the bulls changed since the accident?
"The bull and I, we are a team," he says. "The bull gives you your triumph. He's your friend. He can also catch you. He's an animal and he wants to defend himself. But I see him as a friend."
Things were progressing. Don Eduardo's plan seemed to be working.
There was only one question that everyone seemed to have forgotten in the midst of all the excitement: What happens the first time Aparicio encounters a bull after Madrid?
It's hot in Pontevedra. The sun has been shining all day. His first bull, a 510-kilo animal, is named Cortesano. Aparicio takes the large cape and flourishes it a few times, keeping it as far away from his body as possible. Then he calls Francisco, the fat picador. Francisco is ready. His horse is blindfolded. He tucks the lance under his arm and waits for Cortesano. He isn't a particularly wild bull. Nevertheless, Francisco is too hard on the bull, and the crowd boos. Francisco jams the lance into the bull's shoulders and neck again and again, until Cortesano, severely weakened by now, turns away.
Aparicio, who now appears to be anxious to get the whole thing over as quickly as possible, is breathing heavily, almost as heavily as the bull. He performs a few straightforward flourishes with his cape, and the grateful band starts playing a paso doble tune. What the audience is witnessing in this arena is no triumph. Instead, it sees a man who wants to get out. But it isn't over yet.
His second bull is named Bombardero. Once again, Aparicio takes no risks, makes a few flourishes and quickly summons the picador.
He has almost made it through the ordeal. Aparicio has the dagger in his hand. All he has to do now is plunge the blade into the exhausted animal, and it'll be over. The matador assumes his position, runs toward the bull and stabs it in the neck. But the angle is much too flat and he falls to the ground. Once again, Aparicio is lying on the ground in an arena.
The matador, now wild-eyed, seems to panic for a brief moment. He tries to get up again, making the same mistake he made in Madrid. Bombardero nods his head. But this time the exhausted bull moves to the side and remains standing. Aparicio stands up.
He has made it. He is alive. The kind people of Pontevedra clap, but it isn't the applause of people paying homage to a triumphant matador. Instead, it's the happy applause of fans who are relieved that this day has ended safely for Julio Aparicio.
"There are certainly some people in the audience who only came to see if Aparicio might be gored once again," says Don Eduardo. A good seat for this piece of theater went for €110. Don Eduardo compares it to a Formula 1 race. He says that he only watches the races for the crashes. The rest, he says, is boring.
For Aparicio, the good news of the day is that he's still alive.
The bad news is that there are others who still have big plans for him.