THE 1996-7 BULLFIGHTING SEASONS: THE 90'S GENERATION IN CONTROL by Mario Carrión


INTRODUCTION

If you were to read the matadors' rankings and the corrida calendars in past issues of taurine magazines of the decade of the 80's, you would find very few names there of the matadors who have played a stellar role in the 1996 season. The vast majority of the matadors who have been the protagonists of the last season are matadors who took their alternativas in the 90's, and a few, who although became matadors in 1987, 1988 or in 1989, did not mature as full professionals until the 90's (you may refer to Perspective for the 96 Spanish Taurine Season ...and Beyond). In my predictions for the 1996 season I mentioned the names of a few new promising young bullfighters who would contribute to complete the process, started in 1990, of replacing the veteran stars. My predictions were more than fulfilled. Not only did the young matadors I mentioned remain or become leaders of the 1996 European season, but a few others few young matadors, with their unexpected triumphs in Seville and Madrid, as well as a female matador, joined them to compete for positions in the cartels of the significant ferias of Europe and America. In 1996 the process of renovation has been almost completed. The matadors of the 90's have replaced most of the veteran figuras of the 70's and 80's; since with the exception of "Joselito", César Rincón, "Espartaco", if he is healthy enough to return, and the retiring Ortega Cano, the veterans left will find themselves relegated to the position of the supporting cast in the coming season. Some old stars, who still have some spark, will play the role of patriarchs enjoying a limited success, until they slowly disappear from the picture. Other old matadors, who never were stars, will persevere pursuing the 'impossible dream' of becoming one, and the wiser professionals, recognizing that the pressure from the young is on, will retire when they are on top, as Manzanares has done.

In general terms, the '96 taurine season was good in the artistic aspect, since many matadors cut many ears, and the classic and serious matadors seem to be gaining over the 'tremendista' performers in the race for audience approval. Economically the season was also satisfactory, but worse than the 1995 season. One of the reasons was that although fewer corridas were presented than in 1995, the promoters still organized too many fights in the traditional ferias, and a excess of fights in small towns, often repeating the same cartels. Many corridas have also been televised during the last three or four years, with the consequence of overexposing the performers. As a result, often in small towns, even with attractive cartels, the public has not filled the arenas. Although Jesulín and "El Cordobés", two of the major offenders in the pursuit of records, have hinted that they will limit the number of their performances, the error unfortunately is going to be repeated in 1997, since a characteristic of the rising young stars consists of a tendency to add as many performances as possible to their records for the sake of making their names a household word. The matadors are going to be the losers because the promoters have the habit of cutting their fees when the public does not show up at the arenas' gates.

Let's now look ahead to the 1997 European taurine season and predict who the protagonists and the supporting cast members will be. There are many variables that should be considered in predicting the chances that a matador has for succeeding in the immediate future, besides the ranking of matadors by the number of corridas fought and trophies obtained. Those variables are more subjective and difficult to evaluate as predictors for the achievement of the torero in the future, but they are perhaps more significant. For example, the style of bullfighting, the personality of the performer, how the media and the aficionados categorize the performer, how different audiences respond to the same torero, how well the matador is being managed, the opinions of the 'experts', the winning streak or the 'momentum' of the matador, or the reaction of the matador after a goring. So I will look ahead to the 1997 season considering the cold facts of the statistics along with the other more subtle factors and, of course, inevitably injecting my own intuition and prejudice.

To give this discussion some type of logical form I will be predicting the roles the main matadors would play in the '97 season, by categorizing them as "The Protagonists" or "The Supporting Cast". In a prologue I will recognize the matadors who have just retired, and in an epilogue I will compress my thoughts about the next season. I have purposely shied away from discussing the role that the leading novilleros taking their alternativas this year may play as matadors. My rationale is that I do not know enough about the various promising novilleros; the real reason is that it is very risky to predict how a successful novillero is going to adjust to the more demanding task of performing with bigger and older animals, and competing with seasoned professionals. Following the name of each matador I will insert some figures in a bracket that represent the number of corridas fought and as well as the number of trophies obtained by the performer in 1996 (corridas, ears, tails).

FAREWELLS

José María Manzanares (58,54,1), completed his outstanding farewell tour in Europe last October and by this writing is in Latin America saying farewell to his fans. José María fought as an outstanding star without a rest for 25 years. And what is more remarkable is that he has been a better and more predictable performer in the second part of his career. Manzanares is a very artistic and majestic torero, who, because of the knowledge of his trade, has became a courageous one. During his career he adjusted to the changes in the behavior of the bulls, from the smaller and more lively bulls of the 70's to the monumentally large but slower animals of the present by basing his performances on the 'temple' and on the lengthening of his artistic passes. His technique has been emulated by many young toreros. The Maestro could have continued to fight since he is still in great physical form, but he preferred to said goodby while he is still at his professional zenith . I hope he will stay away from the plazas and leave the aficion clamoring for more of his faenas...but his fans, money and fame will be tempting him to return.

Other matadors have also formally retired last year, one for disability and four others, we might say, because they have been downsized. "El Soro" has left because the doctors have not been able to leave him in good enough physical condition to practice his profession, in spite of performing multiple surgeries to his knee during two years. "El Soro" was a brave matador-banderillero who has entertained the public for several years with his innovative ways of placing the banderillas. He could have stayed longer since his appeal did not diminish... but destiny has chosen otherwise for him. The other retiring matadors were Luis Galloso (2,3,0), José Antonio Campuzano (7,5,0) and Manolo Cortés (1,0,0) great toreros who have remained in the profession after their moment has passed; and Raul Aranda (3,0,0), a courageous matador of only regional fame.

THE PROTAGONISTS

In this group I will include the leading matadors who will perform in the most important ferias this year, and their names will appear at the top of the 1997 rankings at the end of the season. Their status as well as the aspirations of these matadors vary widely. Among them we can recognize enthroned figuras ready to stand up any challenge, matured matadors who are coasting, and young bullfighters who will have to press hard to justify their claim to leadership.

"The Superfiguras".

Two matadors find themselves in a privileged position: young Enrique Ponce (111,172,5), and the veteran "Joselito" (82-99-2).

Ponce is the 'intelligence with a montera', his knowledge of the bull is amazing. He built his faenas as an architect builds a palace, from the foundation up, brick after brick, ensuring that the result is pure majesty and elegance. The completed work --his faenas-- are always superior than any of its components. He seems to fight to satisfy himself rather than the crowd; his faenas rarely include shortcuts to get the easy applause; nevertheless, he pleases the audiences, the aficionados as well as the occasional spectators, winning their applause and their rewards. Two things should be considered when judging Enrique; one is that his statistics show that a great proportion of his fights takes place in first and second class arenas; and the other is that since 1991 his leadership, the approval of his style by the press and the aficion, and his popularity have steadily improved in Europe as well as in America. Enrique Ponce gives the impression that he will continue to grow in stature as a torero and that he also will attempt to give everything he has in order to remain in a position of leadership this season and for a few more.

"Joselito" is a veteran matador who has had his alternativa for more than a dozen years. He is a classical torero with the purest style of bullfighting, especially with the cape. Today he might be the best matador with the sword, since he kills the bulls in a traditional and true manner. He has always been one of the most important figuras during all his years as matador, obsessed more quality than with the quantity of his performances; but last year his triumph in Madrid catapulted him to the category of super stardom. He had three brilliant performances, especially when in a corrida fighting six bulls by himself, he cut five ears. As a consequence of his enhanced status last year, the promoters encouraged some type of competition between him and Ponce. There are plans for José and Enrique to frequently fight 'mano a mano' in 1997. I feel that this competition has been conveniently created and might not last long. Historically, the natural competition between two matadors that has existed in bullfighting, has always included toreros of contrasting styles and appeals, such as the classic matador against the unorthodox or charismatic one. Nevertheless, I have to agree that if those two great matadors were to motivate each other the result could be exciting. I hope that such a rivalry becomes reality in 1997 and continues into the future.

"The Popular Trio".

The repetitive combination of the so called 'tremendistas' toreros "Jesulín de Ubrique" (121,110,10), "El Cordobés" (110,256,26) and "Litri" (95,142,3), that brought the youngsters and many women, besides the regular aficionados, to the rings, was not repeated systematically in 1996. Each matador went his own way last season. "El Litri" has aged as a more conventional torero gaining more the praise and approval from the aficionados and the critics. In 1996 he fought with great success in many ferias and he will continue to be an important player this year. "Jesulín", still the leader in number of corridas, has had less relative success and a harder time in 1996 than the year before. Sometimes he was the subject of unfair treatment from the aficionados and the critics, who probably resented his extracurricular activity as a singer during the season. He may not be a classical torero, but he is an excellent one who dominates the bulls with his courage and temple. In 1997 he plans to reduce the number of his performances. This might be a good move since he has been too concerned with quantity, instead of refining his special form of fighting. "El Cordobés" seems to have an artistic split-personality. He could be a very artistic performer who conveniently has chosen to ration his artistic gift, and instead has elected to fight with great courage in an unorthodox manner that pleases the thousands of new and unconditional fans, who are addicted to his peculiar way of bullfighting. He too often fights in third rate arenas, which might explain the tremendous number of trophies he has obtained. Just recently "El Córdobés" has dismissed his manager, claiming that he wants to change the direction of his career. He faces a dilemma since, if he displays his artistic side in pursuit of the elusive recognition of the 'highbrows' of bullfighting, he might lose many of his fans, as well as money and popularity.

"The Two Young New Figuras".

Francisco Rivera Ordoñez (101-102-5) and Vicente Barrera (73-76-1) started the '96 season as promising young stars, but they ended it as confirmed figuras. This season they will be featured as principal attractions in the most important ferias. Francisco is a classic torero with tremendous courage. He connects easily with the audience and he is liked by the aficion as well as by the general public. He is also becoming the object of the non-taurine tabloid press because of his private life, which helps to increase his popularity. Vicente fights very elegantly. His style has been compared to Manolete's, but reminds me more of the style prevalent in the 50's and 60's. He remains very static in his faenas while the bull's horns almost shave his legs in every pass. A very emotional, beautiful and dangerous style, but not very practical for the slower and massive bulls that are fought today. He had an outstanding season in Latin America as a warm-up for the many corridas that he will fight this year.

"Two Unexpected Protagonists for '97".

Raul Gracia "El Tato" (78-90-1) and Pepín Liria (80-114-7) both were both on their way after a few years as matadors to being branded as 'gladiators' to fight monster bulls for little money without great recognition; but were included by chance in the Seville feria, where they succeeded beyond expectations. This changed their destinies. Later they were included in many corridas, not always under the best of conditions, but they kept lowering barriers until they gained roles as protagonists for the Latin American ferias and for the upcoming European season. They still need one or two more triumphant seasons to be considered figuras. They are not going to give up.

"Four Promising Young Stars".

Victor Puerto (56-110-11) took his first giant step toward stardom when he was declared 'the best matador of San Isidro' after he twice left the Madrid bullring on the shoulders of his fans. Then he continued having great successes in most of his fights. He is a courageous classical torero who shows opportune flashes of showmanship. This year, he will surely take another great step toward became a star. Cristina Sánchez (67-132-4) took her alternativa in May in Nimes, after having fought 22 novilladas, which included great performances in Seville and Madrid. She is the first woman matador on her way to becoming a figura. In her first season as a matador, she fought in many third rate arenas with the objective of becoming adjusted to older and stronger animals, which she has done well, in spite of continuing problems with the use of the sword. Her performances in the Latin American season have not been as brilliant as anticipated. This season is crucial for her, since she needs to succeed as a matador in first-class bullrings, as she has as a novillero. She will be the great novelty for this season. Javier Conde (54--86-11) is the most inspirational and artistic of the new matadors, but already in his third year as matador he still has not decided to face the aficion of Seville and Madrid. The advantage of this managerial decision is that he has had more opportunities to get more experience, and the problem lies in that he is raising undue expectations. To become a figura like his contemporary Rivera Ordoñez y Barrera he has to take more chances in the significant plazas this year. He has changed management, and probably the new manager will change the course of his career.

"The Complacent one"

"Finito de Córdoba" (55-50-1) is a very classical fine matador who has been labeled as a figura, but who has just coasted during the last two seasons, doing just O.K. He is in danger of being displaced from the top unless he tries harder in 1997

"The Veteran Established Stars".

A common trace among these men is that their deserved reputation is such that statistics are now of only relative importance for them. They can have a good or bad season, and the following year they still find a place on the prestigious cartels with only their fees varying.

The Colombian César Rincón (44-35-0} suffered a knee injured last season that kept him out of commission for the greater part of the year, but he fought with relative success during the second part of the season. In the Fall in Colombia he again had surgery on his knee which caused him to miss several corridas in his home country. He was scheduled to reappear there on February 7 but had to postpone the date. He is already billed for several fights during the European season. If César is healthy, he will defend his position as a lion. "Espartaco", the leader for five consecutive years in the 80's, did not fight last year, had a shortened season the year before, and will not start fighting in 1997 until after the Seville and Madrid ferias, also due to a knee injury. If he fights he will try his best or quit. The stylish matador José Ortega Cano (26-25-2), since his serious goring in Cartagena, Colombia, in January 1995, has not recovered the momentum he had before the accident. He seems ready for retirement, but he wants to do it gracefully. The icon of the art of bullfighting, Curro Romero (18-6-0), had a good season last year fighting better more regularly than in previous years. He contracted for five corridas for Seville and a few others elsewhere for 1997. He is scheduled to fight the last corrida of his season on October 12, and by then he will be a 64-year-old senior citizen...and for now no social security for the Maestro Curro.

THE SUPPORTING CAST

In this broad category I have included toreros of dissimilar status and possibilities, such as young matadors on their way up, others who were stars, or were close to stardom, but missed a step on their way and are still trying to climb back; as well as some prestigious veterans who are in the twilight of their careers; and then there are the 'gladiators'. What all then have in common is that they have to struggle to find a place at the top, or just to remain where they are. They will be complementing many cartels, and some like Pepín Liria and "El Tato" did in '96, might surprise us in '97 becoming stars of the taurine universe.

"The young pretenders".

The Spaniard José Tomás (35-36-0), took his alternative in Mexico and came to Madrid in San Isidro to confirm it, where he surprised the public with his depth and pure form of bullfighting. Later he proved his great class and mute courage in many of his performances. He has great probability to shine this season. "Pedrito de Portugal" (34-35-0) had great successes in America, (he just made history in Mexico City by cutting four ears), which leads us to believe that in '97, after to years of trying hard, he will finally find in Spain the same type of success that he found in America. This season will be crucial for him to finally rise to the top. He has all the qualifications to do it. Canales Rivera (28-38-3), a leading and veteran novillero, took his alternativa at the mid-96 season, and then continued performing with success. His long career as a novillero has given him the experience and knowledge to triumph as a matador. He is a valiant bullfighter of a classical mold.

"The Two Artistic Veterans.

Emilio Muñoz (36-11-0), whose last two seasons were mediocre, still managed to have a few performances of great quality. Due to injuries Juan Mora (25-19-0} fought fewer corridas in '96, and with less success, than the year before. He often leaves the aficionados with the impression that he is an underachiever, since they expect that Juan by now, after 14-year career, would have become a figura. Emilio and Juan will still be on good cartels, and they also will produce some inspired great faenas until they retire, but their careers will not advance further.

"In Search of a Second Chance"

This group of matadors had a brilliant run as novilleros and as matadors were very close to reaching stardom, but for whatever reasons missed a step. Now they are hoping to get that chance climb back again. They will fight enough to prove themselves. Julio Aparicio (41-30-1} is one of the most charismatic artists fighting in the ring today. He has many followers who admire his artistry but they resent his apathy. Manolo Sánchez (30-40-1) is a very refined torero, great with the muleta but rather weak with the sword. The unorthodox Antonio Borrero "Chamaco" (23-25-0} as a matador failed to grab the attention of the wide audience, as he did as novillero. His appeal has diminished but not his courage. Manuel Caballero (27-36-11} is a very classical matador who, as a novillero, had opened the 'puerta grande' of many arenas, but he remains in the twilight zone as a matador. In 1996 he took a step forward. José Ignacio Sánchez (28-15-0) is a fine torero from Salamanca, who is almost unknown in southern Spain, but popular in the northern region of the country. Javier Vazquez lost the vision in one eye which was injured by a banderilla. This kept him on the sidelines for a couple of months but he came back fighting with more success than he was having before the tragedy. The time for Rafael Camino (23-25-0) to return to the spotlight is running out since he took the alternativa in 1987. He is still trying.

"Gladiators"

This is a group of bullfighters who have cemented their fame based on their ability to dominate difficult and huge bulls that the figuras avoid. Their trademark is courage and professional know-how. Some are also spectacular in placing banderillas. Their names regularly appear in the main ferias, but fighting tough bulls such as the legendary 'Miuras' or 'Victorinos'. The courageous Portuguese matador Victor Méndez (14-3-0} has announced his retirement after the 1997 season. Last year he limited his appearances to a few fights, but this season he plans to fight as many corridas as possible with the intention to say farewell to the aficion. Victor is a very powerful maestro and one of the best matadors placing banderillas today. Juan Francisco Esplá(26-1-0) is another veteran and also an outstanding banderillero; he is the most complete matador of the group. He seems to be easing his way out of bullfighting. The powerful and good matador Tomás Campuzano (12-26-6), once a star, is still trying to increase his number of corridas, but the promoters are ignoring him. "El Fundi" (37-49-5) fought fewer corridas in '96 than he did in '95. He probably will increase his engagements this coming season, since he cut ears on many of his bulls last year. The stylish Domingo Valderrama (15-7-0) had a mediocre season. His inspired Sevillian style of bullfighting is not, in the long run, the most appropriate for confronting the difficult bulls he fights. He has changed managers with the hope of increasing his opportunities this year. There are two new regulars in this group. Both are excellent toreros aspiring to go up in the estimation of the public. One is the sober and elegant matador Oscar Higares (34-30-1), and the other is the very classical Miguel Rodríguez (25-26-1). Miguel has surprised everyone with his triumphant campaign in Latin America, where he was awarded some important trophies. Both have sufficient qualifications to advance in their careers; they only need a little bit of luck.

"The Dreamers"

Many promising novilleros take the alternativa trying to find a 'place in the sun', most soon disappear from the picture, others manage to get some fights to keeps them following their dreams. In many cases the ones who try the longest are native sons of a region where they are given the chance to pursue their quests. A fact that works against their opportunity to succeed is that most of their fights take place in second and third rate plazas on cartels where the figuras do not appear. I will list some, not all the names, of those matadors who will have some chance to fight during one more season. Maybe one or two of these matadors named here will see the beginning of the realization of their dream this year...but to rise to the top from where they are, they need a few consecutive good seasons fighting in important taurine locations. Paco Cervantes (9-15-1), an excellent leading novillero in 1995, took the alternativa last year and has not confirmed it in Madrid yet; Luis Miguel Encabo, (10-24-3) was also great as a novillero but had an unremarkable performance in San Isidro when confirming his alternativa last season; "El Molinero" (28-42-3), from the Aragon Region, had a good season last year; Juan José Padilla (20-30-1); "El Califa" (17-35-6); Ruíz Bento Vázquez (17-4-0), Portuguese, is the third most popular matador in his country; Luis Milla (16-33-2); Sergio Sánchez (15-16-1); Luis Pauloba (10-24-3), still shows tremendous courage in spite of a very serious goring he received; David Luguillano (10-10-0) a very artistic matador who received and almost fatal goring last year when he was on the comeback trail; Cristo Gonzalez (12-24-6) had good performances mainly in the Andalucia Region; Andrés Sancho (14-19-3); Denis Lore (9-5-0), French, fights mostly in his country; and among others, the veteran José Luis Bote (5-11-1) who, as novillero, competed regularly with "Joselito", and then was almost forgotten, in Mexico became the unexpected revelation of the last season, performing often and brilliantly. He hopes to capitalize on that fact to get a second chance in Spain in 1997.

CONCLUSION

In closing this analysis of the results of the 1996 European season I have to say that the predictions I made last year are a reality today. The matadors of the 90's generation, with the help of veteran "Joselito", ended the year at the helm of the 'tauromaquia'. The veterans are retiring, or slowly fading away. Furthermore, in the artistic aspect of the fiesta I have detected a healthy trend in taurine spectators. A majority of them have shown more appreciation for the traditional style of bullfighting than for the unorthodox form of expressing this art. As a consequence the cartels with 'tremendistas' toreros in '96 were not as popular as the year before.

With regard to the incoming season we will witness the reaffirmation of those two facts. I do not expect spectacular changes at the top, what we will see is an increased in the struggle among the leading matadors to cement their permanence there, or to increase their leadership. Of course, the beauty of bullfighting is the difficulty of predicting the outcome of any logical expectation; so it is possible, and even desirable, that two or three new names, now relegated to obscurity, would shine at the top of the '97 statistics next November, at the some time that the light of some shining stars begins to flicker.. because at times the brave bulls do not follow human logic, they have their own designs.

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