Six bulls, to be killed by three matadores, are usually required for one afternoon's corrida, and each encounter lasts about 15 minutes. At the appointed time, generally five o'clock, the three matadors, each followed by their assistants, the banderilleros and the picadores, march into the ring to the accompaniment of traditional paso doble. The matadores are the stars of the show and can be paid as high as the equivalent of $25,000 per corrida. They wear a distinctive costume, consisting of a silk jacket heavily embroidered in gold, skintight pants, and a montera (a bicorne hat). A traje de luces (“suit of lights”), as it is known, can cost several thousand dollars; a top matador must have at least six of them a season.
When a bull first comes into the arena out of the toril, or bullpen gate, the matador’s assistant greets it with a series of passes with a large cape; known as verónicas, the basic cape maneuver as the matador watches the bulls moves.
The amount of applause the matador receives is based on his proximity to the horns of the bull, his motionless in the face of danger, and his grace in swinging the cape in front of an infuriated animal weighing more than 1000 lb. The bull instinctively goes for the cloth because it is a large, moving target, not because of its color; bulls are color-blind and charge just as readily at the inside of the cape, which is yellow.
Fighting bulls charge instantly at anything that moves because of their natural instinct and centuries of special breeding. Unlike domestic bulls, they do not have to be trained to charge, nor are they starved or tortured to make them savage. Those animals selected for the corrida are allowed to live a year longer than those assigned to the slaughterhouse. Bulls to be fought by novilleros (“beginners”) are supposed to be three years old and those fought by full matadors are supposed to be at least four.
The second part of the corrida consists of the work of the picadores, bearing lances and mounted on horses (padded in compliance with a ruling passed in 1930 and therefore rarely injured). After three lancings or less, depending on the judgment of the president of the corrida for that day, a trumpet blows, and the banderilleros, working on foot, advance to place their banderillas (brightly adorned, barbed sticks) in the bull's shoulders in order to lower its head for the eventual kill. They wear costumes similar to those of their matadores, their jackets and pants embroidered in silver.
After the placing of the banderillas, a trumpet sounds signaling the last phase of the fight. Although the bull has been weakened and slowed, it has also become warier during the course of the fight, sensing that behind the cape is its true enemy; most gorings occur at this time. The serge cloth of the muleta is draped over the estoque, and the matador begins what is called the faena, the last act of the bullfight. The aficionados (crowd) study the matador's every move; the balletlike passes practiced since childhood. (Most matadores come from bullfighting families and learn their art when very young.) As with every maneuver in the ring, the emphasis is on the ability to increase but control the personal danger, maintaining the balance between suicide and mere survival. In other words, the real contest is not between the matador and an animal; it is the matador's internal struggle.
The basic muleta passes are the trincherazo, generally done with one knee on the ground and at the beginning of the faena; the pase de la firma, simply moving the cloth in front of the bull's nose while the fighter remains motionless; the manoletina, a pass invented by the great Spanish matador Manolete (Manuel Laureano Rodríguez Sánchez, 1917-47), where the muleta is held behind the body; and the natural, a pass in which danger to the matador is increased by taking the sword out of the muleta, reducing the target size and tempting the bull to charge to larger object--the bullfighter.
After several minutes spent in making these passes, wherein the matador tries to stimulate the excitement of the crowd by working closer and closer to the horns, the fighter takes the sword and lines up the bull for the kill. The blade must go between the shoulder blades; because the space between them is very small, it is imperative that the front feet of the bull be together as the matador hurtles over the horns. The kill, properly done by aiming straight over the bull's horns and plunging the sword between its withers into the aorta region, requires discipline, training, and raw courage; for this reason it is known as the “moment of truth.”
Bullfighters are compensated for their skill monetarily, but by the praise of the aficionados, by the money they receive for their performance, and by el presidente, who is presiding over the bullfight. By his (rarely a female) direction, a bullfighter is awarded one of the bull’s ears for an average performance, two ears for a superb performance, and both ears and the tail for a unforgettable performance. Naturally, they are the sports figures in a country that’s national pride spills over into its national pastime. As Ernest Hemingway said, “I’ve never seen an American hurt in this country, until they badmouth bullfighting."