The Comeback of the Century
By Alexander Fiske-Harrison
Editor’s Note: Alexander has been contracted by GQ Magazine for an article about his experiences with Padilla, which is due to be published in August 2012. Material for the GQ article could not be included in this article, as the author notes below.
(Right: Juan José Padilla leaving on shoulders of Adolfo Suárez after his triumphal return in Olivenza)
OF all the gorings I have ever seen on film (I have, gracias a Dios, never seen a bad one in the flesh), the most horrifying is that of the great matadorof corridas duras – the Cyclone of Jerez, Maestro of the Miuras, and adopted son of Pamplona – my first teacher, Juan José Padilla in Zaragoza on October 7th last year. His skull suffered multiple fractures, his left eye lost its sight, that side of his face lost its movement, and his body lost one third of its weight.
So, when I heard he was going to stage a comeback less than six months later in this year’s Feria de Olivenza, I knew I had to be there with him.
Last year I published a book on my two years in the world of the bulls – 2009 as spectator, 2010 as trainee torero ending in my killing a three year old toro de lidia from old Saltillo in Spain – and the first few chapters of Into The Arena describe in detail my time with Juan.
So I knew this story was the epilogue the book was missing. There was also a debt to be paid. Toreros face death and injury in exchange for gold and glory, and Juan had risked himself several times – in a minor way – to save my skin during the research for my book. What success it has had is owed in part to him, although he received no royalties from it. Which is why I got British GQ magazine to commission me to cover his reaparición. My formal interview with Juan before that corrida is thus owned by Condé Nast. However, the rest of that story is all yours…
* * *
I first met the madness, laughter and astonishing courage that is Juan through his good friend, Adolfo Suárez Illana. Adolfo is one of the finest aficionados prácticos practising today, having killed over one hundred full-size bulls puerta cerrada – behind closed doors – and a host more in festivals around Spain.
(The author, Padilla and Suárez on a ranch 2010 by Nicolás Haro )
(It helps when your father is the founding Prime Minister of democratic Spain. It is little known, even in Spain, that Adolfo’s father, now the Duke of Suárez, also fought bulls, although only once in public in the 1959 Festival de los Noveles in the plaza antigua in Ávila – see photo at right – Suárez Family Collection.)
It was actually Adolfo who had pressed Juan to get back in front of animals before 2011 had ended – less than three months after his goring – on December 30th. Juan, unable to eat solid foods, was at the time a mere hundred pounds of sinew hanging on a five foot ten skeleton. The big worries, though, were psychological. Well, that and the loss of half his visual field and his capacity to gauge distances…
So the two of them went to the finca of Fuente Ymbro – the first place I ever caped a vaquilla under their instruction in ’09 – and Juan began with some two year old vaquillas. According to Adolfo everyone was stunned by the total mastery and confidence Juan showed with these snappy little cows which turn on a dime as no toro bravo can. So the breeder Ricardo Gallardo offered Juan a three year old animal to kill. At which Juan turned up his nose and demanded a proper cuatreño, a four year old. This Juan caped and dispatched with exactly the same he always had on a ranch in the past.
I should add here that to see Juan torear ‘on the ranch’ is a very different experience to seeing him do so in public. There is no tremendismo and, as a result, his action is wonderfully smooth, the linkage of his passes better, and the ‘running of the hand’ more controlled and longer. For a long time I couldn’t understand this until Adolfo explained to me that Juan is actually very shy. Not among old friends, not with bulls, and not after drinking rum.
(The author, Padilla and flamenco dancer Antonio ‘El Pipa’ after much rum in Padilla’s house 2009 by Nicolás Haro)
However, as a result, in the plaza de toros under the watchful eyes of thousands, he has developed amask of bravado to hide behind – which explains some of the more exciting points of his style – but he still has too much adrenaline, which explains the constant movement, the shorter passes, the incessant cutting into the bull’s terrain and failure to let the animal – and in theatrical terms, ‘the moment’ – breathe.
Since the first time I ever saw Juan’s toreo – in 2009 – was from the burladero at Los Alburejos with Álvaro Domecq’s Torrestrellas, then from the sand next to him in Miravalles with Félix and Enrique Moreno de la Cova’s Saltillos, when I finally saw him in public, I was quite shocked at the difference.
(Left: The author and Padilla in Los Alburejos 2009 by Nicolás Haro)
(Right: Finito de Córdoba and Padilla teach AFH in Miravalles 2009 by Nicolás Haro)
Returning to 2011: after this breakthrough, Juan went on to killed a dozen or so bulls in the campo, including on the ranch of Ana Romero, the breeder whose bull almost took away his livelihood and life. Aficionados seldom want to admit this in public – but the honest ones do in private – but there is often a darkness in the heart of those who kill, and those who regularly kill bulls with swords are no exception. Which is why I will not comment on Juan’s need to not only wear the suit of lights in which he was gored that day, but to demand to kill a bull from the same mother and father as the one which nearly killed him.
It was a fortnight after Fuente Ymbro that Juan went public, announcing his reappearance at Olivenza. The Spanish press went to town, running story after story with the subtext that Juan was emblematic of the fiesta brava itself, his wounding in Zaragoza coming so soon after the ban on corridas in Catalonia came into de facto effect. His return with the opening feria of the temporada was perfectly designed to show the world that bullfighting was bloodied by Barcelona but unbowed. They even detailed the suit he was to wear, from Justo Algaba in Madrid: its green representing Spring and rebirth, and embroidered with the laurel leaves so associated with ancient Rome.
(It was Adolfo who pointed out to me after Olivenza that the press had got the symbolism on this one wrong: Juan was not claiming a Roman Emperor’s laurel wreath here, nor even that of a triumphant gladiator. The original laurel wreath was given to surviving gladiators as a restorative, to be taken as an infusion to heal wounds. Juan later confirmed this, although he has said other things since. The symbolism was that of injured warrior, not conquering hero. Justo Algaba’s brother Pedro in Seville, who has also made trajes for Juan and I have never heard Pedro speak so highly – in personal terms – of a torero as he does of Juan, which explains why he was to be seen in Olivenza as well.)
* * *
Juan invited me to his house just before the corrida, so with a day to kill I called up Álvaro Núñez Benjumea – who runs his father Joaquin Núñez del Cuvillo’s ranch – and asked if I could see the bulls for Olivenza. Although I had not met Álvaro before, I knew his sister Tilda well and had faced his brother Curro’s cattle in Portugal in 2010 under the tutelage of my Maestro Eduardo Dávila Miura. (They were infinitely preferable to the ‘minotaurs’ Eduardo used to drag me to face at his family ranch Zahariche with alarming regularity, much to the amusement of his uncles, Eduardo and Antonio Miura.)
After taking me round the paddock to see the bulls – they looked fine – Álvaro suggested I stick around to watch the tienta he had on that day. I asked who the Maestro was, and he answered José Marí Manzanares. Which, given his historic indulto in Seville last year, was not an opportunity I was going to pass up.
There are many things that stuck in my mind from that tentadero. One was quite how personable and gracious Manzanares hijo is. I mean real, come-up-and-shake-your-hand before and after the event polite. (Which made me regret short-changing him in my book, although in my defence, I do think his style has developed considerably since then. Something proved to me in this year’s April Fair in Seville when he took four ears and the Gate of the Prince again, a thing of beauty which I witnessed a few rows in front of that Prince of Pamplona, Joe Distler, who introduced me to your President, who invited me to write this piece for you.)
(The author and his father – circled left- watching José Marí Manzanares, padre y hijo, in La Maestranza, Seville, 2012 by Guy Walters)
The second abiding memory was a side-effect of that graciousness. Manzanares spent over half his time at El Grullo giving tuition to a class from a nearby taurine school who took on the vacas after he had tested them for Álvaro.
At the top of his game, Manzanares had apparently decided that burladeros are only needed by mere mortals and simply stood in the ring chain-smoking and chatting about the animals to Álvaro through the breeders viewing-slot onto the plaza de tienta. One young man, determined to show his hero that he too could ‘run the hand’, overextended the pass before turning his wrist so the vaca kept going, and it ended up cantering, horns lowered, at Manzanares.
The Maestro, with neither capote nor muleta to hand, gave his cigarette to Álvaro, rubbed his hands together while gauging the charge and then did a standing two-footed jump, recortador-style, clean over the animal. Then he calmly picked up where he left off – both cigarette and conversation – as his banderillero Curro Javier took the vaca away with a capote. Now, I’ve seen a fair few top level toreros in the plaza de tienta, but not only have I never seen one do anything like that, I cannot even image them doing that. And it’s not like Manzanares has a recortador background.
The next day I went to Juan’s house in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. For fear of breaching my contract with GQ magazine, there isn’t much I can say other than his home is suitably called Puerta Gayola, and you can read about my first visit there in Into The Arena.
(The author and Padilla at Padilla’s home, 2012, by Zed Nelson)
One thing I can say is that he was worryingly thin, reassuringly confident, and as devoutly religious and unnervingly fidgety as I remember him – no man needs to alter sofa cushions and light switches that often. His young children, Paloma and Martín, had grown large enough to make me feel old – Paloma made a good stab at translating a passage from my book on her father into Spanish – while his beautiful wife Lydia looked a little more careworn than her years alone explain.
I would also later learn that Juan could still not eat solid food, that he had permanent tinnitus depriving him of sleep, and that he had made the mistake of foregoing his montera in training, an omission which caused him agony in the ring in Olivenza as it rested directly one of the dozen tiny titanium plates that now held his skull together. (When I heard Juan had an operation to have that plate removed after Olivenza, I wondered if he wasn’t having surgery just so he could still fit his remarkable collection of hats.)
* * *
The next day up in Olivenza the atmosphere was unnerving. I’d arrived at the Hotel Heredero the night before the corrida and met up that other Prince of Pamplona, Noel Chandler, along with various members of the Club Taurino of London. The concern for Juan’s wellbeing was tangible, and not just among aficionados. That night I also met up with Cayetano – who I am working on a documentary with – and he seemed more worried about and interested in Juan than his own corridaof Zalduendos alongside Ponce and Ferrera the next morning.
Cayetano’s corrida having passed without incident – good or bad – I saw Juan briefly on arrival and left him to dress with Adolfo and Ponce in attendance.
* * *
At the plaza, the sense of excitement and fear in the tendidos was like nothing I had ever felt. It was a cold night, but we were so packed together in the sold-out stadium that I was sweating. Juan’s arrival in the ring was greeted by a standing ovation, followed by chants of “tor-er-o”, and that was just for turning up. This was something Juan judiciously downplayed, not least with the man-of-the-moment Manzanares and the artistic genius that is Morante de la Puebla to his left.
(It is notable that Manzanares has signed to fight so many of this year’s corridas alongside Juan. Morante, a family friend of Juan’s, has fought alongside him many times, including both in the plaza with muletas on the same bull.)
(The author and Padilla, by Paloma de Santa Coloma)
The bull, Trapajoso No.53, a negro of 480kg, came in hesitantly. The peones got him to criss-cross the ring with capote flicks from behind the planks until he started chopping up a burladero in earnest.
Juan stepped out and began with a couple of preliminary passes with one knee bent like a lunging fencer, keeping the bull at a distance, and you could tell he was studying the bull in exactly the same way the audience was studying him – for capacity and disposition, strength and weakness.
Decisions made, Juan took his stand and gave three sound verónicas. With each pass the crowd shouted olé, and he followed with the media and the walk away. His second tanda was similarly technically proficient. However, the effect was electric.
At this point I realised that it was going to be all but impossible to objectively judge how good this performance was, personal relationships aside: everyone was simply amazed he could do it all.
Then picador did his job, neither notably well nor badly, and the crowd asked themselves one of the biggest questions of the evening: would the lidiador Juan place his own banderillas? Since it involves calculating intersecting geometries on the run, how is it possible with only one eye, especially given that he had nearly died doing it with two?
However, do them he did – two al cuarteo and the last al violín – and all to the music of the brass band and a crescendo of applause for each pair placed, their blue and white papers fluttering in his the colours of Jerez de la Frontera. (I did note one change, which was the careful choreography so he always ended his run with two of his cuadrilla cutting between him and the bull with capotes after the sticks were in. Before, Padilla wouldn’t have let them into the ring.)
Entering for the tercio de la muerte, Juan summoned two men over from the callejón whom I recognised from one of his interviews. They were the two surgeons who had put back together the organs and bones of his life. He dedicated the bull to them, embraced them both, and then walked out onto the sand.
His derechazos were again good and pure. Not as long as one might like, but still excellent, midway between Fandi and Tomás. However, the image that stayed with you was of a man with an eye patch standing implacably upright besieged by a plunging and furious toro bravo. (As he said to me with a bizarre pride, “I may not be the first torero with one eye, but I am the first with an eye patch.”)
The bull, which had nobility but no stamina, rapidly came to the end of its wind and Juan accepted this with a resignation and grace many other toreros could learn from and killed well and cleanly with a well-placed media estocada..
The crowd were on their feet before the bull had hit the dust, white handkerchiefs out, petitioning the president of the plaza for a trophy for their hero, who had not so much earned an ear as gallantly failed to lose it.
The next two bulls were fought by Manzanares and Morante, and fought well, although like Juan’s bull they seemed to lack a little something in aggression and stamina. In a nice adorno de afición, each matador dedicated his bull to Juan.
When Juan entered the ring for the second time – again, as he told me afterwards – he knew he had won back the trust, and had lost the pity, of the audience. So, now he had to show them what he could really do. His second bull, Reposado No, 118 a colorao y chorreado, was faster and lighter – in weight and colour – and Juan walked into the middle of its charge with the capote and dropped to his knees for a signature larga cambiada de rodillas. In a single, simple and incontrovertible taurine gesture Juan had said, “I’m back!”
Then, as the bull turned to find him, he rose to his feet and began a series of four perfect veronicas, followed by three walking chicuelinas, before finishing with media verónica and then a spinning and apparently spontaneously created remate which, if it has a name, I do not know it. This was, quite frankly, better than anything I had ever seen Juan do before. The audiences fear and sympathy was now replaced with pride and exultation.
After the picador Juan took his first set of banderillas and invited the other two matadors to join him so they could each place a pair alongside him. Morante de la Puebla does this very rarely and Manzanares almost never. You could see Juan ask him if he was okay with it and Manzanares smiling say he had no idea (Adolfo, who was in the callejón, later told me Manzanares actually said he hadn’t done it “since school”.) And yet each one of them placed their pair brilliantly, with Juan inevitably the best, the closest to the horns.
He then invited his elderly father into the ring. Padilla padre, a baker to whom his son was apprenticed when young, once told me of his own foray into the ring: “I heard the breath of the bull in the ring, just the breath, and I said f*** this for a job and went back to baking.”
Juan dedicated the bull to him. They embraced, clearly emotional, Juan’s forehead against his father’s tearful face as he spoke rapidly and quietly. His words to his nine-year-old daughter Paloma, though, were clear enough as she sat barrera with Adolfo’s wife Isabel in the front row of the audience: “I love you.” (Juan’s wife Lydia was back at the hotel, unable to face watching, sat dreading a phone call like the last time he had gone “to work”. Their son, Martín, too young to understand was at home in Sanlúcar.)
Juan then walked into the ring and gave people an exhibition of the matador he had become. Although it included much of his trademark toreo de desplante, he seemed to have developed a more understated style which better suited these smoother animals. He took the bull through a catalogue of passes – including a tanda which began with a molinete and then danced the compass with derechazos en redondo with the band in blazing accompaniment. His mastery, though, was finally shown on a mistimed pase de pecho which ended with the bull taking the muleta from his hands. Despite a nervous cuadrilla – and audience – Juan merely stood unarmed before the bull, front leg bent towards it, jacket held open to bare his chest to the horns.
(Right: Padilla in Pamplona 2011 by the author)
This time he killed on the second attempt, losing the second ear to a pinchazo caused by the error of trying to time his entry to the cante jondo of an audience member who had come all the way from Jerez to sing flamencofor his friend (as, notably, had the finest bull-runners from his other taurine home, Pamplona.)
We watched the other two matadors fight and they did beautiful things: Morante with his exquisitely nonchalant trincherazos discarding the bull at his feet, Manazanares killing recibiendo with a confidence no one has outside of Ernest Hemingway’s fictions.
However, it was Juan alone who was swept up on to the shoulders of the crowd and toured the ring. At least, at first I thought it was the crowd, and then I saw it was actually Adolfo, then El Juli, then Serafín Marín and all the other toreros like Perera, Tato and Javier Solís who had been watching hidden from view in the callejón.
That night, an entire profession seemed to be holding Padilla up in the air so an entire nation could applaud him.
As Noel Chandler, usually so immovable in his wise and well-travelled afición, said afterwards in the bar: “Alexander, I had tears in my eyes.” And so did I.
(Padilla went onto to great triumphs – 4 ears and shoulders – in the plazas of Arles and Jerez, among others, but sadly took no trophies in the Feria de Abril, and did not appear in San Isidro, at least not in the ring. He will, however, being appearing in Pamplonain the final corrida on July 14th with El Juli y Daniel Luque and bulls of Torrehandilla y Torreherberos.)
(Left:Suárez and Padilla in Las Ventas 2012)
Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight is published in the UK by Profile Books and is available from all major British bookshops and online from Amazon or Amazon UK, also as an eBook.
©Alexander Fiske-Harrison 11 June 2012
(Above: Padilla with 700 kg Miura in Pamplona 2011 by the author)