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How Bullfighting Works

In the Ring

A top matador can perform all year by following the season from country to country:

  • Spain: end of March through early October
  • Lima, Peru: November
  • Mexico City: December and January

In professional Spanish-style corridas, three matadors fight six bulls in six different fights in an afternoon. Each fight generally lasts about 20 minutes and is divided into three acts.

During the first act, the bull enters the arena to fanfare and trumpets. While picadors, assistants on armored horses, fight the bull during this act, the matador watches to learn what he can about the bull's behavior and style. Picadors, who work specifically with one matador, attack the bull with poles, lancing it where the neck meets the shoulders. This weakens the bull's neck muscles, causing its head to hang down, so that the matador can get in for the kill. After the picadors have lanced the bull three times, the three matadors, who will later fight individually, enter the ring with their capes to draw the attention of the bull away from the picadors. Once the cape maneuvers are complete, the picadors and matadors leave the ring.

In the second act, banderilleros, assistants on foot, place three pairs of barbed darts into the bull at the same shoulder and neck region where the picadors lanced the bull. Their actions further weaken the neck of the bull, causing its head to drop even more -- though of course, the bull is still very dangerous.

During the final act, one matador, the highest level of bullfighter, reappears. He swirls his cape, causing the bull to charge and pass, several times before going in for the kill. The bullfighter waves his cape forward with his left hand, which gets the bull to hang his head and charge. Then the matador thrusts the sword into the bull's neck between the shoulder blades. If performed accurately the thrust severs the aorta, which should kill the bull almost instantly.

Once the bull falls, a second bullfighter approaches with a smaller knife and plunges it into the bull, ensuring his death.

If the matador performed with exceptional skill, he might receive the ears and tail of the bull. After the bull is killed, he is taken from the arena, dressed and the meat often sold just outside.

Matadors can be identified in a bullfight by their ornately embroidered uniforms, the traje de luces we mentioned earlier. Often embroidered in gold thread, these suits consist of a short jacket, vest and knee-length, skintight pants of silk and satin. The skintight pants keep the bull's horns from being caught on a fold of fabric. The uniform is completed with a white shirt, black tie, stockings, flat, black slippers and a montera.

The montera is a hat that developed from an early hairstyle. Fighters used to hold their shoulder-length hair back with a net, often tying it in a knot at the base of the skull. The hairstyle evolved into a satin headpiece with an attached pigtail, which have become the mark of a professional bullfighter.

Assistants wear similar uniforms, though not as ornate or embroidered in gold. Gold embroidery is reserved for matadors alone.

Learn more about the men and women who've donned the traje de luces to great success (and money) next.

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