How Bullfighting Works

The ritual of the bullfight entrances some and horrifies others.
The ritual of the bullfight entrances some and horrifies others.
PhotoLink/Photodisc/Getty Images

The sequined and gold embroidered traje de luces, or suit of lights, gleams in the afternoon sun as the matador waves his scarlet cape. The enormous bull, head hanging from injury but still very powerful, charges. With one hand, the matador whisks his cape around in a move as carefully choreographed as a ballet, causing the bull to turn. With the other hand, he plunges the sword into the bull's neck between his shoulder blades and delivers the fatal blow. The crowd cheers the bull and the matador for a fine performance in this centuries-old dance of death.

Since at least the fourth century, bullfighters have faced their own mortality in an expression of what some in Spain, the home of bullfighting, call national tradition, but others call animal cruelty.


The American author Ernest Hemingway celebrated the art and choreography of bullfighting in his nonfiction account "Death in the Afternoon." First published in 1932, the book is considered one of the most influential works on the spectacle ever written. In addition to honoring the sport itself, it offers the author's opinion on what he sees as the considerable bravery of matadors. Hemingway's love of bullfighting also features in his novels, including "The Dangerous Summer," about two rival matadors.

Hemingway's interpretation of bullfighting as an honorable tradition is at odds with animal rights activists and others who view it as animal cruelty. In this article, which focuses primarily on bullfighting in Spain, we'll look back at the history of bullfighting and see how it continues to evolve. We'll also learn who does what in a bullfight and what happens to the bull. We'll look at the business of bullfighting and finally, examine the charges of animal cruelty that are causing it to be banned in a growing number of areas.

Next up, how bullfighting began -- a brief look at the rituals, games and history that became the sport we know today.

Bullfighting's Beginnings

The exact beginning of bullfighting is hard to pin down, though evidence of rituals involving bulls is found in many ancient cultures dating from at least 1500 B.C. [source: Conrad].

During the Visigoth rule of the Iberian Peninsula, from 415 to 711, spectacles involving men on horseback fighting bulls became popular. This evolved into mounted bullfighting, called rejoneo, still practiced in Portugal today. Rejoneo differs from traditional Spanish bullfighting in two important ways:


  • Fighters work on horseback, rather than on foot.
  • The bull is weakened in the ring, but killed after the fight, out of sight of spectators.

Bullfighting tournaments held in city squares or plazas had become popular by the end of the 11th century and continue today. The most famous of these festivals is the Fiesta de San Fermín, which features the running of the bulls in Pamplona. El Cid, the popular Spanish military leader and national hero of the mid-11th century, is thought to have been among the first to participate in bullfighting in an arena, the beginning of the corridas we know today [source: Conrad].

By the 15th century, bullfighting had become entrenched in Spanish culture as the sport of aristocracy. But bullfighting went underground during the reign of Queen Isabella, who opposed it. And in 1567, Pope Pius V banned it completely, excommunicating aristocrats who supported the fights and refusing Christian burial to those killed in the ring. The church lifted the ban eight years later, when it became clear the practice wasn't going away.

During the 1600s, Spanish bullfighters left horses behind and began fighting on foot, as they do today. In the 1700s, bullfights moved from the sport of kings to the sport of the masses when King Philip V, who disapproved of bullfighting, rose to power. He refused to allow it at royal events, but the people of Spain adopted the sport.

Bullfighting continues to be the sport of the people, though several of the largest arenas in Spain have royal boxes for those members of the royal family who attend the spectacles.

Next up, what happens in the ring and the story on the elaborate uniforms matadors wear.

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.

Matadors y Matadoras

Throughout Spain, Mexico and Latin America matadors today are often treated and paid like rock stars. And while the worldwide fame and out-of-sight bucks haven't always been the case, top bullfighters have achieved renown as long as men and bulls have been facing off in the ring.

Juan Belmonte y Garcia (1892 to 1962), a Spanish bullfighter, is considered one of the greatest matadors of all time, in part for developing the erect stance rather than trying to evade the bull through skillful footwork and using a cape to divert the bull while it passes. He appeared in a record 109 bullfights in 1919 and retired in 1935 [source: Merriam-Webster's Biographical Dictionary].


José Gómez (1895 to 1920), known as Joselito, was a rival of Juan Belmonte, and is considered, along with Belmonte, one of the greatest matadors ever. He appeared in his first bullfight in 1908 as part of the child-bullfighting group Niños Sevillanos. His rivalry with Belmonte continued from 1914 to 1920 during a period known as the Golden Age of Bullfighting. The age and the rivalry ended with the fatal goring of Joselito in May 1920 in a corrida that featured both matadors [source: The Columbia Encyclopedia].

Manuel Rodríguez y Sánchez (1917 to 1947) was known in the arena as Manolete, the same nickname his father and grandfather fought under. The top matador in the world from 1940 to 1947, Manolete was fatally gored in a corrida at Linares, Spain, on Aug. 28, 1947 [source: The Columbia Encyclopedia].

Mexican bullfighter Carlos Ruiz Camino (1920 to 1966), known as Carlos Arruza, was one of the highest paid matadors during his lifetime. He worked in arenas in Spain, Portugal and South America from 1934 until his retirement in 1953 [source: Merriam-Webster's Biographical Dictionary].

Julián López Escobar (b. 1982) fights under the nickname El Juli. El Juli started his professional career at age 15 and had achieved a number of firsts by age 17. At 15 he became the only Spanish apprentice bullfighter, or novillero, in La Plaza, Mexico City's arena and the largest bullring in the world, to register an indulto, which spares the life of a particularly courageous bull. The bull is then put out to stud. El Juli was the youngest ever to achieve the status of matador de toros, or senior matador, when he received the alternativa -- the ceremony where that honor is conferred -- in September 1998. By 17 had become the highest paid matador ever [source: Conrad].

On the next page, we'll learn a bit about the bulls used in the ring -- and the importance of that eye-catching red cape.

That's a Lot of Bull

Bulls respond to the movement of the bullfighter's cape, not its color.
Bulls respond to the movement of the bullfighter's cape, not its color.
Joe Patronite/Riser/Getty Images

Matadors, matadoras and their assistants fight four-year-old specially bred bulls weighing approximately 1,300 pounds (590 kilograms). The bulls in Spanish bullfighting are bred on ranches, where they are tested for bravery and ferocity. The ones that pass the tests -- performed by men on horseback, not by matadors with capes -- fight in the arena.

Bulls are never exposed to more than one fight because they have good memories, which is why the tests are not performed by men with capes. They'd be dangerous to matadors during cape work, which is the highlight of the bullfight, if deployed a second time.


The capes used in bullfighting are red, not because this is a color to which bulls react, but to hide blood and other stains and to be more visible to spectators. Some people believe that bulls become angry when they see red, but that's simply not the case. Bulls are colorblind; they respond to the movement of the capes, not to the color.

Throughout history, people have altered bulls to make them easier for bullfighters to fight. For example, they've clipped bulls' horns in order to make them safer or overfed bulls, which makes them fat and slow. Dedicated followers of bullfights can spot altered bulls, and there is a process for calling them out in the ring. Bulls deemed unfit are replaced by a substitute.

Toreros, or bullfighters, often come from areas surrounding the breeding ranches. They grow up watching bulls and learning bull behavior, in order to compete successfully against them [source: McCormick].

Training may begin by watching, but for novices, it soon progresses to fighting two- and three-year-old bulls that weigh up to 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms). When a bullfighter is ready, he or she receives the alternativa, a ceremony during which a senior matador recognizes the bullfighter as a professional and equal. At this point, the new bullfighter is ready to fight the four-year-old bulls.

Bullfighting may be considered a national tradition in Spain, but it's also big business. Up next, a look at who's making money and how bulls are used in advertising.

Bullfighting Is Big Business

Bullfighting is not just the sport of big bulls -- it also brings in big business, though not everyone involved is getting rich. In fact, some insist that the only way bullfighting stays alive is through government subsidies.

The top matadors in Spain are treated and paid like rock stars, earning more than $100,000 per bullfight and often performing 30 to 40 times a year [source: Lowe]. Coupled with endorsement deals and the perks that come with fame, the cream of the matador crop can make considerable money. After fighting in Spain, they'll often continue through the seasons in Mexico, Peru and other parts of Latin America.


While most insiders don't make the kind of money top matadors make, bullfighting as an industry contributes to the economies of the countries where it is practiced in a number of ways. Future matadors pay to train at bullfighting schools. Specialized ranches breed bulls. Seamstresses fashion the ornate traje de luces by hand, often taking more than a month to make one at a cost of $2,000 to $3,000. And the staff at a large arena, such as Las Ventas in Madrid, numbers around 400, including 15 veterinary surgeons [source: Hartwig].

The downturn in the economy since 2008 coupled with bans on bullfighting in some areas of Spain and other parts of the world have meant that not as many people are making as much money off corridas as they used to. The number of bullfights dropped from about 1,000 in Spain in 2008 to about 800 in 2010 [source: Western Daily Press]. The decline is due in part to a sharp cut in previously government-subsidized bullfights in small towns that can no longer afford the subsidies.

Economic woes aren't the only thing that may be killing bullfighting. On the next page, we'll see how a growing and vocal animal rights movement has gotten bullfighting banned even in places where many thought it was entrenched forever.

The End of Bullfighting?

While the popularity of bullfighting has ebbed and flowed over the centuries, it has never disappeared. That may all change in the 21st century. Energized animal rights activists combined with a floundering economy may be the death of bullfighting.

The first Spanish region to ban bullfighting was the Canary Islands, where it has been illegal since 1991.


Catalonia was the first region in mainland Spain to vote to ban bullfighting. The ban, which passed in 2010, will take effect Jan. 1, 2012. This area is significant as the home to Barcelona, which has three large arenas.

Also in 2010, TVE, Spain's state television broadcaster, banned live coverage of bullfighting because of a law saying that cruelty to animals can't be shown before 10 p.m., during what are considered children's viewing hours. Most bullfights begin in the late afternoon or early evening, so they fall right in this time frame [source: Tremlett].

In what some see as a countermove against the campaign to ban bullfighting, in 2010, the Spanish government shifted the regulation of bullfighting from the Interior Ministry to the Cultural Ministry, a move supporters say elevates the art of bullfighting to the status of cultural event, and may have been done in response to the ban in Catalonia. [source: Associated Press]

Some areas offer bull sports where the bulls aren't killed in front of an audience. In Amposta, a Catalan region of Spain, flaming torches are attached to bulls' horns in a makeshift arena -- a corral of farm vehicles and carriages -- during 12 days of festival events [source: Tremlett]. Local ranches provide animals for the fiestas and some animals return year after year. Animal rights activists say the activity scares the bulls, even if it doesn't kill them, and also should be banned.

Bullfighting in Portugal and part of southern France is still done on horseback, with the goal being to wrestle the bull to a standstill using horses that charge and dodge the bulls. The bulls are lanced, but not killed in the ring. They're taken out of the ring and killed immediately after a fight, however, which many argue is no more humane than a traditional Spanish bullfight.

Jallikattu is a bull-wrestling competition held during the Pongal festival in the state of Tamil Nadu India each year. Packages of money are tied to the horns of bulls. Participants with no weapons try to control the bulls by jumping them and holding their horns, in order to get the packages. In this sport, the men are injured or killed more often than the bulls.

Given the long history and widespread spectacle of bullfighting, it remains to be seen whether forces can combine in the 21st century to kill bullfighting off completely.

To learn more about bullfighting and other related topics, take a look at the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

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