In his green and gold-stiched “suit of lights” and his signature eye patch, “El Pirata” (The Pirate) took command of his bullring Sunday, waving his red cape as he flaunted moves many matadors wouldn’t dare to try, circling the beast on his knees with a penetrating gaze of invincibility.
Juan José Padilla, one of Spain’s great matadors, could indeed be described as indestructible. In a 2011 bullfight in Zaragoza, Spain, a bull’s horns gored his skull, shattering his jaw, leaving him deaf in one ear and forcing the removal of his left eye. The one-eyed matador became the public face of the dangers of bullfighting, and after returning to the ring five months later, the face of resilience.
By then, he had already been seriously wounded by bulls 38 times. He nearly died in Pamplona in 2001, when a legendary Miura bull pierced him in the throat.
Then last October, in the same bullring where he lost his eye, a bull gored him in the same eye-socket, but somehow, Padilla suffered little more than a concussion.
Time after time, Padilla has narrowly escaped death, leaving his fans and followers wondering: When might the half-ton animal finally win? On Sunday, yet again, the matador put the bull to the test.
Thousands of onlookers watched on television and from the stands as 43-year-old Padilla approached the bull, “Hortensia,” in the Valencia plaza, where bullfight enthusiasts celebrated the Las Fallas festival, the Local reported.
Suddenly, the crowd gasped. The beast lifted up “El Pirata” by the groin, flipping him to the ground with a vengeance and tossing him around like a stuffed doll. Hortensia gored him in the right thigh and chest, ripping his eye patch from his face and sending his glass eye flying, the Local reported.
The crowd gasped. “Madre mia, madre mia” one of the announcers said in a live broadcast, Spanish for “my mother.” They called the goring “chilling.”
“We’re living moments of great anguish in this plaza,” one announcer said.
But instead of accepting medical attention, Padilla persisted in the ring, determined to complete the show and bring the bull to its death. With a tourniquet on his leg, and a sword in his right hand, he stared down the beast square between the horns that had just gored him. The crowd went silent.
“There it is!” the announcer declared, as Padilla’s sword sliced into the bull’s torso, causing it to collapse shortly after.
The dead bull was carried out of the plaza, and the matador looked up to the skies. The bullfight’s president handed him one of the bull’s ears, the typical reward for a job well done, a kill cleanly executed.
Padilla held up the bloodied ear, beating it against its chest before holding it up to the crowd. He showed the “face of pain, of suffering,” the announcers said, but also the face of victory. After reassuring his children in the stands that he was all right, he limped his way out of the plaza on his own, taking his trophy with him to the infirmary.
“I struggle to speak in moments like these because they take my breath away,” an announcer said on air.
“From hope to pain to happiness for the return of a matador seriously punished by the bull, all in the same afternoon” wrote one Spanish news outlet.
In the hospital, doctors described Padilla’s injuries — including a punctured lung — as serious. But in interviews from the hospital bed with local media, Padilla said he was recovering swiftly.
Spanish bullfighting fans breathed collective sighs of relief as their indomitable matador outlasted the beast once again.
“It’s more than lucky, it’s a miracle: Once again the hand of God was on me,” Padilla told Spanish agency Efe.
In the plazas harboring this controversial spectacle — which animal rights activists consider barbaric but many Spaniards see as an essential cultural tradition — gorings are so common that every venue is legally required to have a surgeon on site. Even so, Padilla’s history of near-misses is extraordinary.
The matador hails from a lineage of bullfighters in his home town of Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia region of Spain, which earned him the previous nickname of “Cyclone of Jerez.” Early on, he was considered an impressive talent in the bullfighting world, with a style defined by valiant, often lunatic, moves.
All of this was nearly taken from him on that night in May 2011, when surgeons tried to reconstruct the entire left side of his face — including a detached ear, a protruding eyeball and a hemorrhage at the base of his skull. The matador woke to the realization that the left side of his face was paralyzed.
It took him months to recover. He was forced to relearn how to chew and swallow, how to ride a bicycle, according to a lengthy account of the experience in GQ magazine.
But he vowed to return, and that he did, only five months later. And after the accident, his career skyrocketed. He soon began receiving contracts to perform in bullfights everywhere.
Moreover, “in the process of losing half his sight, he somehow managed to double his vision,” Karen Russell wrote in GQ.
“This accident of mine, my recovery, I think it’s touched the whole world,” he told GQ. “There was a time when I couldn’t show my face, when my head was a little screwed up. But now I’ve entered a period of great pride, great happiness.”
“And there is always a new goal tomorrow.” It’s the “amor por los toros,” he says — his love of the bulls — that drives him.
As for Sunday’s bullfight, Padilla said it was his first run in the festival of Fallas this year — with television cameras everywhere and pressures high — so he felt he had to “flip the coin” for his followers.
“I have had many mishaps, but in this he beat me and I knew that he could hurt me very seriously,” Padilla said, adding that if the bull had followed a slightly different path, it could have been much more serious.
In that moment, he said, he could feel the fans’ emotions of fear and distress. But those feelings are what “gives this spectacle life.” It is this very real risk of peril that makes the art so exciting.
“You can truly feel it, truly suffer and can truly die,” he said.
As expected, he told reporters of his plan to promptly return to the ring, perhaps as soon as next week for the festival of Magdalena de Castellon.
“This was a bad one,” he acknowledged. “But I’ll be back.”
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