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During the third Spain bullfighting stage, the tercio de muerte, the matador faces an incredibly difficult challenge and the most dangerous moment of the corrida. He must confront the fighting bull and kill it elegantly.
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Once the tercio de banderillas ends, the matador enters the arena alone. The final third is the longest and most iconic phase of the bullfight. It is the matador‘s one-on-one encounter with the bull.
He carries with him a one-handed red cape called muleta. Smaller than the capote, the muleta is made of a red, more lightweight fabric. The fabric is mounted on a wooden stick (palillo or estaquillador) giving the muleta its shape and some rigidity.
The matador also carries an imitation sword, made of either wood or aluminum, which is used to extend the fabric. This combination increases the size of the cape when giving passes. The fake sword will later be exchanged for a real killing one made of tempered steel. Both swords are called estoque.
The faena (job) or performance with the muleta is is the main part of the matador’s artistic display. Therefore, the matador exerts himself to display an aesthetically and technically coherent performance that culminates in the momento de la verdad (moment of truth), the killing of the bull.
With the faena, the matador proves to the audience and himself 3 virtues:
The faena often begins with the matador passing the bull in parallel lines across his body. The matador places his feet together and straight, and only moves as the bull turns around to repeat its charge, slowly moving the animal towards the center of the ring.
The matador is now ready to performance a sequence or series of pases (tandas). A regular tanda is composed by 5-6 pases, each one building in intensity, and then a final touch, or remate, the most common one being the pase de pecho. The passes force the bull to curve around the matador’s body in a circular movement only to be released into a parallel line of charge again, and away from the matador’s body at the end of each series of passes.
In Spain, bullfighting is a spectacle full of emotions. You will notice immediately if the audience is particularly thrilled and impressed by the matador‘s pases and his ability to lead the fight, because people will shout “ole!” and applaud at the end of each tanda.
Passes are either performed with the muleta in the right hand (derechazos) or the left hand (naturales) since the muleta is not extended by the sword and displays its natural shape.
These passes vary from one matador to another in the posture adopted, speed, fluidity of movement, rhythm, angle of the cape, how they are linked to each other, and other factors. His style and the bull’s collaboration are crucial to evoke an emotive reaction in the crowd, and to make them connect with his performance.
Depending on the success of his performance and the bull’s remaining energy, the matador ends his faena sooner or later. At this point, he makes a final tanda of shorter passes, positioning himself right in front of the animal and displaying total dominance of the bull. He then leads the bull towards the wooden fence to correctly position the bull and stab it to death.
As soon as the bugle sounds to signal the beginning of the tercio de muerte, the matador has ten minutes to carry out his performance.
If he does not kill the bull within this time frame, a warning will sound granting him a further three minutes to finish the performance before a second time warning. He has two more minutes, but after the third warning, the matador must withdraw and the bull is returned to the pens for slaughter.
Hearing the third time warning is a rare occurrence and is considered a complete failure for a matador, because he has lost his personal fight against the bull. The bull has escaped its fate and has left the ring alive.
When the matador feels that the bull is ready, he walks to the tablas to exchange his aluminum sword for the killing one. He only has one thing in mind to kill the bull in the most elegant and effective manner. This moment is generally called momento de la verdad (moment of truth) or the suerte suprema.
The estocada is the act of stabbing the bull to death. It’s the most difficult task the matador faces in a corrida for 2 reasons:
The most common estocada technique is the volapié. To do so the matador faces the animal, directly between the horns and, presenting the muleta to the bull with his left hand, he encourages the bull to lower its head, and to focus on the muleta. In a combined movement, often accompanied by a loud vocal outcry, the matador then moves the muleta to invite the bull to attack, while he simultaneously takes a step towards the bull. As bull and matador come together, he places the sword high up between the bull’s shoulders.
There are two possible ways to execute this manoeuvre.
From the al natural position, the bull leaves the encounter towards the center of the ring with the matador exiting towards the fence. This position is generally used with very brave bulls and that still have a strong charge.
The suerte contraria position is the opposite. The bull runs towards the fence while the matador exits towards the center of the ring. This position is used with bulls that are mansos –with a slightly withdrawn, or have begun to defend a narrow area of territory.
In Spain, bullfighting often requires silence. Therefore, remain quiet, as the rest of the crowd will, while the matador executes the estocada.
The matador must be skilled enough to sever the bull’s aorta with the estoque. If successful, the bull instantly collapses with the crowd rising to their feet applauding, showing their appreciation of the matador’s performance. He is now considered a hero, and awarded consequently.
Unfortunately, if the matador fails, the crowd will protest fiercely and even if the whole faena was perfect, this finale ruined it completely. He may decide to try it again but the audience will barely pay attention: it’s a one-chance game.
If the bull is still alive, and seems physically incapable of charging for another estocada, the matador must perform the descabello (act of cutting the bull’s spinal cord) in order to spare the animal any further pain. To do so he uses a sword with a small cross bar towards the end of a short, thick blade.
Once the bull is dead, its body is dragged out of the arena by the mules you saw during the paseíllo. If the audience is impressed by the performance of the bull, people will applaud as it abandons the ring.
In this type of corrida the rejoneador kills the bull with a rejón de muerte (lance of death), a sword shaped into a lance. Ideally, the bull dies quickly and cleanly. On some occasions the bullfighter will need a second attempt.
Similarly to the standard fights, if the bull is still alive, the rejoneador has to prevent the bull to have a slow death by using the descabello and killing him fast.