Third Spain bullfighting stage: tercio de muerte

spain bullfighting muerte

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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The muleta and the moment of truth

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’s the matador‘s one-on-one encounter with the bull.

The matador enters the scene…

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.

And he only has ten minutes to conquer the audience

In Spain bullfighting stages are signaled with the sound of a bugle.

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 doesn’t 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 pen 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.

The third Spain bullfighting stage may begin with the brindis

The matador takes a position below the president’s box and, holding his montera with his right hand, folded muleta and sword in the left, formally requests permission to brindar (dedicate) the bull to some person or friend, to whom the montera is tossed.

Alternatively, he can dedicate the death of his first bull to the president. This was the tradition followed up until 1962, although nowadays the matador chooses who to dedicate the bull’s death to.

A bullfighter may also dedicate the kill to the general public, signified by doffing the montera to the crowd, turning full circle, and then tossing it over the shoulder to the ground. Superstitious bullfighters take special note whether the montera lands up or down, for a montera that lands upside down could mean that it will soon be filled with the bullfighter’s blood.

Time for the suerte de muleta or faena

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.

Why is the faena the climax of the fight?

With the faena, the matador proves to the audience and himself 3 virtues:

  • His art, by entertaining the crowd with difficult and expressive pases.
  • His superiority, by dominating the bull and, thus, the fight.
  • And his courage, by risking his life while getting especially close to the bull.

What does the matador do during the faena?

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.

During the third Spain bullfighting stage, the matador performs a sequence or series of pases called 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.

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.

Some of the matador passes during the faena

The 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.

The passes are divided into four categories:

  • Naturales
  • Cambiados
  • Ayudados
  • Adornos

These passes are also divided into two categories:

  • Altos (high moves) are used when the bull lacks energy and needs to be revitalized. The matador performs them with the muleta raised away from the ground. That way the bull has less stress on his neck.
  • Bajos (low moves) are used when the bull is still strong. The matador performs them with the muleta very close from the ground. That way the bull stretches his neck muscles and slows down.


Naturales are the standard passes of the faena. The bull follows the muleta as the matador places it in front of it and then leads it around his body.

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.


With the cambiados (exchanges) the matador gives the bull the exit from the opposite side to the hand with which he holds the muleta.

  • The most common cambiado is called pase de pecho. As the bull charges towards him, the matador raises the muleta passing it above the bull, from its horns to its tail. This kind of move is a remate – a final move marking the end of a series of passes.
  • Other one is the trinchera in which the matador places one knee on the ground and guides the bull at a right angle to his body with the muleta in his right hand. As the bull charges, the matador pulls it away, stands still, and then he repositions himself with the other knee on the ground.


Ayudados (supported) are passes in which the matador uses both hands. They are always performed sideways on to the bull and the bullfighter may used the estoque to extend the muleta.

  • To perform the ayudado por alto or estatuarios the matador stands still with the his back to the wooden barrier and both arms outstretched holding the estoque. As the bull charges, the matador lifts his muleta allowing it to pass over the bull.
  • To perform the ayudado por bajo the matador can either do it with one knee on the floor or standing. The idea is to outstretch the muleta with the estoque to weaken the bull’s neck muscled by forcing it to charge with its head down low.


During the third Spain bullfighting stage, some matadores, before killing the bull, may demonstrate their complete mastery of the animal by executing an adorno, performing an ornamentation – a superfluous flourish.

These theatrics vary, and, while dangerous and dramatic, they are considered by some matadores and purists to be an offense to the dignity of their adversary.

  • The molinete is similar to the chicuelina. The matador presents the muleta to the bull with one hand. As the bull approaches, the matador turns on the spot away from the direction of the bull so the muleta wraps around his body.
  • The manoletina is similar to the gaonera. The matador uses his right hand to hold the muleta behind him at waist height. He then shows the muleta little by little to the bull until it charges. As the bull passes, the matador turns on the spot.
  • The afarolado is similar to the farol. The matador holds the muleta in one hand and keeps it at chest height. As the bull charges, the matador removes the muleta from the bull’s eye by spinning it over his head.
  • The pase de la firma is a remate (just like the pase de pecho described above). It starts as a regular pass. Then, the matador withdraws the muleta from the bull’s eye and moves it from side to side in zigzag before tucking it under his arm, turning his back and walking away.
  • If the bull shows no fighting spirit, the matador will probably decide to prove his superiority over the bull by performing a desplante.

In Spain bullfighting is a spectacle full of emotions. You’ll 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.

In Spain bullfighting finishes with the estocada

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.

What is the estocada

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:

  • He needs to kill the bull with a very precise technique to avoid being gored by the horns and,
  • The audience requires for the bull a quick and clean death in respect for his fighting spirit.

There are two possible ways to execute this maneuver.

  • 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.

The 5 most common estocada techniques

A 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.


When the matador waits for the bull to come to him.

A un tiempo

It can be translated as simultaneously. In this case the matador and the bull move toward each other at the same time.


When the matador and the bull meet as the man is about to start walking.


When the matador and the bull meet as the bull is about to start charging.

What happens after the estocada?

In Spain bullfighting often requires silence. Therefore, remain quiet, as the rest of the crowd will, while the matador executes the estocada.

The sword positioning is crucial.

The matador must be skilled enough to sever the bull’s aorta with the estoque. The estoque must be placed right into the cruz (cross) – the space between the shoulder blades and enter at the right angle.

The matador kills the bull on his first attempt

If successful, the bull instantly collapses with the crowd rising to their feet applauding, showing their appreciation of the matador’s performance.

After the sword is thrust and the bull is down, another torero (the puntillero) will ensure the animal’s death by a jab of a puntilla (small knife) behind the bull’s head.

Meanwhile, the acclaimed matador returns to the person honored by the brindis. He is now considered a hero, and awarded consequently.

The matador fails…

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.

The estocada can be defective because of its

  • Position towards the bull’s shoulder blades: pasada (a bit behind the cruz), trasera (behind the cruz), delantera (a bit ahead of the cruz), pescuecera (ahead of the cruz, almost in the neck), caída (a bit towards the right of the cruz), contraria (a bit towards the left of the cruz) or baja (towards the left/right of the cruz).
  • Entry angle: atravesada (crosswise), tendida (horizontal) or perpendicular.

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.

It’s the end of the third Spain bullfighting stage.

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.

This article is part of a complete tutorial about bullfighting in Spain where you can read all the information you need to make the most out of your experience.

Here is a complete summary of all the guide:

1. What is bullfighting?
2. How to watch a bullfight
3. Bullfighting festivals in Spain
4. How to buy your bullfight tickets
5. 7 Bullfight tips to make the most out of the experience
6. FAQ about bullfighting, Spain’s oldest tradition
7. Understanding Spanish bullfight rules
8. Who are the bullfight participants?
9. Spanish bull fight preliminaries
10. First Spanish bullfighting stage: tercio de varas
11. Second Spain bullfight stage: tercio de banderillas
12. Third Spain bullfighting stage: tercio de muerte
13. The bullfight awards
14. 27 Interesting and curious bullfighting facts
15. A brief history of bull fighting in Spain
16. Glossary of bullfighting terms

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