MEXICO CITY >> It was not long after the first trumpets on Sunday that Jose Tomas found himself in familiar territory: inches from the vicious horns of a fighting bull, so close they nearly brushed up against the pink silk of his traje de luces, or suit of lights.
Careful not to twitch a muscle, which could have been a trigger for the bull to attack him, Tomas stood firm in this dangerous position and alone at the center of the Plaza Mexico, the biggest bullring in the world. Tomas’ cultish followers are called Tomasistas, and the bullring was filled with more than 45,000 spectators, the largest draw for a matador in recent memory.
All of them were eager to witness the Great One before he decided to retire or before another horn wound ended his career for him.
Tomas, 40, was not like other matadors. He was the embodiment of mystery — in and out of the ring. For years, he has refused to give interviews or to appear on television. You had to see him live to see him at all, and he performed so infrequently — usually once or twice a year — that tickets sold out within hours.
His mastery, though, was not only in his marketing. Tomas’ performances were savage ballets, a blend of elegance, fearlessness, timing and sacrifice. He seemed determined to pass bulls ever closer to his body, pushing the boundaries of how close a man could get.
“He’s a mystic,” Allen Josephs, a professor of literature and Spanish studies at the University of West Florida who has written extensively about matadors and bulls, said in a recent interview for the magazine True.Ink. “We want the great matador to bring the animal in closer and closer and closer. It’s playing with death. Why do we play with death? Because by playing with death, in some ways, we overcome it.”
By overcoming death, Tomas represented a kind of immortality, and now here he was, swinging the red muleta behind his back as the 1,150-pound Bellotero, his first bull of the afternoon, gazed at his tiny waist. Finally, Tomas made a pass, and the crowd exploded.
Then another pass.
Then he got too close. The horn caught the inside of Tomas’ leg. He crashed to the sand and the crowd shrieked as the bull’s horns tore away at the backs of his thighs.
As a teenager in a suburb of Madrid, where the bullfighting schools are perhaps the most competitive in Spain, Tomas struggled to attract attention from the promoters, managers and financiers who bankroll young matadors. He moved to Mexico to attract attention, and perfected a style of bullfighting so dangerous he has nearly been killed.
In 2010, Tomas had just finished an effortless natural, or left-handed pass, in Aguascalientes, Mexico, when a bull plunged his horn into Tomas’ thigh, punctured the femoral artery and drained much of the blood from his body. For a while, it was unclear whether Tomas would survive.
“When your mind has gotten used to the fact that you will die and then you don’t, life turns a different color,” said Antonio Barrera, a matador who suffered countless gorings and nearly bled to death as a teenager with an injury similar to Tomas’. In 2012, Barrera spoke about how overcoming death allowed him to perform with abandon in “Gored,” a coming documentary that captures his last bullfight.
“For me, the bull is like a god,” Barrera says. “The wild bull has a lot of values the human being admires: to be fierce, to be impetuous, to have a breed, to have self-esteem, to fight for what you want, to fight for your life. That’s why you consider him a god, and why in many cultures he has been considered a god.”
Bullfighting is more religion than sport, more sacrifice than killing, and one of the last rituals left from the ancient world. Among the pharaohs of Egypt, the wandering tribes of the Levant, the Greek and Cretan amphitheaters and on, the bulls of the ancient world were deities.
“In the eyes of these people, the bull had become a symbol of the all-powerful and the all-fertile,” Jack Randolph Conrad writes in “The Horn and the Sword,” an anthropological history of the human-bull relationship. Bulls represented the spirit of immortality, Conrad writes, and were worshipped in elaborate ways.
In ancient Egypt, women appeared naked in front of bulls to absorb their fertile powers, and Roman soldiers bathed in bull blood and feasted on bull testicles to obtain the immortal spirit. The bulls were sacrificed in elaborate rituals by taurine priests to bestow their godly powers to the public, and the modern bullfight can be viewed as a distant, commercialized relative of these ancient sacrifices.
“It all comes back to sacrifice,” Josephs said. “You know, the matadors are really the only high priests from the pagan days we have left.”
In the Plaza Mexico on Sunday, as Tomas lay crumpled in the sand, helpers lured Bellotero away. But not for long. Only a few passes later, Tomas was on the ground again, as the bull hooked his horns underneath the jacket of his suit and trampled him. Somehow, the horns missed him, and Tomas went on to register a remarkable performance. His derechazos, or right-hand passes, were long and smooth, and his left-hand passes were timed perfectly.
He then placed the sword cleanly, and earned an ear, or trophy, though the audience was clamoring for two ears, an honor akin to a triumph that would allow him to be carried from the plaza.
“He gives me the entire range of emotions,” Pedro Perez, one of the Tomasistas, said as Tomas made his way back to the passageway around the ring, his face covered with dirt, and as vendors inside the ring hawked treats like mangoes doused in chili flakes, pistachio cakes and pink meringue desserts. “I don’t know if I want to be happy or sad, cheer or cry. You never know what will happen next.”
Perez had arrived early from Tlaxcala, another province, and had rarely seen the streets outside the bullring so packed. Vendors had set out their grills and paella pans, and restaurant tables were filled with aficionados wearing sombreros and ascots and feasting on specialties like shrimp tacos doused in cheese sauce and washing it all down with cold micheladas laced with pepper flakes and spiked with clam juice.
Oddly, it was hard to find any animal rights activists, who have developed a presence in Mexico City, often shouting through their bullhorns that something as cruel as the bullfight should be abolished in places that still hold fairs like the south of France, Spain (outside Barcelona), Portugal, Peru, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala and Venezuela.
The bullfight at the Plaza Mexico, featuring Tomas and Joselito Adame, a Mexican matador, was the biggest of the winter season, if not the coming year. Before the gates opened, front row seats were being resold on websites for nearly $8,000 each.
And even while bullfighting has taken a financial beating in recent years — from protests, prohibitions, the struggles of the Spanish economy and other factors — Tomas has been considered a kind of savior amid the dwindling spectacle, a lone figure who, through his bravery and art, can still inspire a new generation of enthusiasts.
But inside the stadium, as the sun fell and the house lights came on, Tomas struggled. His second bull lacked strength, and despite the engineering of some breathtaking passes, he missed and struggled with his sword, killing poorly.
And with his last bull, he never had a chance. Once the chute swung upon and the animal emerged, the frustrated crowd whistled in protest. The bull, despite its speed, was too small, they felt. A substitute bull was called in. This bull was also small, and lacked strength, and Tomas had no choice but to kill it quickly and register his most disappointing performance in years.
Adame then seized the moment. With the final bull of the day, he executed all the tricks to win the laggard crowd over. He dropped to his knees, spun the capes like pinwheels and got so close he touched the horns with his fingers.
He even attempted a dangerous style of killing called recibiendo, placing the sword as the bull charged into him rather than jumping over the horns. The move capped a performance that lacked Tomas’ poetry but earned Adame a triumphant two ears for excitement. Adame, not Tomas, was carried through the streets as fans reached out to touch his hand, his suit of lights — any part of him. It was as if they were touching a saint.
At his hotel, Tomas emerged to have a late dinner with his handlers. He was asked how he felt.
“What can one do?” he said in Spanish, shaking his head. He looked sullen and deflated and very much like a typical matador after a rough afternoon — no longer the mysterious god of the bulls so many people had come to see.