The Last American Matador

An excerpt from 'Dancing Alone in Mexico,' published by the University of Arizona Press.

Diego O'Bolger's suite at the Fray Marcos Hotel is far too small for the dozen or so people who have come to visit him before his Sunday fight at the Nogales bullring. Visiting a matador while he dresses in his suit of lights is a ritual as old as bullfighting itself, something akin to visiting a gladiator or a knight of old as he prepares to go into battle.

The room is tacky. Despite fresh paint and flowery new drapes, the rooms at the Fray Marcos seem to sag under half a century of restless nights, soiled sheets, and sweat. I wonder if the same suites are always reserved for touring matadors. Could this be the same room where I once called upon Carlos Arruza or the great gypsy matador Luis Procuna? It seems smaller.

During the peak years, when Dominguín was on the cover of Life magazine and Hemingway glorified the corrida, bullfights took place nearly every week in the border bullrings during the Easter-to-October season, attracting huge crowds from both sides of the border. I remember seeing John Wayne and his buddy Ward Bond at one Nogales bullfight. They were mobbed by fans after the fight, a towering Wayne patiently signing autographs for all who asked. Author Barnaby Conrad was a frequent visitor. ("Remember those hot, sticky nights in Acapulco," he scribbled in the book of one delighted University of Arizona coed.) Today, the Nogales ring averages two or three bullfights a year, often charity events, drawing minor bullfighters and small crowds who pay the $10 shady-side general admission in hopes of seeing some past spark of past excitement.

O'Bolger grew up in Tucson, and although he has lived in Coyoacán, a residential suburb of Mexico City, for nearly twenty years, he has a strong local following, including now-grown friends from Salpointe Catholic High School who knew him when his name was James Bolger. He changed it when he moved to Mexico, riding there from Tucson on a BSA 250 British-made motorcycle, which was promptly stolen. He adopted "O'Bolger" from the original Irish; Diego is Spanish for James. The handsome young gringo with the Irish smile became a full-fledged matador de toros on August 17, 1969, at the Plaza Monumental in Tijuana, Mexico's third-largest bullring, following a string of often bloody though always spirited novilladas, or apprentice bullfights. He has gone on to fight successfully throughout Mexico, Spain, and South America and in numerous bloodless bullfights in the U.S. Southwest.

There have been many American bullfighters--Harper Lee, Sydney Franklin (the "Bullfighter from Brooklyn," Hemingway's friend), and John Fulton, as well as female bullfighters Bette Ford and Patricia McCormick. Not long ago, David Renk of San Antonio drew a flurry of interest--and a major piece in Sports Illustrated--but quickly faded from the scene. O'Bolger remains, the last American matador. With bullfighting on the wane--the art of dying is literally a dying art--there may never be another of his stature. A small but vocal movement in Spain labels bullfighting cruel and is attempting to have it banned. Animal protection groups in Mexico have had some success, recently closing several bullfighting schools there. Television, once heralded as a boon to bullfighting, has done little to increase interest. The drama simply doesn't translate well to the small screen.

When I arrive at O'Bolger's room, his jacket is folded neatly on the bed, and he is shirtless. Visiting a freshly showered, superbly conditioned half-naked matador in a dinky hotel room would seem a ritual tailored more for adoring young ladies than for men. But the Mexican machismo--cigar-chomping and back-thumping abrazos--gives it a benign locker-room atmosphere that is almost comical.

Unlike Arruza and Procuna, whose bodies bore the signs of many injuries, O'Bolger has no noticeable scars on his upper torso. At six feet, one of the tallest matadors ever, his major wounds have been below the waist. He was once hospitalized for five days after being gored in the left thigh. He was also severely gored in the right calf. To stay in shape, he trains daily in Mexico City, jogging in the hills above Chapultepec Park for as much as ten miles a day, or until occasional nosebleeds--caused by the 7,350-foot altitude and polluted air--force him to stop.

Tall, slim, and good-looking, with none of the hawkish features so common among bullfighters (Manolete's legacy), O'Bolger gets dressed while greeting friends there to wish him success with the afternoon's corrida and discussing last-minute details with ring officials. The limousine that is supposed to take him to the arena has been booked for a funeral; he'll have to find some other way to get there. He orders tea from room service. "Would anyone like something to drink?"

When the tea arrives, O'Bolger takes the tray and puts it aside, never touching it. He puts on his frilled white blouse, leaving the cuffs unbuttoned. Then he puts on a thin red tie, twisting a small loop of thread to the base and tucking it into his trousers. The last thing a matador needs in the bullring is a red tie flapping in the breeze.

The matador's elaborately embroidered suit is like no other. Its origins date back to the 1700s, when the suits were sewn with real gold threads that glistened in the sun. Surely the suit would seem out of place in any ordinary closet. When not in use, it's probably folded away in a trunk, like a trousseau, waiting for its inevitable date with the bulls. Spanish artist Joan Mora sculpted a suit of lights in bronze--La silla del toreo--the life-sized jacket is draped over the back of a chair, the trousers are folded across the seat, the cap sits on top. Salvador Dalí once staged a surrealistic bullfight in Barcelona; his matadors wore costumes with thousands of little mirrors sewn onto them so that the bulls, horns painted blue and gold, could see themselves attacking.

The matador's skintight pants, teleguillas, are nearly impossible to put on single-handedly. Assistants often have to help the bullfighter squeeze into them, something that's obviously done before visitors begin to arrive. If the matador has knobby knees, a few wraps of newspaper may be added for a smoother look. The pants are no easier to remove. There's no such thing as even the briefest of dalliances---a quickie---for a man in a suit of lights. The real sexual overtones take place in the bullring, where the matador, strutting his prowess and courage, flaunts his maleness to the ultimate point of plunging his sword into the conquered bull.

The others in the room are mostly friends from Tucson, including an attractive female photographer with enough cameras around her neck to photograph the Olympics. Women are considered bad luck in a matador's dressing room, but clearly she's a friend. The tea, it turns out, is for her.

She was working in the hotel room, Nikon poised and ready. O'Bolger goes to the dresser---where he had earlier unrolled a small, beige mat---and places upon it a silver cross, a candle, and a framed postcard-sized picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe. He lights the candle, makes a sign of the cross, and with his head bowed, says a silent prayer. I suspect the gesture may be more for show than a plea for spiritual intervention. He could have said his prayers before the room was full of people, cameras clicking away.

Prayers finished, O'Bolger pulls on his jacket--his suit of lights is green, of course, for his Irish heritage--running his fingers lightly over the sleeve's flowered embroidery. More pictures.

Also on hand is local bullfight guru Dick Frontain, who writes for various bullfighting publications, helps promote scheduled bullfights in Nogales, and was the bullfight critic for the Arizona Daily Star, back when the fights had a larger following and advertised regularly in the paper.

Frontain teaches English and short-story writing at Pima Community College in Tucson. Each summer, he flies to Spain, checks into Madrid's Hotel Victoria, drinks a cool sherry or two at the Cerveceria Alemana, and attends as many bullfights as he can squeeze into his three-week stay. Back home, he occasionally ventures into the ring to make a few passes with young bulls during amateur bullfighting events, or during tientas at the Trincheras Ranch of Sonoran friends, a feat perhaps accomplished with more grace and agility before his hair turned white.

I had met O'Bolger for the first time at Frontain's home in Tucson the night before. I knew who he was, of course--anyone who follows bullfighting would know, especially in Tucson. But we had never met. He had arrived at the party with a stunning young woman who turned out to be the photographer doing a story about him.

"Do you think Diego's having it on the photographer?" I asked Frontain. He appeared genuinely surprised at my question. "No way," he said. "He's engaged to a girl in Mexico City. Delfina something. He's crazy about her."

The Plaza de Toros in Nogales was built in 1952 and has gone through various owners and transformations. Closed for several years, it was converted briefly into a brassiere factory. Current impresario Paco de la Fuente, who lives in Mexico City, acquired the ring in 1983. He has poured considerable investment into the 5,000-seat arena--new paint, restrooms, and a new barrera, the wooden fence that encircles the ring (vandals carried off the old one for fire and building wood)--but he has not yet been able to show a profit. The ring acquisition included an adjacent rundown apartment house, which de la Fuente would like to demolish. He wants to build a restaurant and a pavilion and expand parking facilities, but the apartment tenants are protected by local housing laws, and de la Fuente is unable to force them out.

Earlier in the day I had gone with Frontain to the sorteo, or drawing of the bulls, at the corrals behind the bullring. Here the matadors, appearing shorter and somewhat less magnificent in street clothes, get their first look at the bulls they'll be fighting that day and, if they haven't already met, of one another. The matadors, or their designated representatives, draw numbers to determine which bull or bulls they'll be facing. The numbers are written on cigarette papers, crumpled into tiny balls, and drawn from a hat. As with everything else in bullfighting, the sorteo is a serious ritual. Attending it is an honor, an insider's gig, so there is endless posturing, handshaking, and bravado. Owner Paco de la Fuente was there. He and Frontain, both wearing long-sleeved guayabera shirts, embraced, as though they hadn't just met and talked outside an hour earlier.

While one bull looks pretty much like every other bull to the unskilled observer, bullfighters and aficionados can wax on forever about subtle nuances--the shape of a horn, color, size, the set of the neck and shoulders. Bullfighters are notoriously superstitious and easily spooked. The mere cast of a bull's eye can be unsettling, a sign of doom. "Mexican bulls tend to be shorter and slimmer than those in Spain," said Frontain. But they're strong, fast, and deadly with their horns."

After the bulls were assigned, we headed to Elvira's for chiles rellenos. O'Bolger went back to the hotel. Traditionally, bullfighters don't eat before a fight. If the worst happens and surgery is required, the doctors don't want to have to go digging through a lot of tamales and beans to make repairs.

O'Bolger, in his suit of lights, is driven to the bullring rather unceremoniously in the photographer's van. I ride with Frontain, who saunters through the main gate without paying while I cough up $10 for a ticket. Appearing with O'Bolger is another local favorite, Carlos Gonzales, whose dark Spanish good looks have caught the attention of numerous Sonoran beauties, several of whom I had noticed earlier at the sorteo, their high heels sinking into the mud. I also notice that O'Bolger's name is spelled incorrectly on the posters and programs, -ar instead of -er. No big deal, I guess, unless it's your name and you're going out onto the dusty Sunday circle to kill or be killed by a furiously charging 1,250-pound animal bred for no other purpose than to fight.

It's said that the only thing that starts on time in Mexico is the bullfight. A matador generally travels with his own cuadrilla, seconds, and sword handlers who place the banderillas and test the bulls with their capes so the matador can judge the bull's characteristics and possible flaws. But this is a border fight in a border ring, and the banderilleros and picadors are all locals--retired or would-be matadors doing a day's work.

All are gathered now beneath the arena in the passageway that leads to the ring. Greetings are simple among these men, as greetings tend to be when protocol is high, mere nods of acknowledgment. O'Bolger and Carlos Gonzales move to the front of the group and stand waiting behind the wide wooden doors that separate them from the ring. Even the picadors' horses, padded and blindfolded, seem to sense the immediacy; one backs into the wall and takes several moments to settle down.

Outside, a faulty loudspeaker announces the arrival of the matadors. Slowly the minutes pass, and then from the other side of the door the anxious rattle of hinges and bolts is heard. Suddenly, the huge wooden door swings open, flooding the passageway with light. O'Bolger shields his eyes for a moment, adjusts his fancy dress capote, and throws his shoulders back. Then, as the metallic notes of "La Virgen de la Macarena" trumpet loud and clear through the warm afternoon air, he walks forward, leading the procession of matadors, banderilleros, mounted picadors, and ring attendants from the narrow, sunken passageway out onto the sun-white sand of the open arena.

Of today's corrida, Frontain would later report: As O'Bolger attempted to place his own banderillas, he was caught and tossed high into the air. He landed on the bull's back and fell onto the sand. The crowd screamed as one as the bull slashed at the fallen torero. Because of the blood, many thought O'Bolger had been gored in the face. But the horns missed and his assistants lured the bull away from the fallen matador.

Dazed, half-conscious, O'Bolger was assisted to his feet. His forehead was deeply cut and he was spitting blood. The medical team rushed him to the ambulance outside. But O'Bolger broke free, staggered back into the arena and demanded his muleta and sword. He managed a dozen right-hand passes, often working the horns close to his body. The sword thrust was honestly placed and deep. O'Bolger was awarded both ears and took two laps around the arena to ovations and music.

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