Bloodless bullfighting: A tradition evolved or just plain bull?

Eulalio Lopez shows traditional bullfighting attire during the Don Bull Productions press conference to announce details of the bloodless bullfights to be held at the South Point from Sept. 14-15, in conjunction with Mexican Independence Day festivities, and Sept. 27-30.
Photo: Justin M. Bowen

Let me say this plainly: I like bullfighting. Five years ago, feeling fairly conflicted about the slaughter I had paid money to witness, I attended my first corrida in Seville, Spain. Come September, I’ll watch my second bullfight just 15 minutes from my front door, at the South Point Arena and Equestrian Center. But one major element – some might say the major element – will have changed: There will be no blood.

Velcro Bullfighting

La corrida is the bullfight, a fetishistic sport that traces its roots to bull sacrifices during the Roman Empire and has been practiced in more or less the same form for hundreds of years. Today, it is an emblem of both Spanish and Mexican cultures – a controversial entertainment that has often been labeled a ruthless diversion for blood-lusting crowds out of date with today’s animal-rights sympathies.

I entered the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza in Seville that day with a queasy feeling born of knowing I was about to watch as not one, not two but six healthy, elegant animals were artfully abused and then slain. I left with a self-conscious appreciation for the beautiful cruelty that is the Spanish corrida. Five years later I can say it without wincing: I like bullfighting.

But la corrida that will arrive in Las Vegas is of a slightly different breed. Rather than do battle with PETA and American audiences’ sensitive sense of propriety, the fights, arranged by Mexican bullfighting impresario Pedro Haces Barba of Don Bull Productions, will be totally bloodless, an evolved version of a centuries-old practice designed to spare the beasts that make the entire spectacle possible.

Prelude to a bullfight

Bloodless bullfighting isn’t new. In fact, it’s not even new to Las Vegas. In 1965 a bloodless bullfight turned the Las Vegas Convention Center into a plaza de toros for a weekend of corridas featuring Mexican, Portuguese and even one American matador. To simulate the traditional bullfight, the matadors and rejoneadores, fighters mounted on horseback, stuck wooden sticks known as banderillas into a two-inch foam rubber pad secured on the bull’s back at the base of the neck.

Things have changed only slightly since the matadors first arrived in Las Vegas wearing the “suit of lights.” At a press conference Wednesday at the South Point, where starting on September 14 the fights will be held in conjunction with six days of Fiestas Patrias celebrating Mexico's Independence Day and various aspects of Mexican culture, Haces Barba demonstrated how the bullfighters will use banderillas tipped with Velcro rather than blades. Still aiming for the same spot, still coming terrifying close to the bull’s horns, the matadors will bring their art to American audiences by thrusting the re-engineered swords and spears onto a sheet of Velcro on the bull’s back. The deeply historical performance will be identical to an authentic demonstration but for a small piece of fabric that wasn’t even invented until 20th century.

It’s that strip of Velcro that keeps tripping me up. While its purpose – sparing the bulls – is certainly noble, taking the blood out of the bullfight could also drain much of the drama from the ordeal. La corrida isn’t about having fun; it’s not about a quaint tradition that makes us feel more worldly, and it’s not about murder or disrespect for the animal that will perish. In fact, I have never seen an animal more revered than the Spanish toro, its life spent running in open fields, its death commemorated by the entire community, its name whispered and practically worshipped by those who follow the sport.

La corrida is about the tension that fills the arena when the bull first trots out of the chute, a flower pinned to its withers and an air of superiority to its jaunty gait. It’s about the solemn dance between matador and bull that, when well executed, looks like a courtship between two complicit partners. And it’s about the anticipation of the final blow, a soul-throttling moment when the sword meets spinal cord and the bull drops, the sacrifice complete.

I love the idea of a bloodless corrida that will let both matador and bull leave the ring on their feet to return another day. But I can’t help wondering, in sparing the bull, will we sacrifice the bullfight itself?

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