José Tomás. Picture Credit: David Ramos/Getty Images

Bull market

José Tomás is a titan of the bullring, but does he live up to his reputation?

Artillery Row

Within an hour of the announcement that José Tomás had chosen Jaén for his comeback, every room within 20 miles of that workaday Andalusian town had been booked. When the tickets went on sale six weeks later, they were snapped up in seconds.

Strange advertisements appeared on eBay, designed to get around the rules on illicit resales: “Biro, 1500 euros, free tickets to see José Tomás included”; “Set of car tyres, 4500 euros – plus a seat in Jaén’s plaza”. 

Not even an especially good seat, by the way. The best places were not on offer because, when José Tomás makes his rare appearances, the touts keep them for themselves. 

What gives the tall, silent matador from Galápagar such pulling power? I wrote last year about how he appeals alike to the intellectuals (who love his slow, upright, classical style) and the masses (who love the fact that he has no fear of death, and keeps coming back after being tossed). 

Part of his appeal rests on mystique. José Tomás won’t allow his performances to be televised and refuses to give interviews. I sometimes wonder whether he has a silly voice and so, Beckham-like, must let his actions do the talking. No one really knows.

To his detractors, it’s all a cynical business gimmick. By limiting his appearances (he withdrew completely between 2002 and 2007), José Tomás increases his enigmatic appeal. When he negotiates a contract, he gives the ring a flat fee and keeps the rest of the profit from the ticket sales. 

“Why Jaén?” another matador asked me, breaking the code that no bullfighter should ever disparage a colleague. “He’s got absolutely no connection to the place. I’ll tell you why. It’s because it’s one of the largest second-category rings. It means he can legally appear before lighter bulls, but can still shift 11,000 tickets. His last appearance, three years ago, was in Algeciras. Same thing. His next is in Alicante. Same thing again – no links to the town, but it’s got a lot of box office for a category-two plaza”.

None of this detracts from the awesome spectacle he provides

Even the most cultish tomasistas admit that their idol favours the less challenging castes of bull – less challenging, in this context, meaning that their charges are straighter, and the gauge of their horns is narrower. These things, I stress, are relative. No fighting bull is predictable, and even the supposedly smoothest breeds can eviscerate a man with the tiniest upward twitch. Still, the inscrutable bullfighter, now 46, unquestionably prefers animals that allow him to display his peculiar artistry – notably a light, low-horned breed called Núñez del Cuvillo.

None of this detracts from the awesome spectacle he provides – hypnotic, unhurried risk-taking. Indeed, precisely because his appearances are so rare, he needs to deliver every time, repeatedly inviting serious injury.

José Tomás likes to employ passes from the more thrilling end of the spectrum, but to deliver them with stillness and poise. He will often open, for example, by standing in the middle of the ring and inciting the bull from a distance, drawing its charge across his body at the very last minute with a flick of his cloth, so that it passes behind his back rather than in front of him. 

The pass is known as a péndulo, and is favoured by some tremendistas. But José Tomás does it in a singularly leisurely way, moving only his right arm, and drawing the bull back into repeated charges while he remains motionless.

He did it in Jaén, too; but somehow the magic had gone. The crowd was perhaps the most knowledgeable ever assembled in a bullring. Sitting near me, in undistinguished sol seats, I spotted a current and a recently retired matador, as well as two well-known taurine bloggers. Yet, for all the build-up, the audience was listless, languid. “Me aburro”, shouted a heckler during the third bull: I’m bored. No one shushed him.

How are we to explain such a reaction? Was José Tomás finally succumbing to age and becoming more ginger before the horns? No: he worked as closely as ever, and was knocked about a fair bit for his pains.

Was it the heatwave? Andalusia had been sweltering all week, and it was 41 degrees in the shade when the clarions opened proceedings at 7.30pm. Such heat lies like a heavy blanket over everything, stifling alike the spectators and the bulls.

Was it, come to that, the bulls themselves? So said most of the critics. José Tomás had appeared solo, facing four bulls rather than the usual six, and the animals, it is fair to say, were not such stuff as dreams are made on. The first and the third, by Victoriano del Río, were distracted, coming loose at the end of passes, and the second (by Núñez de Cuvillo, José Tomás’s favourite pedigree, now under the name of Álvaro Núñez) lacked all conviction; though the fourth, by Juan Pedro Domecq, was livelier. 

Yes, the bulls were mediocre; and, yes, the heat didn’t help

Then again, José Tomás worked remarkably bravely with the material he had. Indeed, with his third bull, a dull and defensive specimen, he had taken up his heavy sword to kill when, disappointed by its lack of spark, he moved in close for four consecutive left-handed series, so near that the horn-tips were almost plucking the braid from his trousers. There was nothing flash about it; on the contrary, it was the most controlled and elegant moment of the evening and this, of all crowds, recognised it. A good blade gave them an excuse to petition for the ear, which was awarded by the president, but rejected by the matador, who felt he had not earned it. Only in his fourth bull did he find material to mould into a decent performance, again winning an ear (which, this time, he accepted).

Yes, the bulls were mediocre; and, yes, the heat didn’t help. But the real problem was that José Tomás’s reputation is now too much for anyone (including José Tomás) to live up to. “Corrida de expectación, corrida de decepción”, say aficionados: the most anticipated corridas are the most disappointing. And there is, I think, a structural reason for it. 

As I left the arena, my mind drifted to the bullfight scene in The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway’s first and finest novel. In one chapter he describes, in fictionalised form, the 1925 comeback of Juan Belmonte, perhaps the most celebrated matador ever to have hefted a sword. When I got home, I found the relevant passage in my tattered paperback:

“Belmonte was very good. But because he got 30,000 pesetas and people had stayed in line all night to buy tickets to see him, the crowd demanded that he should be more than very good… When he retired, the legend grew up about how his bullfighting had been, and when he came out of retirement the public were disappointed because no real man could work as close to the bulls as Belmonte was supposed to have done, not, of course, even Belmonte”.

It was, mutatis mutandis, the best explanation of what we had just watched, and it was written nearly a hundred years before the event. Not bad, Papa. Not bad at all.

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