The moment we were waiting for arrived. Square Head was in the holding pen, ready to be released whenever we gave the signal that we were ready.
I volunteered to be the first to meet him when the gate opened. I have to admit I was petrified with fear. What am I doing here? I thought. This is insane. I signaled to the cowboy above the gate to open it, and Square Head came rushing out of the chute. He charged at me immediately.
I realized that the smartest thing to do would be to give a wide cape pass (capotazo), to test how he would react. To my amazement, he was fooled by this initial pass. Square Head continued to respond well to the cape, allowing me to make pass after pass. With each successful maneuver, I gained more confidence. After about ten decent passes, I turned it over to Bill Gresuk. He did some very creditable work — I was impressed with his ability and skill.
After a grueling half hour, we figured we had done as much as we could with Square Head. We signaled the cowboy to send the bull back to the corrals.
I breathed a sigh of relief that we’d survived the first onslaught. It’s all over, I thought. But, no, it wasn’t. The cowboys would not let us off the hook. They let out another bull, Sugar Plum. This was no ordinary bull. He appeared to be two stories high, and much meaner than Square Head.
In bullfighting, two types of capes are used. The larger, flamboyant cape is called the capote. The smaller and much lighter cape is called the muleta. The muleta is made from a gabardine-type material and is draped over a stick to give it dimension. The capote is usually made of silken fabric, and is used mainly in the first phase of the fight. The muleta is used in the last act, when the matador shows off his bravery and artistry working very close to the bull.
When Sugar Plum emerged on the scene, I should not have had the muleta in my hand. No way was this giant bull going to be fooled by the smaller cloth. Before I had a chance to switch back to the large cape, he came rushing toward me. It was like being attacked by a T. Rex. There was fire in his eyes, and he was definitely coming in for the kill. I was smart enough to realize I could not fight this terrifying animal as if he were a fighting bull from Spain. I shoved the muleta in his face and began to lure him across the rodeo grounds. Lucky for me, the bull was focused on the muleta. After about five minutes of running about, Sugar Plum got tired of the game and suddenly stopped. Somewhat shaken, I turned it over to Bill. After this, the gentle Freckles was anti-climatic.
We made history that day. This may have been the first bullfight ever in San Diego County. Of course, it hardly resembled a true bullfight, but to us novices it was a great experience. Afterward, Bill’s uncle, Jim Lucidi, took us to Felipe Zatarain’s taco shop in Encanto. I know it sounds ridiculous, but we felt that we were true matadors. Our heads swelled till they were larger than our sense, but it was an afternoon we have never forgotten.
In retrospect, it became clear that rodeo-type bulls do not charge like Spanish fighting bulls. Spanish bulls charge straight and true. The domestic types wade in on you, like a Tony Galento–type boxer. Rodeo bulls have also been handled many times by men on foot, and therefore become wise to distractions like capes — they usually aim right for the body of the man. Bill and I were lucky we came out unscathed, and we were especially lucky Square Head was fooled by the cape.
Some time later, I had an experience in Tijuana fighting a bull that had wised up to what was going on. At a ring where local Mexican cowboys (charros) put on festivals, they kept a bull that had been caped dozens of times. It was about three or four years old. They called him El Regional and let him out during the festivals, perhaps to add color to the proceedings. Aspiring matadors were allowed to try their hand at caping him.
Of course, having been fought so many times, this bull knew that the cape was no longer his enemy. Whenever he came out, there was mayhem, with scattered bodies on the ground. But I was not privy to this when I first went to Tijuana to learn about bullfighting. When I heard they were going to let out a bull for the public to fight, I jumped at the chance.
The arena was a ring pretty much like a bullring, but more rustic and worn. I had been taught that a bull charging along the edge of the ring had a tendency to move toward the center when he encounters a bullfighter. This, I figured, was an advantage. So I planted myself against the boards with my cape in hand, ready for El Regional.
He came shooting out of the gate, running along the fence toward me. Just before he reached me, I moved my cape to distract his charge, but he ignored the cape and caught me in a direct hit. I went flying through the air like Charlie Brown after Lucy removes the football. As I lay crumpled on the ground, one of my Mexican friends asked, “¿Qué pasó, Riki?”
I am perhaps the first Japanese-American who has indulged in bullfighting. Quite a few Americans have been bitten by the bug to fight bulls — John Fulton, Robert Ryan, Sidney Franklin, and David Renk are all men who have achieved the title of Matador de Toros. Raquel Martinez of Imperial Beach is that rare woman who has also reached this prestigious goal. Peter Rombold is perhaps the most successful amateur, having fought and killed over 60 bulls in Mexico and Spain.
You probably can’t defend bullfighting from a moral standpoint. But are those animal activists still eating steak? ■
— Rikio Shiodsaki