The matador Juan José Padilla triumphs

Juan José Padilla tours the ring in triumph on the shoulders of our friend Adolfo Suárez Illana (click to enlarge)

Juan José Padilla is a Spanish matador whose generosity of time, spirit and courage allowed much of my book, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, to exist (click here to purchase at Amazon UK, and here for Amazon US). And, without him, as many critics pointed out, it certainly have been as widely praised as it was (nor shortlisted for Sports Book Of The Year 2011, I suspect.)

Juan José was the first matador I met in Spain. It was he who took me to my first training session with cattle at the ranch of Álvaro Domecq, ‘Los Alburejos’ (and then onto his own nightclub ‘La Lola’ in Jerez de la Frontera afterwards). This – including the club - forms chapter three of the book. He was also with my when I first entered the ring myself at the ranch of Fuente Ymbro (chapter four), and much, much more besides.

So, when I heard about his horrific goring, detailed in the post here, in which he lost his left eye I knew that I had to be present when he inevitably returned to the ring.

However, no amount of confidence inspired by Juan José’s words when I visited him at home two days before the fight, nor seeing the calm beauty of the bulls in their natural wilderness the day before that, could prepare me for his triumph in the ring, ending with him being carried out on the shoulders not of the crowd as is usual with a great success in the plaza, but on the shoulders of the top matadors of today – who had gathered to watch – and now jockeyed to carry the Maestro themselves.

However, should you wish to know more of Juan José, read Into The Arena, and then go and see him in Valencia on March 16th alongside the No.1 matador in Spain, José María Manzanares or they will both be fighting at my own favourite ring, in Seville at the April Fair, on the 20th and again, with his old friend Fandi (the technical no .1 in Spain) and El Cordobés on the 28th (you can buy tickets here). I would suggest that in Seville those on a budget stay at the Hotel Adriano (website here) next to the bullring, those who want old beauty stay with my friends at the Hotel Las Casas de la Juderia (website here), and those who prefer the boutique, with my friends at the Hotel Corral del Rey (website here). Direct flights from London are by Ryanair and Easyjet.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Juan José Padilla with his capote (Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza / APMore Photos)

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  1. Hi,
    Xander I want to do something about Padilla for this year’s Fanzine and I was was putting together a few thoughts for an article, however I soon realised that you know so much more and are so much closer. That you could pen some words that would do better justice to what many of us consider to be one of the last remaining heros of the Bullfighting world. Now I know you are doing something for GQ but can we have their cast offs, I will pay the normal rate of a beer at Txocos after the run. But something has to be said as this situation is so dramatic it must be addressed in words! I hope you know where I am coming from. We must have a chat soon as to plans for the fiesta etc. All the best!

  2. Although I oppose bullfighting because of its cruelty to animals, its hard not to be in awe of this whole story, everyone loves a great comeback, and this is a very dramatic one, they’ll probably make a movie about this. The severity of his goring is something I’ve never seen, and was very disturbing to see, although I still don’t like bullfighting, nobody can say that those bulls aren’t dangerous, they seem incredibly dangerous, if you mess up once you can die. Its another reason bullfighting should be reformed to be less violent in my humble opinion, because both the bull and the bullfighters are in terrible danger and I don’t like watching people and animals risking their lives for my entertainment, where there is guaranteed death of several animals. I once saw a video where at a rodeo, a bull gored a horse, and the horses guts falls out in the middle of the ring, and clearly was mortally wounded. I know that was a freak accident, but the inherent violence and danger in this unique cultural spectacle seems too much for a truly moral society, I don’t think it should be outlawed but certain modifications could be made to make it more humane to the people and the bulls, fewer bulls killed in each rodeo, maybe you don’t even have to kill the bull at the end, just demonstrate the grace and beauty you admire of bullfighting, but show some mercy to this innocent beast. The bull doesn’t deserve to die in my opinion. But I am not judging any of you who don’t agree with me, I’m just explaining why I don’t like bullfighting.

  3. I am so pleased it went well for him. Is it completely girly to say I also loved his traje de luces?! Gorgeous colours. And I actually think the eye patch makes him into a legend…It’s timeless!

  4. Huw Williams says:

    Fantastic come back! And a unique and motivating olive leaf suit of lights of hope.
    Ive just finished reading your book and am looking forward to going to my first corrida this year which i feel is the nearest thing to baroque art in the modern world.

  5. Graeme, I agree. Let’s talk.

  6. Agreed.

  7. Dear Mr. Small,

    I just thought I would write to say that yours is my favourite sort of post. Thoughtful, honest, and putting forward a reasonable alternative. I have to add, though, that it is reasonable from a British perspective, not a Spanish one. I realise that it is me plugging my own product, but I think you would understand much better were you to read Into The Arena. And you might it is an apologia for bullfighting, but as you can see from the reviews in the ‘Welcome’ post which is next on this blog, it is not. Once you have read it, you might come to understand that asking for such reforms would be akin to saying: “I have nothing against Catholicism, if only they could get rid of transubstantiation, the deity of the Messiah and the concept of life after death.” For things born of tradition, which are in defiance of the aesthetics of modernity, if not – as I would argue – necessarily contrary to its ethics: if you change one thing, then the whole edifice, the whole reason for it being there, collapses…

    Kind regards,

    Alexander Fiske-Harrison

  8. Firstly, I thoroughly enjoyed your book! It was particularly useful in helping me organize my thoughts as to why I feel so drawn to what so many see as a cruel and barbaric spectacle. I live in Spain and was incredibly moved by Padilla’s glorious comeback, not least with the dedication of his bulls to both the doctors that helped save his life, and to his ever supportive father. He was the athletic, fearless Padilla that he always was, and I look forward to following his progress this season, hopefully in person if he is on the San Isidro Cartel come May!

    As a burgeoning aficionado myself, I was wondering how Padilla’s accident has effected his ability to perform naturales? I managed to see his highlights from Olivanza, and he didn’t appear to be performing them with any sort of ease, if at all.

    I look forward to reading your article in GQ… I was lucky enough to see Manzanares cut one ear at last year’s San Isidro, and on a cartel with Talavante and Castella, both of whom were solid, his elegance and fluidity put him on a different plain.

  9. Thank you Angus. As for JJP’s left hand, I thought he looked sketchy there, but then so did the bull. Perhaps he insisted a little less because he didn’t want to provoke an unregulated charge where his vision is poor, but, equally, perhaps we were just watching too closely for that sort of error and saw what we expected. Manazanres really has refined his style, I agree. On the finca the other day he was amazing. He was too insistent in Olivenza, though, on having his moment in the sun. (As he was in Ronda last year when he bought himself a third bull, dragging the corrida beyond my tolerance point.)

  10. Xander
    Borrowed from and linked to one of your posts, hope you don’t mind-

    Read your book and thought it was excellent so I went back to Hemingway and found him unreadable with that florid style and his tendency to fantasise too much (a lot of people in Spain told me that Hemingway wrote and talked a lot of nonsense about toros)

    A question I never got around to asking during my many years in Spain so perhaps you will know. When I read the report of Olivenza in El Mundo it went into great detail about the colours etc of the suit of lights and I remembered that all newspapers did that for all Corridas. Is there any reason for this?



  11. Thank you for your kind response, but I question if bullfighting and Catholicism are comparable one is an entire religion as well as a cultural identity, another just a cultural tradition. But even Catholicism has been greatly reformed over the years to make it much better and in line with modern thought, I do not know enough about bullfighting to recommend things to reform it, but do you think nothing can be changed about it, that it must remain exactly as it is now, I’m sure some reasonable reforms could be made that even bullfighting enthusiasts could accept. I don’t know what those could be but if you so love bullfighting you might want to consider them, so that it is not eventually banned like it was in Catalon. Also I wonder what you think of this picture and whether you know anything about it. THe url is, Its a picture of a remorseful bullfighter, that is being incorrectly connected on Facebook to “El Pilarico” the former torero gone animal activist, but I wander who it actually is and if it is for real. Also what do you think of “El Pilarico” Alvaro Munera.

  12. Thank you JD, and you’re welcome to it.

    The suit of lights is an intrinsic part of the matador’s performance, which he chooses on the day telling you about how he is feeling, but only if he lets on what it means to him. Justo Algaba especially made Padilla’s suit in olive green, for Olivenza and the green shoots of hope. The laurel leaves symbolise not victory, but the fortifying tea which was made from them, hence they were given to the gladiator who survived the bout. They only later became synonmymous with victory (or that is what Padilla says, I haven’t checked the history yet.)

  13. I mentioned Pilarico at the end of my book, and spoke about him in an interview on Radio Netherlands International the week after he did – I am sure it is online somewhere. I have no idea if that is him, but I very much doubt it. First, the matador looks too old. In fact, Pilarico never became a matador, being made paraplegic while still a novillero or novice. Second, Pilarico was not converted in the ring at all. He was converted in a hospital in Miami recuperating in a disapproving environment, and although he later said he felt doubts at the time, it didn’t stop him killing 150 bulls. To be honest, looking at the picture, it is extremely unlikely the emotion captured – if that is what it is – is inspired by the bull’s suffering. That’s not the way it works. It is more likely chronic disappointment at killing so badly – the sword is half in, the bull not dead yet – which has a tangible effect on the torero’s career. Sorry if that sounds cynical and cold to you, but that’s the way it is.

  14. I was just about to buy a ticket for the Seville feria corrida (the 28th), but they do not ship the tickets outside of Spain (I’m from Sweden)… Do you know if there is any other options?

  15. Forget my last post, fixed it. Outside Spain you can buy Tickets here:

    You also might want to point out that Manzares do not appear on the 28th, only on the 20th. Padilla appears on both dates, though (together with El Cordobes and El Fandi on the 28th).

    See you in Seville!

  16. jerry roach says:

    manzanares is my favorite torero and probably yours too however i think el juli, castela, jose tomas, and morante could also be called numero uno; to say nothing about el fandi who is number one in the standings (most corridas). jose mari had a hellava temporada last year and sevilla is burned into my memory forever.
    viva juan jose padilla
    padilla es cojonudo
    como padilla
    no hay ninguno

  17. I agree Jerry. You would enjoy my book. Take a look at the website and reviews (then buy a copy!)

  18. Jerry Roach, I, also, totally agree (even though I’m no expert), though should’nt Enrique Ponce also be mentioned? I have to say, even though I realise it’s a bit boring, that Jose Tomas is my personal favourite, but I have’nt seen any of them in real life, only recordings. (And there seems to be a lot more recordings of Jose Tomas than of any other torero…). I was in Almeria when he did his comeback this summer and I followed it closely via the web and the newspapers.

    I’m really looking foward to see Padilla and El Fandi on the Feria de Abril. I wish I had the possibility, and the funds, to travel and watch more – but this one just seemed too good to miss. (I promise to read your book until then Alexander, it is waiting on my bookshelf).

  19. Thanks Mikael.

  20. JD wrote

    “Read your book and thought it was excellent so I went back to Hemingway and found him unreadable with that florid style and his tendency to fantasise too much (a lot of people in Spain told me that Hemingway wrote and talked a lot of nonsense about toros)”

    With all respect, should we really compare these two works? They are by all definitions two different pieces, with two different purposes from two different eras.

    And even though it’s debatable whether “Death in the Afternoon” is a masterpiece, there can be no doubt that it is written by a timeless and true master.

    And maybe it’s not such a far fetched conclusion to say that there would be no “Into the Arena” without “Death…”?

    The late great Mr.Hemingway play no small role in the history of the bulls – good or bad – for us born outside of Spain. I, for myself, thank him.

  21. I feel the need to clarify my last post – I think I was struggling with my English a little bit.

    Of course you can, and maybe should, compare works on the same subject – what I meant was that it is unnecessary, and perhaps even uninteresting, to rank them against each other.

    I was in what I hope was a polite way, trying to defend an author that I love and certainly not to criticise one that I haven’t even read yet.

    (But I will read the book, and judging by this blog, really enjoy it. As to not reading it yet, I blame Malcolm Lowry whose ‘Under the Volcano’ I decided to finish first from my, due to workload, ever growing stack of books in the English language. It is, though fantastic, not what one would call ‘easy reading’.)

  22. Thank you for clarifying Mikael and I completely agree about ‘ranking’ art. It is an immature habit. Trying to work out whether I prefer The Brothers Karamazov, For Whom The Bell Tolls or Coriolanus is a complete waste of time, and tells me little other than what mood I am in that day. (I always respond to the question “What is your favourite film/book/sculpture etc.?” with the annoying and slightly pretentious reply “When?”) I hope you enjoy Into The Arena. And I blame Lowry for many things…

  23. First, thank you for a wonderful book. I listened to the unabridged audiobook, and I was fascinated. (The narrator did a fairly poor job in my opinion, but that is, of course, not your fault.)

    I’ve also read “Death In the Afternoon” and “The Dangerous Summer” and enjoyed both, although Hemingway’s creative license with the truth was apparent even to someone who has studied the art as little as I have.

    However, as you and Papa have both said, no one can understand the bullfight without seeing one. Sadly, as a sports journalist in the United States in this economy, the odds of me ever getting a chance to see one in person – whether in Spain or Mexico – are extremely small. I know you do not think the spectacle comes through well on television, but is there somewhere to find videos of bullfights? I’ve tried YouTube, and come across one 13-minute video that goes from the picadors until just before the kill, but I have no idea if I’m watching brilliancy (I seriously doubt it) or ineptitude. I would struggle to call it art, but I’d rather see something done well to see how I feel about it.

    (The video is at

    Thank you for any advice.

  24. Thank you for the kind words Dave.

    Personally, and I think I say this in the book, I believe it is almost impossible to feel any strong emotions from watching a bullfight on a screen, and thus to see it as art. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched a film of a play in a theatre, but it is lifeless and dead. And slightly unbelievable. However, there is a some lovely footage of Morante de la Puebla – one of the most artistic – in the ring in Seville edited in various ways to a rather famous piece of flamenco piano called Oberoy: (The ring tone of the farm manager at Núñez del Cuvillo I discovered a week ago.) They nice thing about the opening sequence is it shows you the caping of an untouched bull at full speed, and then slows it down to show you what Morante, “el capote divino”, is actually doing, and what the trained aficionado can see in the full speed version. I will ask on a forum for a particularly good single bullfight film and post the link here for you if they produce one.


  25. Dave, at 5pm Spanish time on Friday you can watch Padilla fight live in Valencia, alongside Manzanares and Talavante here: I will be. Best, AFH

  26. Alexander,

    I never knew that Manzanares took a third bull in Ronda…can only assume that he was trying to stake a claim in the house of the Rivera Odornez family! I have attended a mixed ganaderia corrida where 9 bulls were required, but only because 3 of the bulls were given the green panuelo.

    What are your thoughts on Fran Rivera? He and El Fandi both left by the puerta grande in Valencia earlier this week, and whilst I enjoy Fandi’s all action style (although I concede that it lacks some finesse), Fran has the look to me of a matador who has lost his edge…. I saw him In Getafe last year alonside Cayetano and Javier Cortes (the latter extremely impressive on that occasion) and he simply went through the motions and left before the end of the corrida, much to the consternation of the crowd. Cayetano had a poor lot that day but still impressed. Indeed, stylistically, the brothers seem to be incomparable such is Cayetano’s superiority. Are these two ears the start of a renaissance for Fran?


  27. Angus, Given a lack of time, and a certain personal involvement here, I will just say I agree with your statements. AFH

  28. David,
    Here’s one for you. Padilla in Olivenza:

  29. Alexander,
    Thank you. I watched the first four bulls today before having to leave for dental surgery. Even as a novice watcher, it was clear that Padilla hasn’t lost his instincts and Manzanares was a great argument for bullfighting-as-art.

    Padilla’s second bull was a shame. Hard to make passes on a bull that won’t charge past you.

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