The legs Juan Belmonte was born with were weak and deformed, not at all appropriate for a sport where you come face to face with an angry beast. But instead of backing away from his one dream in life, to be a bullfighter, he invented a new technique for a torero* and was considered by many to be the “greatest matador of all time.”
Belmonte was a rambunctious child who hung out with a gang of mischief makers. On a dare, he climbed a wall in order to touch the exposed breasts of a statue, and fell off, cracking his head open. His punishment was to have to go to school, which he did from ages four to eight. In that short time he became literate, but it was a struggle.
The young boy’s education continued outside the classroom. As the oldest of eleven children, Belmonte was expected to help his father in the shop, but his shy, insecure personality was no match for the hagglers who bargained down the prices. His dad berated him for losing money the family desperately needed, but he also took some responsibility for his son’s maturity. Every day until he was eleven, Belmonte went with his dad to the café and observed the other men, learning from them how a man with self esteem behaves. From hanging out in the streets with his buddies he learned to smoke, drink, play cards and be with women.
One group of Belmonte’s friends owned a printing press, and their love of cheap detective novels rubbed off on him. He could read well enough to keep up with them, and the group would dramatically act out the stories. This began his life-long passion for reading.
GETTING AN EARLY START Belmonte’s fascination with bulls started when he was a toddler. While his family was dining in a restaurant, he wandered outside to a pen that had several calves. He tried get a stubborn one to charge and was disappointed when the animal didn’t respond. As he got a little older, he started playing around with a cape and found that it gave him the confidence that he lacked naturally.
Bullfighting soon became a way to avoid working. He was easily tempted by his pals to go out to the country and find bulls to practice with. After a while they had to go out on moonless nights so they wouldn’t be caught by the Guardia Civil patrolling the pastures and corrals. The first time he found himself at the mercy of a bull, Belmonte was sporting the new suit his family bought him for Holy Week. There was a lone bull in a ring, and Belmonte jumped in with it, even though he couldn’t see where it was. He managed to lead the animal through two successful passes, but on the third one the bull hit him and threw him into the air. The rookie tried to find the fence to escape, but the bull sent him airborne again. The third time the bull made contact, Belmonte was sent flying, and he hit the fence on the way down, managing to crawl away. For him, being knocked around by the bull was not nearly as bad as ruining his new suit.
TURNING PRO Belmonte’s first contract to fight was as a last minute substitute under a different name. The posters were already printed with the name Montes II. By the time he rented his costume and paid his banderillero, there was no money left for him.
The technique Belmonte developed was contrary to every other torero, and to common sense. Because of his weak legs, he planted himself and forced the bull to go around him instead of moving away from the bull as it made its pass. The bulls would go by so close that there would be hairs stuck on Belmonte’s jacket.
HIS FIRST KILL In July 1910, Belmonte made his first kill. All was going well, and he was ready for the final moment. With the muleta in his left hand and the sword in his right, the torero cited the bull. It passed so close that the horn went into the fighter’s forehead and ripped his eyebrow. With blood blinding his vision, Belmonte reacted with a frenzied anger. He pulled the dangling flap up skin back up to his forehead, instinctively got into position and thrust the sword into the animal’s neck. When the bull started sinking to the ground, he knew he had made a perfect hit, and the crowd exploded with their approval. Since he was the only bullfighter on the program that day, he was taken to the infirmary for some slap-dash surgery. The doctor sterilized the wound by drinking some mineral water, mixing it with saliva and spitting it onto the fighter’s face. After a few rough stitches, Belmonte took to the ring for his second bull, with considerably less luck.
Belmonte could finally call himself a matador, the term for the bullfighter who kills the bull. His star was rising until an affair with a married woman became a total distraction. He was used to casual relationships with fawning ladies, but now a lack of sleep and improper diet left him emotionally and physically unfit to face a bull. During a corrida before a demanding crowd in his native Seville, he got two warnings for a bad performance with the first bull. When he tried to kill the second bull he couldn’t make contact, and in a fit of exhaustion screamed at the bull to just kill him. Belmonte was removed from the ring in humiliation which led to his first retirement. He worked as a day laborer until he could regain his passion practicing at night in the moonlit pastures, naked.
By 1917, Belmonte’s reputation was firmly rooted in his success, although his career was not without injuries. He was gored in the thigh numerous times and wounded in the chest at least once. He often defied the odds and physical pain, always fighting two or three bulls during every corrida, and sometimes fighting every day, leaving little time to recover. But to Belmonte bullfighting was a spiritual practice, and strength of spirit was more important than physical strength. He got invitations to fight in Mexico, Cuba and South America, and whenever he traveled he brought a trunk full of books with him.
In Lima, Peru he met a woman at a party and fell in love. He brought her back to Spain with him, where they were to get married. Belmonte never stopped being shy and hated any kind of ceremony. While he was fighting in Venezuela he arranged to be married by proxy.
NEVER GONNA GIVE IT UP In 1919 Belmonte was at his peak. He was in 109 corridas and killed 234 bulls, a record he held until 1965. He earned about $9,000 for an afternoon of battling two bulls. The following year he could feel his passion waning, and he took some time off when his professional rival and close friend, Joselito, died in the ring. After ten years of his career, he could finally buy a ranch he called La Capitana. He spent some down time there but got bored and started fighting again.
During the season of 1927 he was forced to seriously consider retirement after spending a month in the hospital. He lived on the ranch full time, farming, reading and fighting in a few charity events. He came out of retirement again in 1934 and was gored 14 times. In 1935, a bull split his collarbone, but he pulled himself together to fulfill his contractual obligations.
Back at La Capitana, Belmonte enjoyed years of sparing with his own bulls, teaching future bullfighters and hanging out at the local bars. In 1961 his weak health turned into a severe heart condition. The following spring, the doctor told him to stop all his activities including riding his beloved horse. He decided he would rather die. In April 1962, he took one last ride around the property then locked himself in his study and shot himself in the head.
Videos of Juan Belmonte fighting bulls: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJ681LYgcOE
* torero – a bullfighter
matador – a bullfighter who has killed a bull
corrida – a bullfight where one or two matadors each fight two or three bulls in an afternoon
muleta – a oval cape on a stick used in the last part of the bullfight leading up to the killing of the bull
banderillero – a matador’s assistant who places colorful darts in the bull
QUESTION: What’s something that you have become good at because you didn’t give up?
©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Right Reserved
Belmonte, Juan and Nogales, Manuel Chaves, Juan Belmonte, Killer of Bulls. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1937.