It hardly seems possible, but this past Aug. 19 marked the 10th anniversary of the death of Mexico’s Número Uno matador, Manolo Martinez.
Upon reflection, his remarkable career was rather bittersweet. He faced more bulls, cut more ears and tails, and earned more money than any other torero in Mexican history. He was one of the very few men who this observer considered to be a natural-born torero.
Yet, he was a tragic figure, for he could have been the leading matador in the entire planet of the bulls. That is, if he hadn’t been such a controversial figure.
He was enigmatic, complicated, and possessed of a quick temper. Outside the ring, he was frequently accused of being vain, cold, and remote, a prima donna of the first order. He accepted neither praise nor criticism with any degree of graciousness. He was in a constant battle with his inner demons, but he didn’t offer any resistance. He was an alcoholic, in spite of his diabetes and high blood pressure. He was addicted to drugs, but publicly denounced them. He was a dichotomy, a paradox. Worse, he considered himself to be immortal. In truth, he was extremely shy.
But, in the ring with the bull, Manolo was anything but shy. When he was inspired, he and the bull became as one, more as partners in a deadly ballet rather than adversaries in a struggle of life and death. And, thus it should be, this inexplicable drama, known as La Fiesta Brava.It is difficult to imagine that talent such as Manolo’s could ever be interrupted. Yet, the ugly scars that traced his body were reminders of his errors, evidence of the times when his enthusiasm and ego overcame his better judgment.
In February of 1974, in Mexico City, he received the gravest goring of his career. The horn entered the inside of his left thigh, severing the femoral artery. He nearly bled to death. Although such an injury often proves fatal, Manolo spent only 10 days in the hospital, and returned to the rings, a month later.
Born of a wealthy family, the young idol was the antithesis of the ubiquitous story of “poor boy makes good as bullfighter and saves sister from whorehouse”. He began his career in 1964 and quickly rose through the ranks to become Mexico’s leading novillero (aspirant). By November of 1965, he was granted the doctorate as Matador de Toros.
So resounding were his successes in La Plaza Mexico, the world’s largest bullring, that a new law was passed, prohibiting spectators from entering the ring to carry a matador upon their shoulders.
The true test of his abilities would be proven on the Iberian Peninsula. And, Spaniards are notoriously critical of any torero whose veins don’t run with Spanish sherry.
When one makes his debut in Madrid, particularly if he is a foreigner, he does so with humility. But, that was a word that Manolo Martinez didn’t recognize. He arrived in Madrid on the heels of an advertising blitz that proclaimed him “El Mexicano de Oro.” The crowd was hostile toward him, from the moment that he stepped foot on the sands of Plaza de Las Ventas. And, Manolo responded, in kind. So bad was his Madrid debut, a videotaped replay of the afternoon, which had been scheduled to be broadcast in Mexico, was cancelled.
Manolo left Spain, swearing that he would never return. And, he kept his promise.
In 1996, Manolo’s journey on the highway of fast lane living finally caught up to him. He was desperately ill. He checked into Scripps Memorial Hospital, where he hoped to obtain a liver transplant. But, he had a heart attack and died.
His final turn of the ring in La Plaza Mexico attracted a capacity crowd. He is now enshrined in that famous plaza de toros.
Adios and abrazos, Manolo. I’ll never forget you and I’ll always remember what you did and what could have been. And, neither will the Mundo Taurino of Mexico.