Before bull-leaper Eusebio Sacristán leaves his parents’ home on the morning of an important competition, he says something no mother wants to hear. “There’s a chance I won’t come home alive.”
He straps on his rucksack and marches out the door. He has just showered and hasn’t eaten a thing in 12 hours. If a bull were to gore him in the arena, there’s a chance he’d need to be operated on. And doctors prefer to operate on someone with an empty stomach.
This is the story of los recortadores, Spain’s bull-leapers, young men who confront raging beasts and get out of their way at the very last instant. To be clear, this isn’t bullfighting. It’s unarmed, the bulls aren’t harmed in any way, and the only participant at risk of injury is the jumper. The first depictions of these head-to-heads can be found on wall paintings more than 4,000 years old.
It’s a Saturday afternoon at the start of June, and bull-leapers Eusebio Sacristán and Saúl Rivera are sitting in a cattle-breeder’s finca in the province of La Rioja, trying to explain the essence of what their sport is all about.
Twenty-seven-year-old Sacristán is the Spanish national bull-leaping champion. He is exuberant, has plucked eyebrows and the physique of a high-bar gymnast. Rivera, who’s also 27, is in the top 15 nationwide. He has a brown ring in one ear and speaks in deliberate, cautiously worded sentences.
In 24 hours’ time, Sacristán and Rivera will be competing in the semi-finals of the Spanish national bull-leaping championship at Las Ventas in Madrid. Their opponents will be toros bravos, Spanish fighting bulls, jet black and weighing in at half a tonne.
The bulls will charge at Sacristán and Rivera and try to attack them. What the two men have to do is evade the bulls while showing off their moves. There are classic recortes – evasive manoeuvres where they turn their back on the bull – and then the risky somersaults over the animal, which are Sacristán and Rivera’s speciality.
The prize money available to the recortadores is modest when you consider the extremely high risk of injury.
“I love bulls,” says Sacristán when asked why he does it. Rivera thinks for a moment. “It’s about surviving something that could kill you.”
“It’s not a question of whether you’ll be injured,” says Sacristán. “It’s a question of how often.” Last year he lost out to a bull eight times. The worst attack occurred on September 18 in Logroño.
There’s a video on YouTube, but you’ll need nerves of steel to watch it. You see shaky images of a black bull trampling over Sacristán, who promptly loses consciousness. His colleagues drag him out of the arena. Sacristán loves showing people the video. There are also about 100 photographs of him in bloodied T-shirts. He explains, “You get the measure of a bull-leaper by whether he comes back after setbacks like these.”
How can anyone prepare for a day that might end in disaster? “You do it by having total faith in yourself,” says Sacristán. “I always enter the arena with the attitude that I’m a match for any bull.” Fitness is a key aspect, coupled with intense practice, endlessly repeating moves either on soft ground or by using trampolines.
Preparedness also involves having a plan in case of an emergency. Rivera says that when a bull attacks, you have to curl up in a ball on the ground and use both arms to protect your head until help arrives. Sacristán says that’s the official doctrine, but that he couldn’t care less about doctrine. What he’d do after an attack is try to get back on his feet as quickly as possible so he could get the hell out of the bullring.
Rivera and Sacristán crack their fingers and drum their feet on the ground as they talk. Rivera stares at the ceiling. “Are you thinking about the bull?” “Yes,” says Rivera. An hour later, they clamber into a car and instead of heading for Madrid they make a 200km detour towards home. Rivera and Sacristán want to spend the night before competing with family.
Sunday morning. The Salamanca district of Madrid. Las Ventas rises out of the ground like a vast, round brick fortress. The largest bullfighting arena in Spain has a capacity of 23,000.
The recortadores go on at 12 as part of the warm-up for the bullfights, which are held every year in honour of Madrid’s patron saint, St Isidore. This performance is the first highlight of the season.
Sacristán is wearing a heavy pair of sunglasses as he steps out of the car. He has barely slept a wink and his stomach is rumbling from hunger. Rivera trots along behind him, says a quick hello. Then the two of them disappear into the bowels of the arena. The sun is already high in the sky over the arena. It’s going to be a scorcher.
It’s now 11am. The dressing room has a bare wooden floor and two sky-blue sofas. With every passing minute, recortadores from all over Spain come traipsing in, men aged from their early 20s up to 30, with neatly trimmed beards and footballers’ haircuts.
The bull-leapers are like brothers. There is no rivalry between them. Anyone who comes into the room is met with a long and heartfelt hug. The closer it gets to competition time, the more oppressive the atmosphere in the room gets.
Each of the participants has his own strategy for calming his nerves. Rivera has brought lucky charms: rosary beads, bracelets, tiny talismans, gifts from his mother, sisters and aunts. He kisses the rosary beads, strokes the talismans and makes the sign of the cross over every item of clothing. Sacristán’s lucky charm is a nine-year-old pair of underpants that have been patched a dozen times.
The recortadores perform in traditional garb: crocheted stockings, silk bottoms and finely embroidered waistcoats. The running shoes, which some bull-leapers screw spikes into the soles of, are the only breach of style in the outfit. There is no protective gear.
On the stroke of noon, the bull-leapers march in two-by-two into the blazing light of the arena via a shady gangway. A quick rundown of the rules: three recortadores go up against a single bull in each round. The jury gives them marks from one to 10 for their manoeuvres. The top two from each group then move onto the final.
Whenever the recortadores are pursued by a bull, they can either jump over the fence or slip behind one of the four boarded walls around the edge of the arena that offer protection.
The huge unpredictable factor is, of course, the bull itself. It might run in a straight line, which makes for elegant manoeuvres, or it might pull up and thrust its horns all over the place. That’s when things get dangerous.
The first three recortadores take up their positions in the middle of the arena. The gate to the bull-pen is opened and a 600kg toro bravo comes storming out into the arena. The first accident occurs within 20 seconds.
Recortador Dani Plata gets proceedings underway with a quiebro – a small step to the side at the very last moment as the bull passes him by. Plata goes for a particularly risky version of the move. He wants to do the manoeuvre on his knees.
As soon as the bull has Plata in its sights, it charges straight at him. Plata still hopes to get out of the way, but he doesn’t manage it. The bull tosses him up into the air with its horns. Then Plata ends up under the animal’s hooves. The bull tramples all over him and jabs him with his horns several more times.
The recortadores go hurrying into the arena and try to divert the bull’s attention onto themselves. Plata somehow manages to pick himself up. He is in shock. His colleagues drag him off towards the exit.
Within 10 minutes the action resumes. Round two sees Sacristán enter the arena for the first time. He strolls up to his bull, his hands wedged in his pockets. The body language is clear: “I ain’t scared of you.”
Then Sacristán does something none of the other recortadores has dared do today: he turns the tables. Instead of waiting for the bull to attack, he sprints straight at it. Over the last 5m, Sacristán only takes little steps on tiptoe and then does a somersault with a semi-twist – known as a tirabuzón – over the bull. Sacristán throws his hands up in the air. The title-holder has pulled off the first truly sensational move.
Group four, and time for Rivera to make his entrance. It’s over 30°C in the arena. Rivera also has a specific leap in mind – the salto del ángel. The bull fixes Rivera in its sights, paws at the sand with its front left hoof and slowly starts trotting towards him. Rivera runs straight at it. And then he makes a serious mistake. He takes off too soon, flails his arms about in the air and lands to the left of the bull in the sand. The bull turns around as quick as a flash.
Rivera picks himself up and sprints away from the centre of the arena, with the bull in hot pursuit. Rivera launches himself over the fence at the last moment. While he waits for his next opportunity, his rivals demonstrate recorte after recorte. The Madrid crowd loves the traditional moves and rewards them with vigorous applause.
A few minutes later, Rivera is ready to have another go. This time he takes an extremely long run-up. He dives headlong over the bull, his arms stretched out perfectly to the side. That’s the salto del ángel. Rivera rolls in the sand and clenches his fist in victory.
A break in proceedings. There is an announcement over the tannoy: Dani Plata, the injured recortador, is being taken care of in hospital. He has a horn wound in his jaw and a 20cm laceration in one buttock, but his life is not in danger. There is a ripple of applause in the stands.
Soon after, the jury announces those who have made it to the final. Sacristán moves onto the next round. Rivera doesn’t. The final sees the top five bull-leapers competing against each other. The manoeuvres get tighter and tighter.
The field is now dominated by recorte experts. Simón Gómez waits for the animal with his arms outstretched and his head flung back, as if meditating. Or there’s Jonathan Estébanez, a flamboyant leaper with sculpted, blow-dried hair who twists and turns around the bull with rubbery agility.
Sacristán’s third attempt provides the shock of the final. The bull rams the side of his horn into Sacristán’s thigh while he’s airborne. Sacristán manages to land and then hobbles away from the danger zone.
The awards ceremony takes place in the arena. Sacristán comes third, which is enough to qualify for the national final. Estébanez is crowned the winner on the back of his super-tight recortes. He carries a golden bull statuette out of the arena.
Back in the dressing room. The rosary beads are taken off, kissed and put away carefully. There’s a smell of fresh perfume. “It was a good contest,” says Sacristán, sitting on the sofa in nothing but his lucky underpants. His girlfriend and his regular life await him outside. Recortadores are amateurs. Sacristán and Rivera will go back to work at 7am on Monday morning: Rivera to the production line at Renault; Sacristán to the winery where he supervises the bottle-filling process. Sacristán says he needs the adrenalin rush. That moment right after the bull has gone past the guys. Just one or two seconds where you look back and realise you’ve cheated death by a margin of 5mm.
Two weeks after the semi-final at Las Ventas, Sacristán is back in Madrid for the grand finale. He shows off his tirabuzón with a shortened run-up – there are less than 10m between him and the bull. He keeps both hands in his pockets as he takes off, while he’s in the air and as he lands. The jury crowns him national champion for the second time in his career. As Sacristán steps up to accept his trophy, the other bull-leapers form a guard of honour. Sacristán looks up to the sky briefly and promptly bursts into tears.