MONTERREY, Mexico On the way back into the city, the matador thinks about his nightmare. An angry bull is chasing him. He's killed hundreds of them, some beautifully, some barbarically, and they're all embodied in this seething animal. He runs and the sky turns to glass and shatters, the shards raining down on him. He wakes up, frightened. He wakes up and doesn't want to get out of bed. He doesn't want to fight. He doesn't want to train. His hands hurt, all that psychic pain working down to his extremities.
He doesn't know what the nightmare means. Maybe he's destined to die on the horns. He's thought about that. The day he became a matador, it was raining, cold, and he was gored in his leg. Three times he's felt the horn. Maybe that's what the recurring dream is about. Or maybe it's about never being able to run fast enough to catch up with the promise of youth.
He shakes it off, looking at the mountains to his left. When his career was still new, he'd carry any trophies he won to the statue of Christ near the top of one of them. Now he fights too often, all over the world, to make the trip. Ritual is the first thing to go in a frantic life. He's fought with his heart broken, with his ribs broken, hurt so bad he could barely breathe. Fifty or more times this year, he'll risk it all in a ring. And for what? He doesn't need the money. He has movie-star good looks, with long slender fingers and delicate lashes above his blue eyes. He's pushed in front of those bulls by something else, something not even his friends can put their finger on. Maybe he's proving something to his critics, or to himself.
The Monterrey skyline towers in the distance, the Mercedes making its way back into a modern world. An hour ago, he'd been training on his mentor's ranch, a sprawling time machine owned by 57-year-old Eloy Cavazos, who is Mexico's real-life Rocky Balboa.
Fighting bulls means the matador lives in the future and the past, moving from the new to the old and back again. Year round, the young man packs up the swords and the capes and goes after the bulls. He fights again this weekend, twice.
The matador looks down at his hand. He flexes his fingers. They hurt.
"He doesn't need it," his baffled mother, Maria Elvia Amaya de Hank, says. "He's educated. He could have had any career he wanted. He could have gone any place to study. It's unbelievable because of that. There is a saying that you have to have hunger to be a bullfighter. Well, he's never had hunger."
A: Bullfighting goes year-round, moving all over the world. There is no arc; it is a never-ending circle. Matadors don't fight for titles. This ain't the American League Central.
Q: How popular is bullfighting?
A: In Spain, the bullfight thrives. In Mexico, where there haven't been many stars to capture the imagination the past few years, the bullfight is struggling.
Q: Is Amaya one of the top fighters in the world?
A: Yes. If he played baseball, he would be considered a major leaguer, though not an MVP candidate.
Q: Would I like bullfighting?
A: That depends. When a bullfight is bad, it's sickening. But when it is good, it is magical. Few things in the world spark such a difference of opinion.
Consider these two when making up your own mind:
Veda Stram with The Animal's Voice: "I think it's absolutely cruel, and I think it's a decadent kind of entertainment. It's not any kind of a fair fight. You are literally torturing an animal. The whole thing is barbaric and brutal."
Matador Alejandro Amaya: "Bullfighting is so primitive that people love it or hate it. I can understand, actually. I just think if you don't like it, you don't have to see it. And, when you go, I always tell people, you have to look at it in the point of view of: say you're going to Russia, you want to go see the Kremlin. If you're going to a country where bullfighting is part of their culture, you have to go see it not as in I'm going to see a show but I'm going to see something that's part of them. I'm going to eat something spicy. I'm going to hear their music."
Q: How much do bullfighters make?
A: Their fees are negotiated by agents and promoters, but the top matadors, such as El Juli, who is generally considered the best in the world, can make more than $75,000 an appearance.
"I grew up with Halloween and Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny," he says. "And everything is so different farther south. There haven't been many bullfighters from Tijuana, especially because of that. It's not normal for me to have gone to school in the States or speak English.
"I've always felt Mexican, but I feel very much American. And you know when I feel it? When I watch the Olympics, I'll root for the American. I don't know why. It has to be part of me."
He's a modern man, in a way his mentor, Cavazos, can never be. He wears trendy clothes, an expensive Bulgari watch. He's met Madonna. Paris Hilton wanted to take a picture with him at Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills. Here, look at him, sitting down at a table at Seņor Tanaka, Monterrey's trendiest sushi place. Tomorrow morning, he travels to central Mexico and the bulls. Tomorrow, he'll be a matador striving to realize his potential.
Tonight, he enjoys being young, talented and wealthy.
The lights are low. A samurai film plays above the bar on a plasma television. A beautiful woman is sitting to his right, blessed with a sparkling smile and perfect body, her gentle perfume floating around the table. Amaya leans back, takes a sip from a Dos Equis, scans the room.
"This wouldn't be Eloy's crowd," he says.
Dinner goes slowly, filled with laughter and stories. The upscale restaurant is noisy, crowded for a Wednesday night. Amaya has always known how to function in this world; the ancient one took some learning. Three old matadors from David Silveti to Juan Caņedo to Eloy Cavazos have helped a city boy become one of the four or five dozen people in the world who make their living with the cape and sword. They turned a wealthy San Diego middle-schooler into an up-and-coming matador. The rest is on him.
Tonight, the blood and sand remain in the old world, forgotten amid rounds of sushi rolls and sashimi and soft-shell crab, all of it washed down with beer and froufrou martinis. Tonight, he's relaxed, his delicate fingers pain free.
They are headed this Thursday morning to Queretaro, two hours northwest of Mexico City. Cavazos has a fight Friday in a small town. On Saturday, Amaya fights in Morelia, another short drive away, and, on Sunday, after an all-night drive, they fight together in Nuevo Laredo, at the U.S. border.
"Any of these could be his last," Amaya reveals. "He's thinking seriously about retiring soon."
When they land, a van and a Chevy Tahoe are waiting. Cavazos is going to look at a horse to buy before heading to the hotel. As the managers load the luggage, Amaya sniffles and blows his nose. He has a cold. Or he thinks he does. They're not sure. Since his chilly, painful debut, he often feels sick before a corrida. He won't let anyone turn on the air conditioning. He goes through bottles of Afrin and other medication. His companions cannot be sure if the cold is in his sinuses or his mind.
"He's already starting to stress out," says Christian Franco, a heavyset, jolly picador who travels with them as part of the team. "He always feels sick. He doesn't want to eat. He doesn't want to turn on the AC. He claims the AC makes him sick. You're gonna see. After the first bullfight, he's gonna be OK."
In the van, they travel back to a different Mexico. Little towns crowd the roadside, with open-air stores and worn taco stands. Mostly, there's nothing. Up and down switchbacks, climbing over mountains, the bullfighters grow quiet. Amaya has time to think.
He points at a grove set back from the highway. That's where his first mentor, a nationally beloved matador named David Silveti, grew up. Silveti's family still lives there. So do reminders about where this road is leading.
"It's under those trees right there," Amaya says, softly. "I don't like to go back."
He was around 9 when they met. Already, Amaya wanted to be a bullfighter. He'd been practicing passes with kitchen towels since he was 3. When he learned to read, he wanted to read about matadors. When he got a computer, he wanted programs about matadors.
Well, one Sunday, Silveti was gored. The next day, in an attempt to end the romantic notions of bullfighting, Alex's father took him out of school and to the hospital. He wanted his young son to see what the bulls could do to a man.
Instead of cowering, the brassy Amaya asked the matador to be his godfather. Silveti agreed. A friendship began. Silveti showed him proper technique; he let Amaya spend a glorious summer on the road with him. When Amaya began fighting professionally, Silveti gave him two of his old Suits of Lights, the expensive, ornate costumes matadors wear in the ring.
The bulls took their toll on Silveti. He endured countless surgeries, fighting with braces on his legs. Finally, he had to retire. Only, he couldn't let it go. Losing the clarity of life versus death often leaves bullfighters empty inside. Legendary Spaniard Manolete came back one time too many. The great Juan Belmonte, the Babe Ruth of the corrida, took his own life. When Silveti came back, he was thrown on his head by a bull and began having blackouts. He suffered an aneurysm. He was diagnosed as bipolar. He could never fight again.
In late 2003, just months after Amaya joined Cavazos, David Silveti returned home to his parents' ranch. He went into his bedroom and shot himself in the head. His note reportedly read: "Living like this is not life."
Amaya stares at the trees. The van doesn't turn in. Not today. Probably not ever. It's hard to confront his sorrow as well as the depression that often follows bullfighters. Are his frequent colds a symptom of something serious? Is the recurring nightmare? The aching hands? Who has time to think about such things? Who has time to sort out the karmic penalties of taunting death for art's sake, not to feed a family? He fought the day after Silveti's funeral, and he'll fight this weekend. They speed past the Silveti ranch, chewing up the road.
Caņedo, now in his 80s with rakish good looks intact, is a famous bullfighter and a friend of Amaya's family. In the '50s and '60s, he dated actresses, married the Mexican president's daughter.
Driving past, Amaya points to a bridge. He laughs. Shortly after he moved in, Caņedo asked him what size shoe he wore. Amaya imagined he'd be getting some hand-tooled boots. He was accustomed to fancy gifts. A few days later, at this bridge, almost four miles from the ranch, the old man pulled over, reached under the seat and handed Amaya a box with tennis shoes inside.
"Put 'em on and get out," he said.
Amaya ran home, over dirt and gravel. When he arrived, the shoes went back in the box until next time.
"I must have done it 60 times," Amaya says. "From right here. I knew this by heart."
Then he was a scrawny kid. Now, pulling up to the sprawling stone castle, complete with an outer wall and private bullring, he's a conquering hero. He hasn't been here in years. The old man, who looks 20 years younger than he is with his full head of hair, greets his guests. Inside the living room, covered like the rest of the house in bullfight memorabilia, Amaya sits on the armrest of Caņedo's deep chair. The old man pats his leg.
This is always your house, he says.
The kitchen comes alive as food is prepared for the prodigal son. Amaya walks around, remembering. When he moved here, he spent the first days going back in time, studying the names and dates on faded posters, imagining ancient afternoons.
"He's very traditional," his mother explains. "He just bought a little house in Seville, and it is in the historic part of the city. It is from the 18th century, and he's in love with the house because it's old."
Amaya idolized the old matadors, before the corrida became obsessed with cheap parlor tricks. He searched out grainy home movies. When he finally fought in Madrid, he called far in advance to reserve the hotel room Manolete always stayed in. Manolete wasn't concerned with playing to the crowd. He was serious, graceful, even when a bull took his life in 1947. He considered himself an artist, and that's what Amaya wants to be, even though he knows it's not the ticket to the public's love.
"It isn't a sport," he says. "It's more about creating and inspiring. It's like any other art. A painter doesn't paint because he thinks he's going to sell his paintings for millions. We could have stopped by now. When you start out, you want to be famous. But there has to be something behind that. Or it's not worth it."
The day slips away. When it's time to go, Amaya visits his old bedroom one last time. He looks around, thinking of a simpler time. Years ago, he'd go to sleep staring at this brick ceiling. That was before the nightmares. Dreams were brighter then.
"It should be full," Amaya says.
Eloy Cavazos steps into the ring. First, he sizes up the bull, like he's done more times than any other matador in history. He does smooth cape passes. Amaya watches intently. He's got so much respect and admiration for his mentor. In three years, he's never called him Eloy to his face. Only Maestro. Even in the infirmary of a bullring, drifting in and out of consciousness: "Maestro."
Next come the hated picadors, who jab a spear into the back of the bull, to lower both its head and blood pressure. Otherwise, the enraged bull will have a heart attack. Next, the banderillos, who plant three sets of darts to bring the head down even more, making the kill possible. Finally, the climax the work with the muleta, the red cloth often mistaken for a cape.
Cavazos whips the bull back and forth, working the muleta, the horns less than a foot from him. The crowd roars. After a series of moves, he throws the cloth to the ground, standing perilously close to the animal, his chest heaving, his smile reaching for his ears.
He's been doing this for more than four decades. His father worked at the bullring in Guadalupe, just a few miles from his current sprawling estate. They were so poor that when an agent named Rafael Baez took in Cavazos at the age of 15, the teenager couldn't read or work a shower. Baez believed in Cavazos and made him a star. Cavazos earned a fortune, shared tables with Dali and Picasso. The train station in Guadalupe is named for him. So are lots of things. "He's the only bullfighter who has an avenue," says Franco, the picador. "Mostly they have streets."
Three years ago, Cavazos' career took him to a plaza with a young matador named Alejandro Amaya. Amaya had been billed as the next great star, the kid who would save Mexican bullfighting. He hadn't lived up to his potential, especially on important days in Mexico City. The second time he'd failed there, he went back to his hotel room, ripped off his chain of crosses and religious medals and hurled it into the night. He went down and searched but never found it. He was lost.
So, standing just outside the bullring one afternoon, he asked Cavazos for the moon. "Say you're a tennis player," Amaya explains, "and you play a match against [Roger] Federer in the first round of some tournament, and you say, 'I'd like to train with you. Why don't I go live where you live? I'd like to train with you every day and have the people who manage you manage me.' And he says, 'Yes.' "
Cavazos and Amaya had little in common. Their backgrounds, styles and methods were different. "Eloy had to do it to feed his family, to build his mom a house," Franco says. "Alex is doing it because he likes it. Eloy is trying to make the crowd have a good time. Alex wants to make things perfect so he can be OK with himself. Eloy is old-fashioned. He wants to go run up hills, like he's always done. Alex goes to a gym. He takes yoga classes, spinning classes."
But Cavazos recognized something in the young man. He saw desire. He saw a need for perfection. Cavazos always lived by a simple ethos. He didn't drink or smoke, because the bull didn't drink or smoke. He got up early, trained hard. Up close, Amaya saw the dedication it took to be a star. He made Cavazos' hunger his hunger. He tried, as best as he could, to match the singular focus.
"Eloy has made me what I am today," Amaya says. "I owe it to him."
Sitting in the stands, sneaking out a tissue every so often to blow his nose, Amaya watches as his mentor goes in for the kill. Only the sword bounces out. Then again. The bull won't die, and the crowd hisses. Finally, mercifully, it's over. Cavazos trudges off. Amaya can only shake his head.
Tomorrow, it will be his turn.
Everyone's on edge now, trying not to wear a yellow shirt or talk about snakes, or do anything that's bad luck or out of the routine. Matadors live their life trying to find omens in the mundane. Once, a bullfighter friend didn't give money to a one-legged beggar outside a hotel. That afternoon, he was gored in the leg. Now, he sends a staff member outside every hotel before he comes out, clearing out anyone asking for money. As if that will save him from death.
Amaya's cold isn't much better. An injection didn't cure him, nor have multiple rounds of medicine. The fight is close. He's grown introspective, thinking about his seven-year career, and its ups and downs. He's crawling back into his head.
"I had a lot of success too soon," he says. "I think that now people are saying, 'OK, he's a reality,' and they're waiting for something big to happen so they can say, 'He's one of the best.' People say, 'He can be one. Or he's going to be the one.' But I'm not there yet."
He's always been stubborn, doing things his way. Growing up, he'd wear the same jeans and shirt over and over, with the same pair of checkered Vans. For a few years as a boy, he would eat only toast and cream cheese. Now, he's stubbornly seeking perfection, and it's cost him in the ring. Cavazos can fake his way through a weak or inconsistent bull, like earlier today, smiling at the crowd and making a show. Amaya is more brooding. He can't fake it. He's after something everlasting.
"It is never going to come," he says. "I realize that. If it comes, that's the end."
He coughs weakly. The cold seems real. Is it? No one knows but him. He searches for words to match his thoughts. They're dark. He's thinking of the horns. He's thinking of dying this weekend in the sand.
The mood has changed, the van quiet except for the sound of tires on rough pavement.
"You can't go through this profession thinking things are going to happen to everyone but you," he says. "It comes around to everyone. Everything has a price. To be young and to have someone applaud you and have someone admire you, it doesn't come cheap. But I want to enjoy it because it's going to end for me. I think much earlier than Eloy's age."
The words hang in the air. The matador is ready to die. Or so he says.
It is almost time. He stares through the people around him. The rain comes, bringing with it the wind that all matadors fear. Wind blows the cape and muleta, giving the bull dangerous glimpses of the matador's exposed body. One look is enough. No matter. This is an important day; whichever of the six bullfighters cuts the most trophies one ear, two ears, or two ears and a tail, as awarded post-kill by a judge will win. Victorious corridas mean bigger paydays, more prestige.
The first three fighters fare OK, the first and second cutting single ears. Amaya steps out into the ring, and he waits for his reckoning, visualizing the violent spectacle once more in his mind. A loud WHAM! snaps him to attention as the metal door clangs open and the bull barrels toward him, its snorts filling the space in between. Amaya practices his cape-work once more, in his own world, ignoring the 1,000-pound beast a dozen yards away.
Ten yards. Seven yards. Three Two One "Ole!"
He does four or five smooth passes, his back arched, lips pursed, the bull brushing up against his stomach. Now, the picador. He stabs the spear into the bull's back where the point briefly lodges, doing too much damage. The crowd hisses and whistles. Amaya seems frantic. Blood gushes down the bull's left leg. The animal tries to charge and stumbles. This bull, and this afternoon, are almost certainly ruined. It can happen that quickly.
Amaya does his best. He moves the bull around the arena, with close passes, keeping the red cloth just in front of the horns. His tongue is fixed in his cheek. When he aims his sword, he buries it deep, a clean kill. The bull wobbles and falls. The crowd erupts.
Amaya looks up at the judge.
The crowd waves handkerchiefs, asking for an ear to be cut. The judge remains stone-faced. Angry, Amaya takes a victory lap anyway. Women throw roses. Men throw botas of wine.
He leaves the ring, curses, says his goodbyes and rushes toward the van. A brief stop in the chapel to blow out the candle. He'd been granted safety, but not luck.
In the van, Amaya leans forward, angrily turning off the stereo. Another day, risking his life, for nothing. He wanted an ear, at least. "I think I killed it very well," he says. "People asked for it, but the guy's an a--hole. So when I killed mine, I went around the ring. I hope that pissed him off. He's too far up high. They forget what it's like to be down here."
Now they drive. Thirteen hours stretch out in front of them, an all-night trek through the rain, over mountains, rushing from Morelia to Nuevo Laredo to do it all over again. Tomorrow will be better, he promises himself, curling up in the back seat of the van, drifting off to sleep. It needs to be better; though Amaya has a coveted two-year contract with a promoter who owns a string of bullrings, most times his fee is determined by how he did the year before. Plaza owners pay for names.
At 6 in the morning, daybreak at a Mexican truck stop, he gets out to stretch. This is the life of a bullfighter. His body is tired from the bumpy drive. He looks around at his crew, and at the scruffy man selling coffee out the open window.
"Where are all the girls?" he asks. "And all the fame?"
There's a knock on the door. The doctor wants to say hello. He fixed Amaya the last time he was gored, and his presence feels awkward. Matadors don't like reminders. Even prefight breakfast is framed with meaning. Matadors must eat eight hours before, in case they need anesthesia after the fight.
When the doctor leaves, it's time for Amaya to get dressed. It's the oldest ritual in bullfighting. Each piece goes on slowly, in a time-prescribed order.
First, the pink socks slide over a white body stocking that goes up to his chest. There's a tiny hole in one of them. Damn. An omen. Next the pants. Alex curses. There's a stain on the inner thigh. He rubs the spot like Lady Macbeth, bitching at Luis, who is pouring sweat.
Amaya leans back, cupping his balls, Luis pulling hard on the pants. They have to be skintight. Next, a white dress shirt. Alex looks at the collar, curses again. There's a black smudge on the collar. Luis runs to get a towel and some water to clean it.
Everything's wrong. The matador looks at himself in the mirror then down at his hands.
When the dressing is complete, after Luis goes over the outfit with small scissors to remove stray threads, not wanting any more omens, Amaya turns his attention to the shrine he's set up on the hotel desk. He does this every time he fights. In many ways, these are the only days he is really alive. They are the only days he writes in his diary. The rest aren't worth mentioning.
He makes the sign of the cross twice, picks up a worn card and recites the matador's prayer to himself. "I ask for your forgiveness for my human weakness," he whispers, his lips barely moving. He kisses his thumb and touches an assortment of photos of saints, of the Virgin Mary, of Jesus Christ, of his mother. With a nervous hand, he lights a candle which will burn at this makeshift altar until he returns, the small string of smoke rising toward the ceiling, carrying his prayers.
Now he waits. Sitting in a chair, he touches the stain on his pants leg, like it's a stigmata. That spot is often where the horn goes in. He rubs his hands over and over, squeezing the joints.
"This is probably the worst moment," he says softly.
He turns to Luis. The tension in the room is unbearable. The clock says 4:12. The corrida is at 5.
"When do we leave?" he says.
"4:20, Matador," Luis says.
Amaya sprays Afrin in each nostril. After eight minutes of silence, he stands and kisses the picture of his mother once more.
"Let's go," he says.
Amaya yells at the bull.
The bull turns, looking at the yellow and pink cape. He's found his target.
Amaya slides his feet, like a ballet dancer, moving his body in front of the horns. He shakes the cape. The bull charges. The ground shakes beneath Amaya's feet, the light glinting off the horns. Sand from beneath its hooves flies over the walls. Closer, closer, closer
He whirls the cape, guiding the 1,000-pound animal past. He does it twice, then a third time, then a fourth. It's the opposite of yesterday. This animal is moving around like Amaya has him on a string. The bull stumbles several times, a little weak, but workable.
After the bull's head is lowered, Amaya comes back out with the muleta. Cavazos, his hawk-nosed mentor, leans over the red boards of the barrera. He's already fought and killed a bull, cut two ears. Now he focuses on his pupil.
One pass. Then two. Then three.
"Ole," Cavazos screams.
Amaya seems alone. Other matadors wheel around often for the crowd. Amaya stares at the bull. Cavazos wants him to be more of an entertainer. Cheer up , he screams. After the next series of passes, Amaya spins toward the bleachers, striking a pose, a wide smile on his face. The aficionados are frothing. The promoter is grinning, passing free drinks to his friends in the front rows.
Another pass, then another, with Cavazos and the crowd yelling, "Ole!"
This could be that "something big" Amaya spoke of in the van, a rare peek at perfection. This is why he travels all over the world. He struts over to Luis, pulls the sword smoothly from its scabbard. He lines up for the kill, the crowd rising to its feet.
He purses his lips, makes his charge, aims for the tiny kill-zone on the bull's back and misses.
The sword pops out, blood only a third of the way down the blade. He hangs his head. A few people grumble.
He tries again, lining up, taking special care, charging and misses.
He slaps his thigh hard, curses echoing around the wooden walls. The whistles are coming now. The afternoon has turned in a matter of 30 seconds. Finally, with his tongue in his cheek, sweat pouring down his face, he slides the sword into the bull, all the way to the hilt, the horns just missing his torso. There are polite cheers.
The promoter comes over, tells Amaya that he'll have him back again. But there's something in his voice. It's like he's doing the young matador a favor. "He's probably gonna bring me back for the lowest," Amaya says. "If I would have cut four ears, it would be the other way around. That's what happens." Behind the bullring, a crowd of people gather around Cavazos. He is today's star. No fans approach Amaya, who walks away alone. He's breathing hard.
Back in the hotel room, he blows out the candle and calls his mother. Sitting in a towel, he's furious with himself. "I should have done better today," he says. "It leaves a sense of an unfinished work."
He laughs bitterly, tries to force a joke.
"At the buzzer," he cracks, "it hit the rim."
Alejandro Amaya leans back on the bed. He's risked his life twice in two days, and it's brought him no closer to being the star he wants to be. If anything, today was a step backward.
He exhales. Tomorrow, they'll start over again.
"I'm gonna be fighting in eight days," he says.
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.