August 03, 1987 12:00 PM

On a blazing Sunday afternoon, 24,000 aficionados had packed into Madrid’s monumental Plaza de Toros with hopes of witnessing bullfighting at its purest. They came to see three famous matadors, including one who had been lured out of retirement with promises of recaptured glory and, naturally, a hefty paycheck. Antonio “Antoñete” Chenel, Curro Romero and Rafael de Paula—all three had been worthy contemporaries of the flamboyant El Cordobes in their day. The trouble was, their day had long since passed, taking with it much of their skill and a lot of their courage.

Gasping and puffing, the paunchy Antoñete, 55, who’d been training on several packs of cigarettes a day, dispatched his first bull without distinction, earning a chorus of jeers from the Madrid crowd. Worse was to come.

Next up was Curro, 53, a onetime romantic stylist from Seville. Known to be erratic even in his salad days, he was counting on his dwindling talents to bring him a $40,000 payday. The temperamental part gypsy drew a 1,300-lb. bull named Giraldilla, or Weathervane. The bull showed little interest in Curro’s manipulation of the muleta and put its tormentor down on his back. When the beast started eye-balling the matador again, Curro, no fool, ran behind the barrier and declined to come out. “I absolutely refuse to kill him,” he told anyone who would listen. “There is something wrong with its eyes. It can only see things in the distance and goes straight for the man.”

Unconvinced by the matador’s protestations, the crowd started bombing the ring with cushions, even rolls of toilet paper. Curro remained behind the barrier until, in the greatest ignominy that could befall either bull or bullfighter, Giraldilla was led out of the ring to be slaughtered by the arena butcher. Wrote a newspaper bullfight critic: “Romero was either waiting for his time to be up or hoping that the bull would die of heart failure or even old age.” Curro’s fellow matadors were vaguely sympathetic and unanimous about the animal. “Very dangerous, impossible, unfightable,” declared Antoñete. “Impossible,” agreed De Paula. “He had faulty eyesight.”

By the time Curro faced his second bull, the crowd was beside itself with anger. After Curro summarily killed the bull without exposing himself to danger, a member of the paying public vaulted the barrier and shoved the astonished matador to the ground. This was the cue for Curro’s assistant toreros, Antonio Cobos and Juan Bellido, to pile on the indignant spectator and rub his face in the dirt.

So ended one of the most eventful, if least glorious, corridas in memory. The court fights, however, were just beginning. Curro was socked with two violations of the bullfighting code—for refusing to kill the “blind” bull and for inciting the fan to violence. The fan was charged with assault, as were Romero’s two aides. In fact, almost everyone who was party to the afternoon received some charge or fine or slap on the wrist except Manuel Chopera, the impresario of the Madrid ring, who alone, on this infamous afternoon, made a proper killing.

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