Author Rikio working Sugar Plum
Rodeo people christen bulls with colorful names. Country singer Tom Russell sang about East Texas Red. Chris LeDoux tells about Dust Devil Rage — there was a man killed by that bull in Jasper, Texas. Tim McGraw sings of a bull named Fu Manchu.
The three bulls that I came to know were Square Head, Freckles, and Sugarplum.
Bill Gresuk was a high school junior when I met him in Encanto in the mid-1960s. Bill had come out west from Pennsylvania to be with his uncle, Jim Lucidi, because he was interested in becoming a bullfighter. The close proximity to Mexico, he thought, would make it easier to break into the bullfighting world.
I was about 30 and had no thoughts of being a professional — I was merely an aficionado, though keenly interested in learning the passes, the ins and outs of the sport. Bill and I both started training at the same time. Bill later left for the interior of Mexico, to seek his dream of becoming a matador.
In the beginning, though we hardly knew the difference between a cape and a piece of red-flannel underwear, we were eager to fight anything that charged.
We trained with more experienced Americans who had gleaned knowledge from expatriated novilleros (bullfighters restricted to fighting bulls less than four years of age) and retired matadors from Mexico. Later, we graduated to lessons from professionals in Mexico. Matador de Toros “El Charro” Gómez was one who gave us a lot of help.
Living in the suburbs of an American city, we’d had little chance to see any type of bovine, let alone a fighting bull (toro bravo), and though our knowledge was meager, we were anxious to test out some of the maneuvers we were taught.
One day, we got fed up with the lack of an animal to cape. We were bored with dry runs, a practice technique where one person would grab a set of horns and imitate the bull’s charge. We wanted to face the real thing.
We came up with an idea, and on a sunny San Diego day, we hopped into my 1961 Triumph TR4 and headed for Bonita, in the foothills of southeastern San Diego, where we knew we would find cattle grazing in the pastures. Down a country road, we spotted a magnificent bull standing on the side of a hill. It was not a fighting-type bull, but this did not deter us. We were so hot to fight, we’d been considering caping cars on the freeway.
We leaped out of the TR4, grabbed the capes, and trudged up the hill. Our plan was to approach the bull from two directions — to corner it. The bull, a Hereford, glared at us as we ascended the steep slope. When we were about 40 yards away, the bull, perhaps startled by our intrusion, fled down the distant slope.
Foiled and panting, we tried cornering a few other bulls with the same results. Bright toreros that we were, we eventually came to the conclusion that this plan wasn’t going to work. We later found out from the literature, and from other bullfighters, that bulls in the field seldom charge if they feel they’re not cornered or trapped. Even bulls of fighting stock will ignore you or flee when confronted in the open. If bulls are in a herd, they most likely will not attack you.
That day, feeling somewhat discouraged and disappointed, we walked back to the car. We intended to call it a day. Driving home, we spotted a sign that read “Sweetwater Rodeo Grounds.” Out of curiosity, we turned up the dirt road that led to a group of rustic buildings and corrals. This turned out to be a small rodeo set up with stalls for releasing bulls and broncs. We alit from the sports car and took a walk to examine the facilities. There wasn’t a soul around, so we felt safe being there, and we ran head-on to a pen with a large, tawny-colored bull. He was kind of ugly, with strange proportions. He pawed the earth and seemed agitated by our presence. Simultaneously, we both had the same thought: Let’s fight this bull.
We contacted the rodeo owner and told him we wanted to put on a bullfight. We especially wanted to face that tawny bull, which we learned was named Square Head. To our surprise, the owner didn’t think we were completely crazy.
We agreed on a date when the rodeo grounds were available, put out publicity, and prepared ourselves for the big day.
We were such greenhorns that we didn’t have the proper garb, so we settled on dark pants and a white shirt. I added a sequined red tie, which I later realized was inappropriate.
When the day arrived, it was beautiful. The sun was shining, and there was hardly a breeze. This was important, because a wind could blow the cape around and make passes unmanageable.
Bill Gresuk and Rikio waiting for a fight at Sweetwater Rodeo Grounds
This was in the 1960s, and CDs and cassettes hadn’t been invented yet. I had an old Webcor tape deck with huge rolls of tapes onto which I’d recorded pasodobles such as “El Relicario,” “España Cani,” “Cielo Andaluz,” and “La Virgen de la Macarena.” The rodeo owner hooked up the music to the public-address system, and the mood was set. It made us feel as we were participating in the real thing.
Before we could proceed with the event, Bill and I were called into the office and informed that we would have to sign an agreement with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that stated that the bulls would not be harmed. How they knew we were trying to put on a bullfight and how they’d managed to find their way to the location, I don’t know. Sweetwater Rodeo no longer exists, but at that time, it was ten miles southeast of downtown San Diego, in a cozy valley overlooking the Sweetwater Reservoir.
The local people from the villages of Spring Valley and Bonita, having heard about the “bullfight,” began to fill the stands. There were about 30 spectators present, and they were mostly betting on the bull. “Get them, bully!” was one of the shouts heard.
The moment we were waiting for arrived. Square Head was in the holding pen, ready to be released whenever we gave the signal that we were ready.
I volunteered to be the first to meet him when the gate opened. I have to admit I was petrified with fear. What am I doing here? I thought. This is insane. I signaled to the cowboy above the gate to open it, and Square Head came rushing out of the chute. He charged at me immediately.
I realized that the smartest thing to do would be to give a wide cape pass (capotazo), to test how he would react. To my amazement, he was fooled by this initial pass. Square Head continued to respond well to the cape, allowing me to make pass after pass. With each successful maneuver, I gained more confidence. After about ten decent passes, I turned it over to Bill Gresuk. He did some very creditable work — I was impressed with his ability and skill.
After a grueling half hour, we figured we had done as much as we could with Square Head. We signaled the cowboy to send the bull back to the corrals.
I breathed a sigh of relief that we’d survived the first onslaught. It’s all over, I thought. But, no, it wasn’t. The cowboys would not let us off the hook. They let out another bull, Sugar Plum. This was no ordinary bull. He appeared to be two stories high, and much meaner than Square Head.
In bullfighting, two types of capes are used. The larger, flamboyant cape is called the capote. The smaller and much lighter cape is called the muleta. The muleta is made from a gabardine-type material and is draped over a stick to give it dimension. The capote is usually made of silken fabric, and is used mainly in the first phase of the fight. The muleta is used in the last act, when the matador shows off his bravery and artistry working very close to the bull.
When Sugar Plum emerged on the scene, I should not have had the muleta in my hand. No way was this giant bull going to be fooled by the smaller cloth. Before I had a chance to switch back to the large cape, he came rushing toward me. It was like being attacked by a T. Rex. There was fire in his eyes, and he was definitely coming in for the kill. I was smart enough to realize I could not fight this terrifying animal as if he were a fighting bull from Spain. I shoved the muleta in his face and began to lure him across the rodeo grounds. Lucky for me, the bull was focused on the muleta. After about five minutes of running about, Sugar Plum got tired of the game and suddenly stopped. Somewhat shaken, I turned it over to Bill. After this, the gentle Freckles was anti-climatic.
We made history that day. This may have been the first bullfight ever in San Diego County. Of course, it hardly resembled a true bullfight, but to us novices it was a great experience. Afterward, Bill’s uncle, Jim Lucidi, took us to Felipe Zatarain’s taco shop in Encanto. I know it sounds ridiculous, but we felt that we were true matadors. Our heads swelled till they were larger than our sense, but it was an afternoon we have never forgotten.
In retrospect, it became clear that rodeo-type bulls do not charge like Spanish fighting bulls. Spanish bulls charge straight and true. The domestic types wade in on you, like a Tony Galento–type boxer. Rodeo bulls have also been handled many times by men on foot, and therefore become wise to distractions like capes — they usually aim right for the body of the man. Bill and I were lucky we came out unscathed, and we were especially lucky Square Head was fooled by the cape.
Some time later, I had an experience in Tijuana fighting a bull that had wised up to what was going on. At a ring where local Mexican cowboys (charros) put on festivals, they kept a bull that had been caped dozens of times. It was about three or four years old. They called him El Regional and let him out during the festivals, perhaps to add color to the proceedings. Aspiring matadors were allowed to try their hand at caping him.
Of course, having been fought so many times, this bull knew that the cape was no longer his enemy. Whenever he came out, there was mayhem, with scattered bodies on the ground. But I was not privy to this when I first went to Tijuana to learn about bullfighting. When I heard they were going to let out a bull for the public to fight, I jumped at the chance.
The arena was a ring pretty much like a bullring, but more rustic and worn. I had been taught that a bull charging along the edge of the ring had a tendency to move toward the center when he encounters a bullfighter. This, I figured, was an advantage. So I planted myself against the boards with my cape in hand, ready for El Regional.
He came shooting out of the gate, running along the fence toward me. Just before he reached me, I moved my cape to distract his charge, but he ignored the cape and caught me in a direct hit. I went flying through the air like Charlie Brown after Lucy removes the football. As I lay crumpled on the ground, one of my Mexican friends asked, “¿Qué pasó, Riki?”
I am perhaps the first Japanese-American who has indulged in bullfighting. Quite a few Americans have been bitten by the bug to fight bulls — John Fulton, Robert Ryan, Sidney Franklin, and David Renk are all men who have achieved the title of Matador de Toros. Raquel Martinez of Imperial Beach is that rare woman who has also reached this prestigious goal. Peter Rombold is perhaps the most successful amateur, having fought and killed over 60 bulls in Mexico and Spain.
You probably can’t defend bullfighting from a moral standpoint. But are those animal activists still eating steak? ■
— Rikio Shiodsaki