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Costa Rica: Where the bull wins the fight
In Costa Rican bullfighting, the crowd's favorite has four legs
 
San Jose, Costa Rica: A participant gives in to the beast.
San Jose, Costa Rica: A participant gives in to the beast. JUAN CARLOS ULATE/Reuters/Corbis

TONIGHT — A SUNDAY night in March — the townspeople of the fishing village of Garza, Costa Rica, will empty out of the local Catholic church and congregate in a nearby field for an affair held in equal regard. They call it a corrida, which literally means "run." What it actually means here is rodeo — and these events largely resemble a typical American rodeo — but some people would call it a bullfight. They would not be entirely wrong.

As in Spain, Costa Rican bullfighting is sometimes a fight to the death, but there are differences. There, bullfighting evolved as a sport for the elite: Man slays bull in ritual sacrifice and is revered for taking dominion over nature. The bull never lives long enough to wrest the spotlight from the matador.

Costa Rican bullfighting began as a diversion for farmers who couldn't afford to kill cattle for sport, and the spectacle is more about man's lack of control. Montadores — bull riders, not matadors — certainly aim to subdue and conquer the beast, and they are applauded when they manage to remain on top. But the bull reigns supreme. Those most adept at tossing, goring, or even killing riders are celebrated more than even the greatest montadores.

Of all the bulls in Costa Rica, the most celebrated and revered is the bull people call Malacrianza. Translation? "Badass."

ASK A REGULAR rodeo attendant what it is about Malacrianza that makes him so beloved, and you might hear about his style and grace. Ask anybody else why Malacrianza is famous, and the answer is different. "He killed people," explained a 7-year-old Costa Rican boy.

His 1,700-pound body reveals intricate patterns of black and white speckles sweeping under his neck, over his colossal hump, and around his haunches. His stunning coat and physique, along with his elegant stride and girthy, skyward horns, make him seem other-worldly, oversized, iconic.

Inside the home of Malacrianza's owner, Ubaldo Rodríguez, two enlarged, framed photographs of Malacrianza hang opposite one of the pope. On an afternoon in March, Ubaldo, a blue-eyed, 63-year-old Costa Rican man in a pressed plaid shirt and jeans, is seated cross-legged on the living room sofa across from his giddy, curly-haired wife, Amelia Gómez, who reclines in an armchair and does most of the talking.

If you ask Amelia, the gentle old bull should have been retired last year. "But Ubaldo just can't say no," she says. "He isn't ready to give it up yet."

Of all things Ubaldo owns — a well-kept country home, two vehicles, 40 bulls, and nearly 2,000 acres of land — Malacrianza is perhaps the most valued and loved.

Back in 2003, Ubaldo received Malacrianza as part of a bulk purchase of livestock. The bull and his companions had proven too aggressive for farm work at the Urbina family farm just down the road. For the Urbinas, aggressive bulls caused problems in the pasture and injured the other animals. For Ubaldo, though, an aggressive bull meant a better rodeo performance.

Ubaldo waited until August 2004 to debut the bull at a corrida, taking him to Los Angeles de Nicoya in Guanacaste, a popular festival. The then-anonymous bull entered the ring on one of the earlier days of the festival, putting on a graceful and belligerent show worthy of an encore later in the week.

Soon, Malacrianza's distinctive style began to earn him accolades and nicknames, for instance, El Corazón de Garza (The Heart of Garza) and Su Majestad (His Majesty). The most popular was as yet unearned: El Toro Asesino. The Bull Assassin.

A TYPICAL FESTIVAL features at least 10 bulls each night. The riders are in it for the thrill and the bragging rights. On a typical night they make only $30 to ride a bull, whose natural aggression has been intensified by a 24-hour fast and a rope cinched uncomfortably tight around the midsection. The riders climb on the bull in a small pen beside the arena, and then yell "Puerta!" (Door!). The gate swings open and the bull runs into the ring, a rider clinging to his bare back grasping only a rope and wearing spurs for balance.

There are also dozens of pseudo-rodeo clowns called improvisados who enter the ring on foot. These "professionals" try to distract the bull from his instinctual inclination to gore a fallen rider. In addition, anyone from the audience can jump into the corral to become an amateur improvisado. The result is often a combination of chaos and comedy, but occasionally the improvisados are seriously injured.

There is only one rule — although the bull may kill you, no one kills the bull. Unlike American bull riding, the classic Guana-cas-teco "rustic style" of bull riding is not a timed event. Nor are riders judged by an artificial set of standards. "The public serves as the judge," explained announcer Lico Carillo. "You can just tell when a bull wins or when a rider wins."

Victory is contingent on the adrenaline summoned in the crowd, and on the overall impression a bull makes based on its size, demeanor, how high it jumps, and how easily it throws the rider. Charisma and showmanship are as important as efficiency, though. Even if a bull shakes its rider quickly, it can't truly triumph unless it also puts on a good show. No bull in history has made more of an impression or put on a better show than Malacrianza.

In July 2005, Juan Carlos Cubillo was one of the better-known riders in Guanacaste. Cubillo was recruited to ride Malacrianza in the grand finale at the San Vincente festivals. When Cubillo was ready, he yelled "Puerta!" and the portal sprang open.

Malacrianza frenzied into the ring, bucking his back legs wildly and leaping into the air three times. On the third bound, the bull caught the edge of the gate with his hoof. At first, he seemed unfazed by the misstep, but in fact, he lost his balance, and his body began to twist. Malacrianza managed to leap off the ground once more before toppling onto his side. Cubillo, still on Malacrianza's back, landed under him, smacking his unprotected head against the dirt.

Immediately after the fall, Malacrianza sprang back to his feet. With no interest in the unconscious Cubillo, the bull whipped around and charged an improvisado, knocking him over. Malacrianza continued to trot around the ring while two men grabbed Cubillo's arms and legs and carried his limp body away.

Though Cubillo was rushed to the hospital and treated for excessive brain injuries, two days later, he was dead.

Then came the last night of the Caimital de Nicoya rodeo in December 2006. Jason Gómez, El Invisible, as he was known in bull riding circles for his ability to avoid injury, was chosen for Malacrianza.

After entering the ring on the bull, Gómez tried his best to lean back and avoid Malacrianza's fearsome foot-long cachos, or horns, which he tended to hurl back at his riders. At first Gómez kept his arms straight and his form rigid, but after two full-body bucks from Malacrianza, the rider fell forward. In a rage, Malacrianza flung his head back, jabbing his left horn right into Gómez's neck. The rider fell from the bull and flopped onto the ground like a doll. A quick-thinking improvisado threw a cape at the bull.

Gómez made it to the hospital alive, but bled to death before the doctors could save him. With two kills to his credit, El Toro Asesino had more than earned his nickname, and now the bull was famous all across Costa Rica.

MALACRIANZA AND BY extension, Ubaldo, saved Costa Rican rodeo. The homicidal bull put Guanacasteco rodeo on the map at a time when interest in the sport was waning. Without Malacrianza, it might even have disappeared altogether, but after the goring, newspapers and radio and TV stations began covering the sport widely.

Although he failed to kill again, it did not matter. Malacrianza was untouchable, a bovine superstar. Now 13 — an age at which most bulls are long retired — Malacrianza still reigns. Nearly a decade after he became a legend, he continues to draw a crowd wherever he goes.

On this night in Garza, Malacrianza's rider was Leonardo Bonilla, a 22-year-old montador who had been riding bulls since he was 12. Earlier in the day, when Ubaldo found out Bonilla would ride Malacrianza, it made him nervous. Bonilla was widely regarded as a top montador for his endurance and showmanship, and that meant the fight would be duro (hard) for his bull.

Atop a sturdy wooden fence that doubles as front-row seating, Guanacaste youth in sun-bleached curls fumbled with their iPhones. Behind them in the bleachers, fans moved over wooden planks to their seats, and vendors tempted them with ice cream, light-up wands, and yellow cotton candy. The scent of sizzling pork on a stick wafted through the arena and cumbia music alternated with hits by Pat Benatar and the Eagles.

After an hour, the word "Malacrianza" seemed to form on lips across the stadium, including those of the announcer. When Malacrianza's signature cumbia entrance song finally boomed into the arena, everyone reached for phones and cameras.

Malacrianza sprang out from behind the gate, head down, horns gleaming under the lights, a man on his back. He then flung himself up, all four hooves airborne, while simultaneously throwing his horns back at Bonilla, who held tight. Three more times, the old bull jumped entirely off the ground. Malacrianza's tail whipped furiously back and forth, and the dust of the arena, kicked loose by his hooves, seemed to hang like a shroud around him. People screamed and screamed, preparing themselves for the bull to do something obscene, something transformative, perhaps even to kill.

Bonilla's body sagged, but his arms stayed taut, grasping the rope, his strong grip keeping him safe. Over and over, he was knocked forward onto Malacrianza's hump, but he kept his balance, avoiding the horns and somehow staying upright.

After 10 frantic seconds of commotion, Malacrianza seemed suddenly to grow weary. He bucked a few lackluster times, and then stopped. A dazed Bonilla took advantage of the pause and slipped off the back of the old bull, then spun around and stepped quickly away. Only then did he wind up and fire a dramatic fist into the air to declare his victory. Improvisados rushed over to Bonilla, hugging him and hitting him on the back.

Malacrianza circled the corral once, as if giving the audience one final photo opportunity. Then the door opened again and he went through.

But Bonilla did not come away unscathed. Although he appeared to have little trouble staying on the bull for those few seconds when Malacrianza was bucking, for at least one brief moment, Malacrianza was young again — the Malacrianza celebrated in legend and song; he thrashed and jerked the rider so hard that he dislocated his forearm, wrenching it loose at the elbow. Although the rider had raised one fist in triumph, the other hung limply at his side. Malacrianza may have been defeated this time around, but make no mistake — he remains a badass.

By Ashley Harrell and Lindsay Fendt. ©2013 by SBNation.com, a division of Vox Media, Inc. Originally published on May 14, 2013.

 

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