Mexico's Reckless El Gleason Offends Bullfighting Purists, but Invariably the Bulls Are All Ears

updated 12/08/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/08/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

As a bullfighter, 25-year-old Jorge de Jesus, "El Gleason," is (a) a fraud, joke and a crowd-pleasing daredevil with a barely suppressed death wish. Either that or he's (b) an artist, an innovator and a crowd-pleasing daredevil with a barely suppressed death wish.

Journey with us now to the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo, where 2,000 aficionados have packed the Plaza de Toros La Fiesta to judge for themselves the electrifying El Gleason—the name is borrowed from his Irish immigrant great-grandfather. The fast-rising matador does not disappoint them. He begins by standing on a rickety folding chair in the middle of the ring as Brincaor, 825 pounds of snorting taurine fury, is released into the arena. "Hey, toro!" cries the 5'7", 130-lb. El Gleason, flicking out a foot to attract the bull's attention. Brincaor charges, and at the last moment El Gleason leaps over the animal's back, landing with the grace of a gymnast. At least that's the way the trick is supposed to work. This time one of the bull's horns catches El Gleason's leg and he goes sprawling facedown in the dirt, scrambling to his feet with an ain't-this-fun grin as Brincaor charges again. Instinctively catching the bull by the horns, the matador backpedals furiously as Brincaor tries to shake him loose. Now this is a bullfight. The spirit of Manolete might be appalled, but the enthusiastic crowd couldn't care less. This is better than an explosion at the jumping-bean factory. "Bravo," they cry. "Numero uno, olé!"

Since he first appeared on the bullfight scene a little more than a year ago, El Gleason has rocked the corrida to its very foundations. Billing himself as Discutido Revolucionario (roughly speaking, "controversial figure"), he has brought showbiz, acrobatics and maybe even a bit of the Three Stooges to the austere choreography of fiesta brava. Blatant theatricality aside, he takes chances—big chances—that have other bullfighters shaking their heads. He finds himself on his backside, or thereabouts, two or three times a fight, and does much of his cape work on one knee, which brings him eyeball-to-eyeball with several hundred pounds of irritated beefsteak and limits his chance of escape. He routinely performs el pendulo, a dangerous move attempted by only a handful of matadors, in which the bullfighter holds his cape behind him and moves it slowly from side to side.

"I fight bulls because it's fun," he explains. "Some matadors are scared. I don't know why they fight bulls if they suffer like that."

While no one has questioned El Gleason's courage, the sporting press has taken him to task for a variety of offenses, including bullbaiting. "They say I show no respect for the bull," says Gleason. "But bulls are courageous animals. I don't enjoy killing them. I do it because it's the style." Style—that's another sore point. Discutido Revolucionario has also been found wanting in matters pertaining to bullfighting fashion. "I don't follow all the rules," he admits. "But then," he adds with a wink, "they're not written rules."

Among El Gleason's transgressions: He wears white stockings instead of the traditional pink. "Pink socks look effeminate," he sniffs. "I wouldn't wear them if you paid me." Ditto for those frilly white shirts most matadors affect. El Gleason prefers his button-down oxfords. He also refuses to wear the montera, the traditional bullfighter's cap that droops over the ears. "Makes you look like Mickey Mouse," he complains.

Inflamed by his attitude as well as his form, critics have derided Gleason as a payaso. Not that it bothers him much. After all, that's where his artistic roots lie. His first real job, at 17, was as a rodeo clown. His assignment: to distract furious bulls from fallen riders while, incidentally, entertaining the crowd. With that in mind, Gleason developed a foolhardy routine in which he would run straight at the bull and vault over him. "It was tough work," he says, "I got beat up a lot. Bullfighting is like a vacation compared to clowning." Yet he stuck with it for six years, long enough to put himself through college, earn a degree in agricultural engineering and sustain a small catalog of bone breaks and bruises.

Then, in 1983, during a rodeo parade in Saltillo, he met Magdalena Sanchez Gomez, a state beauty queen who married him and made him give up the rodeo. The problem was, El Gleason liked taking chances. "After a year or so I started to feel unhappy," he says. "I missed the thrill of facing down an animal. Friends said I should try Spanish-style bullfighting, so I did." Grudgingly, Magdalena gave in, and Jorge de Jesus, the engineer's son from Mexico City, was suddenly reborn as El Gleason.

He performed his first corrida in October 1985. Since then he has fought more than 25 times. "I've been in more bullfights than I've seen," he says. "I've learned to fight the hard way, in the ring. The papers say I will be the new phenomenon," he adds with a laugh, "if I don't get killed first." In bullfighting, of course, that possibility is what gives the contest its meaning. Critics may find the corrida vulgar or cruel, but no one denies it is real. From his weekly batterings, El Gleason lives in constant pain and tapes himself from head to toe for each corrida.

"Gleason numero uno! Bravo Gleason!" Gleason is now in the midst of that risky bit of business known as el pendulo. Holding the cape behind him, he slowly twitches it from side to side. "Toro, hey," he growls. "Toro!" The danger is that the matador won't know which side of the cape the bull will charge until the very last second. "Toro!" Suddenly, the enraged Brincaor rushes forward and knocks the bullfighter down. Furiously prodding the dirt with his horns, he tries to skewer his tormentor. The crowd explodes when Gleason miraculously pops up unharmed. The only evident damage is that Brincaor's horns have torn a substantial patch out of the seat of El Gleason's pants.

When, finally, El Gleason dispatches the bull, he is showered with flowers, hats, wineskins and ladies' shoes. Triumphantly touring the ring, he drinks from the wineskins, gallantly kisses the ladies' shoes, and pays no heed to his recently ventilated backside. Later, signing autographs outside the arena, he entertains a question about the dangers of bullfighting. El Gleason laughs. "Life is relative," he says. "When you fight a bull for 15 minutes, it's like living a whole year." Or, should he be less lucky, a lifetime.

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