This page is taken from La Divisa 143. It is reproduced by the kind permission of the author, Jim Verner , and the Editor of La Divisa, Jock Richardson. Photographs are by kind permission of Tristan Wood.

Juan Antonio Ruiz Román, Espartaco
Brian Harding

Hands up those of you reading this who have never seen Espartaco torear. Not many of you are there? And now Espartaco–Spartacus–has hung up his montera in favour of a life as a family man, as Juan Antonio Ruiz Román awaits the birth of a son to join his two daughters.

Son of a not-too-successful novillero, also called Espartaco, Juan Antonio began his taurine career at the age of 13 working in the serious section of the toreo cómico group, El Chino Torero. As a novillero, he was successfully teamed with El Mangui, and in 1978 completed 81 novilladas. He took the alternativa in 1979 at the hands of Manuel Benítez, El Cordobés (it was originally planned to be Antonio Ordóñez a month earlier, but the corrida was postponed due to bad weather). He didn’t confirm in Madrid until 1982 at the hands of Antonio Ordóñez’s favourite son-in-law, Paquirri. Despite early successes (he led the escalafón in 1982) by the mid 80s his career as a matador had drifted into the doldrums. He even announced his intention to follow his father’s example and give up gold for silver in 1985, but then he drew the toro Facultades of Manolo González in La Maestranza de Sevilla, in front of the television cameras. It was an ideal animal, perfectly suited to Juan Antonio’s natural skills of temple, and everything came out perfectly. A star was born, and his ascent was meteoric. By the end of 1985 he had gone straight to the top of the escalafón, and he stayed there until 1991. He was numero uno for the record number of seven consecutive years.

Much has been written about the temple of Espartaco, and the adjective normally associated with it is ‘prodigious’. It’s not easy to define temple and there has been much debate about whether or not certain toros transmit temple which gifted toreros can exploit. In the case of Juan Antonio it has happened so many times that it can only have come from within him. With this skill, he was able to cajole an unwilling toro into producing a faena, where lesser talents would have abandoned it as a hopeless case. Briefly, temple is the ability of a torero to move the capote, or more usually the muleta, at such a speed that it proceeds the charging toro and maintains a constant distance in front of the animal without ever allow the cape to be caught or even touched–enganchado. The effect is one of entrancement, allowing the imposition of control of the toro, so its speed can be reduced, and the direction of its charge modified to the torero’s will. Juan Antonio had it in spades.

His other great attribute was his likeability. He communicated strongly with the public, always with a willing but natural smile, suggesting gratitude as if to say ‘Thank you for liking my humble offerings’. Combined with an ability to read toros excellently well, and to produce a faena from the most uncooperative animal, Espartaco quickly became a firm favourite at ferias all over the country. His trademark sign-off was a derechazo, probably a pase circular, de rodillas with his back to the toro, and the crowd going wild. Of course the more critical among us would frown at this sort of tremendista display, but it was easy to forgive his over-enthusiasm, and admire his temple and toreo hondo when he showed it to us. He wasn’t just good, he was exciting, and his knowledge of the bulls meant he was rarely caught. I can remember one typical performance in which he became obsessed with completing a 360 degree pase circular. Time and again he would draw the toro around himself, only to have it break away before the circle was complete. When he finally pulled it off, Juan Antonio grinned and enjoyed the biggest ovation of the faena. Although he often repeated the passes of his ‘provincial faena’ at ferias all over the country, his fans were rarely bored. I would remember the pleasure he gave me early in my afición, and I could forgive him almost anything. He occupied a special place in all our hearts.

His career has been memorably described as a life of thorns and roses. While at the height of his career, he twisted his knee playing in a charity football match. He re-appeared in the Feria de Abril in 1995 before he was fully fit, to fulfil a promise to give the alternativa to Francisco Rivera Ordóñez, the son of Paquirri, and the grandson of Antonio Ordóñez. He was clearly in discomfort, and while walking away from a toro to which he had just administered an estocada, he was caught right in front of me. He had uncharacteristically turned his back on an unbeaten toro, and he paid the price. There followed a series of operations on the troublesome knee, rising hopes during periods of convalescence giving way to more despair and yet another operation. He was stubbornly determined to return to the ring, and would not be beaten by his injury. Finally he travelled to Houston Texas, where he was operated by a surgeon specialised in working on the knees of millionaire American football players. The operation was a success, and Espartaco re-appeared in 1999, picking up where he had left off, appearing in all the major ferias before his faithful fans. At the end of the 2000 season he announced that 2001 would be his last year in the profession. By my calculation his last corrida on 29 September was number 1264 in his long career.

Juan Antonio Ruiz is a family man. His father accompanied him everywhere throughout his career, and three of his brothers formed part of his team. Now he has his own family, his wife, Patricia, and two daughters, Alejandra and Isabel. He has said that in his retirement he can look forward to taking his children to school whenever he wants to, rather than having to go training every morning. He will also be free to spend more time with his ganadería. I saw the very interesting string of novillos he sent to Las Ventas on 2 September this year, and I look forward to seeing next year’s toros from the same herd. Juan Antonio stresses that he has not cut his coleta. His absence from the ring while recovering from his knee injury has shown him how strong the urge to torear–the gusanillo–can be in a retired torero, and he has announced that he is not giving it up. He plans to appear in a suit of lights at special events of his own choosing for many years to come.

The corrida of his despedida in La Maestranza on 29 September was not a success. The ganadería was announced months ago, and the six toros of Núñez de Cuvillo must have been picked out from the herd for the Feria de San Miguel years before. The scandal was that they were not just disappointing in their performance, they even looked bad. It is incomprehensible how the empresa of La Maestranza could provide such awful-looking cattle for one of La Maestranza’s best-loved sons. "Ill-matched and lacking trapío" was the description given by José Carlos Arévalo in his highly critical editorial in 6 Toros 6. The description in Aplausos was more detailed–". . . of zero possibilities. . . the first and fourth were mansos, the others were stationary in the muleta, giving no possibility for anything productive. . . The second was whistled in the arrastre, the rest were met with silence." Juan Antonio rarely voices criticism, but on this occasion, clearly very disappointed at being denied the final success he was hoping for, he could only describe the corrida as "extraordinariamente mala". The public was not to be denied a triumphal farewell, however, and they obliged him to give a clamorous vuelta after Tortolito was removed from the ring. One writer said it as the biggest ovation ever heard in the Maestranza, although I suspect this description may have been a little over the top. Espartaco has that effect on people.