The book charts the rise of Antonio Ordóñez (the son of Cayetano Ordóñez, the bullfighter whose technique and ring exploits Hemingway fictionalised in his novel “The Sun Also Rises”) during a season of bullfights during 1959. During a fight on May 13 in Aranjuez, Ordóñez is badly gored but remains in the ring and kills the bull, a performance rewarded by trophies of both of the bull’s ears, its tail, and a hoof.
By contrast, Luis Miguel Dominguín is already famous as a bullfighter and returns to the ring after several years of retirement. Less naturally gifted than Ordóñez, his pride and self-confidence draw him into an intense rivalry with the newcomer, and the two meet in the ring several times during the season. Starting the season supremely confident, Dominguín is slowly humbled by this competition. While Ordóñez displays breathtaking skill and artistry in his fights, performing highly dangerous, classical passés, Dominguín often resorts to what Hemingway describes as “tricks”: moves that look impressive to the crowd but that actually are much safer.
Nevertheless, Dominguín is gored badly at a fight in Valencia, and Ordóñez is gored shortly afterwards. Less than a month later, the two bullfighters meet in the ring again for what Hemingway described as “one of the greatest bullfights I have ever seen”, “an almost perfect bullfight unmarred by any tricks”. From the six bulls which they fight, the pair wins ten ears, four tails and two hooves as trophies, an extraordinary feat.
Their final meeting takes place in Bilbao, with Dominguín receiving a near-fatal goring and Ordóñez demonstrating absolute mastery by performing the recibiendo kill, one of the oldest and most dangerous moves. Ordóñez’s recibiendo requires three attempts, displaying the fighter’s artistry and bravery that Hemingway likens to that of legendary bullfighter Pedro Romero.