LA GLORIA — The sound of Fred Renk’s hoarse voice filled the Santa Maria Bullring in La Gloria for (maybe) one last time Sunday afternoon.
“You ready for the first bull?” Fred asked the crowd. The crowd whooped and hollered back at him. “He’s got spunk.”
The black bull charged into the ring, running through the dust at matadors waving gold and pink capes.
Fred has been organizing bloodless bullfights at his ring for the last 20 years. He’s probably told crowds at the fights that a bull has ‘spunk’ a hundred times over the course of the past two decades.
At 83, Fred says he’s ready to stop running the show, and he’s put the ring up for sale.
The fights in La Gloria are some of the only ones held in the U.S. and the only ones held regularly in Texas.
The chief difference between Fred’s fights and the traditional corridas still held in Mexico and Spain is the absence of bloodshed. In La Gloria, the matador plucks a rose off the bull’s back at the end of the fight instead of running it through with a sword. There’s no picadors and no spears. After the fight, the bulls are often sent to the rodeo.
It’s hard to imagine any audience more eclectic than the one Fred drew for his last fight Sunday: Beer swilling cowboys in paisley shirts and straw hats rubbed elbows with journalists toting notepads and long-lensed cameras. Winter visitors sporting jean shorts and a healthy layer of sunscreen socialized with charro horsemen smoking cigarettes, decked out in sombreros and spurs.
People milled about, laughing and talking before the fight, amid cigar smoke, the smell of barbecue and mariachi music.
It felt like something out of a Hemingway novel; there were, in fact, a few members of The Hemingway Society in the stands.
Two matadors fought Sunday, both from Mexico: Karla Santoyo and Cayetano Delgado.
Half an hour before the fight, Delgado got dressed, donning a pink suit trimmed in black, embroidered with glittering gold knots.
He stopped for a few moments before entering the ring, taking pictures with friends in front of a rusty old refrigerator next to a parrot cage on Fred’s porch.
Someone offered Delgado a beer.
“Cerveza, no,” he said, waving dismissively.
The parrot squawked periodically as friends hugged Delgado and shook his hand.
“Que chulo,” a lanky man in a Wrangler shirt and Cinch jeans said with a toothy grin, giving the matador a hug.
The man is David Renk II, Fred’s grandson and son of the late David Renk.
The elder David was a noted bullfighter. At 18 he became the sixth American matador, fighting across the world and earning the epithet El Texano.
He died in September 2018.
David II, currently the manager of a ranch near Hebbronville, is more cowboy than matador, although he’s up for helping out in the ring. He helped work the gate Sunday, letting bulls into the ring and coaxing them out.
The bull David unleashed on Delgado was the second of the day, a mostly white animal speckled with gray and black.
The bull ran at Delgado, passing in front and beside him, constantly chasing his cape.
On one pass, the bull didn’t follow the cape, charging straight for the 22-year-old matador, catching him in the chest and tossing him into the air.
The crowd gasped audibly while the other bullfighters rushed in to distract the bull. After a moment, the winded matador picked up his cape and stepped back onto the sand, meeting the bull in the center of the ring.
Gradually, he shuffled toward the animal, thrusting out his hips and sliding his cape to the side. He stood there, exposed to the bull, staring at it contemptuously.
“Come on you guys!” Fred exhorted the crowd. “He took a shot straight in the chest.”
“Olé!” the audience yelled.
After a few tries, Delgado leaned in close, plucked a flower off the nape of the bull’s neck and ended the fight.
The other three fights went much the same way, Delgado and Santoyo swiping their capes before the bulls to the tune of brass Spanish horns playing on the ring’s speakers.
“God love you and thank you,” Fred told the crowd before the end. “I’m gonna go have a beer.”
Fred ambled off to a room affectionately known as ‘The Museum.’ The walls are plastered with bullfighting photographs and posters Fred’s collected over the years. There’s a full bar in one corner and a television blaring Fox News in the other. Fred sat at a table in the middle of the room, under a low-hanging saloon light, puffing on a Sheriff cigarette.
Fred greeted some old friends, dickered with some others about how much he owes them for the day. Most of the conversations ended in hugs or handshakes.
“It’s sad,” Fred said of the final performance. “I mean, especially the mariachis, when they were playing ‘Niño Perdido,’ which is my son.”
In many ways, the ring and the bullfights and Fred’s entire career as a bullfight promoter were for his son.
“My son was a matador de toros, the only matador that ever confirmed his Phd. in the Plaza Monumental Mexico, which (seats) 50,000. That’s the largest bullring in the world. The closest one to it is Ciudad Juarez with 27,000. When David did that, that was it,” Fred said. “I started bloodless bullfighting in the United States. I went into the damn Houston Astrodome in 1986 and put on the first bullfight ever in the U.S., bloodless, in two nights. And then I went to Fort Worth. So then I went to Chicago. After that I went to El Paso.”
Fred’s bloodless fights lived on long past those glory days, up until Sunday afternoon. Although he says that the fight was the last one he’ll run, he isn’t ruling out helping someone else carry on that tradition.
“I mean, there’s guys that want to bring bulls and do it, and I’ll be the advertising and I’ll be the judge, but without the responsibility of having to bring the bulls and pay the guys and all the crap you’ve got to go through to bring them from Mexico,” he said. “I can do all that, but I’m not going to be responsible for buying the bulls and bringing them over. I mean, that is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
The most likely person to take over for Fred is his grandson, David II. At Sunday’s corrida David said he’s spoken to a few people in the industry about continuing the fights in South Texas, likely at his grandfather’s ring.
“It’d be a shame to just force it all down and recycle it,” David said.
David says he feels a responsibility for the ring and the artform because of his family’s history with it.
“I feel a little obligated to do it, from a family sense,” he said. “Every generation, some of the history and the traditions get lost. More and more gets misunderstood.”
Ultimately, David says, he only intends to get into the bullfighting business if it’s a paying enterprise.
“We’ll see,” he said.
Although Sunday may have been the last fight for Don Fred, it may not be the last fight for a Renk.