Under the scorching Texas sun, surrounded by hundreds of onlookers, on the first day of the 80th year of his life, Fred Renk stares down the horns of an angry bull one last time.
In his right hand, he holds a red bullfighting cape. In his left, he cradles a smoldering Marlboro cigarette between two fingers. In front of him, a bull begins its angry charge. It’s not the biggest one Renk’s ever faced, but that doesn’t matter now. At his age, any wrong move could send Renk to his grave.
It’s July 2, 2016, at the Santa Maria Bullring in La Gloria, Texas — a sleepy border town so small (estimated population: 70) you could drive by it if the sun got in your eyes. Once a year, though, the town swells as hundreds arrive to watch Renk’s “bloodless bullfights.”
Unlike their traditional counterparts, “bloodless bullfights” have the matador dodging and weaving around charging toros (bulls) in order to remove a flower attached to the animal’s back with Velcro. It’s a “symbolic kill,” according to Renk, meant to celebrate life rather than death.
But Renk isn’t the one who’s usually in the ring. In fact, Renk hasn’t fought a bull in quite some time, having retired decades earlier. Though time has eroded many memories, there are those that stand strong. Like the images of his son David as a young boy pretending to be a matador while wielding a dinner napkin like a cape. Or the indelible muscle memory that kicks in when a toro bravo charges his cape.
Or the old adages he heard when he was first learning how to wield the cape. “La sangre valiente fluye primero,” he says. “The brave blood flows first.”
Today, the bull’s blood won’t be spilled.
But Renk’s might.
Renk watched his first bullfight when he was 17, as an exchange student in Mexico. At the time, he was in seminary school training to become a priest.
Born in Iowa, he moved a lot during his childhood — more so after his father left the family when he was young. Eventually, Renk wound up in the seminary.
“My life really began in seminary,” he says, a cigarette dancing in his lips like a conductor’s baton. “That’s when I realized that, in this world, you’ve got to help people. When that sort of idea gets in your head early, you live your life for other people too.”
One day, he and another young seminarian heard about a bullfight in town. The pair followed the siren song of a good time to the town’s bullfighting arena, where they found a raucous party flowing with wine, loud music and tacos. It was the kind of event to make two priests-in-training forget about their vows.
They took their seats in the stands, and soon the doors of the arena burst open. In walked the matador, wearing his traje de luces, or “suit of lights,” shimmering like a chandelier in the sun. Draped over his shoulder was an ornate, embroidered cape. After bowing to the crowd, the matador took his place behind a wooden barrier near the stands.
“Everyone seemed to be expecting something,” Renk recalls. “You could feel it in the air — like static.”
The doors opened again, and a Mexican fighting bull the size of a sedan cannonballed into the arena. The matador emerged from behind the barrier, his face set and focused like a sphinx.
“When the bull came in, he dropped to his knees, spread his cape on the sand, and yelled to challenge the bull,” Renk recalls. “And that bull came running right at him!”
It was all Renk could do not to tear his eyes away. Right before the bull could drive a horn into the man, the matador lifted the corner of his cape and swung it over his shoulder. As he did, the bull flew over his shoulder too, its horn almost grazing the matador’s face.
Later, as Renk and his friends made their way back to the seminary, his head glowed with the images of the matador and the bull. Though he didn’t know it then, Renk had caught the worm.
“They call it gusano,” Renk says. “Bullfighting, bulls, everything about it. It’s a worm that grows in your stomach and eats away at you until you give it what it wants: More.”
Renk left the seminary that year. After a stint in the Marine Corps, Renk found himself working as a salesman, traveling up and down the border of Texas and Mexico selling sewing machines for Singer.
All the while, he could feel the worm wriggle in his stomach, letting him know where he really wanted to be: in an arena, with a cape in his hands, a bull charging toward him.
Over the next two years, Renk traveled to different bullrings along the border the way pilgrims visit holy sites. Juárez, Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo. He began to train in bullfighting at each location, honing and perfecting his skills.
Renk fought his first fight at the Macarena Bullring in Acuña, Mexico, in 1961. He nearly missed it after sleeping too late, but he arrived as the parade into the arena began. All around him, trumpets blasted, accompanied by the steady beat of drums. The smell of cooked meats filled the air, just as they had when he saw his first bullfight as a seminarian. As he walked, Renk struggled to put the cape onto his trajes de luces.
The bullring was filled with thousands of cheering people. It seemed as though everyone in Mexico had come to see him.
“I shook the whole time I was getting dressed,” Renk says. “It felt like my guts were shaking.”
Soon, a trumpet blasted, the doors of the arena flew open, and a massive bull came out like a battering ram. Renk thought of that old bullfighting adage he’d learned while training:
La sangre valiente fluye primero. The brave blood flows first.
As the bull ran around the ring — charging at the stands and fruitlessly trying to burn off the adrenaline coursing through its body — Renk stepped out from behind the barrier and into the arena.
The hot sand beneath his bullfighting slippers warmed his feet. All around him, the air carried a potent mix of fear, anticipation — and tacos.
With a flick of his wrist, Renk caught the bull’s attention with his cape. The toro zeroed in on him, and the crowd silenced, waiting to see how this American would do.
The bull pushed off of the sand and began its charge as Renk walked toward it. Then he stopped and held the cape out to his side. He kept his eyes on the beast as it ran toward him.
As it came within goring distance, Renk moved his cape out just a hair, and the bull followed. Lowering its head, it moved with the cape before passing Renk by just a few inches. The crowd erupted with cheers. Renk had survived his first successful pass with a bull.
Renk kept at it, traveling from town to town to fight in local bullrings and arenas.
Eventually, he built a home in El Paso, which allowed him to easily travel across the border to Juárez to fight. He established himself as a bullfighter, meeting matadors, bull ranchers and organizers.
That’s also when he met the woman who would become his wife.
“I was at a fight in Juárez, and I looked up in the stands. I saw this pretty blonde sitting with a friend,” Renk recalls. “So I went up to her and invited her to go to lunch with me at noon the next day.”
Her name was Barbara, and it turned out she also lived in El Paso. Within a month, the pair was married. And as much as Renk had fallen in love with Barbara, it seemed he fell even harder for her 2-year-old son, David.
“The first time I met him, he just grabbed me for a hug,” Renk recalls. “And that was it, man.”
Renk took David to bullfights, ranches and even bars, where they met world-famous matadors and bullfighting aficionados. At each fight, the young boy focused on the action with the intensity of a chess master studying the board.
“We were at a bar after a fight, and there’d be matadors sitting and drinking,” Renk recalls. “Meanwhile, David is out on the floor holding a napkin like a cape and pretending to make passes with a bull!”
Though David wanted desperately to become a matador, he had been born with a genetic disorder known as Marfan syndrome. One symptom was a clubfoot that caused him to struggle to walk for the first six years of his life.
Renk perhaps took to David because he saw himself in the boy. Like David’s father, Renk’s father had also left his family when his son was young. Or perhaps it was because David, like Renk, had grit and determination to make something of himself in spite of the odds.
When David was 8, a doctor who noticed him at a bullfight offered to perform corrective surgery on his foot for free. After the surgery, David laid in bed or used a wheelchair for six months. After that, he began to train as a bullfighter in earnest.
“The gusano was born in him early,” Renk says about his son. “And so he started training early.”
Over the next few years, Renk watched David transform from a young boy playing with a napkin on a barroom floor to a bullfighter in training. He fought his first sanctioned bullfight at age 14, much to his mother’s chagrin.
“I wish David wouldn’t do this,” Barbara told a reporter in a 1978 interview with People.
“I’m very proud of what David is doing,” Renk retorted in the same article.
But both parents ultimately supported his passion, purchasing his outfits, capes and even bullfighting swords. At each fight, they watched from the stands the way other parents would at a child’s football or hockey game, nervous for their child.
David began to make a name for himself in the bullfighting world, gaining the nickname “El Texano.” He became a bullfighting wunderkind. Newspapers and magazines from the world over covered his talent in the arena. He even appeared in an issue of Sports Illustrated in 1981 after gaining full matador status — an honor so rare that there have been more people on the moon than Americans who have become matadors.
Meanwhile, Barbara had given birth to another son, John “Binker” Renk. This spurred the elder Renk to fully retire from bullfighting. After all, he was a family man now. He had responsibilities.
However, that didn’t mean he was going to stop being close to the bulls. In fact, Renk concocted a scheme to bring bullfighting closer to home.
To kill a bull, a matador must stab its heart with a sword, thrusting the point through a spot on the bull’s back, deep into its body. If the matador’s aim is true, the sword kills the bull immediately.
However, in traditional bullfighting, the bull doesn’t always have to die.
If the bull proves itself to be exceptionally brave during the fight, it can win over the crowd. When the crowd is won over, they’ll shout at the judge to spare the bull. If the judge concedes, the bull is taken out of the arena and has its wounds treated. Then, it’s sent to live the rest of its life as a stud in the fields of a ranch.
It’s rare — but when it happens, it’s wondrous. A throng of thousands shouting for a bull to be spared, to continue living in the face of death.
Renk wanted to bring a sense of that back home to the United States. His vision was simple: He would host mostly traditional bullfights, with a judge and all the fanfare. However, the bull would live. A flower would be attached to the spot on the bull’s back where the matador would usually stab it, and in Renk’s new version of a bullfight, the matador would have to grab the flower from the bull’s back as it charged at him.
It would be a bloodless bullfight.
“In Mexico, they call bullfighting the ballet of death,” Renk says. “Bloodless bullfighting is the ballet of life.”
And so Renk organized and hosted the first bloodless bullfight in 1986 at the Houston Astrodome, to great success. Then the family took the show on the road, traveling to New York City, Chicago and back to El Paso. For the next few years, they traveled and put on these bloodless bullfights. At each show, thousands showed up to watch the spectacle.
Then, in 1989, Barbara died due to complications from diabetes. And as David grew older, it became clear that he was past his prime. After a fight in which he was trampled and nearly killed by a bull, he decided to retire too.
Renk, looking for something to occupy himself and his boys, bought a ranch in La Gloria, Texas, where he could raise cows and bulls. Taking a cue from Field of Dreams, he decided to do something he knew would keep his sons busy, while still giving David an opportunity to be close to bullfighting. He built his own bullring.
In 2000, Renk opened the Santa Maria Bullring on his ranch and began to host bloodless bullfights each spring, inviting famous matadors from Central and South America to perform. Renk judged the fights, and his son Binker helped organize the shows and corral the bulls.
For a few years, things were looking up. Renk and David even opened a bullfighting school, where aspiring bullfighters could come learn from “El Texano.” Though students couldn’t hurt the bulls, they still learned how to wield a cape and make passes with an actual charging toro.
But in 2006, Binker got hurt while working with the bulls.
“He was bringing them into the corrals, and one bull bumped his horn against his chest,” Renk recalls. “We took him in to have him X-rayed, and they didn’t find anything. Six months later, he was gone.”
According to Renk, the bull’s horn damaged Binker’s heart in such a way that it didn’t appear on the X-ray.
“He was just 36 years old, man,” Renk says. “The bull got his heart.”
In 2018, David began to fall ill too. Due to the Marfan syndrome, David’s own heart grew weaker and weaker. Eventually, he ended up in hospice care, once again having to use a wheelchair or stay in bed, as he had all those years ago.
“He used to say, ‘Champions train, endure pain, and never complain,’ and he never did complain when he was younger. Even when he got trampled or gored by a bull,” Renk says. “But the day before he died, I came into his room and asked him how he felt. He said, ‘You want to know the truth? I feel like shit.’”
The next day, Renk got a phone call to come down to the facility where David lived. When he arrived, first responders were already on the scene. Before he could even get inside, someone he knew at the facility stopped him.
“David’s gone, Fred,” they said. “I’m so sorry.”
David died of congestive heart failure in September 2018, at the age of 55. The young boy Renk had taken in as his own and helped raise into a successful bullfighter, his business partner and co-organizer of the bloodless bullfights, was now gone.
Since then, Renk has had to manage the bloodless bullfights by himself — and though he still loves the bulls, he’s ready to move on too.
The Santa Maria Bullring is an impressive coliseum-esque structure in the middle of the Texas brushland. To get to it, though, one needs to walk through the ranch.
Now 83, Renk lives on the ranch with his wife, Lisa, whom he met after Barbara died. They married in 1991. On a typical morning, when he doesn’t have to host a bloodless bullfight, Renk wakes up at 6 a.m. and gets started with work at around 8 a.m. — tending to the cows, fixing broken equipment, and feeding the catfish he keeps stocked in the green ponds on his land.
When he finishes at around noon, he goes to his refrigerator, grabs a cold Tecate, and settles down at a table inside of a makeshift bar he built outside of his bullring.
“I have one more season [of bloodless bullfighting] left in me,” Renk says, as the can of cold beer sweats on the table in front of him. “But once that’s done, so am I.” He and Lisa plan to sell the bullring to someone willing to steward the tradition of bloodless bullfighting next to their ranch. Once that happens, they say they want to start enjoying bloodless bullfights instead of hosting them.
As Renk sits and relaxes, trading sips of his beer for drags from his cigarette, his eyes wander the walls of the bar. Adorning them, as well as the inside of his house, are posters of David’s fights, pictures of the family, and portraits of famous matadors who have performed here. There are trajes de luces and even a bull’s head mounted on the walls — all relics of a time that’s passed.
“I did this all for David,” Renk says. “And somebody told me once he did it all for me.” He pauses for a moment. “I don’t know if I believe that though.”
Nanging on a wall outside of the arena, there’s one picture that Renk seems especially proud of: It’s a large 11-by-14 photograph of himself on his 80th birthday.
“Fred’s last ‘Olé!’” reads a caption beneath the photo.
In it, he holds a cigarette in one hand and a red muleta in the other, as a bull charges at him. When Renk looks at the photo, a smile reaches his face and his eyes brighten.
And for a moment, he is the ghost of the man he once was — the man who wanted to bring the bullfights to America and celebrate life instead of death. The one who loved, lost, and lost again, but still managed to pick himself up to take his destiny by the horns.