They Called Matador, Luis Freg, "Don Valor, ("Sir Brave") For Good Reason
Bad Luck, Not the Bulls, Killed Freg
The Drowning of don Valor
Love the taurine art of bullfighting, or sickened by it, there is no doubting the bravery of those who take on these semi-wild animals on the bloody sands of the plaza.
In the long history of the “Fiesta Brava,” or bullfight, there has been no braver matador, or “killer,” than the Mexican, Luis Freg, who truly earned the title, “don Valor.” (Sir Brave). His sheer fearlessness, tenacity and the amazing ability to recover from scores of horrifying “cornadas,” or deep horn wounds - any one of which would have dispatched a normal man - set him apart from his peers.
Freg had the most incredible run of bad luck all through his career, culminating in such an ignominious death, one had to wonder which of the various gods of the Aztecs this humble man of the people had upset. During his twenty-year sojourn in the ring, he received no less than 58 life-threatening injuries and another fifty deemed less serious! Freg’s body was a mass of twisted, disfiguring scars; his muscles had become knotted and gnarled like the trunk of a lightning-struck oak; he had long lost the ability to walk properly.
But still Freg returned for more! Fighting in Spain and Mexico during the time of some of Mexico’s great matadors, such as Rudolfo Gaona, (who Freg idolized), Juan Silvetti, “el Tigre de Guanajuato,” and the emerging Spanish greats, Joselito and Belmonte, he put 1500 bulls to the sword during his tenure.
Of course, it wasn’t all due to bad luck. There has never been a matador with such suicidal recklessness as Freg. Had he been born a few years earlier, he would have been remembered as one of the best ever to face a bull and he is noted as being among the greats with the sword. But when Freg reached his peak some time before WW2, the emphasis was on the art with the cape, rather than with the sword. The public were clamouring for the fragile, gypsy art of Belmonte with the crimson cape, and the skill of the “suerte de muerto” or act of the kill, with the shining steel of the sword was relegated to the back burner.
One vital statistic which puts Freg above nearly all others, to aficionados (fans) of the sport that some call art, was that only 2 bulls from the 1500 Freg had confronted were returned to the pens because the matador could not kill them. This scene is what puts people off bullfighting more than any other, now that the horse’s distress and cracked ribs are hidden by padding. To see a matador stabbing futilely at the bloody neck of a beaten animal, but not being able to find the killing thrust, brings a bull fight crowd to its feet, hissing furiously and hurling cushions and (illegally) bottles at the hapless torero. In fact, one of the funniest incidents I have ever seen in a bullring was when an infuriated fan leaped the barrier and began hitting the matador with a cushion. As the others in the team rushed over to help, the bull casually hooked his horn into the spectator’s rear and flipped him backwards against the wall, where, unconscious, he was quickly rescued and rushed to the bullring clinic. Must have been the only incident where a bull rescued a matador and got put to death for his pains…the injured idiot recovered from a fractured skull and an enlarged anus: It’s an unjust universe! See footnote.
Freg was a beloved figure in or out of the ring. With none of the haughty behaviour we see from many of the great matadors, he was generous with his time and money to a fault. In fact, most of his money went to the bullring cornada specialists for fixing him up, again and again; apart from that, hoarding riches meant nothing to him and he died penniless - or peso-less as the case was.
But if his life merit’s a Hollywood expose, his passing, with all the bitter revelations to follow, suggests there is a black star - some malevolent force - that dogs those we call unlucky.
Freg did not confine his skills to the money plazas in Mexico City, Madrid and the rest. He travelled all round the Republic of Mexico fighting bulls in the tiny rings where only a couple of hundred spectators cheered him on - and there was no skilled surgeon in attendance.
He had just enjoyed a minor triumph in such a ring in Ciudad de Carmen, in Campeche, a tiny island once populated by pirates. After the success and a few tequilas in the neighbourhood bullfight bar, he and a couple of friends rented two small launches to party on the normally calm water that separates Campeche from the mainland. It was November 11, 1934. Among the party were two “novilleros” or beginning bullfighters, “Juanillo,” and “Armalita IV.”
Later in the afternoon, a local storm known as “Trombosis” suddenly blew-up, soon producing eight-foot waves and powerful tide-rips; both boats were blown out to sea. Scores of local fishermen, bravely ignoring the danger, put out to sea, but the three bull fighters could not be located, only a father and son in the party who had kept afloat for hours until they were found.
Freg’s body was not found in the next 48 hours as the nation went into mourning for its beloved son. However, some days later, a telegram was received in Mexico City saying, “We have found the body of your son, Luis Freg, and he has been interred immediately due to local conditions.”
But the telegram was really to spare Luis Freg’s family further grief. The matadors body had, indeed, been recovered, but without its head and limbs. This man of iron whom no bull had come near to destroying had been savaged and finished by man-eating sharks, as were the two novilleros probably; they were never found.
There are several conflicting reports of how and where Freg drowned, I believe this to be the most accurate account. It is interesting to note that Freg had a brother with an overdose of the same bad luck, as he was beheaded by a bull in Mexico in 1914.
Footnote: The other hilarious incident I remember from my years reporting bullfights was in Mexico City’s Monumental bullring when a spectator ran into the ring with a Doberman dog. He had trained the dog to charge just like the bull and he was passing him from one side to the other just like top matador. The crowd, who adore farce, were rolling in the aisles. This was intensified when the dog bit one of the bullring security trying to remove the pair! Streakers are also a welcome diversion at a bullfight, especially when they are hard to catch by the fat police; and doubly so when they get chased and sometimes horned where the sun don‘t normally shine by the bull.
Nowadays we occasionally hear of a matador, picador or helper being killed in a bullring by the bull. Rather than from the bull's horn entering the man's body, these are often freak accidents caused by the man being thrown against the barrera, or a horse rolling over a picador breaking his back. But the serious horn wounds of the days before modern antibiotics and emergency surgery rarely result in death from peritonitis or catastrophic loss of blood. All bullrings have at least one doctor standing by and the larger plazas, such as Mexico’s huge Monumental, has a full clinic with a large staff.
But we also note, these cathedrals to the taurine art also have a chapel and a priest on call.
And conditions have little improved for the bull.