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Raging Bullfighter : Middle-Aged Matador Battles Beasts in the Ring, Bias Outside the Arena in a Sport of Young Men

September 15, 1988|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writr

There are two general truisms about bullfighters in Mexico: Most are young and most are Latin.

So, Kent Goodman stands out on two counts. The self-described "nice Jewish boy from the Westside" is already past his prime by the unforgiving standards of the bullfighting profession, and he would never be mistaken for a Latino.

But Goodman isn't letting either stand in his way. While his one-time colleagues are living on memories of sun-splashed afternoons in the ring, the slender, intense man called "El Gringo" is creating new ones.

Goodman said he cannot conceive of walking away from the ring, even while his hair grays and his step slows a bit. Bullfighting has been the overriding passion in his life since he was exposed to it on television in the 1960s.

"It's a lot like life should be," he said. "It's stripped of all of the banalities. . . . There are no office politics when you're in the ring."

20 Years of Fighting

Goodman, a lawyer's son who grew up in an upper-middle-class Westwood neighborhood, has lived the bullfighter's life for more than 20 years. He's been gored and tossed and battered and torn, yet he keeps coming back for more.

His reverence for the fight borders on the mystical. As mid-life closes in on him, Goodman seems to believe he can magically dodge time with the same finesse with which he has dodged the bulls for so many years.

Perhaps that's why he refuses to disclose his birth date. "Bullfighters and women never tell their age," said Goodman, who is in his 40s. "Everyone thinks you have to be a young cub in order to be a bullfighter."

Goodman, in town visiting his family, spoke about his career during an interview at a Beverly Hills restaurant. Though he grew up in such surroundings, he looked somewhat lost amid the hustle and bustle of early morning business meetings going on around him.

Goodman spends most of his time in the slower-paced towns and villages of Mexico these days, seeking bookings. A bullfighter has to be something of a vagabond if he wants to stay active, Goodman explained, especially one who is competing against men in their 20s and 30s.

With his wife, who is Mexican, and two young children based in Mexico City, Goodman goes wherever the fights can be found. Top bullfighters earn thousands of dollars per fight. Those who aren't as well known receive far less, and some even pay for the opportunity to fight.

Goodman said he has never paid for the chance to step into the ring. But even though he is one of only a small number of American fighters, Goodman said promoters often turn their backs on him.

"It's difficult being a non-Latin," Goodman said. "I don't have to prove I'm a bullfighter to myself, but I have to prove it to the public and promoters . . . because I want to keep fighting. I want to get back to the big time."

Reputation for Scrappiness

Goodman has never attained the standing of Mexico's major bullfighters, according to people familiar with the profession. But he does have a reputation for scrappiness, and he has fought in the main arena in Mexico City. His scrapbook is full of pictures of himself during various stages of his career, battling his prey in his "suit of lights" and his cape.

It is clearly an odd career choice for someone who grew up among future doctors and lawyers, but Goodman said he has never looked back since the day the bug bit him when he was visiting a friend from Santa Monica College.

"My friend was from Spain," Goodman recalled, "and the bullfights were on television at his house. It just kind of clicked with me. . . . And all of the sudden I was thinking of nothing but bullfights. I devoured any and all of the books on bullfights and . . . decided that's what I wanted to be."

Goodman said it was the drama and the mystery of the matador's life that initially attracted him, as well as the exotic and colorful scenes painted by writers, such as Ernest Hemingway in "Death in the Afternoon."

At age 22, Goodman walked into the kitchen of his family's home in Westwood and told his mother that he was going to be a bullfighter.

"I guess it went in one ear and out the other," Goodman remembered. "Because she broke down and started crying when I actually left."

Kitt Goodman said her brother gave the family relatively little warning. "He didn't reveal much of anything," she said. "He's a very mysterious person. He doesn't tell you what he's going to do. He just takes action."

Goodman's first stop was in a small town called Aguascalientes, which translates to "Hot Water." It was there that he learned the bullfighting craft by taking lessons and observing the more experienced fighters.

After about three months, he started fighting on his own in tiny towns and villages. He was gored in the shin in one of his first fights, in a town so small that he had to travel by bus for four hours to reach a doctor.

Fight in Big Plaza

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