Spain's finest matadors will slay their prey in Catalonia's historic last bullfight Sunday, a spectacle to be played out before 18,000 fans in a sold-out Barcelona arena.
The unequal duel between man and beast on the sands of the century-old Monumental bullring is the final combat before a permanent ban takes effect in the northeastern region from 2012.
A relief to animal rights activists, the ban is a bitter blow to bullfighting enthusiasts.
Three matadors will spar with a total six bulls -- two each -- before putting the half-tonne, sharp-horned animals to the sword.
In the Spanish tradition, a "picador" riding a heavily shielded horse lances the bull behind the neck to make it drop the head slightly.
Then, three "banderillas" try to plant sharp, barbed sticks into its shoulders.
Finally, the matador induces the bull with his cape to make a series of stylised passes in a display of art and bravura, tiring the animal before plunging a steel sword deep between its shoulders for the final kill.
The first matador to step into the ring will be 38-year-old Juan Mora, then the legendary 36-year-old Jose Tomas and last the 28-year-old Catalan Serafin Marin, a fierce defender of the Spanish tradition.
In two rounds the trio will put to death all six of the beasts bred for battle by the El Pilar de Salamanque ranch.
"God willing, I will have the sad honour of killing the final bull," Marin told AFP in an interview, saying it was very important for him to be in the ring for the last fight before the ban.
Catalan regional members of parliament voted July 2010 to ban bullfighting as of January 1, 2012 after animal rights groups managed to garner 180,000 signatures for a petition demanding the debate.
"I feel bad about it, sad. They take away all your past and part of your future," said Marin.
"They stop you from exercising your profession and you have to emigrate elsewhere. You feel bad," he said, vowing to enter the ring in other parts of Spain and in France.
The matador said he agreed with critics who say the ban is not so much a victory for animal rights as a way for independence-minded Catalans to thumb their noses at the rest of Spain.
He pointed out that other festivals including one in which flaming torches are attached to the horns of a bull, which is then pursued through the streets, will survive the new regime.
"We have won a battle but not the war. We will continue to work for animal rights in Spain, Catalonia and elsewhere," said Helena Escoda, member of the rights group Prou, Catalan for "enough", which fought for the ban.
Though the bullfight goes back to the 16th century in Catalonia, it is losing interest here as in the rest of Spain.
In a 2008 survey, only 22.5 percent of Catalans questioned said they were interested in the tradition. Barcelona's Monumental arena only hosted 18 fights in the whole of 2010.
But fans of the bullfight have not given up hope: they hope to find 500,000 backers to present their own petition to the national parliament and classify the combat as a cultural asset.
If they can do so by the end of this year, bullfighting fans believe they can stop the ban taking effect. "At the moment the gathering of signatures is going more slowly that we like," admitted Carlos Nunez, head of the fighting-bull breeders' union.