My friend Susan asked me the other day about the Spanish idiomatic expression “mano a mano”. I’d never thought on how to explain it. The first thing that comes to mind when I hear it is a boxing match or a lucha libre match. Two adversaries against each other, a one on one event.
So here is what I have learnt and found out: It is an idiomatic expression that is widely used in Spanish when two bullfighters alternate at a given bullfight. In everyday language it is used to describe that two people, on equal footing, are against each other whether at a competition, match, confrontation, duel or conflict.
Wikipedia mentions that possibly the term “mano a mano” in the English language was imported by Ernest Hemingway. Further research shows that in his non-fiction article for Life Magazine “The Dangerous Summer,” Hemingway uses the phrase “mano a mano” to describe the rivalry on the ring between Antonio Ordoñez and Luis Miguel Dominguín during the bullfighting season of 1959 in Spain. This was the last work he wrote before his death. It later was publish in book form.
“In April, however, the feud was resolved, and in June a series of cartels matched the two masters. At Zaragoza , Luis Miguel cut three ears, Ordoñez one. In Barcelona the result was the same, and again at Puerto de Santa María. The luck changed at Tudela— Ordoñez cut four ears, Dominguín none. This brought them to Valencia
and Tuesday, July 28. If they fought well on that date, a mano a mano—an admitted and open duel on the sands with each matador taking three bulls—would be scheduled for Thursday, July 30. Ordoñez cut two ears, Dominguín none, but the crowd was wildly enthusiastic and the mano a mano was scheduled.” (source)
1) left: Hemingway watching a bullfight. 2) right: Hemingway and Ordoñez 3) center: cover of "El Verano Peligroso", Spanish version of "The Dangerous Summer".