Two years ago there was no question about it: Paco Camino was known, recognized and almost venerated as the most artistic young bullfighter in Spain. He was then only 22 years old and his mastery of the art, his technical perfection, was increasing. There seemed to be no reason why Paco Camino could not go on to more elegant performances as long as he lived and in so doing rise to popular favor as great as any matador's.
In the photograph at left, Paco Camino is shown in the arena at Màlaga in one of the classical series of pases de castigo, or punishing passes, of the sort that exemplifies his effortless mastery. The matador is not necessarily taking undue risk, or working close to the bull, in this pass; he is readying the bull for the kill, and the particular pass in the series shown here is known as cambiado por bajo, in which the bull is made to turn sharply and pass on the side opposite the hand in which the matador holds the muleta. "Paco Camino is the greatest torero of the past 20 years," said Antonio Díaz-Canabate, one of Spain's foremost authorities, writing in Madrid's influential newspaper, the A.B.C. "He leads the bull with the muleta where the bull does not want to go. That is the most difficult thing in the art of bullfighting, because it involves the total domination of man over beast." And a well-known Barcelona critic, José María Hernàndez, wrote of Camino, "He does everything to perfection. He has an indefinable magic. People will remember Camino, like Manolete, not for any one pass or quality, but for his general art and technique."
But there was a flaw in this vision of the future. It did not occur to professional bullfight critics that a time was coming when crowds would want something more than professional artistry, something wild, inelegant, tumultuous, crude, dangerous. It did not occur to bullfight promoters that a new sort of matador might come along whose great crowd appeal was that he did not possess the qualities that make Paco Camino great. Now one has appeared, and this summer, during fiesta week in Burgos, he was startlingly contrasted to Camino.
On a cool Sunday the Plaza de Toros was packed to its ochre-and-red-tile roof. A 1,050-pound bull trotted into the arena, and Camino, a fragile-appearing figure in a lavender-and-gold suit of lights, opened the traditional ritual when he walked gracefully out to meet the animal. With his cape he executed four verónicas and a media verónica faultlessly. Then a picador weakened what was obviously an inherently weak bull. "That's no bull, it's a goat!" somebody yelled. Discontented with the muleta passes of Spain's most artistic matador, others shouted insults, such as "sin verg√ºenza!" and "chulo vividor!" These may be roughly translated as meaning bastard and pimp. Complaining of Camino's discreet distance from the bull, some spectators began to shout for Manuel Benítez, known as El Cordobés, the only rival of Camino for the title of n√∫mero uno and his opposite in almost every respect. The cry rose rhythmically: "Cor-do-bés! Cor-do-bés!"
August 9, 1964
Twenty-four hours later, same place, same spectators, different bullfighter: El Cordobés. Into the arena strode a solidly built matador with light-brown hair that fell adolescently over his forehead. He made a few ineffectual passes with his cape. Impatiently he waited for the picadors to bleed the bull twice, and for the banderilleros to plant their darts. Then he advanced with the red woolen muleta, and stood straight and motionless as the bull thundered by, inches from his thigh and groin. More than a dozen times he whirled the bull past him in a series of naturales and manoletinas, and the tension rose higher as he sank to his knees, right in front of the bull's horns, and taunted the beast to charge. A protesting voice called out, "Stop playing the clown—do something classic!" But there was nothing classic about El Cordobés' manner of killing. He required four estocadas and many descabellos to dispatch the bull. The skill of Camino with the sword at the moment of truth is one thing for which the experts cannot praise him highly enough, and now the cry rose rhythmically, "Ca-mi-no! Ca-mi-no!"
A Spanish saying has it that only in death do Spaniards find unanimity, and more than 31 million living Spaniards are certainly a long way from agreement about who is the greatest torero today. If only aficionados cast ballots, Paco Camino would be re-elected n√∫mero uno. If all Spain were counted, El Cordobés would come in first. But that does not mean that all bleacherites worship El Cordobés, or that all critics look down their noses at him. It is not as simple as that.
In this conflict Paco Camino stands for the traditional excellences which up to now have won matadors both critical acclaim and popular esteem. Paco was born in the village of Camas, only two miles from Seville, in 1940. His father was a baker who abandoned his ovens and tried his hand unsuccessfully as a novillero and banderiliero. As he had five children, the household was a poor one, and when Paco expressed the dangerous desire to become a matador the family was overjoyed. He was but 11 when he faced his first bull. "The sensation then was not much different from how I feel in front of a bull today," he says. "With a cute bull, everything is simple and easy. A bad bull gives me a most disagreeable sensation."
Endowed with a natural grace, he went from one village to another, collecting ears and tails. The arenas consisted of a circle of farm carts. "I was mad about bullfighting in those days," Paco says. "Once, when I was 14, I spent three days in jail in Jerez de la Frontera for traveling on a train to a capea without a ticket."
At 17 he was fighting as a novillero in backwoods arenas, renting his torero's, costume for $8 or $10. He did not pay any more if he returned it ripped here and there, because he was considered to have already paid for it with his blood.
He looked like a small boy, with great dark eyes, gentle manners and quiet speech. He became a full-fledged matador in 1960, at the age of 19, and while his superb style (and particularly his masterful estocada) enchanted aficionados, attention just then was concentrated on the highly publicized rivalry of Ordó√±ez and Dominguín. Soon, however, he was being paid $10,000 a fight, and since he fought 71 times in 1960, 68 times in 1961 and 71 times in 1962, he was a millionaire at 21. With his managers, banderilleros, picadors and others, plus his family, he was also the sole support of some 40 people. He established his father and brothers on a ranch, where they raise cattle and olives and make a good living at it.
The comments on his progress were ecstatic during his first year, often caustic in 1961, generally admiring the year after that, then mounted to almost unprecedented heights of rapturous praise during his Mexican trip (SI, April 15, 1963). He was also gored often, most seriously at Bilbao in 1961, when the femoral artery was severed and he nearly died. In good years or bad, however, it was his artistry that dazzled his admirers. At 18 they said he was as artistic as Ordó√±ez. His overall command of his art, from the first pass to the end, was what awed them, rather than a single spectacular feat performed better than anyone else. A faena when Camino was at his best was phenomenal, as he suavely moved the bull wherever he pleased, making the bull charge and follow the muleta (held directly in front of the horns), first to the right—the derechazos—and then to the left—the naturales. With his left hand brilliantly measuring the charge and the horns never touching the muleta, his naturales seemed to last an eternity.
But it was a rare and subtle performance whose qualities were far from obvious. When the great Mexican bullfighter Rodolfo Gaona was asked about Camino he said, "Nobody can fight with the left hand as Camino does." Casual bullfight spectators could hardly be expected to be thrilled by that. The nearest Camino approached becoming a legend was when he married. At his Mexican debut a 19-year-old beauty, Norma Gaona, was present. The daughter of Dr. Alfonso Gaona, the bullfighter impresario of Plaza México, she had grown up in a world of bullfights and was celebrated for her disdain of bullfighters. "I knew she was the girl of my dreams," Paco was quoted as saying, and public attention was held on both sides of the Atlantic as the romance flowered. But Dr. Gaona objected to Camino, the young people were separated, and Camino returned sadly to Spain.
There he rallied enough to earn another half a million dollars, and made a down payment on a beautiful house in Madrid, with a spacious garage for his ivory-colored Mercedes and other cars. The deal was subject to Norma's approval: if he married her, and if she liked the house, he would buy it. They were married in Mexico City, and there were so many presents—about $100,000 worth, principally silver—that a room had to be set aside and lined with shelves to hold them.
There was, however, already a small cloud on the horizon of Camino's great success. Critics were writing about a picturesque newcomer who called himself El Cordobés, and although there was no praise for his artistry, at least they were aware of his existence. "El Cordobés is a phenomenon for sociologists and psychiatrists," wrote Antonio Díaz-Canabate. This El Cordobés, soon to become the new national hero of Spain, was born Manuel Benítez in 1936 in Palma del Río on the banks of the Guadalquivir, 25 miles west of Córdoba. The youngest of five children, he was orphaned in the Spanish Civil War, and was brought up by his sister Angela. Unlike Camino, who devoted his youth to fighting bulls, Manuel spent his farming and poaching and bricklaying. On rare occasions he waved a red rag at a bull in a village fiesta to convince himself of his bravery. Not until he was 19 did he encounter a real bull in a real arena.
Relatively late in life for a bullfighter, Manuel Benítez turned novillero in 1959, at the age of 24. Three weeks later he was in the hospital, the first of many trips.
Only 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighing 146 pounds, with a mop of light hair, pink cheeks and teeth suitable for a toothpaste advertisement, he continued to look like a teen-ager as he grew older. The purists of bullfighting regarded his increasing popularity as an affront. "Pop bullfighting!" one of them exploded. "It's Elvis Presley playing Hamlet!" His tutor accompanied him everywhere, for he could barely read and write. So did a guitar player who taught him music. He was dismissed as "a straw-haired clown" on one occasion, and described as a Beatle-banged faker who made a mockery of his art. His fame was explained as a product of tourism. American tourists were filling more and more of the seats at Spanish bullrings. The purists said they knew nothing of what they were seeing, wanted action, and El Cordobés was a smart enough actor to provide them with a good show.
Meanwhile, however, he had become the greatest attraction in the world of the corrida. He was aggressively natural, slouchy, with a low-keyed magnetism that reminded people of the late movie actor James Dean. He revived the old custom, discontinued since the days of Manolete, of opening cases of whisky or cognac for friends and admirers after a performance. In the ring he was incredibly courageous, casual, almost flat-footed compared with the formal elegance and ballet postures of other matadors. Constantly brushing the great shock of unruly hair out of his eyes, careless or ignorant of tradition, he dared to stand nearer the bull than any other matador. A critic once wrote, "El Cordobés leaves the aficionado open-mouthed and wondering, 'Is this possible? Can a man be so brave? Can anyone defy death with such coolness?' "
In 1962, when Paco Camino's romance was making him famous in Mexico, El Cordobés had contracts for 120 fights as a novillero in Spain, more than anyone before him. He stopped after 109 so as to keep sacred the record of Juan Belmonte. Also, he was paid $200,000 to star in a movie, Learning to Die, which was shot during his voluntary retirement. It was so successful—he is a natural actor—that another film, Blackmailing a Bullfighter, followed at once. Ten paso dobles were composed in his honor, 300 poems dedicated to him and one biography published. A manufacturer of sunglasses published color advertisements of El Cordobés in a suit of lights. His name was not mentioned once. It did not have to be.
Last May, when El Cordobés confirmed his promotion to a full-fledged matador, a stranger might have thought Madrid had been deserted. There were no taxis or pedestrians on the street. Barbers ceased to cut hair. Switchboard operators did not answer telephones. Board meetings were adjourned. Everyone who was not at the Monumental was watching on TV. The end was sudden. As the crowd rose to El Cordobés' serene daring, the bull suddenly got him on the inner thigh, tossed him to the ground and gored him three times.
He was back in the bullring three weeks later. The impresario of the Toledo arena charged the highest legal price in the history of bullfighting—1,000 pesetas—for El Cordobés' appearance there. The black market price was $65 a seat, fabulous for a country as poor as Spain. Ten days later, El Cordobés was paid $25,000 for polishing off two bulls in 30 minutes, to set a record of his own.
Paco Camino is paid only a third as much. Spanish aficionados tend to blame Camino's marriage for the present state of things. "He hasn't his mind on the bull," it is said. By July 30 Camino had been awarded 29 ears in 40 corridas. El Cordobés had collected 62 ears in only 38. What happens when the two rivals meet? They were both on the same program last spring at Barcelona and, in their remarkably dissimilar ways, each was at his best. Appearances on the same corrida program were scheduled for early August in Bayonne, France, and at Màlaga where it is to be mano a mano.
"Paco Camino and El Cordobés are the outstanding bullfighters of the moment," says José María de Cossío, author of the monumental, definitive, four-volume work, Los Toros. "Camino possesses the greatest qualities and potentialities of any torero today. But the great new development, which has upset everything, is the emergence of El Cordobés."
Dr. de Cossío says that "by developing his character, his calculating mind, his enormous intelligence, Camino could be incontestably the foremost torero. He has the most class, but he has become lazy. He is extraordinary, but he lacks decisiveness and staying power. With Paco Camino, one must discover his qualities. El Cordobés puts his in evidence every day. It is possible not to like El Cordobés, but one cannot deny he is an event in the world of tauromachy. His closeness to the bull is not the consequence of his dominance of the bull or of his failure to dominate it. It is his natural distance. He succeeds because of his courage, his inspiration, and also because of his technique. Valor he possesses to an eminent degree. Inspiration he has in spurts. True, his technique is not great, but it is instinctive, efficient, and always at his disposal. El Cordobés gives himself completely to the ecstasy of the bullfight."