Manuel Benitez, El Cordobes, at the age of 43, stepped out of a seven-year retirement today and strode smilingly into the Benidorm bullring to recommence the ritual dance with death and demonstrate again the courage and showmanship that made him the highest paid entertainer in the world.
In one-and-a-half hours El Cordobes, the man from Codoba, dispatched single handedly six bulls, working closely to the horns, twisting, turning, wrapping the half-ton charges round his waist like a towel and, throughout, grinning from ear to ear, laughing and driving the 10,000 capacity crowd wild.
The orthodox critics and aficionado purists will claim that Cordobes' jerky contortions have about as much grace as a sea lion on dry land. But no one will dispute the electricty he generates in the plaza and the nerves that allow him to mock death.
Laughing and sweating in the blazing sun, glistening in his red and gold "suit of lights," he left the ring in glory, pleted by ladies' fans, men's hats, flowers and leather wine-skin bottles.
Cordobes, the one-time urchin, bum and petty theif whose life story is the stuff of soap operas, is back. Ahead lies the lucrative Mexican and South American winter season, with contracts that could be worth $4 million for some 60 fights.
As he stepped into the arena, making the ritual sign of the cross, he stooped down to pick up a handful of sand before the music and the parade that starts every corrida was under way. Benidorm, Europe's Coney Island on the Mediterranean, concrete jungle of sky-rise hotels and basement discos that belt out rock music until dawn, has become the cathedral of the bullfighting world.
The town was an appropriate choice. A tiny fishing village on a fine sandy beach when Cordobes began to fight bulls, its present 400,000 summer capacity is as much a symbol of Spain's '60s boom as Cordobes' unorthodox style is a revolution in bullfighting.
Benidorm, with its topless German blonds on the seashore, is as untypical of Spain as Cordobes' showmanship is foreign to the centuries old art of tauromachy.
Take the sixth bull of the afternoon, jet black with higher haunches than the others and more threatening horns, with a tendency to hook. Cordobes, his feet nailed to the ground, swing him around with his "muleta" in his curious "natural," left-handed pass, his right arm flopping by his side holding the sword, his back arched, his belly out, taunting the horn. Six natural passes, then two chest passes.
In the same position, Cordobes swung the now-bewitched bull in to full circular passes. With the crowd on its feet, Cordobes contrived to make the bull, still circling on his left, change course and come round on the right. One would have to see it again in slow motion to work out how the horns failed to rip his belly open.
The crowd by then was chanting "torero torero." Cordobes backed away from the panting bull and started to dance on his feet in time to the music, swaying his muleta in front of him and softly calling "toro, toro." The bull charged, Cordobes dropped on both knees turning as the bull snorted and hooked past.
Suddenly he was on one knee, leaping and turning, passing the bull high across his chest. It's the famed frog jump that he invented and that no one has dared imitate. He was doing it to perfection as he was when he retired.
It may not be the grace of classical bullfighting, but it works. Frog jumps - three of them - over, the bull still, Cordobes placed his hands between the horns, turned to the crowd and laughed.
Why Cordobes is back is to many an enigma. When he quit the bulls in the summer of 1972, vowing never to return, he had fought 89 corridas that season in Spain and had 12 fights still to go. He was at the top, a millionaire, but exhausted. Thirty-seven years old, he was merely existing from fight to fight.
Behind him lay 14 years as a matador with 12 horn wounds stitched across his body. Fourteen years crisscrossing Spain for half the year and Latin America for the remaining six months, always on the road or in the ring. He was the most famous bullfighter of his generation, of the post-war years, or of all time according to the fanatic claims of his followers. He was certainly the most highly paid then and since.
He did not come back for the money as so many other veterans have. In retirement he became richer than when he was active. An innate shredness and cunning insured a business empire of real estate and farms, and, of course, his own bull ranch.
From the laughing, return performance it is clear that Cordobes is hungry for the hero worship that only a top matador receives from his fellow mortals. If he quit the bulls out of exhaustion, he quit retirement out of boredom. And so he faces the nerve-wracking, muscle-wrenching course again.
He chose Benidorm to return to t e ring and elected to fight on his own, rejecting the standard bullfight card of three matadors with two bulls apiece. The cynics will say he wanted no one to overshadow him. They are probably right. But if it was vanity, he had paid the price.
For two months he trained on his ranch. He shed 14 pounds clocking daily five-mile jogs in the midday sun wearing rubber boxer shorts under his track suit. To build up strength in his arms he carried weights around all day. To rediscover his past skills he fought yearling bulls every afternoon and fully grown killers every week.
Before the fight, glistening in his hotel room, from the oil that a masseur had rubbed into his body, he was in great shape...lean, hard and confident. And the confidence was not amiss.
Cordobes collected five ears and a tail from the afternoon's performance - the recognized trophies awarded at the acclaim of the crowd. He was also bruised across his chest when a bull sideswiped him, and his right writs, his sword hand, appeared swollen and sprained from the effort of going in to kill the third bull and hitting the bone seven times.
Today three urchins, as Cordobes once was, leapt into the arena at different stages of the gight, as Cordobes once did when he was down and out, and were carted away, as he then was, by the police, one of them with what appeared to be a nasty gash from the horn.
Those boys knew, as generations of bullfighters have known, not least Cordobes, that the horn wound of hunger is the worst of all. And Cordobes has learned now, as a middleaged businessman, about the horn wound of boredom.
His laughing departure from the ring today showed he had found a cure. Ahead - seven fights in Spain in the next 13 days already signed up - lies the fear and more glory. CAPTION: Picture 1, "El Cordobes" in 1970, by UPI; Picture 2, and yesterday holding aloft two bull's ears in triumph, by AP.; Illustration, no caption