SI Vault
Paul Evan Ress
August 10, 1964
Technically the most accomplished of matadors, graceful Paco Camino faces a new kind of rival: inelegant but brave El Cordob�s, who lacks art but is making history
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August 10, 1964

Artistry In A Bullring Is Not Enough

Technically the most accomplished of matadors, graceful Paco Camino faces a new kind of rival: inelegant but brave El Cordob�s, who lacks art but is making history

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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 Ord��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 M�xico, 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 Cordob�s, and although there was no praise for his artistry, at least they were aware of his existence. "El Cordob�s is a phenomenon for sociologists and psychiatrists," wrote Antonio D�az-Canabate. This El Cordob�s, soon to become the new national hero of Spain, was born Manuel Ben�tez in 1936 in Palma del R�o on the banks of the Guadalquivir, 25 miles west of C�rdoba. 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 Ben�tez 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 Cordob�s 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 Cordob�s 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 Cordob�s 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 Cordob�s in a suit of lights. His name was not mentioned once. It did not have to be.

Last May, when El Cordob�s 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 Cordob�s' 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 Cordob�s' appearance there. The black market price was $65 a seat, fabulous for a country as poor as Spain. Ten days later, El Cordob�s was paid $25,000 for polishing off two bulls in 30 minutes, to set a record of his own.

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