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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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 M�laga 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 D�az-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, Jos� Mar�a Hern�ndez, 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 ver�nicas and a media ver�nica 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�enza!" 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 Ben�tez, known as El Cordob�s, 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-b�s! Cor-do-b�s!"

Twenty-four hours later, same place, same spectators, different bullfighter: El Cordob�s. 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 Cordob�s' 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 Cordob�s would come in first. But that does not mean that all bleacherites worship El Cordob�s, 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 Ord��ez and Domingu�n. 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.

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