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In bullfighting, the line separating purity from decadence, the real from the parody, is tenuous. Repeatedly in its history, when the sport has been fast deteriorating, bullfighting has been revalidated and renewed by the appearance of a couple of classic matadors. In Spain in recent weeks Antonio Ord��ez and Paco Camino seemed ready to infuse new spirit into toreo in the historic pattern—and if it was not already too late, it was certainly high time.
For months, there had been talk in Madrid caf�s of a rivalry building between the men who are recognized as the world's two finest matadors. There were predictions of a display of skills not seen in 30 or 40 years. This was to be a dangerous summer, indeed. The danger and drama came quickly. Too quickly. Antonio Ord��ez was tossed and injured by a bull the other day, and the elaborate schedule of matches between the matadors has been called off for at least a month until Ord��ez recuperates.
The accident happened in the big Madrid plaza, Las Ventas. The bulls that afternoon came out well but they were not easy animals. They resisted the cape and were difficult to bring to the horse but once there they charged as though they meant it. Ord��ez cut an ear from his first bull in a chilly but handsome performance. Camino was listless in comparison. Ord��ez' second bull was defensive and hesitant to charge. He came into the cape and the muleta with his head high, a bad sign. While trying to educate the animal to charge frankly, Ord��ez cited at some distance from in front, the brave and proper thing to do. No charge. He then lowered the muleta, offering the bull his body. The bull accepted the challenge, threw the matador high in the air and then turned fast, in the feline way of bulls, to gore the man on the sand. Ord��ez had landed hard on his forehead and right hand, injuring his spinal column and the wrist. Somehow he missed a horn wound. Chalk white, he ordered the members of his retinue out of the ring and tried to kill the bull with an honest sword right on top. He was in obvious pain and almost fainting. After three such tries he put in a full, low sword, as most men would have done in the first place. The bull went down and Ord��ez passed out. The spectators had seen a rare display of responsibility.
The season of great promise had hardly begun when the accident occurred. The two men had appeared on the same card at Jerez de la Frontera in the south of Spain in a warmup and then in Toulouse. The Spanish do not take the French bulls seriously, so that meeting was dismissed, at least artistically. The first serious confrontation of skills was at Talavera de la Reina, 70 miles southwest of Madrid in mid-May.
In 1920 Joselito, the most revered matador of the modern era and perhaps of all time, met his death in this bullring. Every year on the anniversary of his death, matadors throughout Spain parade into the bullrings, hats in hand, wearing black armbands, while spectators in the stands observe a moment of silence. In Talavera the anniversary program is even more weighty than elsewhere. Bronze and ceramic figures of the dead Joselito preside over the memorial corrida. This, then, was the setting for the first major clash between the 39-year-old Ord��ez and 29-year-old Camino. If any one or two living bullfighters are close to Joselito in quality, it is these men. Both are unusually intelligent and capable with the cape, the muleta and the sword. Each has demonstrated that he can take on any manner of fighting bull and give it pure, classical, honest work. Each has also shown in recent years that he can be cynical and willing to wax fat and rich on young, underbred, easy animals, the usual fare of the modern aces.
However, a genuine match-up of skills between Ord��ez and Camino would provide competition that could surpass even that series of mano-a-mano encounters in 1959 that aroused all Spain and which Ernest Hemingway immortalized. The protagonists then were this same Ord��ez, in his prime at 27, and Luis Miguel Domingu�n, who was 33. Hemingway implied that the rivalry between these men, who are brothers-in-law, was marrow-deep and darkly desperate, that it was a match between a has-been (Domingu�n) and a celestially talented usurper. There was just enough truth in Hemingway's implications to give the two matadors' appearances in 1959 and again in 1960 an extra tang.
Domingu�n retired shortly thereafter, and when Ord��ez quit in 1963, some said it was in disgust at the emergence of El Cordob�s as a star. To a classicist like Ord��ez, El Cordob�s could only look like a clod who mysteriously had upset the taurine world with his flamboyant antics. In 1965, however, Ord��ez returned to the bullrings. The gossip was that he came out of retirement because the youthful Paco Camino was posing a serious challenge to Ord��ez' once-secure reputation as the classical matador of our time. Whatever is the truth, traditionalists have disdained El Cordob�s. though he is showman enough to be fighting on closed-circuit TV in the U.S. this weekend.
The very thought of a summer of mano a mano between stylish bullfighters of Ord��ez' and Camino's quality refreshed the sporting spirit and put new light in old eyes. Ord��ez now has been a full matador for 20 years and is the son of Nino de la Palma (SI, June 29, 1970), whom Hemingway made famous as Pedro Romero in The Sun Also Rises. Antonio's knowledge of distances (where to place himself in relation to the bull) and his instinct for the bull's intentions have made him, at his best, an artist. Even his detractors agree that his cape-work is the finest that living men have seen. With the muleta he is able not only to give passes to bulls traveling by, as most raw matadors can do, but to link his passes and by linking them indicate the domination over himself and the bull that constitutes in large part the art and spectacle of bullfighting. He can kill well and honestly but in recent seasons he has developed the habit of killing just off center in a place called throughout Spain el rinc�n de Antonio (Antonio's corner). This is considered cheating and often earns Ord��ez whistles instead of ears.
Paco Camino has been a full matador for 11 years. As a boy he displayed such intelligence before calves that he was known as El Ni�o Sabio (The Wise Child), an intelligence that has only grown in his maturity. His cape-work is second only to Ord��ez' and on occasion superior. His muleta work is as effective although fancier, and he kills better than Ord��ez most of the time, going in straight and true. He often loses awards because of his honesty in killing, where Ord��ez might get an ear or two from an ignorant provincial crowd for a dishonest but quick dispatch.
A series of meetings between the two was almost certain to generate bullfighting history, provided both the men and their business agents would put aside residual cynicism and deviousness and agree to face tough bulls, not the mongrels that the Spanish have produced in abundance in recent years. In a first-class plaza the bulls, by law, must be four years old, but not more than six, weigh a minimum of 460 kilos (1,014 pounds), be of good conformation and have well-developed horns. A breeder must certify that his bulls' horns have not been filed or otherwise tampered with, and official veterinarians must inspect the animals before and after their deaths in the plaza for compliance with the law. Plenty of excellent bulls are bred in Spain, but the stars rarely see them; some breeders have produced a 3-year-old bull that weighs just as much as a 4-year-old but has neither the horn nor the staying power nor the experience to make possible true artistry. Ord��ez and Camino have faced their share of underbred animals. But unlike many contemporary bullfighters, they have also fought the true 4-year-olds, ones with horns and appetite for the fray.