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When Luis Miguel Domingu�n, age 45, came out of his 10-year retirement recently to face bulls at Las Palmas, Canary Islands, the press of the Spanish-speaking world could be excused for palpitating. He was described, generously and inaccurately, as the world's greatest bullfighter, while the public was treated to a rehash of his life and loves as though he were Howard Hughes or someone really interesting. At the same time, the press ignored the fact that Antonio Bienvenida (Antonio Mej�as Jim�nez), age 49, came out of retirement this season not in the provinces but in two corridas at the important fair of San Isidro in Madrid.
Domingu�n is tall, aristocratic in appearance, a fine torero, wealthy, an associate of Picasso and dear friend of a succession of beautiful and famous women. He is glamorous. Before his retirement, he regularly appeared in 70 to 100 corridas a year with the best matadors of his generation. Bienvenida is a great torero who, in comparison, looks like a cross between Sancho Panza and Richard Milhous Nixon. Bienvenida is still married to his first wife and is the father of four children. In his most successful year as a matador, 1948, he appeared in only 53 corridas. When he retired in 1966, he fell back not into the arms of the jet set, but to a Chrysler dealership and to proprietorship of a bar in Madrid.
It is not news that appearances often mislead, and in no case more totally than in Bienvenida's Domingu�n's choice of Las Palmas for his return, with inferior bulls, compared to Bienvenida's appearances in Madrid with 5-year-old Spanish and Portuguese bulls, is a case in point. This is not to denigrate Domingu�n but to focus attention where. in the eyes of real bullfighting, it belongs. For what happened was this: Antonio Bienvenida sacrificed the glamour and pesetas that his talent would have ensured him in order to buck the system at a time when his rich and glamorous contemporaries chose to profit from skullduggery.
During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, the herds of fighting bulls were slaughtered indiscriminately, either for food or for political vengeance upon landowners. As a result, the herds had to be reconstituted when the war officially ended. A generation of toreros, accordingly, was brought up to face poorly bred, scrawny animals. By the late 1940s, when the bloodlines had been reestablished and good animals were again becoming available, all hands had become accustomed to slack standards. Breeders, impresarios and managers conspired in various crooked practices that impaired the bull's accuracy and timing. Horn shaving was the most common: the removal of the tip of the horn, followed by filing the base into a new tip. By 1952, horn shaving had become a national scandal, widely known but never admitted. When all seemed lost, a group of breeders publicly denounced horn shaving, while one torero and only one, Antonio Bienvenida, confessed in a radio broadcast that, although like all the rest he had faced shaved horns in the past, he would do so no longer.
The public was delighted, but not one of Bienvenida's fellow toreros so much as commented on his statement Some were conspicuous by their absence from Spain for the next season or two, while in 1953 six of the leading toreros took part in a boycott, refusing to appear on the same card with Bienvenida. There were several times after that when Bienvenida had to face six bulls on a program when other scheduled toreros mysteriously failed to show In 1954 he was excluded from both the Easter feria in Seville and from San Isidro.
It was to San Isidro, the big fair in the capital, that Bienvenida made his return this year, working with another fine veteran, Andr�s V�zquez, first with an imposing string of bulls of Samuel Flores, and on the last day of the fair with three Portuguese and three Spanish bulls from six different ranches, all mature, well-horned creatures.
In Bienvenida's 30 years as torero, the bulls have given him 14 serious gorings and the priests have twice given him the sacrament of Extreme Unction. Antonio's followers knew that he had never been came de toro (bull meat). His wounds were not the result of stupidity; they were always from accidents: an evil wind blowing a cape, a rare miscalculation, a determination to dominate a bull, goring or not.
Because of his services to bullfighting, and because he was a master torero and senor, Bienvenida had been missed in recent seasons. Yet dread salted the public anticipation of his return. Bienvenida, it was felt, might do better to stand upon an honorable past and not risk another goring or undignified hoots from an always pitiless public.
Spain is a noisy country. The Spanish prattle like birds, and at a corrida they shout advice, insults or encouragement to the men in the ring. But when Bienvenida, in pelting rain, faced his first bull, there was incredible, unprecedented silence, and it continued throughout most of the afternoon—tribute to what the toreros were about.
Bienvenida showed that he had not lost the art of apparent naturalness before the bull; as he forced the animal to pass, his happy smile disguised from all but truly knowledgeable fans a precise assessment of the skill of distances and an intelligent awareness of what was needed to bring about the fullest esthetic effect from the bull. His cape work was slow and elegant as he showed young aficionados muleta passes they had never seen outside books. Most modern toreros have learned to work only with the muleta held low; if the bull does not respond, they do not know quite what to do. Bienvenida demonstrated how to dominate a stubborn bull with two-handed passes given high, passes not seen since the days of Domingo Ortega. Antonio's tour of the ring after killing his first bull released all the pent-up noise in the stands.