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Bullfighting sensation returns from exile

Keith Johnson
The Wall Street Journal
Vail, CO Colorado
Dolores Ochoa/AP PhotoSpanish matador Jose Tomas fights a bull on Nov. 30, 2001 in Quito, Ecuador.
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) – On Sunday in Barcelona, Jose Tomas will do battle with two bulls, hundreds of protesters and the crushing weight of his own legend.

A decade ago, as a 21-year-old matador, Mr. Tomas gave bullfighting a hero when the field was badly depleted. Crowds once again began to fill the arenas to catch a glimpse of his pure, unadorned style and frequent brushes with death. Then, in 2002, just as suddenly as he emerged, he vanished, going into a self-imposed, five-year exile.

Now, his followers hope that his return, dubbed by some in Spain the “Second Coming,” will again save bullfighting from a growing chorus of critics.



The showdown has made Barcelona ” officially an antibullfighting town ” the center of the taurine universe, if only for a day. Scalpers are asking more than $1,300 for tickets. The 18,000 fans ” from a dozen countries ” who will squeeze into the Plaza Monumental will witness the most anticipated bullfight in a generation and the latest answer to a five-century-old question: Is bullfighting art or torture?

Mr. Tomas, a lithe, quiet 31-year-old with curly, black hair ” now shot through with gray ” and a latticework of scars, is an unlikely savior for bullfighting. During his brief career, he fought with promoters, refused to perform as frequently as his peers did, and made enemies with the bullfighting establishment.



In the bullring, however, he was unparalleled. He was called “the statue” for the way he drilled his feet into the sand, impervious to the onrushing bull. And some called him “the extraterrestrial,” for his ability to endure pain and survive potentially lethal mishaps. He once fought for two hours with a goring in his thigh before he asked for medical help. On another occasion, after he had been gored during a crucial fight in Seville, doctors thought he was dying because his pulse was only 37.

“Courage is easy to define,” said veteran bullfighter and amateur poet Luis Francisco Espla. “It’s where Jose Tomas stands in the bullring.”

Before he turned 25, Mr. Tomas was compared with Juan Belmonte and Manolete, two other legendary bullfighters famous during the First and Second World Wars. Like Belmonte and Manolete, Mr. Tomas won followers among Spain’s intellectuals, as well as regular fans. Today, Tomasista applies equally to disciples of St. Thomas Aquinas and Mr. Tomas.



“So many other matadors belong more to sports or the circus,” says Albert Boadella, Spain’s best-known playwright and a longtime fan of Mr. Tomas. “He belongs only to the realm of art.”

In late 2002, at the height of his fame, Mr. Tomas quit. Years later, in a newspaper interview, he confessed that the constant fear of dying in the ring, his never-ending battles with bullfight promoters and his efforts to please increasingly demanding crowds had become too stressful. Mr. Tomas grew a beard, ditched his cellphone, and played semipro soccer for a year.

Spain’s “fiesta nacional” was orphaned. “He left a big empty crater in bullfighting when he quit, and a lot of people still haven’t forgiven him for it,” says Paco Aguado, a bullfight historian.

The myth he had created in his five years in the bullring became much bigger in the five years he was gone. He dropped out of sight. People reported spotting him, a la Elvis, as far away as Mexico.

Rumors flew that he was training every day on rural bull ranches, preparing for a comeback that never came. Secrecy surrounded everything he did. He refused to let strangers watch him practice. He declined to be interviewed for this article.

His five-year absence handed bullfighting’s opponents a perfect opportunity to ratchet up their fight to outlaw the spectacle in which the bull nearly always is killed. Without a hero of his stature to rally around, bullfighting reeled from attacks by increasingly vocal critics bent on prohibiting it.

Now, his return has become as much a cause celebre for bullfighting’s detractors as for its aficionados. Barcelona is the city where Mr. Tomas enjoyed some of his most celebrated victories. But it is also the most hostile city in Spain to bullfighting.

Pro-independence politicians in Catalonia, in northeastern Spain, have tried to ban it, calling it inhumane, even though Barcelona, the Catalan capital, hosted more bullfights in the 20th century than any other city on earth. Two of Barcelona’s three bullrings have already been gutted; one of them is being turned into a shopping center.

Mr. Tomas’s decision to make his comeback in Barcelona is “a poke in the eye to the antibullfighting crowd,” says his manager, Salvador Boix. Sunday will mark the first sellout in Barcelona in more than 30 years.

Bullfighting has been banned before by popes, Spanish kings and even dictators. But it has always battled on. Its opponents feel that they may be on the verge of banning it forever.

After years of failed efforts, the European Parliament voted to cut subsidies to ranchers who raise fighting bulls in late 2005. This spring, a vote to declare bullfighting animal torture narrowly failed in Strasbourg. The cultural arm of the United Nations, Unesco, still defines bullfighting as torture, despite years of lobbying by bullfight supporters.

And bullfighting’s once-secure place as the pastime of the masses has been usurped by soccer, video games and other diversions. Every year, its core fans grow older.

This weekend, hundreds of antibullfight activists plan to mass outside the arena in Barcelona. A French group, the Alliance for the Suppression of the Bullfight, is busing in protesters.

But Mr. Tomas’s biggest enemy won’t be the raucous protesters, the two sharp-horned fighting bulls waiting in the corrals beneath the plaza, or the two other matadors on the ticket. When he was in his prime, Mr. Tomas always trod the most dangerous ground in bullfighting; on his return, fans will settle for nothing less, even if it kills him. “To live without toreo is not to live at all,” he said in a rare interview with the Spanish paper El Pais, explaining his comeback.

“People are going to see not just the bullfighter, but the myth he created,” says Mr. Aguado.

“His only true rival, and by far the most dangerous, is the old Jose Tomas,” says Luis Abril, an executive with Telefonica SA, who used to follow Mr. Tomas to scores of bullfights each year. When Mr. Tomas retired, Mr. Abril retired as a fan. But on Sunday, he’ll be in Barcelona, ready to give Mr. Tomas _ and bullfighting _ one last chance.


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