Spanish bullfighters lock horns in paternity suit

Legendary Spanish bullfighter Manuel Benitez, "El Cordobes", is locked in a legal battle with another popular matador who openly uses the same nickname and has for years claimed to be his son.

Spanish bullfighters lock horns in paternity suit
Spanish matador Manuel Diaz " El Cordobes" (L) during a bullfight in Zaragoza, and Spanish matador Manuel Benitez "El Cordobes" (R) during a bullfight in France. Photo: AFP

The scandal broke in February when Manuel Diaz told “Hola!” magazine he had filed a paternity suit against his supposed father in the southern city of Cordoba after trying in vain to form a relationship with him.

“I thought that being a matador I would be able to reach him, but my father remains elusive,” the 47-year-old told the celebrity magazine.

“The straw that broke the camel's back was the day when he was asked about me during a television interview. Benitez turned away from the camera as if I were the devil. My children asked me 'Why doesn't your father want to talk about you?',” he said.

Diaz says Benitez, 79, who revolutionised the conservative bullfighting world in the 1960s with his acrobatic style, had a brief affair with his mother when she worked as a maid in Madrid.

But when she became pregnant, Benitez did not want to have anything to do with the child, according to the younger “El Cordobes”.

Diaz says he does not want to make any claims on Benitez's estate and just wants to claim a lineage that he is proud of.

Benitez, whose fame in the bullring lifted him out of poverty, has five children with his wife Martina Fraysse, whom he divorced earlier this year.

The two men bare a striking resemblance which Spain's eager gossip press like to highlight regularly.

To file a paternity suit, Diaz needed evidence to backup his claim so he turned to a detective who seized a napkin used by the senior matador at a bar to wipe his lips, Diaz's lawyer Fernando Osuna said.

Diaz said DNA analysis of the napkin indicated with 99.9 percent certainty that he is Benitez's son, and the paternity suit was accepted in December by a court, which will rule on the case on April 28th.

Osuna said both bullfighters had separately taken DNA tests on Friday, and the results are due next week.

Benitez, whose fame transcended Spain at the height of his career in the 1960s, now avoids the media.

His rise from an illiterate youth who was caught by police stealing chickens to top matador was narrated in the 1967 best-selling book “Or I'll Dress You in Mourning: The Extraordinary Story of El Cordobes”.

His good looks also helped him secure a number of film roles.

In the arena, Benitez adopted an unorthodox but spectacular style — he would sometimes jump on the back of the bull — which earned him criticism from experts but delighted the crowds.

“He arrived at bullfighting at a time when Spain was depressed, when the economy was doing badly,” said Carlos Crivell, who covers bullfighting for daily newspaper El Mundo.

“He lifted spirits, not so much bullfighting fans but the people in general, because they saw in him a matador of humble origins, very poor, who became very important because he earned a lot of money.”

Benitez was the best paid matador of his era, according to Crivell.

He added that Benitez was the first matador to earn over a million pesetas for each bullfight at Seville's prestigious arena — a small fortune in even the inflation-prone former Spanish currency.

“Everyone who understands bullfighting recognises that he was a revolutionary, who dominated the arena with his popularity as well as his bullfighting skills, especially his ability to fight bulls using his left hand,” Crivell said.

The younger El Cordobes also has an exciting style and his own public following, but “his popularity is based more on the gossip press than his bullfighting qualities,” he added.


How the pandemic has put the careers of Spain’s trainee bullfighters on hold

Cries of "Toro, toro!" echo round the empty stands at Madrid's world-famous bullring where two young apprentice bullfighters have seen their promising careers abruptly halted by the pandemic.

How the pandemic has put the careers of Spain's trainee bullfighters on hold

Wearing a tracksuit, trainers and an FFP2 mask, 22-year-old Alvaro Burdiel holds out his vibrant fuchsia-and-mustard cape in front of him. With his arms rigid and shoulders proud, he has the gesture down to a tee.

A bullfighting hopeful, he already experienced one triumphal entry through the main gate at Madrid’s Las Ventas bullring, borne on the shoulders of his supporters in October 2019 — a matador’s greatest honour.

Right now, he doesn’t know when he’ll be back in the ring again, but he hasn’t missed one of his daily classes on the ochre-coloured sand inside this historic venue in the heart of the Spanish capital.

“We all have ups and downs. But that’s where the passion shows through – in persevering,” he says. “In those moments, that’s what makes you stand out from the rest: not giving up.”

‘Decisive years’

A little further away is 19-year-old Guillermo Garcia who was lucky enough to be chosen to fight on May 2nd in the first bullfight to be put on at Las Ventas in 18 months.

Wearing a sage green t-shirt, he twitches his cape slightly, catching the sand in a bid to provoke the beast in front of him.

But there is no bull today – only a fellow student gripping a pair of horns. His back hunched and breathing heavily, he lunges forward with everything he’s got.

On this April afternoon, there are about 20 young students tirelessly running through the choreography of the bullfight.

Trainee bullfighters at Madrid’s Las Ventas. Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP

At one side stands a “carreton”, a bulls head mounted on a wheelbarrow-like contraption that can also be used to simulate the charge.

The teachers try to keep their students’ enthusiasm up, despite the uncertainties hanging over the season, which normally runs from March to October but was cancelled last year because of the pandemic.

In the southern city of Seville, which is also known for its love of bullfighting, all the events planned for mid-April had to be cancelled due to virus restrictions.

At Las Ventas, the school is run by famed former matador José Pedro Prados, popularly known as El Fundi.

“Slowly! Don’t lift your heel until the last moment, move from the waist – that’s it!” he calls. “We take them to ranches to keep their spirits up and maintain their enthusiasm,” he says.

“Bullfighting schools are having a really hard time” because of the restrictions put in place due to the virus, he adds.

“There were youngsters who were at their peak when everything shut down. And this could end up halting them in their tracks because these are decisive years for many people’s careers.”

Teen in the arena

The stands are deserted except for a handful of workers repainting the barriers ahead of Sunday’s reopening.

Closed since October 2019, Las Ventas managed to get the authorisation to hold a bullfight on Sunday with just 6,000 spectators in an arena that normally holds 44,000.

On the bill are stars like El Juli and Enrique Ponce alongside the young Guillermo Garcia, who is listed as a novillero, or novice matador. Still a teenager, Garcia has got this far thanks to his sheer dedication, says El Fundi.

Trainee bullfighter in Madrid. Photo: Gabriel BOUYS / AFP

“Since the beginning… there’s always been something different about him, he is serious, he has a lot of strength and enthusiasm and he’s always been very committed to training.”

But Garcia admits he’s had moments of doubt over the past year. “It’s been very hard because you didn’t know if you’d ever get the chance to prove yourself after all this training. But I told myself that sooner or later they were going to reopen the bullrings and that one day I’d get my chance to perform.”

And Sunday won’t be easy, admits the youngster who is studying business management.

“It’s going to be difficult when I go out to fight and see people wearing masks, seated apart and with the stands half empty.”

There also won’t be any triumphal entry through the main gate with the victorious matador carried on the shoulders of his supporters because of restrictions on gatherings.

“That’s just the way it is,” he sighs. “But the bull doesn’t care about the pandemic, it’s all the same to him.”

Even if the health crisis drags on longer than expected, there is no shortage of eager students keen to show off their skill.

One is six-year-old Nico. It’s “practice bullfighting,” he explains very seriously as he dances around the sand in a cape, wielding his miniature sword.