Manuel Rodriguez Sanchez - better known as Manolete - stepped wearily to the microphone in an anteroom of the San Sebastian, Spain, bullring, looking far older than a man who had recently marked his 30th birthday.
Manolete, the most celebrated bullfighter of his day, had just killed his 1,000th bull and the radio announcer asked him to comment on his achievement.
Speaking in a soft voice, barely audible over the roar from his fans in the stadium just beyond the room, Manolete delivered a somber response. "They are asking for more than I can give," he said. "Always more and more. All I can say is I wish the bullfighting season was over."
Manolete had actually considered retirement a year earlier but was persuaded to return for one last go-round in the 1947 season. Antonia Lupe Sino, a Spanish actress and Manolete's long-time girlfriend, did not think the decision would satisfy the matador's rabid fans.
"They'll never let him go until they see him dead," she said.
Less than a month after his depressing radio interview, Manolete, the most famous bullfighter of the 20th century lay dead, killed by a bull of the same Miura breed that killed his great uncle and many other famed Spanish matadors.
Matadors ran in Manolete's family, which came from Cordoba, Spain - the heart of bullfighting country. His mother was the widow of a matador before she married the man who would be his father, also a matador. His father went blind and died when Manolete was 5 years old.
After serving one month as a novice, Manolete was promoted to full-fledged bullfighter around his 13th birthday. The slim, clumsy teenager was spotted by Jose Camara, a retired bullfighter and agent who saw great potential. Thus began a life-long association that saw Manolete improve his footwork to the point of a classic gracefulness, refine his bold style and perfect a stoic technique that would vault him to the top of the bullfighting world. He was widely praised as the successor to Juan Belmonte, the Spanish bullfighting legend who finally retired in 1935.
By the time he reached his 20s, Manolete was considered a Spanish cultural treasure. He commanded huge fees and filled arenas with fans who applauded his skills and lined up days before his appearances to guarantee a seat.
During the World War II years, Manolete did most of his fighting in Latin America, where his reputation continued to grow. Fans fought over tickets to his events and his cult-like following resulted in Manolete dolls for little girls and Anis Manolete liquor for adults. He made an estimated $4 million in the 1940s and even drove a Buick imported from the U.S., even though fuel for it was not readily available in Spain.
Manolete's rock star image also played a role in his eventual downfall.
Promoters recognized his box-office potential and, rather than risking getting him hurt, started supplying "arranged bulls" for his appearances. These bulls had shaved horns, an illegal but common practice, that made injury by goring less likely.
Manolete also became a target for young matadors intent on replacing him as Numero Uno. The wear and tear of so many fights became obvious as Manolete approached his 30th birthday on July 4, 1947.
His killing of bulls, which he had elevated to an art form with his bold, stylish technique, was becoming a bit more sloppy. The gorings - he sustained somewhere between 11 and 33, according to various sources - were becoming more common. He was reportedly drinking more and the erosion of his skills was becoming more apparent with each fight.
In the summer of 1947, Manolete was challenged by a 21-year-old up-and-comer, Luis Miguel Dominguin. A joint appearance was set for August 28, 1947, in the small bullring at Linares, Spain.
Over 10,000 people squeezed into the Linares ring to watch Manolete, Gitanillo de Triana and Dominguin do battle with a string of Miura bulls, considered the fiercest and most unpredictable fighting bulls on the planet.
Manolete delivered a lackluster performance in his first kill, which was followed by a brilliant display by Dominguin in a fight that had the crowd roaring with approval. As Manolete entered the ring for his second fight of the day, he was greeted by a smattering of boos.
The bull he drew was named Islero. Islero was known as a fierce fighter, but had poor eyesight and a tendency to chop with his right horn.
Manolete appeared to be on top of his game. Fifteen times he stood his ground, using only his cape as Islero passed, his sharp horns just inches from the gold embroidery on Manolete's fabled "suit of lights." Emboldened, Manolete turned his back on Islero, his scarlet cape behind him, as he prepared for El Momento Supremo, the kill.
Instead of delivering the fatal blow from the side - the more prudent approach - Manolete favored a more straightforward attack. Clamboring over Islero's horns, Manolete drove his sword between Islero's shoulders to the hilt.
Islero paused briefly then hooked his horn into Manolete's thigh, severing his femoral artery, and tossed him aside. As blood gushed from the wound, a hobbling Manolete tried to stop the flow with his hands. Dominguin was among those who rushed to Manolete's aid and carried him from the arena. Islero staggered to the fence, stumbled to his knees and died.
As he lay in the infirmary, Manolete lit a cigarette and asked in a weak voice, "Is the bull dead?" After being informed that the bull was, indeed, dead, Manolete said that he could not feel his legs.
Doctors began what would be a series of transfusions of dry plasma. At 11 p.m. they transfered him to the hospital in Linares and summoned Dr. Luis Gimenez Guinea from Madrid, who arrived around 4 a.m. the next morning. At 5:07 a.m., Manolete uttered his final words, "My mother will not be happy about this. Don Luis, I can't see. I can't see anything!"
Tributes poured in from across Spain and the bullfighting world. Manolete was recognized as one of the most importanrt matadors in bullfighting history who "died fighting and killed before dying."
He was buried in his hometown of Cordoba, home of the Cordoba Museum of Bullfighting, which is dedicated to him. His bloody "suit of lights" was put on exhibition at the Museum of Bullfighting in Madrid and the head of Islero, the bull that killed him, is displayed in the Museum of Bullfighting in Seville.
Islero was also honored by Italian automaker Ferruccio Lamborghini, who was born just a year before Manolete. Lamborghini so admired Spanish bulls for their fierce fighting skills that he launched a line of Miura sports cars in the mid-1960s. In 1968, he introduced the Islero as his newest sports car.
Manolete's life has been the subject of many books and in 2007 it became the subject of a movie. The film, Manolete, starred Adrian Brody as Manolete and Penelope Cruz as his girlfriend, Antonia Lupe Sino. Sino starred in several films after Manolete's death before dying of a stroke at age 42 on Sept. 13, 1959.
The young matador who challenged Manolete to the fatal encounter in Linares, Luis Miguel Dominguin, pronounced himself "Numero Uno" after Manolete's death and went on to have a distinguished and colorful career. Some bullfighter watchers even say he was the best of the 20th Century.
Wearing flashy uniforms designed by his friend Pablo Picasso, Dominguin was a multimillionaire with 2,300 kills to his credit before his 30th birthday. He dated some of the world's most glamorous women, including Ava Gardner, Lauren Bacall, Rita Hayworth and Brigitte Bardot. He counted Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway among his closest friends.
Dominguin retired three times but couldn't stay away from the sport he loved until his final fight in Barcelona at age 47 in 1973. Late in his career, he explained the lure of the sport:
"It is like being with the woman who pleases you most in the world when her husband comes in with a pistol. The bull is the woman, the husband and the pistol, all in one. No other life I know can give you all that."
Manuel Rodriguez Sanchez (Manolete)
Born: July 4, 1917
Died: August 29, 1947, age 30
Photo caption: The death of Manolete. Guillermo, his sword-handler (left), with his hand against the wound trying to stop the blood. Luis Miguel Dominguin (right), with cape. Photo by Paco Caño.
Here is a brief documentary on Manolete's life:
Here is film of Manolete's last fight: