Spanish bullfighter Jose Tomas might as well be the Michael Jordan of bullfighting. He retired at the top of his game only to return to a crowd that adores him five years later. But then Tomas faced his most dangerous trial yet.
On August 24, 2010 Tomas was gored by a bull and nearly died.
That afternoon the bull called "Navigator" gored him in the left thigh. The horn smashed the femur and punctured the saphenous vein and the iliac artery. Tomas left a frightening trail of blood in the sand of the Mexican ring as he was dragged away. He needed several blood transfusions to keep him alive.
Brave and fearless, but an introvert to the point of being a hermit, now Tomas returns to the bull ring Saturday in Spain's eastern city of Valencia after a year of recovery.
Already billed as the top event of the 2011 bullfighting season, a capacity crowd will pack into the 11,000-seat Valencia ring and black-market touts are believed to be making a killing, reselling tickets at inflated prices.
Organizers say demand has been so strong they could have filled Real Madrid's 90,000-capacity Santiago Bernabeu football stadium.
Most of the spectators will be season-ticket holders and only a small percentage of tickets were put on sale publicly at prices ranging between euro50 and euro200. Scalpers are asking for up to euro1,500.
"I don't remember so much expectation in 30 years of bullfighting, so much media interest and such enthusiasm from aficionados," Simon Casas, a French entrepreneur who manages Valencia's bull ring told The Associated Press.
"There are certain artists who are epoch-making. For the past 10 years Jose Tomas has been the landmark figure in today's bullfighting," said Casas. "He's a legend."
Born in Galapagar near Madrid, Tomas, 35, is seen as the savior of a tradition that is going through rough times with falling gate income, a prohibition in the large and powerful northeastern region of Catalonia and a ban on live transmission of fights on national public television to protect younger audiences.
Emilio Martinez, critic for the digital newspaper Diario Critico, said the return was good news for the "fiesta," as bullfighting is referred to in Spain.
"In these complicated times with so much anti-bullfighting sentiment, that the top performer, the one with most media and box office pull, should be back in front of the bull is very important," said Martinez.
But Tomas's road back to bullfighting was not an easy one.
Back in Spain he found he was unable to bend or move the leg with ease and underwent further surgery to free up the nerves.
"The rehabilitation cost blood, sweat and tears because it was a day-by-day case of sacrifice and determination," said Jose Gonzalez, the doctor who carried out the operation and oversaw Tomas' recovery.
"He had fairly serious injuries to the left thigh but he had his mind set on returning to the ring as soon as the injury allowed him," Gonzalez said. "He's fit to fight in the same conditions as he was before the goring."
This happens to be the second return for Tomas.
He turned professional 'torero' in 1996 and quickly became an idol to many fans, frequently carried out through the main door of bullrings on the shoulders of jubilant spectators, the highest honor for bullfighters.
"From the first time he triumphed, Jose Tomas has contributed not just aesthetics and quality but also standards," said Martinez. "He risks his life 100 percent every fight. He puts himself in positions that the majority of his colleagues are not capable of."
Then in 2002, Tomas announced he was retiring, claiming he could no long work up the enthusiasm to face bulls in the arena.
However, five years later he made a triumphant return, showing he had lost none of his daring, breathtaking style.
"To see him perform moves you," said Anya Bartels-Suermondt, a German photographer who has followed Tomas for 15 years and published books about him.
"He make us cry with joy, (and) tremble when he stands quietly before the bull," she said.
Manager Tomas Salvador Boix is something of a shadow to Tomas, the person who knows him best and the one charged with keeping the media well away.
"He's timid, serious and very pensive," said Boix, stressing that Tomas is very watchful of his privacy.
Efforts by The AP to interview Tomas proved futile. He lives his life in hermit fashion and almost never speaks to the press. He even refuses to let his fights be televised, arguing that TV is incapable of transmitting the reality of what happens in the ring.
For Boix, people's passion for Tomas stems from his bravery; his quiet composure as he faces a snorting beast weighing 500 kilos (1,000 pounds) just inches away and the stylish almost ballet dance-like steps and cape movements he performs to lure the bull toward him that rouse emotional choruses of 'ole' from the crowd.
Tomas rarely disappoints, unlike so many of his colleagues.
But he is not without critics. Some see his him as an elitist in his pickiness about where he fights and against which bulls.
Martinez, for example, criticizes him for refusing to share the bill with other top matadors, thus avoiding direct comparison on the day when faced with the same bulls.
"A leading performer ought to compete with the top contenders," he said.
Others accuse him of having a death wish and that his habit of getting so close to the bull is almost reckless.
"Jose Tomas loves life, as much as anyone who wants to live it intensely," Boix says in his defense. "But bullfighters put their lives on the line every time they don the 'suit of lights."'
Neither Boix nor Casas would say how much Tomas stands to make from the Valencia gig, but news reports citing unnamed sources close to Casas say Tomas will pocket some $430,000), double what a normal leading matador would earn.
Spain's economic newspaper Expansion said a study it commissioned from a university professor showed Jose Tomas generated euro 1.5 million in each city he fights with increased hotel bookings and more money spent in restaurants, bars and city transport.
"I'd almost say he's fighting for free," said Casas. "He is going to earn much less than what he is going to generate."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.