Cordoba and Caliphs of Bullfighting
In bullfighting terms, Cordoba is not just another province. Several of the most important bullfighters in the history of this art have been born in this territory, which has also benefited from a select group of bullfighting enthusiasts that has continued to grow over the years. They are the ones who, in their day, created the honorary title of “Caliph of Bullfighting”, a distinction that has historically been awarded to the great matadors that this region has produced.
This title refers to the medieval period and the monarchs who then ruled the Caliphate of Cordoba and was first used by the Aragonese writer and bullfighting critic Mariano de Cavia to refer to Rafael Molina “Lagartijo”. What began as a popular nickname among critics and aficionados ended up being the most prized trophy for bullfighters from Cordoba and the city’s major contribution to the history of bullfighting.
LAGARTIJO, FIRST CALIPH
The first bullfighter to be accorded such consideration was Rafael Molina Sánchez, known as “Lagartijo” or Little Lizard in English, on the bullfighting posters. He was born in Cordoba on 27 November 1841, and became a bullfighter on 29 September 1865 in Úbeda bullring in Jaén, with his master Antonio Carmona “El Gordito” as his godfather. He had a bullfighting rivalry with the greatest bullfighters of the last third of the 19th century, especially with Salvador Sánchez “Frascuelo” from Granada.
At a time when bullfighting was a harsh battle, “Lagartijo” blazed a different trail in bullfighting in his time. He was interested in the beauty of the fight in which the bullfighting of the time took place and even in those defensive lances and muletazos in which the fight took place, he searched for aesthetics. He retired in Madrid on 1 June 1893, after three decades as a leading figure in the bullfighting scene of his day and more than 1,500 bullfights behind him. He died in Cordoba on 1 August 1900, at the age of 59.
GUERRITA, FIRST MODERN BULLFIGHTER
The second Caliph that Cordoba brought to bullfighting was Rafael Guerra Bejarano “Guerrita” (1862-1941), who was awarded the alternative in Madrid by his master “Lagartijo” in 1871. Having almost 900 bullfights on his record, he was a real “mandón” of bullfighting, the first modern bullfighter to cross the Atlantic and to fight in Havana (Cuba) and in Nîmes (France). His powerful and versatile concept made him dominate all types of bulls and impose his judgement and will in and out of the ring.
His arrogance and superiority shone through with, “What’s going to happen today? Whatever I feel like“, he would say before each bullfight – ended up earning him the animosity of critics and public alike. Hence another of his famous sentences “I’m not leaving, they’re throwing me out” after he retired without warning on 15 October 1899 at the Feria del Pilar in Zaragoza.
THE SPARTAN COURAGE OF MACHAQUITO
Rafael González Madrid “Machaquito” is the third Caliph. He was born in 1880 and received his doctor’s tassel in bullfighting in Madrid in 1900 from “Bombita’s” brother. Despite leading the ranking for four seasons, he was perhaps the least relevant of the Caliphs’ Repóker. His most important asset was the courage he showed in front of the animals. This courageous display of bravery made him rival “Bombita”, the great bullfighter of the time. He was also a great estoqueador, but he retired in Madrid on the day of Juan Belmonte’s alternative (16 October 1913) and died in 1965.
MANOLETE, THE MELTING POT OF MODERN BULLFIGHTING
Manuel Laureano Rodríguez Sánchez “Manolete” is the fourth Caliph of bullfighting and the most successful of them all. He was born in Cordoba in 1917 and is also the only bullfighter to have died at the horns of a bull, which took place in the Linares bullring on 28 August 1947. Manolete is the fundamental pillar of modern bullfighting, where the technical discoveries of Joselito and Belmonte, the fathers of modern bullfighting, are united and underpinned. He is therefore not only the most important bullfighter of his time and one of the most charismatic in history, but also the most influential bullfighter of the 20th century.
Rafael Jiménez “Chicuelo” gave him the alternative in Seville in 1935, and that same season, he was confirmed by Marcial Lalanda in Madrid. Up to his death at the horns of the Miureño “Islero” he participated in more than 500 bullfights in all the bullrings of Spain and America where he had great rivalries with Pepe Luis Vázquez, the Mexicans Carlos Arruza and Silverio Pérez, and in the last seasons, with Luis Miguel Dominguín.
THE CHARISMATIC POWER OF EL CORDOBÉS
Manuel Benítez Pérez “El Cordobés” is so far the last bullfighting Caliph to be recognised as such and the only one to be institutionally proclaimed as such by the city council in 2002. He was born in Palma del Río in 1936, and was a popular idol from the time he was a novillero, thanks in part to the well-orchestrated publicity that his mentor Rafael Sánchez “El Pipo” brought him in the media.
At a time when the country was struggling to grow and improve, people saw El Cordobés as an example of a citizen who achieved success from the bottom up, and they immediately identified with him. His self-confidence, naturalness and easy-going character outside the ring, and his way of bullfighting, as unconventional as it is exciting, all tied together in a single block, without changing ground or losing steps, turning heels without making amends, did the rest.
He is undoubtedly the most mediatic Caliph and possibly the most important ambassador that bullfighting has ever had in the local community. After almost a thousand bullfights in different periods of his career, he still wore his bullfighter’s uniform in the 21st century to celebrate his status as “Caliph of Bullfighting” in the Cordovan bullring itself, which he had inaugurated in 1965.
There are other matadors born in the city or province or linked to it who, having transcended in the history of bullfighting, have not, however, achieved the status of “Caliphs”, such as “Pepete” or ‘Bocanegra’ and more recently “Finito de Córdoba”, for whom several members of the Cordovan fan base have requested such recognition. However, as described on the website of the Bullfighting Museum of Cordoba, in order to qualify for the Caliphate, the following requirements would have to be “met”:
“Firstly, to be Cordovan by birth. Hold one of the top three positions in the list of bullfighters for at least six consecutive seasons. Shock the bullfighting world, setting a standard in the exercise of the profession. Receive the recognition and respect of the audience and be considered number one in the ranking of bullfighters in his career and become the centre of popular attention. He should be able to parade his Cordovan origins in the bullrings of the world and, finally, his appointment as Caliph should be the result of an acclamation by the majority of the fans.”