Fifteen years ago Manuel Benítez—better known as El Cordobés—was an international hero to match Pelé or Cassius Clay. The press dubbed him "the Beatle of the Bullring"—and, despite the derision of purist aficionados, he was, at up to $50,000 per bullfight, one of the highest-paid entertainers in the world. He squired the world's most beautiful women, went hunting with Generalissimo Franco, drove his fans into ecstatic fevers—until, one day in 1972, he suddenly bowed out. Reportedly battered by the liquor and pills that were fueling his overloaded 100-fight seasons, "The Man from Cordoba" gave up his title as lord of the rings, married the French girlfriend who had given birth to two of his children—and retired with a vast accumulated fortune in livestock and real estate. "I'm frightened to do the things I used to do," he said at the time—and sank into obscurity.

Then last spring one of Spain's foremost impresarios, Manolo Lozano, got a phone call. "I am coming back," Benítez announced. "Arrange it." Though his body was grimly scarred in a dozen places by gorings over the years, Benítez had, at 43, found boredom to be the unkindest cut of all. "I got tired of raising pigs," he confessed. "I'm returning for the thrill—for the contact with people." Lozano was as excited by the prospect as his new client. The 65 fights booked this season—30 in Spain, 35 in Latin America—could bring El Cordobés up to $4 million. But bullfight fans have an axiom: Few matadors know when to quit—and fewer, having quit, can resist coming back. For such men, there is a Spanish proverb: "Sequels are never very good."

The premiere of El Cordobés' comeback tour seemed full of promise. In a stadium packed with 10,000 well-wishers in the Mediterranean resort town of Benidorm, El Cordobés' very entrance in the "suit of lights" created pandemonium. Then he began serving up the old patented razzle-dazzle: crouching, then leaping away from the onrushing horns, resting his head against the bull's hindquarter one moment and mock-boxing with it the next, flashing his toothpaste-commercial grin as he flicked his red muleta in the face of the charging beast. He fought all six bulls of the corrida that afternoon instead of the standard two, and by the time the hour-and-a-half show was over the cheers of his spectators—some of whom had paid scalpers $250 for a seat—had led the ring president to bestow on him five ears and a tail.

Since then, however, his glory has been tainted by controversy. In the ring at Huelva soon after his debut, the fans thought he was not trying hard enough and pelted him with cushions. Later in Alicante the same thing happened—and the stands were dotted with empty seats. Most of El Cordobés' engagements are in second-rate rings, where the audiences and the bulls are less demanding. And an old accusation is coming back to taunt him: The bulls he fights are undersized and their horns often appear shaved down to upset their balance and minimize the danger. Beyond that, some observers have found him unforgivably tentative and anxious in the ring. "I just need some more fights to get into high gear," he says, "to reach my top form."

During his most recent fights El Cordobés has indeed redeemed his reputation as a crowd-pleaser, but his top form will never satisfy classicists, who find his passes crude and his swordsmanship fit only for the slaughterhouse. His critics are excusing nothing for old times' sake. Says Vicente Zabala, the respected taurine authority of Madrid's daily morning ABC: "El Cordobés has always been bad for bullfighting—he made underage, inadequate bulls the norm, his style corrupted other fighters, and he encouraged an ignorant public. He still poses some threat." Sneered El Cordobés in reply: "I fought for the masses. Those smart guys who think they know so much write great stuff on how to fight bulls. But there's just one trouble: The bulls can't read."

In his heyday, El Cordobés was a redeeming symbol of hope in a country yoked to an authoritarian regime—a rebellious poor boy who beat the system, drove a Rolls-Royce, flew his own airplane. Illiterate, he had to memorize his signature to satisfy the throngs of autograph seekers, but his history was a national legend. Orphaned shortly after the civil war (his father, a republican, died of TB following release from a political prison), young Manuel had stolen chickens to supplement the occasional wages he made as a field worker, ditchdigger and bricklayer. Like many Spanish boys, he got his first on-the-job training as a matador by jumping into bullrings from the stands (and was once jailed for a month for his trouble). Later, "I would bum around the villages of the south, fighting in the village fights, getting banged around by the bulls," he recalls. "Nobody taught me how to fight—I had to learn it from experience."

But it was a promoter who made Benítez. Rafael Sánchez, known as "El Pipo," bought him cows for practice, dreamed up his stage name, helped fashion his gimmicks—and later protected his growing popularity by bribing journalists to overlook his stylistic faults and the invalid bulls he was fighting. Fellow matadors were never fooled. They still relate an incident at the height of El Cordobés' popularity when, just before the "moment of truth," a rival matador ran up to Benítez' bull and, tickling its nose and patting its flanks, revealed the animal to be as ferocious as a beagle. But for all that, El Cordobés was, in the words of one expert, "a powerful performer. You may never have been moved by one of his performances, but you could not fail to be interested. He was magnetic."

The magnetism pulls two ways. His wife, Martine, now pregnant with their fourth child, begged her husband not to return to the ring. With a fortune estimated conservatively in the millions and still growing, money was hardly a factor. Rather, Benítez explains, he was fighting at a benefit performance with small bulls last year and the applause went to his head. "It was like when I quit and got married," he says. "I just suddenly made the decision. My place is in the ring."

Perhaps he is right. Yet some of his countrymen see in him a reminder of the inglorious days of Franco, with whom he used to party. "When a head of state asks to see you, you go," he says. "I never had any politics and I never will. I was just the people's bullfighter—like the poster says, The Idol of the Multitudes.' " Still, it seems a misfortune to some of his fans that their idol has come back as a relic—and that his career in the arena, having ended once in glory, may not end as well the second time.