Spanish matador returns after 5-year absence

A steely and daring young matador who mysteriously disappeared at the peak of his career in 2002 made a triumphant return on Sunday, enduring a terrifying near-goring to win standing ovations, a rain of flowers and three trophies - ears from bulls he had just slain.

Rhythmic cheers of 'Ole!' rang out with virtually every charge that matador Jose Tomas provoked with his flowing red cape as he took on two black beasts, one after the other, each weighing 535 kilograms (1,180 pounds).

Camera flashes dotted the sellout crowd of 20,000 as aficionados captured Tomas in his glittering turquoise and gold suit, performing for the first time in five years - and with the much appreciated gesture of doing so in a city where anti-bullfighting sentiment is strong.

In his first bout, the bull threw Tomas to the ground at one point and held him there with its snout. He covered his face with his arms and rolled away, emerging unscathed in a 10-second episode that was nonetheless very scary. When he got up, the crowd roared with adulation.

After that fight and his second, the crowd waved white handkerchiefs and looked to the bullring's judge, seeking a prize for him. Both times, he got one - one severed ear from the first bull and both from the second.

Both times, he held the ears up and walked around the ring, thanking the crowd. People tossed bouquets of carnations, hats and even clothes into the ring.

Tomas vanished from the ring in 2002, at the peak of his career, without saying why.

He told the newspaper El Pais last month in a rare interview that he was coming back because "living without bullfighting is not living."

Barcelona's 19,000-seat Monumental bullring was sold out for the first time in 22 years and scalpers sold tickets for as much as a reported 4,000 EUR (US$5,300).

The Barcelona daily La Vanguardia ran a three-page spread on the return of Tomas, whose full name is Jose Tomas Roman Martin, with one section featuring comments from everything from poets to philosophers - all of them bullfighting buffs - on why they think he is so great.

"Jose Tomas is an excellent poet, and like any great poet or great artist he has a voice that is unique," wrote Pere Gimferrer, himself a well-known poet.

The newspaper's regular bullfighting critic, Paco March, recalled a now-legendary fight in July 2002 in which Tomas won one of the profession's highest honors - being rewarded both ears and the tail of the animal he had just killed in a performance deemed masterful.

"There rang out an 'ole' that still echoes in my ears. It was not a dream. I heard it and I now remember it," March wrote.

Success in bullfighting is a question of having a unique style, a personal flair that breaks the mold that usually makes one matador virtually indistinguishable from the next. And in this Tomas excels, added veteran critic Juan Belmonte of Canal Sur television in Seville.

Tomas gets up very close to the bull - both before luring it into a charge and as its rumbles by - and looks relaxed and natural in his bravado, showing utter disregard for all the danger, Belmonte said.

"You realize that the guy out there gives the impression that he does not care if he dies right then," Belmonte said.

But he cautioned that bullfighting buffs have short memories and will be very demanding of Tomas as he embarks on this second stage of his career.