VALENCIA, Spain -- If Ernest Hemingway were alive, Spanish bullfighter Jose Tomas would likely be a hero of one of his novels.
Brave and fearless, but an introvert to the point of being a hermit, Tomas made a triumphant comeback to the bull ring Saturday in Spain's eastern city of Valencia after spending a year recovering from a goring in Mexico that almost killed him.
In the undisputed top event of the 2011 bullfighting season, Tomas took on a 556-kilogram (1,226-pound) bull named "Sweet Tooth" who butted him extremely hard into the air and sent him somersaulting in Valencia's bullfigthing ring.
About 11,000 fans gasped as Tomas went airborne and crashed hard to the ground – and then raved with cheers after he literally ate the sand of the ring, rose ungored and went on to kill the bull, prompting huge praise from Spain's bullfighting critics.
"Jose Tomas has returned and has proved that he is still No. 1," said Emilio Martinez of the the digital newspaper Diario Critico. "After a dangerous knockdown, he's still fighting bulls without sacrificing his pure style and has shown again that his courage is out of the box."
Fans booed the bullfighting judge who declined to award Tomas both of the bull's ears, the top prize for a job well done. But Tomas' return itself was historic in the world of bullfighting.
"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.
Martinez said Tomas' 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.
The last time Tomas wore the traditional, glittering matador's 'suit of lights' uniform was April 24, 2010, in Aguascalientes, Mexico.
That afternoon a 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.
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 makes 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 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 euro300,000 ($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 euro1.5 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."