Throughout Spain, Mexico and Latin America matadors today are often treated and paid like rock stars. And while the worldwide fame and out-of-sight bucks haven't always been the case, top bullfighters have achieved renown as long as men and bulls have been facing off in the ring.
Juan Belmonte y Garcia (1892 to 1962), a Spanish bullfighter, is considered one of the greatest matadors of all time, in part for developing the erect stance rather than trying to evade the bull through skillful footwork and using a cape to divert the bull while it passes. He appeared in a record 109 bullfights in 1919 and retired in 1935 [source: Merriam-Webster's Biographical Dictionary].
José Gómez (1895 to 1920), known as Joselito, was a rival of Juan Belmonte, and is considered, along with Belmonte, one of the greatest matadors ever. He appeared in his first bullfight in 1908 as part of the child-bullfighting group Niños Sevillanos. His rivalry with Belmonte continued from 1914 to 1920 during a period known as the Golden Age of Bullfighting. The age and the rivalry ended with the fatal goring of Joselito in May 1920 in a corrida that featured both matadors [source: The Columbia Encyclopedia].
Manuel Rodríguez y Sánchez (1917 to 1947) was known in the arena as Manolete, the same nickname his father and grandfather fought under. The top matador in the world from 1940 to 1947, Manolete was fatally gored in a corrida at Linares, Spain, on Aug. 28, 1947 [source: The Columbia Encyclopedia].
Mexican bullfighter Carlos Ruiz Camino (1920 to 1966), known as Carlos Arruza, was one of the highest paid matadors during his lifetime. He worked in arenas in Spain, Portugal and South America from 1934 until his retirement in 1953 [source: Merriam-Webster's Biographical Dictionary].
Julián López Escobar (b. 1982) fights under the nickname El Juli. El Juli started his professional career at age 15 and had achieved a number of firsts by age 17. At 15 he became the only Spanish apprentice bullfighter, or novillero, in La Plaza, Mexico City's arena and the largest bullring in the world, to register an indulto, which spares the life of a particularly courageous bull. The bull is then put out to stud. El Juli was the youngest ever to achieve the status of matador de toros, or senior matador, when he received the alternativa -- the ceremony where that honor is conferred -- in September 1998. By 17 had become the highest paid matador ever [source: Conrad].
On the next page, we'll learn a bit about the bulls used in the ring -- and the importance of that eye-catching red cape.