This all assumes, of course, that nothing bad happens between now and the day Michelito sloughs off his amateur status. This year the best bullfighter in the world, José Tomás, required 17 pints of blood after getting gored through his left thigh; another matador, Julio Apericio, became a twisted YouTube sensation when a bull thrust its horn up his throat (and right out of his mouth).

Michelito gets tossed and trampled plenty—like last January in Cali, Colombia, when his father rushed into the ring and shoved the bull away from Michelito's dust-covered body and the boy was carried out on a stretcher, crying. But despite what several news outlets reported, the Lagraveres deny that the bull's horn ever pierced Michelito's flesh. In fact, they insist their son has never been gored. "They say it feels hot but doesn't hurt," Michelito says. "I know it will happen one day, but I'm not scared."

Neither is his father, for that matter, despite having spent three weeks in a hospital with a perforated lung. "There are always isolated cases, but in life there are many other things that hurt children more gravely than bulls," Michel says. "How many kids in Mexico have died from bicycle accidents? A lot more than bullfighting, I can assure you... I myself am a torero, and I know very well what the bulls can and cannot do."

Callous as that may sound, Michel does have a point. Tomás is still fighting. Apericio survived. Bullfights are closely monitored by medical professionals, and no matador has died in the ring since Jose "El Yiyo" Cubero was gored through the heart in 1985.

Michel bears all the hallmarks of a dedicated, generously affectionate father. He's quick with hugs and kisses both before and after his sons' fights, regardless of their outcome, and as he gives them pointers on foot positioning and cape technique, it doesn't look all that different from a Little League dad instructing his son on how to turn a double play. But this is not Little League, or rock climbing, or sailing. These boys are being taught, no matter how artfully, to kill.

Last March, in a speech before the Catalonian parliament—which had voted three months earlier to ban bullfighting in the Spanish region—Antonio Moreno, a former baby matador who now heads an animal-rights organization, recalled his own initiation. "When you're 9 years old," Moreno said, "what do you think? That you've come to see tradition? Culture? Art? No. You've come to see good men kill an evil beast. This is what was inculcated into the boy, because this, ladies and gentlemen, is what the boy saw."

•••

The Queen of the Fair, wearing a foot-high tiara, waves and throws roses at the crowd from an open-top Acura that slowly makes its way around the ring; you can almost hear the audience shifting in its seats. This is not the beauty the people came to see.

They erupt a few moments later when the brass band strikes up a martial tune and Michelito—flanked by a pair of professional matadors twice his height—enters the ring. As is customary, Michelito salutes the presiding judge, whom he will later ask for permission to kill his bulls. He circles the dust with his left foot, looking like he just stepped into the batter's box.

Michelito might be a natural showman in the ring, but as he waits in the alley to fight (he will perform last), he can't hide his nervousness. While the second matador gets appreciatively showered with sweaters, hats, and coats, each of which he throws back into the crowd, Michelito's face is pressed up against the barrier; he's practically gnawing on it.

Michelito's bull, a black 800-pounder named Morito, enters the ring looking lost. In the first act, Michelito tests the beast's ferocity with a series of veronicas—cape passes named for the saint who gave her veil to Christ to wipe his forehead with—that reveal that Morito isn't very ferocious after all.

In the second act, Michelito's picador, a gigantic man on horseback named El Flaquito ("the Skinny One"), repeatedly jabs his lance into Morito's neck, causing blood to gush forth. His job is to get the bull's head to drop lower, making it easier for the matador (especially one as short as Michelito) to come in overhead for the kill. But El Flaquito overdoes it, and soon Michelito is waving him off, yelling, "Stop, stop!" It's too punishing: The bull won't die, but it might begin to lag and thus ruin the performance.

During the short intermission that follows, Michelito dedicates his first bull to San Miguel el Alto's baby-faced mayor; the gesture is well received, but nothing seems to go right after that. In the third act it takes Michelito four attempts before he successfully thrusts his sword between the bull's shoulder blades. His support team, the cuadrilla, circles the bull, flashing it with their capes as it plods dumbly in circles: A death stagger is common, but it shouldn't go on this long. Out of admiration or impatience, the crowd strikes up a chant of "To-re-ro, to-re-ro." Then Morito's forelegs buckle and he falls to the ground. A man runs up to Morito with a little sword—called a puntilla—and jams it into the animal's back, making sure to sever the spinal cord. Morito's dead.