The odds of obtaining a ticket to see the famous bullfights at the Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona, Spain, are about the same as the bulls’ odds for survival: not good. The centuries-old tradition, which begins every year on July 7, unfolds at Pamplona’s Plaza de Toros, the nearly 20,000 seats of which will undoubtedly be occupied in full.
For those who can’t make the trip, a look back at the bullfights held in 1947 provide a glimpse into the violent spectacle. One of the matadors photographed for LIFE, Manolete, was a Spanish bullfighter considered by many to be the best of all time. Though the bulls pictured here surely met a gruesome fate, so, too, did Manolete. The month after these photos were taken, he died after being gored by a bull in the town of Linares. Critics of bullfighting might call it justice. Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator, called it a tragedy, ordering three days of national mourning to remember a Spanish hero.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.