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Spanish matador Jose Maria Manzanares holds his bullfighter's "muleta" during a bullfight at the Real Maestranza bullring in the Andalusian capital of Seville, southern Spain April 9, 2016. REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo

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By Marcelo del Pozo

SEVILLE (Reuters) - It may be a dying spectacle in more ways than one, but matador Javier Jimenez says the people who oppose bullfighting have simply never gone to feel the intimacy and artistry of the contest.

"I have friends that don't like bullfighting, but they have never been," he says. "It's like a song or a painting; you don't know why you enjoy it, but it gets you deep down."

Jimenez is only 25 but has already been fighting bulls since he was 15, not long after he and his brother Borja, also a matador, began taking a red cape into school in Espartinas, near Seville, to show off their feints and pirouettes.

Now in his seventh year fighting at the Real Maestranza arena in the Spanish city of Seville, Jimenez says he still feels the same fear he did the first time he knelt in the sand to await the bull charging out of the gate.

"I asked a matador who had spent 50 years in the ring -- and he still feels the same now as he did the first time."

As Jimenez and the 600 kg (1,300 lb) bull begin to circle around the cape, the crowd cheer every pass with cries of "Ole! Ole!".

In his embroidered gold and white "traje de luces" or "suit of lights", the matador dodges the horns again and again.

The Real Maestranza is packed for this fight, part of Seville's April Fair, a celebration of all things Andalusian filled with Flamenco dancing and copious drinking of locally produced Manzanilla sherry.

But elsewhere, audiences for a tradition that goes back over a thousand years are dwindling, as new generations shun what they see as a cruel and unfair contest.

Back in the ring, the bull's movements become ever more laboured as the barbed stakes that have been stabbed deep into its neck drain its strength away.

With the hulk tottering, Jimenez raises his long, thin sword and swiftly delivers the "estocada", a deft strike through the shoulder blades to pierce its heart. The bull keels over and, as mules are brought in drag out the body, the band strike up again. This fight is over, the next one can begin.

(Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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