Last weekend I scratched off one item from my Mexico City “bucket list.” I was somewhat curious about lucha libre wrestling. If you don’t know, it is a stylized version of “WWE” wrestling and is popular in Mexico, Japan, and predominantly-Hispanic regions of the U.S. In lucha libre, wrestlers commonly wear masks. Years ago, the masks were simple, one-or-two-color affairs worn basically to help spectators identify who was who. “Blue Demon” wore a light blue mask and faced off against “El Santo” (“The Saint”), who wore a white mask. Culturally, the masks caught on, and today are worn not just by the wrestlers but by their fans as well. Many masks remain simple in design, yet others are more ornate, and can resemble serpents, gods, or other mythical warrior figures, often borrowed from Aztec culture.
Research revealed that matches take place every Friday night at the Arena México, and I figured it could be a fun Friday event if I could gather a few friends. My buddy Mario – a life-long Chilango who, like me, had never been to a match – was up for it, and we were joined by my friend Sofía as well as by three of her friends. We consulted an arena map before buying, and the prices seemed reasonable for all but the most expensive of tiers. We chose a section slightly right-of-center, and on match night, I couldn’t believe how close the seats really were. A bargain!
Arena México is on the edge of a sketchy neighborhood called “Doctores.” I’d explored the area previously without incident, and I was correct in my prediction that the environs would be quite lively – and therefore safe – on match night. The surrounding blocks were packed with tianguis (market stalls) selling lucha libre masks, T-shirts, and action figures.
Ready to Rumble
Five matches were held, each of two or three rounds. The first was a three-on-three tag team. I’m no expert but I think these luchadores (wrestlers) were just making their professional debuts, same as the opening act to a concert or as the pre-title round fight in a night of boxing. The first thing I noticed was how fit they all appeared to be. Strong…and lean. The referees, who rotated with each match, were on the older side of 50 and had packed on a few pounds over the years, but could clearly hold their own against the adrenaline-pumping wrestlers. In their heydays, these refs may have been contenders themselves.
The second match was between the ladies, three-against-three once again. I’m told that lucha libre often takes the form of “rudos y técnicos” (heroes-versus-villains), and that appeared to be the case here. One trio of women were dressed mostly in pink; the other in dark colors, supervillain capes, etc. As for the fight itself: talk about violent! Kicking, slapping, hair-pulling…it was like a perfect, Roger Corman B-movie cliché. In other words: it was fun!
The third match was most notable for the appearance of Marco Corleone, who – looks-wise – is considered the Brad Pitt of wrestlers. (Marco’s real name: Mark Jindrak. He hails from Auburn, New York.) He was just one member of another three-man tag team, but as soon as his name was announced the arena erupted in shrieks of female delight. Much to the joy of his estrogen-charged fan base, he didn’t wear a mask, just wrestling boots and a Speedo. I don’t know the name of his tag team, but I think they comprised the técnicos, or heroes, of this match. The opposing tag team was generally uglier and slightly more out-of-shape. Marco spent most of both rounds on the sidelines, looking pretty, but he did get in a few exaggerated blows on the entrance ramp. His team won.
The fourth match was the title round, a three-round, mano-a-mano showdown between – and I’m not making this up – Spider-Man and The Shadow. These wrestlers – just a bit past their prime perhaps but still in amazing shape – were appropriately costumed, Spidey in full red-and-black body paint. They put on an impressive display. For awhile it appeared as if Spidey was down for the count, but he wriggled free before the three-second pin count and found his second wind. He even hurled The Shadow out of the ring and then jumped on the man’s back, flipping out of the roped area and into the crowd. Spidey landed near us and looked quite exhausted. He hung in for the win, and I can only imagine how The Shadow felt when the night was over. ¡Muy impresionante!
We had reached the two-hour mark by the time Spidey pinned The Shadow, and I figured that was the final act. Much to my surprise, we were treated to a fifth and final match-up, three masked heroes (I don’t know their names; programs were not available) versus three identical-looking Ultimos Guerreros (Ultimate Warriors). This elicited a chuckle, as I recalled the enormous fame achieved by the WWF’s own Ultimate Warrior. These rudos had long hair like his, but were not blessed with his relative good looks. The técnicos were ultimately outmatched. They won the support of the crowd, however, including my friend Mario, who recognized one of them and cheered enthusiastically when his favorite wrestler rebounded momentarily after being thrown from the ring. Alas, though, it was not meant to be. Los Ultimos Guerreros triumphed. They ate up every ham-slicing moment in the spotlight as they received their championship belts.
Real or Fake?
It’s time to address the elephant in the room: is lucha libre wrestling real or fake? I’ll say it’s a bit of both.
The comedy (for adults) and drama (for kids) of lucha libre comes from the exaggerated posturing and facial expressions. A wrestler escapes from a split-second headlock and raises his arms in triumph as if he just cured cancer. A wrestler gets flipped onto the mat in the first moments of Round One and lays on his back for as long as possible, earning the audience’s sympathy. A wrestler climbs the stairs of the entrance ramp and dives into his opponent below, arms outstretched, Christ-like…and always makes contact. Why doesn’t his opponent simply move out of the way?
There seems to be an unspoken code among wrestlers, heroes and villains both: let us put on a great show, but let us never get injured. You get my back and I’ll get yours. Being “thrown” from the ring is seldom as scary as it sounds; it’s more like a push. Are the wrestlers actually getting punched in the face, or do their opponents’ fists even make contact? And diving surely doesn’t hurt as much when you have a well-padded, six-foot wrestler below you to break your fall. Remember that Darren Aronofsky movie The Wrestler? Star Mickey Rourke’s character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, stashed a razor blade just inside his belt; at strategic moments when “The Ram” was down, he would discreetly pull out the blade and give his cheek, shoulder, forehead, etc. a small incision, just enough to draw blood and make it appear as if he was really hurt.
Still, wrestlers undergo a strict training and diet regimen, and injuries occasionally happen. On Monday, a colleague of mine told me about his father, who was a luchador on the semi-pro circuit. I was horrified to learn that on the eve of his night to go professional, he was permanently sidelined after a back-breaking injury left him paralyzed for life.
What do you think, Loyal Reader? Is lucha libre wrestling as deserving of respect as other individual or team sports? Do you have any interest in attending a match? Me, I’d go again in a heartbeat!
Below are a few more pics. As with the image at the top of this entry, photos were taken with my Android phone, and the quality is…lacking. Apologies.