Between September 1993 and the summer of '94, I spent a year at the University of California's San Diego campus. Sun, sea, surf - it should have been awesome. But since San Diego is the furthest thing from a party campus (the only building open 24 hours a day was the library), what should have been the time of my life wound up being a bit of a chore. Fortunately, I had a terrific room mate (best wishes, Marcos Romero, wherever you are!) who shared my enthusiasm for sport and movies. And being someone who'd never seen a Komodo dragon before, I spent several great days at the world famous San Diego Zoo.
Better still, California's second largest city was just a short trolley ride away from the Mexican border. Tijuana was a town where all manner of strange things happened. Horses were painted up to look like zebras. People went wild over potentially lethal 'sports' like Jai alai and bull fighting. And every Saturday night, the locals went loco for Lucha Libre.
Since many of the Luchadores sported masks, you didn't need to squint too hard to convince yourself you were watching superheroes at work.
Back in the early '90s, all I knew about Mexican wrestling was gleaned from the El Santo episode of Jonathan Ross's Incredibly Strange Film Show. With Lucha Libre (literally: free wrestling) now everywhere from feature films (Nacho Libre) and kids cartoons (Mucha Lucha) to art exhibitions and railway advertising campaigns, it's hard to imagine a time when it was a cult activity everywhere outside of Latin America. Prior to the ground-breaking AAA-WCW When Worlds Collide pay-per-view which brought Mexican wrestling to the attention of the major American federations, the only Luchadore to have achieved an iota of international fame was the aforementioned El Santo, the 'Silver Masked Man' whose exploitation films pitted him against everyone from The Infernal Men and The Vampire Women to The Mummies Of Guanajuato and The Diabolical Brain.
Of course, once the US got a taste of these spectacular athletes, they were swiftly snapped up, first by Paul Heyman and Todd Gordon's ECW and then by Eric Bischoff's World Championship Wrestling. But while some of the Luchadores flourished, others were rapidly reduced to the roll of 'jobbers' (the guys who lay down to make the A-grade talent look good). And, besides, those who saw the American take of Lucha Libre were watching a pale imitation of the real thing.
Wrestling Tijuana-style was a cross between Cirque De Soleil and the Rio Carnival. Such was the crowd's willingness to i) have a good time, and ii) suspend their disbelief, they were almost as entertaining as the ring warriors. Actually, ‘almost’ is a bit of an overstatement. Because for a boy raised on Mick McManus and Tibor Szakacs fake beating one another up in Kettering Civic Hall, the spectacle of Lucha Libre almost defied description. The moves were as astonishing as the names for them were exotic. Pescado, plancha, hurricanrana - since gravity didn't seem to come into the equation, they were all guaranteed to produce gasps. And since many of the Luchadores sported masks, you didn't need to squint too hard to convince yourself you were watching superheroes at work.
Blue Demon, La Parka, Ciclope, Psicosis, Super Calo - you'd be hard pressed to find more masks outside of an S&M festival. No one could dispute the courage of these cowled commandos, mind. One kid, Colibri, was particularly remarkable since he was all of 5' tall but could leap similar heights to Javier Sotomayor. The boy in question, who was all of 16 at the time, would go on to achieve international fame and fortune as Rey Mysterio.
Almost 20 years on, I didn’t think it'd be impossible to revisit my memories of Lucha Libre without buying a ticket to Tijuana. But now, thanks to the good people at Lucha Future, the good people of Great Britain are free to savour this headiest of form of entertainment. Like everything else, there's a chance Mexican wrestling might not be for you. But if you go with open mind, and you make good use of the licensed bar, don't be surprised if you leave believing a man can fly.
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