The Masked Men Of Mexican Wrestling

Though it rose to global prominence through the Jack Black movie, Nacho Libre, Lucha Libre is the second biggest sport in Mexico after football, and has a rich history of helping impoverished children.
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Though it rose to global prominence through the Jack Black movie, Nacho Libre, Lucha Libre is the second biggest sport in Mexico after football, and has a rich history of helping impoverished children.

Despite the mask, the trunks gave away Simon Cowell's disguise

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If the gentle thwack of a leather ball against a willow cricket bat in a sleepy Kentish village allows certain insight into England, it’s people and it’s mores, then the roar of a spandex clad masked wrestler as he flies across the ring speaks volumes about that eternally kitsch and obsessively Catholic chunk of mercurial real estate known as Mexico. One of the most important icons in modern day Mexican culture, inside and out of the ring, the masked wrestler - or ‘Luchadores’ as they are collectively know - are massive celebrities and Mexican wrestling, or Lucha Libre (‘free style fighting’) is, next to football, Mexico’s second biggest spectator sport.

Lucha Libre can be seen on any night of the week in at least ten venues across Mexico City alone some of which cater to more than 15000 crazed fans who pay from £1- £3.50 to watch what is, ostensibly, grown men clad in masks and tights sweating profusely while rolling about the floor. The wrestlers, almost always tag teams, are divided into two distinct camps- the hairy, ugly, and at times deformed bad guys, or rudos, who employ all manner of perfidy and underhandedness to succeed (maybe distracting the ref while his tag partner belts his opponent over the head with a chair) and the well turned out good guys, or técnicos, who invariably play by the rules and use honest to goodness highbrow wrestling skills to win.

A veritable mad house, fighting has been known to break out amongst fans of either camp as the skullduggery reaches fever pitch and each side uses all at their disposal to distract the other sides team. Yet contrary to appearances this is serious stuff. Earnest newspapers discuss the results of the previous nights engagements while dozens of wrestling mags, cartoon strips and TV programs flood the media. And such is the power of the luchadores amongst the people that one of their number, Super Barrio, has interrupted the Mexican Congress and led a successful demonstration that prompted the government to build housing for the impoverished. A local hero, the masked and cloaked wrestler is a respected national figure and representative of the left wing opposition - even though he still wears his pants over his tights

“My first impression of Lucha Libre was that it’s a funny mix of acrobatics, the circus, and the pro wrestling we know in America,” says Jared Hess, director of the critically acclaimed Napoleon Dynamite. “It was funny and different from American wrestling. Just the whole aesthetic and the whole way that the Lucha world looked at that time really appeals to me.” Indeed the director’s comedy of 2006, Nacho Libre, stars Jack Black in the title role as a monastic priest who looks after orphaned kids by day and moonlights by night as a rather insufficient ‘Luchador’ in order to earn money to feed his impoverished waifs. “It just hit me as something so strange and wild,” adds Hess.“ It was a story I really wanted to tell. The concept is so outrageous that it seemed like the perfect follow-up to ‘Napoleon.’ ”

“No one would have taken me seriously as a wrestler had they known I was a priest,” admitted the brawler, real name Reverend Sergio Gutierrez Benitez.

Strange and wild it certainly is; but this almost impossible ‘fight the bad guys to feed the kids’ story, is based on one of Mexico’s most beloved grapplers – the legendary Fray Tormenta (Friar Storm). A professional Luchador, Tormenta fought for some 23 years, survived some 4,000 bouts while remaining totally incognito clad in golden cape, yellow leotard and a red and yellow mask. But in real life Fray Tormenta is a proper no holds barred, fully ordained priest who, just like the fictional Nacho Libre, donned the leotard in order to feed the children he had found abandoned on the streets of Mexico City. “No one would have taken me seriously as a wrestler had they known I was a priest,” admitted the brawler, real name Reverend Sergio Gutierrez Benitez. “The fans, the impresarios, thought my nom de guerre was a joke, like all the other characters we impersonate in the ring.”

One of 18 children born to poverty, Benitez had little chance for education and so gravitated to the port of Vera Cruz, fraternized with pimps and prostitutes and got heavily into serious drugs. “The day I hit rock bottom, I went to see a priest for help,” remembered the Samaritan. “He chased me out of the church. I was so angry, so incensed, I thought there ought to be better priests in this world to help people like me.” Soon the young man was accepted by a Spanish order and dedicated his life to theology, history and God, but it wasn’t until he saw a young street kid sleeping rough under a bridge in Vera Cruz that Father Sergio found his true vocation and began his orphanage at Teotihuacan, just outside of Mexico City where no child was ever tuned away.

“I never knew where the next meal was coming from,” he recently explained. “So I became a professional wrestler because I had a cause. If it weren't for my children, there would have been no reason to fight so I designed my own mask and outfit. My mask colours are yellow and red. The yellow represents gold for Divinity and the red represents the blood that Fray Tormenta is willing to shed for his kids.”  Father Sergio’s identity was eventually leaked when one of his colleagues, Daniel Garcia, the legendary Huracan Ramirez, attended a mass given by the good father and the news of his identity spread. “Luchadores were afraid to fight me, not because of my strength or skill but they were afraid of the fans,” recalls the priest. “They would shout out, 'you can't fight a priest!’ and they would throw tomatoes, garbage and even coins at them!”

When this remarkable figure made his final testimonial at the Arena in Mexico City - the epicenter of Lucha Libre - the entire Mexican wrestling fraternity turned out and applauded with tears running down their multi coloured masks. “Life,” he said, quoting an old Mexican proverb as he stood in the ring for the last time, “is but a brief masquerade. It teaches us to laugh with tears in our eyes, and to conceal our sorrow with laughter.”

The first grappler credited with sporting a mask in Mexico actually came from Chicago in 1934, his disguise a cheap gimmick to introduce the country to this most American of sports.

Indeed, the masquerade is part of a Mexican tradition that goes back centuries. Aztec warriors would don the mask of an animal like the jaguar or wolf to enable them to fight like these creatures they so admired and intimidate their Conquistador opponents. Even after the Spanish conquest the tradition continued. Peasants on Saints Days constructed masks out of cloth, bone and wood to represent creatures such as tigers, armadillos and monkeys, that were the last vestiges of the pre Hispanic Pagan Gods, firmly believing that when they wore such masks, their true identities were transformed into Gods who would make their harsh world a far better place ….if only for that one miraculous day.

But incredibly the first grappler credited with sporting a mask in Mexico actually came from Chicago in 1934, his disguise a cheap gimmick to introduce the country to this most American of sports. The wearer dubbed, El Mascarado or The Masked Man (identity still unknown) was soon forgotten, his mantle usurped by an Irishman, Cyclone McKay, whose leather form-fitting mask covered the whole of his head and provided the blueprint for all masks to come. Masked combatants such as McKay were mere novelties in American wrestling but in Mexico, the mask took hold thoroughly and indelibly, its design employed explicitly to evoke the images of animals, gods, ancient heroes and other archetypes whose identity the Luchador takes on during a performance.

The man responsible for elevating the masked wrestler to national superhero was born Rodolfo Guzman Huerta on September 22nd 1917 and inspired by the internationally successful comic book hero, The Phantom and the Alexander Dumas novel, The Man In The Iron Mask (both of whom almost always wore their masks) became El Santo, El Enmascarado de Plata or “The Saint, The Man in the Silver Mask.”

But, even though El Santo, with his agility, grace and innovative moves, helped popularize Lucha Libre in the ring, it was out of the ring that he really made his name as Mexico’s number one star. The El Santo comic book, by artist Jose G Cruz, ran for some 35 years and turned the wrestler into Mexico’s favourite character in popular literature, while his career as a movie star battling, among others, she wolves, vampires and the mafia in films such as Santo Versus The Zombies (1961) spanned an amazing 52 films and spawned a genre.

Santo’s astounding success might be explained by a number of factors, but the main reason for his Elvis-like status is that he was never, ever, seen unmasked. And even though the press assured the public that he moved among them unmasked, the people never quite believed it. As the late Rene Cardona, director of dozens of Santo movies once said: “ He was Santo because he never showed his face. He would leave the set with his mask still on. In the studio commissary he ate wearing a mask with a hole for his chin so he could move his jaw and when a film crew travelled to Miami for a shoot, Santo flew on a different plane so nobody on the production would see his face when he removed his mask for customs.”

Other matches such as mascara contra cabellera, or mask versus hair, see a masked grappler fight the unmasked and, if the masked Luchador is victorious, the unmasked wrestler has to shave his head.

Sadly, Santo, whose career lasted some 49 years, brought his career to a grinding halt when he voluntarily removed his mask on a TV documentary in 1984 aged 67. Beneath the mask El Santo, bald and wrinkled, looked like a sad and homely retired labourer and died just a week later. Rodolfo Guzman Huerta had long been forgotten and the character had overtaken the man.  He was, of course, buried in his mask.

But it was because of the success of Santo that most grapplers start their career in Mexico masked - a reality that in the forties prompted the wrestling regulatory body to create a whole new set of rules that revolved entirely around the wrestlers disguise and made the sport peculiarly Mexican. The worst thing that can happen to a fighter south of the border is that during a bout entitled, mascara contra mascar, he loses, is unmasked, and his name officially revealed. And so the older the wrestler gets without being unmasked the greater his status. Other matches such as mascara contra cabellera, or mask versus hair, see a masked grappler fight the unmasked and, if the masked Luchador is victorious, the unmasked wrestler has to shave his head. Virtually all wrestlers will lose their mask during their careers and because it usually represents their final departure from the ring, the promoter will often give the loser a quite substantial lump sum in order to cushion the blow.

Today, Lucha Libre, by unashamedly featuring midget wrestling teams that feature the likes of the three foot tall Tzuki, techno music, smoke and flashing lights, has become even more popular amongst the population while the addition of women fighters to the bill has added a certain je ne sai quoi, but it is the mask that still reigns supreme.

“Without the mask, you’re nobody,” explains Hijo del Santo (Son of the Saint” the legendary wrestler’s real-life son who inherited the silver mask after his father’s retirement. “When you put it on, you become something magic and suddenly you’re an idol. Everyone likes you, they want to touch you and have you sign an autograph.”

Lucha Libre can be seen on the Wrestling Channel - Sky Digital 247 -  with increasing regularity

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