"¡Cállate, cabrón!" screams the bloke to my right. "¡Párate, culiado!" The subject of his taunts – a man sporting a curious ensemble that comprises black Lycra tights, a mohawk and mask that is part Scream, part Mad Max 2 – approaches and, for a moment, looks as if he is about throw a punch at the heckler. But after a few tense seconds, he slowly walks away, shaking his head for comic effect, under a hail of jeers and catcalls. Meanwhile, as more masked men effect a highly choreographed fight scene in the ring in front of me, a group of people in another part of the arena, clad in matching T-shirts, pound on drums and blast air horns to demonstrate their approval of the unfolding action.
It's a balmy Tuesday evening and I am ringside at Arena Mexico, the leading venue in Mexico City for the local style of pro wrestling, lucha libre. It's an unruly theatre of catharsis in which comic-book heroes (known as técnicos) and villains (rudos) play out the eternal struggle between good and evil via the medium of colourful masks, spangly capes, six-man tag matches, dangerously acrobatic dives and low blows.
Look in the right places and this peculiarly Mexican form of pro wrestling is everywhere. In leading US grappling league WWE, wrestlers Rey Mysterio and Sin Caraare bringing lucha into the wrestling mainstream. Cult independent outfits such as Chikara are heavily influenced by the popular pseudo-sport. It's even inspired a Warner Bros animated series, ¡Mucha Lucha!, not to mention terrifically daft Jack Black vehicle Nacho Libre. But for a truly authentic lucha experience, Arena Mexico – where the 78-year-old wrestling company CMLL (Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre or World Wrestling Council) runs twice-weekly shows – is the only place to go. While the popularity of the spectacle is not what it was a few years ago, the venue, known as 'the cathedral of lucha libre', still draws anything from around 2,000 to 6,500 supporters to each event.
"We come here a lot," Miguel Angel Melara, 25, tells me, in between yelling obscenities at hapless técnicos. "I know a guy who sells tickets so we get cheap seats. It's a release. You can say things and behave in a way you can't normally." Indeed, sitting next to Miguel and his mates is a crash course in Spanish slang and profanities: the true sport here is not in the thrillingly athletic matches between the masked luchadores but in the fans attempting to outdo one another with explicit one-liners barked at full volume. The phrases quoted above – which translate as, "Shut up, you bastard!" and, "Stand up, fucker!" – are at the milder end of the sweary spectrum. At one point, someone behind me bellows something to do with "tu madre" (your mother) and "mis cojones" (my bollocks) but I don't catch the entire phrase, something for which I should perhaps be thankful.
Sitting next to Miguel and his mates is a crash course in Spanish slang and profanities.
The wrestling juggernaut that is WWE is making significant in-roads into Mexico – in walking around Mexico City, you'll see as many John Cena T-shirts as you will lucha libre ones – but Miguel doesn't watch the US import. He has been coming to Arena Mexico since he was a child, after he saw lucha libre on TV and asked his grandparents to take him to a live event. In the years since, his enthusiasm clearly hasn't waned and he remains loyal to Mexico's home-grown brand of grappling. "This is more technical than WWE," he says. You find the best wrestling in Mexico here."
He has a point. Scoff all you like but CMLL matches are hugely entertaining. Between them, the wrestlers on tonight's bill – who have names such as Rey Cometa, Apocalipsis, Diamante Azul and El Terrible – execute a dazzling array of creative throws and holds, injury-defying dives out of the ring, and twisting vaults off the top rope that must take months to perfect. It's wholly apparent that the performers are working together, not against one another, to produce such spectacular sequences. And yet, at its best, the end result is so expertly put-together that you can't help but lose yourself in it. "It's the magic of wrestling," says Miguel. "You need to believe that it's real."
The two-and-three-quarter-hour card culminates in a bout in which CMLL world welterweight champion Máscara Dorada defends his title against Psicosis. No one seems to know (or care) what the weight limit is for the welterweight division, nor whether either of the combatants fall within it. Miguel and his friends root for Psicosis – they prefer the rudos "because not so many people know them. We like to cheer for the underdog." Despite their support, Psicosis loses the match by two falls to one, but not before both wrestlers have pulled off a breathtaking array of leaps, reversals and flying manoeuvres.
Suitably purged, the lucha supporters, some wearing souvenir masks purchased earlier from stalls outside the venue, quietly file outside into the warm evening air and, in a matter of minutes, the venue is empty. No doubt many of them will be back in a few days' time to do it all over again, venting their frustrations and anxieties by yelling themselves hoarse at those acrobatic masked men.
Oliver Hurley is the author of Wrestling's 101 Strangest Matches
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