for National Geographic News
Thump. Whap! SMACK!
Behind a locked door on the second floor of the Gym Ham-Lee here in the center of Mexico City, burly, half-naked men are slapping each other around.
Inside the training room, athletes are flinging bodies, smacking feet, and locking necks. The smell of sweat and old socks mixes with shaving lotion in this sacred spot in the heart of the gym, where masked Mexican wrestlers called luchadores practice.
Hijo del Diablo (Son of the Devil) charges into the training room. He walks around the gym, pointing to pictures of his heroes on the walls.
"He was the highest champion," Diablo says, standing before a poster of the Blue Devil. "She was champion of the world," he says, pointing to a photo of female wrestler Lola Gonzalez.
Diablo tapes his wrists and pulls on a tight leather mask. He warms up and gets ready to practice moves, while in the ring a comrade locks his elbow around another wrestler's neck, smothering his mouth with a fist.
A coach hisses directions, giving the two fighters the next moves in their ballet of sweaty torsos, tattooed shoulders, and hidden faces.
Lucha libre, which translates as "free fighting" or "free wrestling," has been Mexico's unifying entertainment since the 1930s. Hundreds of wrestlers have carved out fame for themselves from a fan base spread among all ages and incomes.
Over the years the sport has seen many leagues and name changes. The two main leagues in operation today are the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (C.M.L.L) and the AAA.
The contests are even popular in the U.S., especially in states where large numbers of Mexican immigrants have settled.
In Hollywood a movie featuring lucha libre characters and comedian Jack Black is reportedly in the works. Other U.S.-based tie-ins include books and the kids' cartoon Mucha Lucha.
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES