Unlike most professional wrestlers in the U.S., Mexico's luchadores wear masks as part of their stage personas.
Dave Meltzer, California-based editor at Wrestling Observer, the industry's leading trade journal, notes, "Mexican wrestling started out based on American wrestling. In the 1940s masks became a phenomenon in Mexico. Then it became an attraction for wrestlers to have a mask."
Spectators sometimes attach cultural significance to individual masks, likening them, for example, to Aztec warriors, Meltzer says. "But maybe it's just because [iconic wrestlers] Blue Demon and El Santo wore masks, and they were imitated by other wrestlers," he says.
"If someone loses, they have to get a new mask, a new character."
In addition to masks, wrestlers choose nicknames to enhance their characters' mystique.
"Everyone in my neighborhood called me Little Devil, even my Mom," Diablo says. "So I created a personage of the devil's son."
Shu El Guerrero, who fights in peso completo (full-weight) class, says his name means Warrior of the Sky in Mayan. "I'm an air person," he says.
Guerrero manages the Gym Ham-Lee and has 23 years of lucha libre wrestling experience.
At 42, his forehead is rippled with scars from a chair that hit him in a match long ago. But most spectators never see that.
The wrestler sewed his own maska black spandex number with yellow leather stripes and a furry mohawk stripe over the scull. There are no eyeholes; he sees through the thin spandex.
As part of his shtick to rev up audiences, Guerrero shouts, "Arriba la America!" ("Up With America!")
To pump up their incomes, wrestlers promote authorized accessories related to their characters. Related merchandise sells on the Web and the streetssome of it legally.
Professional luchadores register their monikers with a brand-name protection office in Mexico. Every five years they renew the name, paying about $300 (U.S.) to register.
"Pirates profit from our names. They'll make up cheap masks and sell them outside the arena while we're fighting," Diablo says. "You'll see posters, photos, even boots."
"This is a full-time job," he adds. "Training, making publicity appearances, policing the streets to make sure no one is selling our merchandise. I don't have time for anything else."
Thanks to tours by Mexican wrestlers starting in the 1970s, the sport's popularity extends as far as Japan.
"We've fought Japanese, Guatamalans, Panemanean, Carribbean, and Americanos. But American lucha is fake, not like ours," Diablo says.
"Come to the gym and he'll teach them," he adds, gesturing to Guerreo. "It's not fantasy."
Nodding toward the ring, Diablo says, "If we're here, it hurtsbut you like it. After the match, I want more."
Free E-Mail News Updates
Sign up for our Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top stories and pictures (see sample).
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES