Mexico's Masked Wrestlers Have Headlock on Spectacle

L. Peat O'Neil in Mexico City
for National Geographic News
September 19, 2005
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.

Masked Warriors

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.

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."

Wrestling Mystique

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 mask—a 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!")

International Reach

To pump up their incomes, wrestlers promote authorized accessories related to their characters. Related merchandise sells on the Web and the streets—some 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 hurts—but you like it. After the match, I want more."

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