Sundays in the United States are impossible to disassociate with football.
Not so in Mexico, where futbol americano enjoys regular television airtime, but it hasn’t reached the level of importance that the sport now enjoys north of the border (slightly less important than breathing, but far more important than governing the country).
So how, in fact, do you pass the Sunday leisure time in Mexico? Well, there are walks in the park with loved ones, books, and trips to the local art gallery. Or, if you need something to make the heart race a little more, there’s always lucha libre.
What is lucha libre? Anyone familiar with Hulk Hogan or Steve Austin can give you the basic rundown. A pair of colorful guys (or gals) in tight outfits with big muscles shout insults at each other and the crowd, at which point they engage in a highly choreographed, highly entertaining bout of flips, somersaults, slaps, and elbow drops until one of the wrestlers is subjected to a pin for a count of three.
There are some important differences between lucha libre (“free fighting” in Spanish) and America’s pro wrestling. For one, most lucha combatants have the added twist of fighting while wearing a mask. The lucha mask follows the basic blueprint of an executioner’s mask but features brighter colors. And often flames and tassels.
But the mask, although often quite pretty, is not just for show. The mask is to luchadores what the scalp was to Indians. The humiliation of losing the match is multiplied ten-fold for any wrestler who suffers the indignity of having his mask removed and his disgraced visage revealed to those watching at home. Sometimes, a maskless eunuch seeks to recover his headgear along with his dignity by besting the wrestler who had previously revealed his face to the world.
The masks, in fact, have reached such a level of pop culture popularity that they now exist almost independently from wrestling, much the same way Converse All-Stars were not merely basketball sneakers. Lucha masks are sold by street venders throughout the country and, consequently, worn by street vendors’ patrons across Mexico. Their use transcends society: devoted sports fans, ironic partygoers, and students eager to torment their teachers all sport the mask. Even social activists aren’t immune: Superbarrio, decked out in bright red mask and matching tights, gained fame in the 1990’s for his work organizing labor protests in the capital.
In addition to the masks, another Mexican quirk is that lucha rings are six-sided, rather than the square that one sees north of the border. While this may sound like a meaningless detail, for those fans schooled on the four-side version, the hexagon is like a breath of fresh air: more places from which to leap, more angles to bounce yourself or an opponent off of the ropes, more escape routes, and, generally speaking, more mayhem.
Many of you reading this are probably already familiar with the organized chaos of lucha libre thanks to the recent work of the actor Jack Black. Black introduced millions of Americans to the sport with his movie Nacho Libre, which came out in the summer of 2006. Black’s take on lucha libre was sympathetic and mostly accurate. Although at times it seems the movie was written merely to show off his (amusing) version of a Mexican accent, it did a good job of giving viewers a sense of the atmosphere surrounding the sport.
Nacho Libre was actually just the English-language pioneer of a long tradition of lucha flicks. Lucha stars of yesteryear oftentimes transferred their skills at wreaking havoc in the ring to the big screen. The 70’s-era lucha flick has much in common with a low-budget Charles Bronson vehicle: lots of bravado, boom mikes invading the upper reaches of the camera shots, and peculiar delivery of lines. While they did not win any Oscars, these older lucha films deliver as many laughs as Nacho Libre (albeit unintentionally), and are a gold mine of kitschy styles.
Today’s wrestling superstars, while they don’t invade the silver screen quite as frequently, are every bit as charismatic as their forebears. Latin Lover, as the name would suggest, is universally recognized both for his status as a sex symbol as well as his pile-driving prowess. Universo 000 is a longtime fan favorite and current champion. El Hijo del Santo (the Saint’s son) is well-known for his famous conversion from the white hat-wearing good guy to the villain in black. A growing number of Mexican wrestlers, Rey Misterio, Konnan, and Juventud, among others, have also found success north of the border.
Mexican wrestlers, just like their American counterparts, have a number of different organizational venues in which they can ply their trade. The best known of these is the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (World Lucha Libre Council, or CMLL). A visit to the CMLL website is a great way to get a sense of what lucha libre is all about, even if you don’t speak Spanish (the loud colors and vivid masks really say it all).
The CMLL claims to be the oldest wrestling pro association in the world. Whether or not this is true, pro wrestling certainly has deep roots in Mexico. Pro wrestling was alleged to have been a diversionary pastime for distressed Mexicans in the 1860’s, when French armies were marching up and down the countryside, but the sport did not catch on until a few decades later.
The father of pro wrestling in Mexico is Salvador Lutteroth Gonzales, a Jalisco-born haberdasher who had fought for General Alvaro Obregón in the Mexican Revolution. Lutteroth put together his first pro wrestling event in 1933 under the banner of the brand new Empresario Mexicano de Lucha Libre, the CMLL’s forerunner. It was a smashing hit, and Lutteroth had found his calling in life. Over the next 40 years, he led his promoting company to the peak of the pro wrestling mountain.
Lutteroth, now known as the Father of Lucha Libre, centered his company in Mexico City. Ambitious wrestlers across the nation sought out Poppa Lucha, and the best were given a place in his stable. Lutteroth also had the good fortune to find a home on Mexico’s Televisa network, which owned a monopoly on the television airwaves for most of the twentieth century.
Mexican wrestling fractured a bit after Lutteroth retired in 70’s, with rival organizations staking out their own turf. Despite the challenges to its hegemony, the CMLL has remained the big cheese of Mexican wrestling, the place that every future star wants to be.
To make sure those future stars have the talent and skills necessary to shine, the CMLL has an in-house pro wrestling school. For a monthly fee of only 300 pesos (about 27 dollars), students can spend two hours a day learning from one of three different instructors and studying the very best luchadores. Students are, of course, given Sundays off; after all, that’s when lucha libre is on TV.
-Originally Published in December 2007.