[31 July 2008]
I can still remember the day my Dad broke the news that pro wrestling was fixed. Worst 27th birthday present a guy ever received. Only kidding. I couldn’t have been more than ten when that particular bubble was burst. Like an entire generation of British kids before me, I would happily devote an hour every Saturday afternoon in thrall to Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks and Rollerball Rocco, the heroes and villains of homegrown grappling.
Of course, when Dad delivered his devastating revelation, I refused to believe it. Why would they fake an entire sport, I argued. If these are real world championships, he countered, then why aren’t they reported in the newspaper? Much as it hurt, I couldn’t fault his logic.
Televised British wrestling went the way of the passenger pigeon in the mid-1980s, and was gradually replaced by louder, brasher and infinitely more muscular American imports in the form of the WCW and WWF. These days, WWE and its roster of chemically dubious ‘sports entertainers’ have monopolised pro wrestling, making annual trips to European shores to wring the last few pounds from the pockets of fans hopelessly hooked on the escapades of its self-proclaimed ‘Superstars’. Staggeringly over the top and infatuated with its never-ending internal cycle of violence, you could make a strong case for the WWE being an accurate microcosm of American society, combining a glorification of physical size, a total detachment from reality and a continued insistence that any dispute must be solved through increasing levels of hostility.
But there is another world of wrestling out there.
Nacho Libre may not have been a great movie, but Jack Black’s homage to the uniquely Mexican art of Lucha Libre (literally, free wrestling) did illustrate that pro wrestling doesn’t necessarily equate with the WWE’s particular brand of ugliness. And although the film was merely the tip of the iceberg of a cultural phenomenon stretching back to the 1930s, it did stir up interest in Mexico’s theatre of masked mayhem. How else to explain Lucha Libre London, three sold out nights of Mexican pro wrestling in the alien surroundings of the Roundhouse theatre in historic Camden Town?
In the interests of investigative cultural journalism, and the prospect of a wild Saturday night out, it was too good an opportunity to miss. Here’s what we learned.
Lucha Libre isn’t for the average wrestling fan.
Perhaps it was the location, but there wasn’t a single WWE t-shirt in the house. Instead, the too-cool-for-school posse was out in force, jeans worn low and limited edition sneakers seemingly a prerequisite for entry. Many had dressed for the part, bringing their own homemade wrestling masks or forking out £50 for an authentic mask from the merchandise booth.
There were a lot fewer kids in attendance than I’d expect, too. Denied of the publicity oxygen that the WWE generates for itself, the younger generation perhaps wasn’t that aware, or that interested. The handful of Mexican ex-pats in London were present, but the vast majority of spectators were cosmopolitan 20 and 30-something Londoners, all eager to dive headfirst off the turnbuckle into another culture. They weren’t going to be disappointed.
Lucha Libre takes the “sports” out of sports entertainment.
You can question the ethics of having a pair of masked midgets taking on a couple of burly, very-much full size luchadors, but it turns out that the sight and sound of a dwarf getting slapped is mightily entertaining—I guess you had to be there. After an MC’s entertaining explanation that Lucha Libre is an eternal battle between rudos (boo!) and tecnicos (yay!), the difference was illustrated by a heroic yet tiny tag team taking a pummelling from their much larger opponents. The entire bout was pure slapstick with barely a passing nod to physical confrontation, and its controversial conclusion came as little surprise to anyone. I mean, how could the referee miss one of the rudos ripping off his own mask and blaming little Octagoncito? Come on!
Screw fighting, we want to see some moves.
Lucha Libre, at its best, bears virtually no relation to actual combat. And therein lays its strength. Who wants to see a sequence of arm and leg locks, when the other option involves jumping off the ropes, grabbing your opponent around the neck with your legs, somersaulting to pull him over into a prone position, and then springing into a crab to pin his shoulders down for a three count? Now that’s entertainment.
Tag Team wrestling rules.
Tag team wrestling has virtually disappeared from the WWE’s menu as it dilutes the celebrity appeal of its superstars. Thankfully, tag team remains the staple format for Lucha Libre. And rightly so. The more people in the ring, the greater the potential for ludicrous fights and implausible moves. Synchronised dives out of the ring onto wrestlers waiting below? We’ll have some more of that ,thank you.
Cassandro El Exotico
Masculinity is not the only option.
Perhaps this says as much about English society as it does about Mexican, but the undisputed star of Lucha Libre London was Cassandro El Exotico; a transvestite wrestler who invoked more cheers the more she camped it up; hip checking the ring girl, snatching her card announcing the first round, and mincing around the ring holding it aloft before the bout even started. With no concern for personal safety, Cassandro threw herself around with suicidal abandon; only pausing for hilariously timed preens. Nothing says comedy violence like a transvestite hurling herself headfirst out of the ring onto the floor below only to check her makeup isn’t smeared after landing.
When you have action, storylines are irrelevant.
Even the briefest look at WWE programming reveals a convoluted history of besmirching, insults and unprovoked personal assaults. Lucha Libre London proved that good pro wrestling doesn’t need complex plots and vendettas to sell itself. The wrestlers present were unknown to 95 percent of the crowd and personal rivalries remained undeclared. The eternal battle between rudo and tecnico was enough to provide the background to the encounters. The shouting that prefixed and suffixed every bout was all in Spanish, yet somehow it all made perfect sense.
Lucha Libre may be the best pro wrestling in the world, but is it sport?
Well, no. In one way, Lucha Libre is the heartfelt grunge to the WWE’s hideous hair metal. As soon as you’ve experienced the former, the latter instantly seems overblown and outdated. But still, Lucha Libre holds no pretence to being anything other than pure theatre, and judging it by any other criteria would miss the point entirely.
And yet, the day after Mexico’s finest risked life and limb for London’s entertainment, a few miles from the Roundhouse Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal bared their souls, fighting to exhaustion in the best Wimbledon final in living memory. Separated by a matter of hours, it was impossible not to compare the two contests – one the ultimate reality TV, the other, a thrilling escape from reality.
And as impressive as London’s Luchadors were, the two best tennis players in the world proved that unpredictable, improbable competition is still the most exhilarating entertainment we have. I will be writing to Wimbledon to demand the inclusion of dwarf and transvestite tournaments at The Championships in 2009.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/lucha-libre-london/