[18 November 2008]
There’s a scene in Morgan Spurlock’s otherwise forgettable film Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? in which Spurlock encounters an Afghan man selling t-shirts screen printed with images of US professional wrestlers. Through an interpreter, the man tells Spurlock he likes wrestling because it’s a test of strength, a fight from which one can’t hide. When Spurlock tells the man it’s all fake the man replies, “Yes, yes, but when it’s for a belt it’s not fake.”
On the other side of the world, in a war zone no less, and wrestling’s prestige is protected by a street vendor, the same as it might have once been defended in the US heartland. Now, the secret isn’t a secret anymore. In the US, wrestling appears to have entered a transitional phase in which its brightest stars—like Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson—appear in movies out of their wrestling personas and prime-time matches hardly have the event status they once did. This may be unique in the United States, but it’s a different story in Mexico.
Heather Levi’s book is not a history of lucha libre (literally “free fight”). She describes a bare bones account of the sport’s origins in the early 1930s when promoter Salvador Lutteroth, taking a cue from a wrestling event he saw in the US, brought the sport to Mexico, but the development and evolution of lucha libre is largely left out of the text. There is no through-line in the book, or a series of historical markers for those unfamiliar with lucha libre to follow.
Instead, Levi explores the conventions, symbols and meanings of the sport, including whether or not it’s even a sport at all. Wrestling, she writes, “sits on the border between the normally separate categories of sport, theater and ritual.” It’s in this border region in which Levi finds her richest material.
Even those unfamiliar with lucha libre know about the masks worn by many wrestlers in Mexico. The identities of masked wrestlers are closely guarded secrets, surrounding a wrestler with a super hero-like quality. A mask, Levi writes, “is treated as a fetishized object that represents a wrestler’s honor.” Drawing up on the work of other wrestling scholars, Levi finds a parallel between the use of masks in indigenous cultures as well as the original inspiration for the masks, including comic book super heroes and, surprisingly, the Ku Klux Klan. The use of masks, though not entirely absent, never quite caught on in the US, no doubt because of the lack of integration between indigenous and European cultures in the US. The mask, Levi writes, is “central to the Mexicanization of the genre.”
The struggle for what to call lucha libre is in Levi’s use of the word “genre”. The term “sports entertainment” has come to symbolize the pyrotechnics and sweaty soap-operatics of US professional wrestling. The emphasis, however, is on entertainment; professional wrestling is completely absent from the sports coverage of major newspapers and television networks. Lucha libre, however, is featured in both sports and entertainment stories, a clear sign that not even the media has decided what to call it, let alone the entire culture.
Wrestlers, too, straddle the fence on the issue. Some argue, Levi writes, that if wrestlers are actually hurt—and they often are—then lucha libre is an actual sport. Levi reveals, however, that matches are fixed, their outcomes determined by leagues called empresas which function much the same as the WWE does in the US. Because of the predetermined outcome, many see lucha libre as simply a series of acrobatic stunts expertly performed until the bell rings.
Levi takes the middle ground, acknowledging lucha libre‘s debt to both sport and theater. In fact, much of the book focuses on finding the middle ground between the opposing dichotomies of lucha libre. Sports, she writes, have traditionally been seen as a force for modernization, but the masks so prevalent in lucha libre harken back to Mexico’s pre-Columbian history. Lucha libre, it seems, is as much about struggle and dominance inside the ring as it is in the symbols it projects.
A small but fascinating part of Levi’s book is the fieldwork she did while preparing the text. While living in Mexico, Levi trained as a luchadora with a former professional wrestler. She learned the falls, tumbles and acrobatics necessary to compete, an experience that could likely fill a book of its own. The experience of training is not the focus of the work, however, but rather a tool the author used to further illuminate her research.
Levi provides breakdowns of a few actual matches in detail, but these few passages suffer from a clunky, instruction manual-like description of each move a particular wrestler made. Unfortunately, Levi’s no sportswriter, and the athletic drama fails to come through on the page.
The World of Lucha Libre describes a strange and fascinating place in which masked men and women possessing incredible strength and agility punch, kick, and pummel one another into submission. For those reasons alone the book is worth reading, but, as Levi demonstrates, it’s the layers of meaning encoded in all that strange violence that make the struggle interesting.