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Lucha Libre Unmasked

Mike Sacks

Lucha libre and American wrestling are propelled by the same overarching theme: the vicarious morality play, the most important theme in professional wrestling of any sort. So what has kept lucha libre, professional wrestling in the Mexican tradition, out of the American mainstream?

“There’s no reason why lucha can’t make it in the States,” Ken Rainville, publisher of From Parts Unknown, a magazine that covers all things lucha libre, or Mexican professional wrestling told the Los Angeles Times in 2002. Rainville’s assertion is audacious, given how World Championship Wrestling and World Wrestling Federation (now merged as World Wrestling Entertainment) have used -- or misused -- Mexican wrestlers, or luchadors, since their televised introduction to US audiences in January 1996. However, Rainville is a member of a small but growing community of Americans whose rabid appreciation of lucha libre transcends the lukewarm response many American fans had when presented with lightweight masked wrestlers with Spanish names. Lucha libre enjoys a valorous tradition in Mexico, but when its wrestlers cross the border, neither mainstream promoters nor their audiences seem to have any clue how to translate luchadors into the American professional wrestling lexicon.

Despite the regional, ethnic, and linguistic differences, lucha libre and American wrestling are propelled by the same overarching theme: the vicarious morality play, the most important theme in professional wrestling of any sort. Professional wrestling, at its core, is a visceral theater of good vs. evil, where performers incite and react to audience sympathies and aggressions, urging it toward catharsis through the in-ring activities. The wrestlers and promoters must create personas and situations that the audience can closely identify with. Without it, the match is a failure.

The most successful matches capitalize on their audiences’ identities -- hopes, fears, traditions, politics, cultures: Lucha libre and American wrestling each have their own language, and the differences between them have crippled lucha libre’s cross-cultural translation. Lucha libre’s origin can be traced back to the early '30s. On the website for his upcoming film, La Lucha / The Struggle, filmmaker Duncan MacLeod explains how it started: "A retired Army colonel returned to his homeland, bringing with him a quasi-vaudevillian band of American wrestlers. He was delightfully astonished when his little troupe played to sold-out shows in Mexico City. The mask phenomenon started with one American wrestler named El Enmascarado, who wore a full head mask in the ring. This new prop somehow spoke to the psyche of the macho Mexican culture, for almost overnight, scores of masked imitators popped up and played to packed houses all over Mexico."

But according to Anna Breitenberger, who's researching lucha libre at California State, Fullerton, wearing masks as a means to gain power "can be traced back to pre-Hispanic traditions in rural Mexico, when wearing a mask in spiritual rituals was equivalent to becoming a god that had the power to transform the brutal world of animal spirits in a fertile and prospering one." (

Whether or not the early lucha libre fans were conscious of the mask’s cultural significance, what is certain is that a more contemporary interpretation was in play: the superhero. Superhero stories, like lucha libre, involve heroes and villains with secret identities in a battle of good versus evil. The morality play in lucha libre is further amplified by the luchador’s mask, which, above all else, embodies the definition of Mexican wrestling. Whereas American wrestling culture sways toward big men whose physical statures connote their superpowers, luchadors are of a smaller breed. Their masks, each with its own unique embroidered patterns and symbolism, make up for their lack of size. Oversize American wrestlers, too sluggish and clumsy to let their ring performance speak for itself, often find themselves relying heavily on gimmicks to attract and excite fans. But the smaller and more agile luchadors allow lucha libre to build character and tell stories with a more fast-paced in-ring style and high-flying, death-defying moves -- springboarding off the top rope, doing somersaults in the air, building the mythos attached to their masks.

Until the mid-'90s, American pro wrestling still reveled in sensational storylines revolving around freakishly large, gimmick-reliant performers like Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, the Undertaker, and Yokozuna, to name a few main-eventers, whose matches the majority of the crowd came to see. But in the midcard, more-spectacular wrestlers could be found. Like lucha libre wrestlers, midcarders such as Shawn Michaels often lacked the larger-than-life size or charisma of the main-eventers but were mat technicians and innovative high-flyers. These wrestlers remained more or less obscure until 1994, when Hulk Hogan’s defection to the WCW created a Monday night ratings war between rival wrestling organizations, or promotions. As more of the WWF’s main-event talent pool would follow Hogan’s lead to WCW, the WWF had to create main-eventers out of their best midcarders.

As both organizations were in transition in 1995, they looked to the burgeoning underground scene, led by Philadelphia-based Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), for new ideas. Founded in 1993 by Paul Heyman, a recently departed WCW manager who went by the name Paul E. Dangerously, ECW was the king of the underground promotions. Whereas many independents of the time were watered-down, low-budget regional rehashings of the WCW and WWF, ECW managed to affect the course of American professional wrestling. With its mantra “Join the Hardcore Revolution!” ECW’s goal was clear: to push, if not destroy, the boundaries of the mainstream and collect enough of an audience to compete with the big boys -- WCW, WWF. It pursued its goal by coupling unprecedented displays of sex and violence with wrestling styles rarely seen by mainstream audiences. One of these was lucha libre.

A cyclical, symbiotic relationship sprung up between the major promotions and ECW: ECW would introduce an innovative angle or wrestler; WWF or WCW would steal the angle or seduce the wrestler with promises of greater glory and a larger paycheck. This cycle, which would ultimately canonize and kill ECW, began in 1995, when ECW introduced Rey Misterio, Jr., and Psicosis, two of the most popular and accomplished luchadors, to its audience at ECW Arena in Philadelphia. The fans embraced the two masked wrestlers as their own, chanting “ECW! ECW!” with Misterio’s huricanrana into a DDT off the top rope and Psicosis’s springboard planchas into the crowd.

WCW noticed the overwhelmingly positive response ECW fans had for the lucha libre matches that followed this contest and decided that it could profit from this foreign style. What WCW did not consider, though, was the drastic difference between its audience and the ECW audience. The ECW audience wanted extreme, hardcore wrestling and lucha libre's fast-paced, high-flying, suicidal style suited it perfectly. But WCW’s audience was as mainstream as mainstream American audiences got, and above all else it wanted a solid story and familiar faces. Unfortunately for Rey Misterio, Jr., Psicosis, and several other luchadors, WCW’s Lucha Revolution angle failed to generate the heat felt in ECW. WCW fans simply did not know how to respond to the little masked men.

So in the summer of 1996, WCW introduced an angle that would make it even harder for the luchadors to break through. When Hulk Hogan turned heel (wrestling lingo for villain; the opposite of a face) and joined Kevin Nash and Scott Hall at Bash at the Beach 1996, they formed the New World Order stable (n.W.o.) -- a group hell-bent on taking over WCW. Originally planned to be a heel organization whose slogan was “Tradition Sucks”, the n.W.o. co-opted the rebellious ECW attitude and managed to endear itself to the younger WCW fans bored with its old-school style while also creating an edgy storyline that brought hordes of WWF fans to WCW shows. As Hall and Nash brought with them an authenticity and sense of humor that endeared them to fans, WCW found itself in the midst of a cultural revolution in American professional wrestling.

The n.W.o. hearkened in the age of the tweener -- a wrestler who successfully gains face heat while maintaining the role of the heel. The good vs. evil barriers almost immediately broke down in the main-event tier. As the n.W.o. gained more members in the midcard level, the line blurred there, as well. This brought the downfall of the cut-and-dry superhero mythology in American professional wrestling. Hulk Hogan, who for 15 years had been the indestructible American hero, became fallible as Hollywood Hogan. The wisecracking Hall and Nash had feuds fueled by actual backstage politics, bringing the storylines to reality rather than sustaining a good vs. evil morality play.

Fans in both WWF and WCW demanded more such authority-defying rule-breakers. Stone Cold Steve Austin and D-generation X were the WWF’s answers to the n.W.o. and both were promoted and received as faces despite their disrespectful, foul-mouthed ways. Nonetheless, despite these drastic shifts, the emphasis on the big man and outside storylines remained unscathed in American wrestling. The prospects for lucha libre couldn't be worse.

Amid tweeners and down-to-earth storylines, lucha libre stuck out as a misfit on the Monday night programs. It seemed inserted rather than integrated into the show, disjointing its flow and irritating audiences who could not determine -- or did not care enough to figure out -- who was the good guy and who was the bad guy. Indeed, WCW and WWF did not invest the out-of-ring time to establish these distinctions, and American fans were also too caught up in the n.W.o.’s redefinition of the classic heel and face roles to give such traditional lucha libre characterizations any consideration.

Aside from the demythologization of American professional wrestling, the contrasting choreographies was another element in lucha libre’s underappreciation. What seems realistic (not to be confused with thinking the grappling is actually real) is always a matter of familiarity with the conventions that establish it. Having adapted to the conventions of American wrestling, American fans watching luchadors are bound to find it less realistic. The ECW audience's greater receptivity and hunger for alternative styles made ECW Arena an apt theater for lucha libre, but the WCW audience clearly was not willing to embrace a new in-ring style along with a shift in the mainstream wrestling personas: Nash still used the same five-move routine in his matches that he had as Diesel in the WWF; Hogan might have changed his first name, his attitude, and his colors, but his sequence of maneuvers remained identical to what he had done 10 years earlier.

So what was WCW to do with these masked Mexican wrestlers? As WCW took a quantity-over-quality philosophy in its battle with the WWF, it refused to lay them off. More intent on having a bloated, expansive roster of overpaid has-beens, underutilized youngsters, and an endless stream of jobbers, WCW let the luchadors toil to audience apathy on the undercard of Nitro. But in 1998 WCW noticed that a few luchadors -- Rey Misterio, Jr., Juventud Guerrera, and Psicosis -- were actually getting over in the cruiserweight division. WCW looked to eliminate the glaring difference between them and American-style cruiserweight peers like Chris Jericho and Billy Kidman to help the Mexicans gain fan sympathies, and decided ridding them of their “stupid looking masks” would be a start.

However, the mask represents the trademarks of superhero culture and of lucha libre culture: honor, respect, and tradition. According to Exclaim! columnist Stacey Case, author of The Man, The Mask, and The Myth: Mexico’s Lucha Libre the mask equates to the luchador's maintenance of honor. For El Santo, the most legendary luchador of all time, dominating opponents in the ring from 1942 until 1982 while starring in more than 50 successful films, identity and honor were so dependent on his mask that he was buried wearing it. For other wrestlers, like El Santo’s son, El Hijo del Santo, the mask carries a tradition of greatness and respect. Sons wear identical masks as their fathers and even grandfathers, and while wearing such masks, seek to avenge their fathers’ losses against opponents who have either a personal or familial responsibility for those losses. To lose one's mask “takes away a lot of an enmascarado’s mystique and completely changes his image,” if not humiliating him and ending his career. (Stacy Brandt, “Who Was That Masked Man?” Daily Aztec, 5 December 2002.)

For Juventud Guerrera, Psicosis, and most notably Rey Misterio, Jr., their masks held the weight of all of these factors. And WCW, in its attempt to better integrate these luchadors, took them away. As Case reflected, “Rey Mysterio Jr., one of the greatest, most gifted, high-flying Mexican masked luchadors ever, was unmasked in a WCW bout last year, and it made my heart sink. I didn’t know who to be more mad at: Rey Mysterio Jr. for selling out his own cultural traditions, or North American wrestling culture for letting it happen.” Misterio himself, in a Shoot interview, explained the reaction in Mexico upon losing his mask: “It was bad…they were pissed that I lost it in the US rather than Mexico. When I wore his mask and tried to lose it again, the fans booed the shit out of me, so I went to the center of the ring and tried to talk. When the fans wouldn’t let me talk, I just took off the mask and threw it in the center of the ring.”

After all three lost their masks, Misterio, Guerrera, and Psicosis all enjoyed greater success but not at the level that they or WCW anticipated. Their stints as high-midcarders only lasted several months, with each fading in popularity before WCW ultimately folded. And whereas Guerrera and Psicosis can now be found wrestling around Mexico and various American independents to much lesser grandeur because of their past decisions, Misterio has reemerged in the WWE, where he is still a low-midcarder despite his amazing ability. Moreover, he returned with his mask back on, which is an impermissible offense in the lucha libre tradition.

Nevertheless, after such disastrous results in its forays into mainstream American wrestling culture, lucha libre continues to find a home for itself with American underground subcultures and fringe audiences. The weekly lucha libre show on Galavision, a national Spanish-speaking network, enjoys a cult following among English-speaking Americans and is popular among Spanish-speaking Americans. In addition, From Parts Unknown has been delivering lucha-related literature in English to the growing community of Mexican wrestling enthusiasts in the US. In Southern California, several regional lucha libre promotions have received local media coverage. From Parts Unknown is involved in promoting “Lucha VaVoom”, a bawdy, over-the-top but true-to-form lucha libre show in Los Angeles. And in Orange County, World Power Wrestling puts on shows that cater to recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

You don't need a Spanish-English dictionary to know that lucha libre is drastically different from what the mainstream American wrestling culture has to offer. If America's only exposure to Mexican wrestling comes within the confines of a world dominated by big men with big mouths and few moves, it will remain doomed to be seen as “little Mexican guys in stupid masks who jump around, catch each other’s falls, and do lots of unnecessary flips". But if you are willing to see it as Mexican audiences do, you can experience the venerable free fighting of mythologized superheroes and archvillains soaring through the air in the ultimate battle of good versus evil.

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