By Kris Levin, Columnist
“Lucha libre is Shakespeare. In it, we experience action, drama, and every single emotion that can be felt.”
-Santy “El Tigre” Hernández, luchador and aspiring lucha libre historian de Ciudad de México.
I have always had a fascination with the artform of lucha libre, México’s traditional take on professional wrestling. It is a unique means of artistic expression, adjacent yet not completely uniform among variants found worldwide. I favor comparing it to the relationship held between Broadway and Kabuki theatre — while their goals of entertainment and enlightenment align, their methodology and stylistic choices in doing so vary widely. Between the colorful masks and costumes, the familial and character dynasties, and the aerial maneuvers and intricate ground mechanics, it is a fascinating culture that breeds a wonderful and, at times, mysterious mythology of its own. For the luchador, describing lucha libre as a lifestyle is more than just an expression of dedication and devotion: lucha truly is a way of life.
What follows is a brief guide to act as a basic understanding of lucha mixed with my own, personal opinions based on my own, personal experiences. Like all of my views on life, I readily acknowledge they are prone to growth and change in the face of misinterpretation or an evolving perception. Talking about a different culture can be tricky and in no way am I attempting to stereotype or generalize it or the people who are part of or support lucha libre. Truly, I cannot understate the amount of love and admiration I have for lucha libre, México, and the people of México, whom are among the most hardworking, hospitable, and fun-loving individuals I have ever had the pleasure of befriending. Within lucha, there are business similarities found within the remaining North American, eastern European, and Japanese styles of pro wrestling, respectively. Aesthetically, however, it is a world of its own. All share the same roots in catch-as-catch can Olympic grappling, but their separate growth and evolution is immediately apparent.
Like modern professional wrestling in the United States, lucha’s origins date back to Civil War-era athletic exhibitions based on the Greek sport of the Classical-era. Speaking to my friend and aspiring lucha libre historian, the México City-based luchador Santy “El Tigre” Hernández tells me that lucha’s first incarnation (comparable to contemporary times) was founded on September 21st, 1933 by Salvador Lutteroth. Inspired by a trip to Texas that involved Lutteroth acting as a spectator at the nationally- and internationally-budding business of professional wrestling, Empresa Mexicana de Lucha Libre (“Mexican Wrestling Enterprise,” now known as Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre — “World Wrestling Council”) was born.
Before I go any further, I feel that explaining some of the basic tenets of lucha libre is in order. In lucha, the protagonists are referred to as técnicos (“technical wrestlers” and known in the US as “babyfaces” and the UK as “blue eyes”) with their opposite being the antagonistic rudos (“rough or rude wrestlers,” also known in the US as “heels”). Lucha libre, itself, literally translates to “free fight” and is named for its roots in the Olympic sport of freestyle wrestling. Famed French philosopher and anthropologist Roland Barthes penned an essay on professional wrestling during the fifties titled The World of Wrestling. Published as part of a collection of his essays in Mythologies, Barthes describes the captivated crowd, as Santy puts, “as having entered a fantasy world where they buy the técnicos as living embodiments of the role of Jesus” in a modern rendition of a Passion Play. Barthes explains:
“In wrestling, a man who is down is exaggeratedly so, and completely fills the eyes of the spectators with the intolerable spectacle of his powerlessness… The same as that of ancient theatre, whose principle, language and props (masks and buskins) concurred in the exaggeratedly visible explanation of a Necessity. The gesture of the vanquished wrestler signifying to the world a defeat which, far from disguising, he emphasizes and holds like a pause in music, corresponds to the mask of antiquity meant to signify the tragic mode of the spectacle. In wrestling, as on the stage in antiquity, one is not ashamed of one’s suffering, one knows how to cry, one has a liking for tears.”
Certain aspects of theatre (and even the human experience as a whole), regardless of their separation in time or space, are universal. Barthes goes on to say:
“We are therefore dealing with a real Human Comedy… It is obvious that at such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself. There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theatre. In both, what is expected is the intelligible representation of moral situations which are usually private. This emptying out of interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs, this exhaustion of the content by the form, is the very principle of triumphant classical art.”
Despite the first masked wrestler being a Civil War-era French circus performer with an appropriate nom de plume of The Masked Wrestler, the colorful masks more synonymous with lucha than any other aspect also were borrowed from the United States. Santy tells me that in 1934, the Texas performer who competed as Cíclon MacKey on Lutteroth’s inaugural event, donned a mask one year later for the developing promotion — masks were, by then, a common trope in the United States professional wrestling circuit in the vein of the ancient Greek hypokrites — and was now performing as La Maravilla Enmascarada (“The Masked Marvel” — a name likely adopted from the first masked North American performer, three decades prior). Lucha has never looked back since.
“When I put on the mask, I’m transformed. The mask gives me strength. The mask gives me fame. The mask is magical. When I remove the mask, I’m a normal human who can walk right by you and not even get a ‘hello.’ Usually, with the mask on, everything is positive. Without the mask, I’m a normal being who has his problems, who cries, who sometimes suffers. I could tell you that I really admire El Hijo del Santo. But do you know who I admire more? The human being. Thanks to him, El Hijo del Santo has a life. And this human being sometimes sacrifices a lot to give the other identity life.”
-El Hijo del Santo (“The Son of the Santo” — the son of El Santo, lucha libre’s most iconic star), luchador
As I co-wrote with Jon Trosky and Mike Combs for The Angry Wrestling Vet: “The anonymity the mask gives allows any masked wrestler to become an everyman. A symbol is always stronger than mortal man. Conceptually, it is also without race. It’s not as much an identity as it is a mythology… For most of their lifetime, [luchadores] were never seen in public without [their masks]. They never showed human weakness. Therefore, they were suspended above mortality. The mask allows for the apotheosis of man to legend.”
All cultures have their own folklore. On speaking of the legacy and pageantry of masks in lucha libre, Santy says: “The mask is a huge deal. It’s part of Mexican folklore. I truly believe the use of the mask goes back to the Aztecs, who had different animals represented on their outfits. The Aztec warriors fought as if they really were the animal they dressed as, be it an eagle or a jaguar. That’s the same with lucha libre. The performer becomes the character he wears.”
This Aztec influence can be seen more on-the-nose in the performance of characters such as El Hijo del Fantasma’s (“The Son of the Phantom”) alter-ego, King Cuerno, on the similarly Aztec-themed international television sensation, Lucha Underground. Santy, himself, started performing under a “hood” (as they are traditionally referred to in wrestling jargon), but lost it in México’s traditional hot box-office attraction, luchas de apuestas — a “match with a wager.” That which is waged is typically a mask, hair, or a championship.
For Santy, as dictated by the local lucha libre commission, he is barred from wearing a new mask for three years. On the subject of state athletic commissions, of which I have been very vocal, Santy shares my sentiments: “I don’t think they are good for the business. Back in the day, they used to be very helpful: they gave luchadores work and collected records of events around the country. Nowadays, they don’t do any of that stuff. So far as I have seen, now they just provide lucha licenses and nothing else. I think the main trouble with the commission is that they can’t draw a line between kayfabe (note: this word comes from the United States carnival circuit and translates to “be fake.” Today, it is used in reference to scripted storyline elements of professional wrestling) and real issues.”
Being that the most iconic and easily recognizable aspect of lucha libre are its vibrant masks, it should come as no surprise to see the long-lasting legacies they create. Cults arise around these masked dynasties and are cultivated by los fanáticos de lucha libre (“lucha libre fans”). These legacies are often passed down, survived by the original’s children, relatives, and students. Likewise, fandom is also passed down from one generation to the next. As one might expect, the anonymity afforded by masks can easily be abused so far as the realm of business ethics are concerned. Many copycats, replicas, and outright frauds exist, impersonating the original or lying about their authenticity as officially-anointed members of the dynasty — sometimes with and sometimes without the permission of the true owners of the character. Santy informs me: “The passing of the mask is often arranged in a money deal, but in México there are so many wrestling shows that make it easier to have copycats or ‘family members’ under the mask.”
As I alluded to earlier, fakes exist that are sanctioned by the original in order to double dip bookings on the same date or otherwise send another in their place. Santy tells me: “They are a huge problem! People sometimes can’t tell the difference. But when they do, the shit gets real!”
When asked if this is dealt with internally, Santy reveals: “I saw this situation just once in my career. The promoter thought it was a good idea to copycat a famous character. Word spread to the real owner of the character. As he is a very feared man in the business, he simply made a statement: ‘If I see my character on a show and it is not me, I’m going there and I’m beating the shit out of everyone.’
“Instead of doing the right thing and leaving the character alone, the promoter scouted the true owner’s schedule in order to use the character when he was too far to make an appearance. But that’s lucha libre, I guess.”
Aside from those two integral inspirations that served as its launching point, lucha very much possesses its own unique canon. As Charles Darwin discovered during his fateful antebellum-era expedition to the Galapagos Islands: when isolated, two entities that have a common ancestry and even a shared starting point have the ability to sharply deviate to different destinations. As such, the basic, fundamental mechanics of lucha libre, while baring similarities that will make it adaptable for skilled performers, are extraordinarily different to those generally taught in the United States (and other countries abroad). For example, while those in the United States traditionally work on the left side of the body (an old tradition that began at the turn-of-the-century to prevent injuring what was most wrestler’s dominant arm needed for their dayjob), México focuses on the right. If unprepared, this can serve to create a disorienting mirror image of what workers from the United States are typically accustomed to.
“Each moment in wrestling is therefore like an algebra which instantaneously unveils the relationship between a cause and its represented effect. Wrestling fans certainly experience a kind of intellectual pleasure in seeing the moral mechanism function so perfectly.”
-Roland Barthes, French philosopher and anthropologist
A shining example of this is how lucha libre handles its ring entrances. Within the realm of televised professional wrestling productions, the first impression allotted by an entrance leaves it to often be referred to as the most important aspect of a segment. As such, there is often a certain amount of deference, a sense of “sanctity” toward the entranceway ever since the spectacle of professional wrestling production methods began booming in the late eighties. Suffice it to say that it’s a big part of the overall presentation. However, aside from maybe the biggest TV products, in lucha there is no special respect set aside for the entranceway. Luchadores walk through the crowd to the ring, sharing the space with the fans as they are bombarded with requests for autographs and pictures. Despite a certain loss of gravitas, it makes for a much more intimate interaction for the rabid fanbase. This also speaks to the fact that in México, luchadores — regardless of their level — are truly looked at as rockstars by their adoring fanbase.
Santy elaborates: “luchadores try to give off an impression of luxury. It’s an idea that comes from the old lucha days, like El Santo arriving to the arena in a convertible car. It is a funny situation: most of the time the luchador is a middle-class person, so the luxury is an illusion.”
Generally speaking (and niche products aside), professional wrestling in the rest of North America, eastern Europe, and Japan all run on a baseline of realism, no matter how absurd or violent deviations can become. Ideally, in these countries the concept of psychology runs through the veins of all bouts. This basically means that there should be some sort of contextual logic applied to the match and story being presented. In traditional lucha libre, this ideal is virtually non-existent. Whereas US pro wrestling is usually a cross between a worked (fixed or otherwise not on-the-level) combat sport and theatrical pageantry with a pinch of vaudeville, lucha libre is a cross between gymnastics and the entirety of what remains in the aforementioned bag of vaudeville (Kabuki theatre is also an applicable cross-reference, here). In lucha, dazzling acrobatics and complex submission holds are combined with simple melodramatic narratives and slapstick comedy that often has a predilection ranging from crude to vulgar — Santy tells me that the art of subtlety is not a prominent feature of Mexican culture and entertainment.
When taking part in a production of lucha libre, it becomes readily apparent that its very fundamental basis is irrevocably different from that of their international counterparts. As mentioned above, vulgarity is generally considered to be more socially acceptable in México than in the United States. Luchas (“matches”) generally contain an ongoing, constant string of Spanish obscenities between the luchadores. In an example of the difference between what is considered culturally acceptable in US versus what is in México, the Mexican mainstream generally treats uncouth language as no big deal. Santy refers to this in a tongue-in-cheek way as being “rude. This is just how our culture is. Even moms sometimes speak with bad words to their children.”
Personally, I prefer veteran professional wrestling producer Mike Robles’ take on it, which he shared with me while travelling together during my first tour of México: “They take life for what it is. They’re more real about it here.”
Santy credits the allowance of vulgarity in lucha events as a big part of their appeal. Over dinner one night at an Irish pub in the middle of México City, he explained to me how, as the percussions of an era marked by increasing amounts of political correctness slowly trickle across México, expressing things such as, “chinga tu madre,” (literally, “fuck your mother”) at, say, a soccer match, can result in fines. Even beeping your car horn to the tune of Shave and a Haircut (minus the Two Bits follow-up), which, traditionally in México is a stand-in for “chinga tu madre,” can also result in a fine. This is not the same at lucha libre events, where shouts of that and chants of “hey, puta!” (“hey bitch!”) and “cabrón!” (“asshole!”) are commonplace. In that respect, this is similar in tone to most sporting audiences in the United States. Personally, like the fanáticos, I find the silliness of it all incredibly amusing and even endearing.
More mundane are chants of “miedo!” (“scared!”) and the ever-present sounds of wooden noisemakers. Interestingly, alongside the string of obscenities, another thing one will constantly hear from luchadores and fans alike is the sound of whistling. Not only is whistling on the level of (or possibly superior to) clapping in terms of showing appreciation in México, but it is used by luchadores as a verbal iggy (also called the office in the US, a gentle squeeze — usually of the palm — as a form of nonverbal communication) to call the attention of a co-worker in order to prepare for the next sequence.
Another common trope is comedy generated at the expense of over-the-top, mock displays of sexuality. This is best exemplified by exóticos. Lucha is typically broke up into divisions of regular luchadores and luchadoras, minis (what is often referred to in the States as “midget wrestling”), lucha extrema, and exóticos. Exóticos are male luchadores who crossdress and display overt feminine and homosexual characteristics. These exóticos are often paired with minis and luchadoras in mixed tag team special attraction matches and their antics are often treated as lighthearted gags and comedy fodder. This serves to play off of a sense of over-the-top silliness that flies in the face of machismo and healthily challenge gender norms, as opposed to any anti-LGBTQ sentiments (note: mirroring that which is often found in the United States, machismo is the concept of toxic masculinity that often plagues Latin-American cultures and often results in acts of bullying, gender-related posturing, and misogyny). While to contemporary US fans, LGBTQ portrayals of this type may be seen as outdated or offensive, legitimately gay luchadores have used these roles as a rallying cry for public acceptance in the eighties. Today, these characters are typically cheered and celebrated by fanáticos as wildly popular técnicos and are seen as empowering to the LGBTQ movement.
Santy paints any tensions toward the LGBTQ community in México as being comparable to that of the US. Also like the US, Santy describes professional wrestling fans as being especially tolerant: “That’s a beautiful and magical part of lucha libre, everyone who wants a chance to perform is respected. Most importantly, everyone who is willing to put their body on the line gets respect.”
On the subject of exóticos, I reached out to the extravagant el Divino Exótico, who I worked alongside at Desastre Total Ultraviolento throughout Central México. Santy describes him as the best luchador in all of Pachuca — I am inclined to agree. The married father of three describes his character and manner of dress to me as being an “exotic butterfly” and emphasizes that it is all in the name of fun for the benefit of the crowd.
“Lucha libre is an addiction. Once you get in, it is hard to get out. It’s my passion. My life. I love her. Even though she takes a toll on me, she is everything to me. I have been on the ground in defeat and yet I still was victorious, because life looks better from the mat.”
-El Divino Exótico, exótico luchador de Pachuca, México
Just as all cultures have their own folklore, all cultures also share their own customs. While I got my start within the professional wrestling industry at the age of fifteen, that is not necessarily a cultural norm in the United States. Sure, there are others here who have also started at a young age, but the general introductory age range is typically in the early-to-mid twenties. In México, that is not the case. More often than not, introductory ages tend to fall in the teenage years or younger. Just as children in the US have a wide variety of youth sport options that range from baseball and basketball to football and lacrosse, many in México have the additional option of lucha libre. Many that I spoke to while on-tour with DTU started in their early teens and trained for nearly a decade prior to debuting. Irwing and Erwing, the youngest active members of the DTU roster and twin children of veteran luchador Ovett, couldn’t have been more than ten- or twelve-years-old.
Santy tells me that he began his training at the age of seventeen after being inspired by Rey Mysterio winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. He trained for two years at Arena Azteca before making his professional debut, which primarily consisted of “tumbling, holds and counterholds, and a lot of backbreakers, arm drags (note: arm drags are referred to as “suplexes” in México), and dives.”
On the subject of the many who train yet never make their debut (similar to those who train in mixed martial arts, yet never compete), Santy tells me it is “mainly because of the rough nature of the sport. Lucha libre is one of the most complete disciplines as a workout, but becoming a luchador is a more serious business.”
El Divino Exótico tells me that he trained for four years in Pachuca beginning at the age of eighteen, before advancing to the independent professional ranks of México City. Additionally, he trained for nearly six years in the Olympic-style of Greco-Roman wrestling and collegiate wrestling because he wanted to be “a complete wrestler.”
This echoed the sentiments of fellow lucha veteran Angel O Demonio (“Angel or Demon”), who I sat down with in late September of 2017 while we were stuck together at the lucha-themed Santa Lucha Hostel in Querétaro, in the midst of a canceled event due to a series of earthquakes that plagued Central México at the time (note: thank you to my favorite nerd, Kevin, for his invaluable assistance in facilitating and translating this interview). One of the most charismatic performers I have shared a ring with (and ensured that all time spent together in México was full of laughing and singing — a true joy to be around), Angel could tell a story and, even if you didn’t understand a word he said, you would still be completely engrossed by it. That, in my estimation, is the true hallmark of a great storyteller: not allowing something as minor as a language barrier to interrupt a good story.
During the course of the interview, Angel sits brimming with energy and sports a zigzagging assortment of scar tissue which coats his forehead and arms from his years spent competing in lucha extrema. One especially memorable contest that I officiated in Veracruz saw him and Ovett take turns working over one another with a handsaw. However, this was not always the case. Angel started as a fresh-faced luchador at the age of twenty-one in the early eighties after attending a local gym — Gimnasio Metropolitano de José Castañeda Lince and, later, Ham Lee Gym — with his father. This gimnasio just so happened to house a professional wrestling ring, which allowed him to see and hear lucha profesores y maestros (“professors and teachers” — interchangeable phrases for trainers) plying their craft — which Angel found to be too intoxicating to resist.
“I consider pro wrestling to be real. If pro wrestling wasn’t real, I wouldn’t have all of these injuries and the scars.”
-Angel O Demonio, luchador de lucha extrema de Tlalnepantla de Baz, México
Unfortunately, Santy was unable to participate in similar Olympic-style training, as is often the case for many younger lucha students in years since gone-by: “Oftentimes,” Santy laments, “most of my lucha generation gets too in-love with aerial stunts, so they forget about all the traditional mat-based styles.”
Mentor and philosopher of professional wrestling Mike Combs feels that as lucha moves further from its roots in submission-based grappling and become geared more towards aerial innovations, as an artform it becomes a study in passivity: “it’s the difference between manipulating the opponent’s body and manipulating your own. A ground-style is based on wearing down an opponent, whereas the element of surprise is more prevalent in lucha. Its reactionary as a style and is based on a ‘catch me if you can’ mentality, as opposed to a ‘catch-as-catch can’ mentality. It’s about distance, not locality — as a submission style would be. It’s about not offering up a limb. Not grappling. Keeping everything at an arm’s length in distance. Even the entering of variables, partners and enemies alike, are akin to a game of tag. Blind tags, shooting off… It’s about ‘the next move’ and establishing a base more than it is an actual grappling match. If I were to compare it to a trip to the circus, the aerial-based luchador would be the trapeze artist: depending only on his skill and his equipment. Whereas the ground-based grappler is more akin to the lion tamer: he bases his job on skill, luck… and the willingness of the lion.”
Just as would occur to Santy over a decade and a half later, on December 23rd, 1999 in Arena López Mateos, in the midst of a heated feud, Angel lost his mask in a lucha de apuesta to Tarzan Boy. Prior to this, Angel had performed under a mask for fifteen years and he tells me that the decision to forgo his mask was a difficult one: “it was part of me. But the gear doesn’t make the wrestler. Angel O Demonio with a mask was great. But, when I lost it, that cycle ended and I began a new cycle with Angel O Demonio sin mascara (“without mask”). With or without the mask, I am the same person. A lot of luchadores, when they lose the mask, they feel upset and lay down. But for Angel O Demonio, he rises.”
Initially given to him by Shadito Cruz, an incredibly entertaining aspect of Angel O Demonio’s character is that, in the vein of WWE Hall of Famer “The Unpredictable” Johnny Rodz, his character will switch from técnico to rudo at the drop of a hat — including multiple switches within the course of a single match. Admittedly, in my experience, the line between técnicos and rudos is tenuous at best — a worldwide trend of characters falling in shades of grey that has only grown since its popularization in the mid-nineties. This I experience acutely while working as a referee at lucha libre-themed events. By nature of the demands of this industry, the rules of professional wrestling are to a degree fluid. They are applied in only as stringent a manner as the promoter or story dictates. Sometimes, rules are often nudged for the sake of the story at hand. However, in lucha, the rules apply only when the performers decide they should for the sake of the individual performance. These rules can alternate widely not only on a match-to-match basis, but even within the confines of a single bout.
“The rhythm of wrestling is quite different, for its natural meaning is that of rhetorical amplification: the emotional magniloquence, the repeated paroxysms, the exasperation of the retorts can only find their natural outcome in the most baroque confusion. Some fights, among the most successful kind, are crowned by a final charivari, a sort of unrestrained fantasia where the rules, the laws of the genre, the referee’s censuring and the limits of the ring are abolished, swept away by a triumphant disorder which overflows into the hall and carries off pell-mell wrestlers, seconds, referee and spectators.”
-Roland Barthes, French philosopher and anthropologist
There does exist within lucha a sort of standard formula that is, in my estimation, not unlike that of the multi-milenia-spanning, unchanging artistic canon of ancient Egypt. As is the standard norm, matches can end by pinfall, submission, count-out, or disqualification by way of a foul, which in standard lucha is a low blow, interference, a piledriver, the use of a weapon, or the removal of your opponent’s mask. Typically, matches are conducted in two-out-of-three caídas (“falls”) format. The first two falls will interchangeably consist of an extended “shine” (segment to showcase the abilities of the técnicos often features a variety of comedic spots at the expense of the rudos) or an extended “heat” (segment for the rudos to cheat and rough up their opponents). La última caída (“the last fall”) will typically consist of an early attack of the rudos being thwarted by the técnicos, leading to an extended comeback and victory. In traditional lucha, it is not uncommon to lack back-and-forth action within the individual segments. Sometimes, these matches require the “team captain” be pinned. Sometimes, they require two-to-three of your opponents to be pinned in rapid succession. Sometimes, it alternates during the course of a single match. This is to say that, while often logistically nonsensical, it does maintain its own sort of pragmatic, consistently inconsistent internal rhythm.
The actual content of lucha bouts typically consist of exchanges in athletic showmanship and submission acumen. While the performers are working together, there often exists a legitimate competitiveness in outperforming your opponent. Beautiful aerial displays and intricate submission holds are swapped in a smooth flow of movement, though luchadores sometimes long for a greater sense of cooperation with their dance partners.
A curious tidbit about Mexican culture, in general, is that it has yet to be affected by the epidemic of short attention spans brought about by smartphones. Punctuality is not placed at a premium in México, where it is customary for things to run late. This can be felt in the matches, the production of events, and the conduct and expectations of the audience. Shows often start late. “Audiences actually have no problem with it,” Santy tells me, “I have seen crowds wait for up to an hour for a show to start.” In kind, the audience often arrives late. There’s often an excess amount of time between matches, during which sometimes music will play. Intermission typically runs long. The matches themselves usually feature long entrances that maintain no deficit in crowd interaction. In the US, the pacing and timing of a match is incredibly important. In México, not so much. Average match lengths are double that of what is common on the US independent scene, with drawn-out comedy spots that regularly take the matches in total to the twenty-to-thirty minute mark. Santy admits to me that his training never included any concepts of working with time management. And this isn’t to disparage lucha, mind you. It’s a different world and that’s just how things are done there.
“I would say psychology is, for lack of a better word, flexible here in México.”
-Santy “El Tigre” Hernández, luchador and aspiring lucha libre historian de Ciudad de México
For me, personally, I prefer a mixture of lucha’s wonderful displays of athleticism and colorful characters in combination with the premium much of the rest of the world of wrestling places on psychological narrative and storytelling. Often, this inconsistency can be frustrating to deal with as an official, especially when there is a hard communication barrier in place. One of lucha’s most traditional tropes is that of the rudo oficial — a “heel referee.” During these instances, the referee will often (inexplicably or otherwise) favor the rudos over the técnicos. This will lead to the heat of tag team matches consisting solely of multi-man beatdowns by the rudos on the isolated técnico. The rudo referee will allow this while simultaneously blocking the entry of the técnico’s partners. Confusingly, however, is the fact that even when a rudo referee is not present, this exact same sequence of events will occur. To quote my friend, Philadelphia-based luchador Latin Dragon, “YOLO — you only lucha once.”
One of my favorite moments from my time in professional wrestling so far occurred as a result of me turning rudo ref. In the summer of 2017, the main event at Arena Querétaro featured a trios deathmatch between Game Changer Wrestling’s Matt Tremont, Markus Crane, and Jimmy Lloyd contra (“versus”) DTU’s Ovett, Paranoiko, and Toxico. As the finish of the match came with an apparent win for Team DTU, I halted my count, ripping off my DTU referee shirt to reveal a GCW shirt underneath. I solidified the revelation of a double-cross by delivering a double-bird salute to the fans as Ovett was attacked by Team GCW and stabbed through the mouth with a hypodermic needle. I digress.
The role of the lucha official is typically far more physically involved than its US counterpart. While I will encounter the occasional ref bump or comedy spot domestically, it is rare for me to officiate a lucha match where I am not physically involved in some way; whether it is the técnico inexplicably riling up the crowd with a threat to punch me in the nose for “favoring the rudos” (even when I’m not actually doing that) or a comedy sequence that ends in me taking a hip toss or delivering a sunset flip. Once, I was chopped so hard that the force of the blow knocked me off of my feet and, somehow, simultaneously broke my belt and dislocated one of my ribs.
Times like that aren’t fun. However, working with wonderfully professional luchadores, such as the seasoned lucha libre veteran Solar, is truly a treat. Despite a total language barrier, Solar was capable of picture-perfect nonverbal communication that saw him beckoning me to him and placing me in position for a complex ref bump sequence that was uncalled and completely on-the-fly and still came out perfectly.
Lucha performers typically work a much lighter style, especially in comparison to norms that one may find in the world’s three greatest hotbeds for professional wrestling. The relative “lightness” of their strikes is generally felt in everything save for three areas: unprotected chair shots to the head (a huge taboo in the United States, given developing information on the long-term effects concussions can have on the human brain… I have yet to determine if the occasional act of reckless abandon is to be considered a bug or a feature of lucha libre), deafening overhead chops to the chest, and the make of the wrestling rings. Historically speaking, professional wrestling rings and boxing rings were frequently one-in-the-same, which is to say that they had no give for those taking falls (or “bumps,” in professional wrestling parlance). In the United States, this had to change as professional wrestling transitioned from a largely grappling to a bump-oriented presentation in the fifties with such boundary-breaking performers as Argentina Rocca and “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. Still, the rings were stiff, especially for smaller competitors. With the dilution of the prohibitive, exclusively “big man” culture of professional wrestling post early-to-mid nineties, professional wrestling rings began being made with even more give to compensate for comparatively smaller performers with increasingly high-risk offensive maneuvers.
Lucha libre rings, however, are still notoriously stiff. In A Lion’s Tale: Around the World in Spandex, Chris Jericho described his first encounter with them in mid-nineties México: “The ring was a boxing ring that had absolutely no give and was not made for bumping. My opponent, an American named Fabuloso Blondy, warned me that we wouldn’t be able to do much of anything during the match. I figured he was just being lazy and called a hip toss. He ran off the ropes and said ‘Fuck that,’ and hip tossed me instead. When I landed on what felt like concrete, I nearly pooped my pants. No shit. We did nothing but exchange holds after that.”
That sounds like the México I know and love. During my second tour with DTU, we began doing a nightly spot that saw a rapid succession of Ace Cutters being delivered, ending with me giving one to the last man standing. After two weeks straight of that, what remained of me could be described as little more than a broken heap. I digress.
As a result of these roughshod rings, this explains the style of lucha largely having a predilection for acrobatics that result in rolls. This is as opposed to contemporary US and Japanese norms, styles which are largely bump-oriented. As a result of this, despite full-time luchadores working equal or, often, more dates than high-profile US professionals, careers in lucha libre tend to last comparatively longer and performances are conducted at a higher rate of ability in senior years, as well. Despite the inherent danger that come with planchas (“splashes”) and topes (“headbutts” — typically of the diving variety), especially of the suicida assortment (literally “suicide” — for the purposes of lucha, this references death-defying dives done from the inside of the ring to the outside), less bumps and more rolls do the body well. Who would have ever thought that what is essentially the equivalent of the resulting trauma of experiencing a multiple low-speed car accidents several nights a week would have negative health consequences in subsequent years? I digress.
“What is thus displayed for the public is the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice. Wrestling presents man’s suffering with all the amplification of tragic masks… This is why all the actions which produce suffering are particularly spectacular, like the gesture of a conjuror who holds out his cards clearly to the public.”
-Roland Barthes, French philosopher and anthropologist
Career-length is exponentially increased in lucha by the proliferation of multiman matches, the most common of which are trios (three-on-three), atomicos (four-on-four), torneo ciberneticos (upwards of eight-on-eight), and other multiman elimination and scramble matches (such as the three-way-dance , which to my knowledge, despite being popularized in Extreme Championship Wrestling in 1995, originated several years prior in México). These are the prefered match styles of luchadores, as it allows for briefer involvement for all performers and works toward the strict canon of lucha libre mechanics. Interestingly, the exact opposite is often true of performers in the United States: while sometimes welcome for the same reason, workers often prefer fewer opponents to allow for fewer complications and to also make more of an allowance toward camera-time and storytelling goals.
Back to the subject of the hardness of los cuadriláteros (the Spanish phrase for “wrestling rings”), Santy affirms: “the main reason, I believe, is to ensure the realism of lucha libre.”
When I follow up with the clarifying question of if this display of “realness” (which is noticeably absent in many other aspects of lucha libre) is in any way related to machismo, Santy laughs: “Absolutely, it is mainly a machismo thing. Machismo is the worst thing about Mexican culture.”
Santy also admits, however, that a contributing factor to not better maintaining old rings or getting new and improved ones outright is the Mexican economy, which has yet to recover from the crash of its peso in late ‘94: “Well, it is partly the expense, because the same ring can be used for boxing and wrestling.”
(Note: Santy is referencing that the Mexican venues that house lucha libre events are often permanent arenas used exclusively for professional wrestling, boxing, and like events. This is unlike venues in the United States, where the majority are co-opted for a variety of entertainment endeavors.)
In the US, pro wrestling has had periods of mainstream buzz and, conversely, periods where it was predominantly looked down upon as an uncivilized form of entertainment. Often, these two expressions of the cultural zeitgeist exist simultaneously. In México, lucha libre is seen as “a sport for poor people,” which mirrored the previously mentioned lowbrow connotations the industry has been saddled with in the United States. Confirming this with Santy, he told me that companies large and small primarily tour in low-income areas: “I believe it’s because of the rough lifestyle in México. You’ll see people work several hours and earn low wages, so lucha libre is an inexpensive escape from that.” Santy continues, relating the escapism that is provided by entertainment on a universal level: “Most people here feel oppressed by the system, so they create empathy with técnicos . But in the last few years, the situation has gotten worse. People don’t settle with being the good guys anymore.” Santy tells me that needing an outlet for their frustrations, “they need to push someone, to have someone stepped on. Rudos have become popular.”
This left me with a mystery, though: post-match, it is common for the audience members to toss pesos into the ring as a sign of appreciation for high-quality performances. It is not uncommon amongst older, more wily luchadores to shamelessly refuse to exit the ring until they have squeezed all of the blood possible from an audience that, for their sake, is hopefully not made up of stones. This is not meant as a derogatory statement, mind you. Ingrained from the days of oppositional relationships of carnies being financially dependent on working their marks, that is simply the nature of the beast. Santy was kind enough to help me reconcile these two seemingly-conflicting suppositions: “It is a huge deal to be awarded with money. The people of México have very little money, so when they share it with you, it is a way of saying, ‘man, you gave us one hell of a show!’”
For sure, lucha is certainly an acquired taste. However, this is not to dismiss lucha; the athletic capabilities of luchadores are phenomenal. In my opinion, the most basic, homogeneous set of skills required for the well-trained luchador are far more advanced and require far more athleticism than the base routine of any other typical wrestling style found worldwide. With the melting pot that came with the interwar period of globalization (that has been rapidly accelerated with the innovation of the internet), elements of lucha libre are now being streamlined globally. Lucha libre was first seen on the world’s stage when México also experienced the explosion of post-war science fiction films, which naturally gravitated towards lucha and it’s larger-than-life characters. Stars including El Santo, Blue Demon Jr., and Mil Mascaras spanned the silver screen and, eventually, the world as they or their compatriots began regularly competing in matches across the globe.
Despite being initially slow out of the gate due to the lucha libre tradition of often forgoing naming promotions, filming events, or having a social media presence, the tide is beginning to turn. Lucha’s influence has been felt not only in the quirky and irreverent independent professional wrestling sensation that is CHIKARA Pro and the hit television drama Lucha Underground, but since Asistencia Asesoría y Administración (“Assistance, Assessment, and Administration”) presented the first groundbreaking lucha libre pay-per-view available in the US in 1994, with When Worlds Collide, the style of professional wrestling itself has been increasingly altered to dramatic effect. Since that time, the athleticism involved in wrestling has had its ante upped exponentially in a way that was necessary to keep up with the changing times. This can be seen with AAA’s ongoing relationship with IMPACT Wrestling, leading to talent exchanges that benefit not only the promotions, but most importantly, the fans. In that respect, it may be said that the influence of lucha libre is a large part of what is helping professional wrestling adapt with the ever-evolving winds of change. ¡Viva la lucha!
“When the hero or the villain of the drama, the man who was seen a few minutes earlier possessed by moral rage… leaves the wrestling hall, impassive, anonymous, carrying a small suitcase and arm-in-arm with his wife, no one can doubt that wrestling holds that power of transmutation which is common to the Spectacle and to Religious Worship. In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a justice which is at last intelligible.”
-Roland Barthes, French philosopher and anthropologist
Until next time, I hope you enjoyed this tale from the mat.
Warmest regards, Kris Levin.
Kris Levin is a professional wrestling referee est. ’07 and everybody’s favorite nephew. He can be seen internationally on IMPACT Wrestling as their most junior official, #KidRef Riley. Impact Wrestling airs every Thursday at 8PM EST in the United States on Pop TV and in over 120 countries worldwide. You can find Kris on social media at @RefKrisLevin.