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Lucha Libre means "free fighting" when translated into English.  Although, today, it is referred to as professional wrestling in Mexico, when the sport began back in 1933, the wrestlers all held day jobs and wrestled at night incognito. Luchadores are Lucha Libre wrestlers who are just real people that no one sees without their masks. Their identities are known only to those closest to them. The singular (or one performer) is called a luchador.

The sport of wrestling originates back to 3400 BC in ancient Egypt, when it was used as a past time event.  Wrestling then migrated into Europe, where the ancient Greeks had wrestling competitions in the Olympics.  Soon, it became more of a military exercise than past time.  Wrestling, in Mexico, was more of a form of theatre  rather than a sport competition, with the theme being Good vs. Evil.

 Luche Libre is the brainchild of Salvador (aka Don Chava)  Lutteroth Gonzalez, a furniture salesman.  What once was a mere sideshow,  under Don Chava now became a real sensationalized spectacle!   First, he started out promoting wrestling cards in La Arena Mexico, a historical and important Mexican arena at that time.  Then, in 1933, he rented the Arena Modelo in Mexico City's Colonia Doctores area and started boxing matches with local athletes, that got little crowds. Hmm? So, he got the idea to import some American wrestlers to play.  He signed up Ray Ryan from the US and suddenly business picked up. Hoping to promote Mexican wrestlers, he started to include locals among the foreign athletes. And, he wanted to create some personas for the Mexican wrestlers, like the Americans had.  He also wanted to build a new arena for all of this. So, he bulldozed down an old convent and built the Arena Coliseo, which was inaugurated on April 2, 1943.  By the time the arena had it's 10th anniversary, Mexico City needed a new ring. So, Don Salvador pledged to build the world's biggest wrestling arena.  He tore down the Arena Modelo and built Arena Mexico, which would be for many sports, including an ice-skating rink.

Luche Libre isn't just a wrestling match.  It's a fight between Good vs. Evil, where the athletes create characters, wear colorful costumes and masks.  The Bad Guys are  "los rudos", and their motto is to win at any cost. Thus cheating for them is common.  These guys are booed a lot.  The good guys are called "Los Técnicos"  and they never cheat to win.  They get cheered a lot.  It's a form of athletic theatre. Since it's origin, there have been some very famous characters: The White Angel, The Red Angel, The Blue Devil, The Silver Mask  and Dizzy Gardenia, who gave flowers to the women in the audience before his matches, to name a few.

 Mexican wrestling is where those high-flying moves originated.  This helped add to the drama of the sport, and is probably the reason why Mexico is the country where Lucha Libre is the most popular. But, there are rules to the sport that must be followed.  They are similar to American wrestling rules, where matches are won by 
1. Pinning your opponent down on the mat for 3 counts
2. Making your opponent submit
3. Knocking him out of the ring for 20 counts
4. Disqualification (i.e. doing the martinete = hitting in the groin, attacking the ref, ripping off your opponents mask, etc.)

It's also illegal to use the rope to help hold yourself up.  If a wrestler is doing this, then the opponent has to let go of him and can't try for a pin down. Most matches are 3 rounds.  And, not resting between the rounds will force the referee to call "excessive violence" and reverse the fall's decision.  Most matches are 2 out of 3.
They also have tag teams in Luche Libre.  I won't go into those rules to avoid becoming too wordy. You can look them up on wrestling sites if interested. ;)

The masks are to help create the character that you are.  The first Lucha Libre wrestler to ever wear a mask was El Murcielagao  (The Bat) Velasquez.  Salvador Lutteroth Gonzales, the originator, decided to put a black mask with cut-out eyes, and a black cape on him for more of a spectacular effect.  In the beginning the masks were pretty simple.  Today, they're much more detailed and colorful. The focus of the mask is to portray an animal, god, devils, heroes, or some other type of hero or villain - folklore or modern.  All luchadores usually begin with a mask. But, by the time their career is over, they will end up being unmasked!  While being a luchador, many of them will wear their masks in public. Thus, they become one with their character even when not in the ring.   Mexico's most famous, "El Santo (The Saint)" was buried with his. More on him below.

They have competitions in which the loser has his mask taken off by the winner and reveals his name to everyone. This match is called "Máscara contra Máscara" or Mask Vs. Mask.  The longer a luchador can keep from being unmasked, and the more times he defends it, the higher his status.

Another competition is called "Máscara conra Cabellera" or Mask Vs. Hair. This is where one masked luchero fights one unmasked luchero.  If the masked luchero wins, then the unmasked one has to shave his head. If the unmasked luchero wins, then he keeps his hair and gets to unmask his opponent!  "Cabellera contra Cabellera" is Hair Vs. Hair  where two unmasked lucheros with hair compete. The loser gets his head shaved.  These hair matches are usually done at the end of the luchero's career as their final defeat.  Besides getting a bonus for losing their hair (by the promoter) well...think about it.  If the luchero's identity is suppose to be a secret, then what happens if one day he suddenly shows up  at work (or home) with a shaved head? Doesn't that sort of give them away? ;)

The first shaved-head  bet match was on July 14, 1940 in the Arena Mexico.  The luchadores were Octavio Gaona (ex-middle weight world champion) vs. Murciélago. Now, Murciélago knew that Octavio was bigger and heavier.  So, he said that if he won, then Gaona  had to shave his head.  Although Gaona won, Murciélago only lost his mask (as I mentioned up above) and didn't have to shave his head.  But, this bet is the origin for all future head-shaving contests.  It's just ironic that the first match that had head-shaving as the punishment didn't have any head shaved. Ha!

Yes, there are women lucharos.  Or is that lucharas? ;)  The first female was from the United States named Vicky Williams.  Upset that this title was held by a non-Mexcian woman, Estela Molina defeated Vicky on December 23, 1979. While Vicky was lying on the mat, Estala screamed, "Get up you miserable piece of imported trash!" to the shock of everyone.  In the beginning, women were also not allowed to wrestle in the same arenas as the men did.  This match between Vicky and Estela was held somewhere else.  The next year, Vicky Williams defeated Estela Molina on October 5, 1980.  Vicky was then defeated the following year by Chabela Romero on December 21, 1980.  And so the list goes on with other champions as Lola Gonzalez, Irma Gonzalez, Irma Aguilar, Pantera Surena, Jaguar Yokota, etc.

Luche Libre isn't just for big, tall, thick, chunky muscular guys. In 1952, midget luchadores arrived in Mexico from the US. But, it took about 20 years before the press really took notice of the midget wrestlers.  The popularity of the midget wresters is said to be due to a movie called, "Los Vampiros de Coyoacán" in 1972. The movie needed 4 midget stuntmen to be dressed as bats to be assistants to El Vampiro, the main villian.  Also on the set of this film was César Valentino. Although he was just an extra, he was also a luchador!  He saw how easily the little midget stuntmen caught on to things and decided that they could be trained to fight as luchadores.  The midgets, who were tired of the fickle financial life that movies provided, took him up on his offer to go to Mexico and wrestle. Their popularity grew. And at their height, they got talked into becoming the mini-versions of the larger-sized popular luchadores.   So, Mascara Sagrada turned into Máscarita Sagrada, in this Lilliput Division of Lucha Libre.

Although I said that Lucha Libre is a form of athletic theatre, they do have a goal, which is to be the Champion (Campeonato) Luchador! This is done by winning a series of matches, each within their different weight classes: Heavyweight, Light-weight, Middleweight and Welterweight.  Unlike American wrestling, the most elite titles of Campeonato Luchador is within the light-weight class. Lucha Libre also has a weight class called Cruiserweight, which originates from boxing and is sort of between Heavy and Light weights.  Maybe because most luchadores are not all professionals, but hold other daytime jobs, the sport offers a variety of weights?  There are also championship titles for tag teams of two or three wrestlers.  Champions usually defend their titles about once a year. And, just like American wrestlers they have belts to show their status.  The belts are usually worn only when they are defending their titles at big match events, however. 

As far as the women Luche Libre wrestlers, well they get a coronation pageant! For example, on December 14, 1980 Selene I was crowed "Queen of Lucha Libre 1981."  All the Mexican wrestling superstars attended, and it was quit a glitzy  event.  The queen doesn't have to do wrestling matches to get her crown.  In Selene's case, a jury of 44 of Luche Libre's elite voted for the queen.  Selene got 16 votes making her the winner.  The runner up was Lisa de Liz, who got 14 votes.   The queens also have sponsors.

Luche Libre has millions of fans. But the one that is the most memorable is Dona Virginia Aguilera.  She is considered the sports number uno fan and is called The Grandmother of Lucha Libre.   The first match she saw was in 1934 at the Arena Roma-Mérida between El Caballo Bayo and El Santo (at that time was using a different name btw.)  For fifty years, she never missed a game! On March 18, 1980 she was given a plaque recognizing her sport loyalty and devotion. On August 24, 1984, she was honored in person, in the Arena Mexico for her remarkable half-century unbroken attendance record! Dona would climb into the ring, and with her umbrella whack the rudos who were fighting her loved cientéficos. Her greatest love was, El Santo (The Saint). After him came, El Perro Agueyo, whose poster she kissed daily. But her most prized trophies from her love of Luche Libre were actual locks of hair from the cabelleros and signed masks (often bloody that she'd clean later when she got home) of the luchadores.  At 4:00 am on May 10, 1997, Dona died at the age of 97.  She loved Luche Libre till the very end of her life. 

Since Luche Libre began, there have been a lot of popular and famous luchadores.  Men from all walks of life have become a luchador.  "El Apolo De Ébano" in real life was Pastor Dorrel Dixon, who was a luchador for 30 years. He said that he loved both having spiritual, mental and physical strength.  "Fray Tormenta" in real life was really Father Sergio, who founded a home for 50 orphans.  He fought for the money to help his kids.  And, ended up earning enough to help house 3,000 orphans and street kids. His masked was golden with red lightning bolts. For years, no one knew his identity.

But, there are two luchadores that go down in history: The Blue Demon and El Santo (The Saint).  

The luchador known as "El Santo" started July 26, 1942. His career lasted 51 years.  During that time, he defeated many opponents.  And, no one knew his real name until the very end.  He was simply "The Man in the Silver Mask" or "El Santo." Imagine having your identity kept a secret for 51 years!  I doubt today, that the paparazzi would never let  him keep his secret.

 After 9 yrs. of wrestling, El Santo had a comic book series in honor of him.  Then, 7 yrs. later he had movies, such as "Santo contra El Cerebro del Mal" (Santo versus The Evil Brain) and "Santo contra Los Internales" (Santo versus The Infernal Men), which were just the beginning of his movie star career that created 54 movies! This elevated El Santo to enormous popularity in Mexico. In all of these films, his fans saw El Santo fight against evil and win. El Santos movies not only popularized Lucha Libre, but helped Mexican cinema as well.  

In 1984, doctors told El Santo that he had an incurable and severe heart condition that could not be treated.  Knowing that his time had come to an end, El Santo did a live television interview where after 51 years, he finally took off his mask and revealed to everyone who he really was! A few days later, he died of a heart attack.  He was buried with his silver mask on.

So who was he?

 El Santa's real name was Rodolfo Guzman Huerta.  He was born September 23, 1917 in Tulancingo, Hidalgo.  He was the 5th child of 7 in his family.  Because his mother was very ill, the family moved to Mexico City when he was 6 yrs. old.  He showed athletic skills in baseball and football (US style not soccer). For a short time he studied art at the Academia de San Carlos.  Due to financial problems, he decided to go into luche libre like his older brothers:  Jesús was known as "Pantera Negra", and died in the ring.  Miquel was known as "Black Guzman" and became a world middleweight champion. Javier, was simply known as "Jimmy" in the ring.

Rodolfo wasn't in shape to suddenly become a luchador like his brothers.  So, while working in a stockings factory, he decided to learn jiu-jitsu.  When he first fought, he used the name "Rudy Guzman." In 1936 he joined Salvador Lutteroth González's EMLL in 1936.  After doing this, he changed his name to "Murciélago II." He got sued over that name by another luchador who already had a bat theme. So, Salvador came up with the image that would change Rodolfo's life: "El Santo" and he'd wear a silver mask.  On July 26, 1942 Rodolfo Guzman Huerta stepped into the Arena Mexico and made his debut as "El Santo!"  He would kneel and pray in the corner before every game. This was a bit ironic, because he was a rudos (aka bad guy) in the ring!

The luchador known as "The Blue Demon" (or Blue Devil) wore a blue mask with white and silver streaks around his face, and blue tights.  How did it all begin for him? While working as a  railroad night shift brakeman, he met a man that would change his life!  Rolando Vera, taught "The Blue Demon" how to wrestle. He is also the one who created his look. Then, on March 31, 1948 in Laredo, Texas "The Blue Demon" stepped into the ring and defeated "Chema Lopez" in just three falls.  Thus began a career that went a little over 40 years.  During that time, "The Blue Demon" was "El Santo's " greatest rival. Their rivalry started in a mask vs. mask fight on November 7, 1952.   When El Santo won the first fight, he attempted to de-mask The Black Shadow  (in real life a railroad co-worker and friend of The Blue Demon) next.  So, the Blue Demon stepped into the ring to help his friend out and ended up throwing El Santo out of the ring in the process! The crowd loved it and The Blue Demon suddenly became a los ténicos, or good guy.  The Blue Demon and El Santo would meet two times more.  He retired from the ring in July, 1989 after 41 years.  

The Blue Demon and El Santo had similarities.  The Blue Demon also had a movie. And, he also died of a heart attack. On December 16, 2000, the man born as Alejandro Muúoz on April 24, 1922 on a ranch somewhere in the Mexican state of Nuevo León died at the age of 78.  For his entire career, no one knew his real identity except his family.

Not only did the wrestling style of "high flying" seep into American wrestling venues, so did the  lavish costumes and promotions.  But, other lucha libre influences I feel have snuck in as well, only a little more subtle.

As I mentioned above, the midgets would become smaller versions of the famous large-size luchadores.  I wonder if the writers of "Austin Powers" used this as a source for the character of  Mini-Me?  And, Dona Virginia Aguilera, who climbed into the ring hitting the rudos with her umbrella, reminds me of Lilly Tomlin's character on "Laugh-In" back in the 60's.

Just recently, movie star, Jack Black, has made a comedy called "Nacho Libre" in which there's a lot of similarity to the real luchador,  Fray Tormenta as I mentioned above.

And, for children there is a cartoon series called, "íMucha Lucha!"

Source of Information:
"Lucha Libre: The Man in The Silver Mask" by Xavier Garza
Cinco Puntos Press © 2005

"Lucha Libre - Masked Superstars of Mexian Wrestling" by Alfonso Morales Carrillo and Lourdes Grobet
Distributed Art Publishers, Inc. © 2005

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