Lucha Libre London
Forget hammy men in masks and tights, Lucha Libre is becoming an international phenomenon, with stars featuring on stamps and taking Japan by storm. Now it's coming here, to Camden, home of a different kind of smackdown. Simone Baird travelled to Mexico City to find out more
Lucha libre translates as ‘free fighting’: it is Mexico’s wildly colourful take on wrestling, complete with masked and caped stars. ‘They’re considered superheroes you can touch,’ says lucha libre television and radio commentator Carlos Hernández Valdés, and that’s exactly what they look like: Mexican superheroes. Second only in popularity to football, lucha libre is a spectacle that’s more akin to a rock concert cranked to 11 than your standard British wrestling event.
Rules? What rules?
Contests usually consist of three bouts per match. All descend rapidly into chaos, with wrestlers piling in to help their compadres, fighting in and out of the ring, with referees who just can’t keep up.
Good vs bad
Luchadores (wrestlers) are divided into técnicos (good guys) and rudos (bad guys): every bout will pitch good against evil. It’s easy to spot the rudos: they favour black, always cheat, go for dodgy groin shots and spend their time in the ring swaggering and posing. Técnicos play fair and wave at children in the audience. When one is vanquished, he limps over and ‘tags’ a member of his team, who takes over.
El Hijo de Santo vs Blue Demon Jnr
Turns and turn again
Good guys occasionally go bad: Silver King, son of the enormously popular Dr Wagner, started as a técnico but, during a famous match against his nemesis, Negro Casas, in 1996, he ‘turned’: the crowd went ballistic, and his subsequent fights sold out. Good behaviour gets you nowhere these days: ‘Around two years ago, audiences started cheering for the bad guys in a flash,’ says Valdés. ‘Now, people love the rudos. It’s a social phenomenon. People got bored, I think. They can’t break the rules in their own lives, but their wrestlers can. Some people just love the tough guys.’
The referees are also técnicos and rudos. A pro-rudo ref will turn a blind eye to ganging up in a tag-team fight, for instance, or a chair being brought into the ring.
'It's totally real'
Bad guys, good guys, audience participation: it’s a pantomime, right? El Hijo del Santo, a técnico, concedes that the wrestlers ham up their roles for the audience. ‘But’ – he slams his fist in his hand – ‘it’s totally real.’ It’s impossible to tell if he’s smirking behind his silver mask. How is it different from America’s WWE (formerly WWF), then? ‘Lucha libre is much more dangerous. We spend more time in the air, we have to be much fitter, the moves are much more impressive.’
Still, being nimble in the ring isn’t the most important trait for a successful luchador: charisma is. El Santo (El Hijo del Santo’s father) wasn’t a great wrestler, but his enormous charisma made him hugely popular. ‘Charisma’s the secret behind every successful luchador,’ says Valdés.
A fiesta, not a sport
In the arena, audience members don the masks of their favourite luchadores and children dash around wearing mini sequinned capes. Hawkers work their way down the rows selling beer, street food and merchandise, including dedicated lucha libre magazines (many characters make the transition from luchador to comic book character, like Superman in reverse). Everyone makes noise: whistles, plastic blowers and lorry horns sound continuously. And that’s before the chants and good-humoured abuse start up (tubbier brawlers are told by the crowd: ‘Pull your fat stomach in!’).
Scary guys in tights
There are two principal Mexico City arenas: the run-down but enormously atmospheric Arena Naucalpan, far out in the suburbs, where men walk down to the ring on a battered red carpet through clouds of dry ice; at the other end of the spectrum is the massive Arena Mexico, which holds 17,000 (Naucalpan’s capacity is a mere 1,500). The crowd here is noticeably more middle class with front-row seats going for 500 pesos (around £25; the minimum daily wage is 51 pesos). During my visit, a rudo paused on the ropes mid-bout, flexing his biceps and snarling at the audience. A twentysomething man stood on his seat and flexed back. The ensuing flex-off caused the audience to laugh and blow horns, and gave the rudo’s opponent a chance to recover from the beating he’d just taken and throw himself back into the game.
A new kind of nutter in Camden
So will the British take to lucha libre? It’s been established in Japan for many years, and El Hijo del Santo thinks we’ll come around: ‘Lucha libre is magical. It transcends language. If the Japanese can go wild, the English can.’
Big in Japan
And go wild, they do. Silver King tells of hysterical Japanese girls begging to buy his sweaty, torn mask after bouts.
While many of the 5,000 or so wrestlers in Mexico are saggy tight-wearing amateurs – although even when they’re rubbish, they’re very funny – the scene is exploding. Luchadores turn up in music videos, El Hijo del Santo is about to feature on a stamp, Silver King nabbed a role as Ramses in Jack Black’s 2006 comedy ‘Nacho Libre’, lucha libre cartoons are broadcast on TV and the better-known wrestlers tour internationally. As well as in Japan, lucha libre enjoys massive success in the Philippines and, of course, the US, where Mexican wrestlers often cream the less acrobatic locals.
Fighting their way out of the ghetto
It’s this mass-media exposure that’s responsible for the middle and upper classes in Mexico now embracing a sport that was previously seen in smart circles as a guilty pleasure. Which is good news for the performers and their bank balances. El Hijo arrives for our interview in a white MG wearing a sharp suit and silver mask, which he keeps on throughout.
El Hijo del Santo breaks out his signature 'Cobra' move
The most significant matches are the mask-hair bouts. The many deep-seated feuds are resolved in well-publicised fights in which the winner rips off the mask of the defeated wrestler – causing him to lose face, literally – and even shaves off his hair. The loser’s popularity plummets; earnings can, too. It’s no surprise that Silver King, who lost his mask at the age of 17 to El Hijo del Santo, is gunning for revenge in London.
Pick your seats with care
Many luchadores have scars on their foreheads from having masks violently ripped off. Anyone in the front row risks getting spattered with blood (some fake, some not). Luchadores frequently fly out of the ring, intentionally or otherwise, and can land on the first few rows of seats.
Watch out London!
Following the bout at Arena Naucalpan, Silver King emerges with his head in bandages, which strikes me as a media-friendly ruse. Then he removes the bandage to reveal several rows of stitches and dried blood. Real blood.
Lucha Libre London is at the Roundhouse July 4-6. Children under the age of 14 must be accompanied by an adult. See www.luchalibrelondon.com.
Simone Baird travelled courtesy of the Mexico Tourist Board (www.visitmexico.com) and stayed at Hotel Habita (www.hotelhabita.com).
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