UNMASKING THE LUCHADOR
Very few outsiders have been given insight into the mysterious world of Mexican Wrestling. In a rare interview with the legends, players and artists who have waded into the unknown world of Mexican wrestling, we uncover the life and secrets of the luchador.
Mexico City is a place described as if New York and Tijuana had a baby. It is a metropolis fighting for ground, resting on a razor’s edge between financial center and slum, wealth and abject poverty. Every day, floods of people leave it in the hopes of finding a better future for themselves and their family outside the city’s borders. For most of those that remain, life is dogged by the deteriorating health, environmental and economic circumstances that pervade the capital’s communities. Where life within the city is marked by the relentless struggle to survive, one sport sheds a singular ray of hope on the cultural imagination of the masses – the sport of Lucha Libre. Unique to Mexico, Mexican wrestling or Lucha Libre, is a fierce religion with a zealous following of devoted converts. Wrestlers and fans alike flock daily to hallowed stadiums and arenas to witness violence, justice and victory play out in a messy theatre of teeth, broken bones and blood splattered concrete floors. It is where people are reborn, legends die, and masked identities are carried to the grave. For many, Lucha Libre is more than a sport – it is a calling, a religion, and a destiny.
GODS AMONGST MEN
Legendary Wrestler, Dorrel Dixon
The endurance of a marathon man, the agility of an acrobat, the strength of a weightlifter, the mental reflexes of a chess master, a psychologist, philosopher and psychoanalyst all in one, and the most compassionate murderer alive.
Perro Aguayo in his home
Jake Alexander was a wrestle-crazed American kid raised on a diet of Hulk Hogan, comic books, and Lucha Libre demonstrations that took place around the corner of the nearby Disneyland. Every Sunday, the 18-year-old would watch ringside as good battled evil in violence fueled mise-en-scenes of muscle and lycra. ” I had real-life superheros right in front of me, ” he recalls, “ the luchadores were larger than life”. He would watch as technical fighters, or Tecnicos, with their complex application of formal technical styles, would take on the mischievous and underhanded rudos in brawling, sweat-filled demonstrations of primal aggression and violence.
“You’re a demigod. You have superhero status. The crowds are amazing and the participation is much rawer . The wrestlers will come down, pick kids up on their shoulders. They’re like the real life action heroes.” – Katinka Herbert, Photographer
On the hallowed grounds of the wrestling arenas, the crowds would bay for justice, whipped into an evangelical fervour. “There’s something to be said to be able to take a crowd and get them so angry that they want to hurt you”, recalls Alexander, who would himself, don the identity of a professional Rudo. “I’ve had old ladies try to light me on fire. I also started a riot in South Central LA, it was something special.”
To capture the imaginations of hungry spectators is to be initiated into a pantheon of myths and legends. Part superhero and part idol, most of these demigods were born out of humble working-class beginnings and catapulted into stardom. Revered legends of the sport like Blue Demon, El Hijo Del Santo, and Dr. Wagner Jr had captured the cultural imagination of generations. It was not uncommon for images of Lucha Libre legends like Blue Demon to find their way onto tequila bottles and cereal packets, with millions of adoring fans captivated by images of their favourite icons.
Blue Demon Jr
Frey Tomanta, incidentally the real-life inspiration behind the film Nacho Libre. Here, the priest conducts his service in his mask.
MAKING A HERO
You’ve got to know your stuff to be a wrestler. If you don’t practice over and over again, someone’s going to get hurt, and that someone will probably be you.
Emilio Charles in his kitchen
Arena Mexico goes by many names. In the city, it is reverentially referred to as Cathedral de la Lucha Libre or the Cathedral of Professional Wrestling. It is on the training floors of this arena that the most famous hero’s and villains of Mexican wrestling are born. At its helm, is Lucha Libre legend and revered trainer, Satanico. The retired luchador has had a hand in training some of the most famous stars in contemporary wrestling. In his days as an active wrestler, Satanico was considered one of the most ruthless and feared rudos of his time. Following the end of his forty year career as a fighter, the retired wrestler now devotes his time to moulding future disciples of the sport.
Behind every fighter is a minimum of two years of intense preparation. At its heart, the sport of Lucha Libre is a unique blend of strength and acrobatics, power and agility. Reflecting on his training, Alexander remarks, “It’s very easy to get hurt. You’ve got to hammer in the basics over and over again.”
Learning to fall and position the body is critical in a sport ruled by physical impact. As a trainer, Satanico would routinely drill this principle into his group of aspiring fighters. Young wrestlers would spend the majority of their training learning how to roll the bodies effectively in agile forward and backward somersaults. These foundation blocks are as much part of the show aspect of the business, as the building blocks of Lucha Libre.
Every morning at the crack of dawn, the floors of Lucha Libre training gyms would echo with the sound of trainers and wrestlers settling into their daily training. For many, the average session would involve a 7 a.m. start at the arena. Fighters would train for three hours in the ring. “We’d start with running, lots and lots of it,” recalls Alexander. Rigorous training sessions would have fighters climbing the equivalent of 20 flights of stairs, followed by tumbling drills, and finally a briefing session that discussed the show’s presentation or application of a new move. At the end of a gruelling days training, fighters would practice grappling holds to finish.
Black Metal holds a Mini wrestler aloft.
There are no off days in this business. If you wrestle, you make money and you feed your family. If you don’t wrestle, you don’t make any money and you go hungry.
Alongside the tales of glory and fame, whispers of broken bodies and careers laid waste cast a long shadow in the minds of many luchadors. One such tragic figure was Jorge Vega, a wrestler who once assumed the character of The Red Power Raider. A popular character in the wrestling circuit, he also served as one of Alexander’s first trainers when the young American arrived in Mexico City. He wrestled for years,” Alexander recalls, “ I hadn’t heard from him for about 15 years then I found out a year ago he had gotten injured in a match and was suffering from health problems. Now he has to rely on help from friends and it came down to him not being able to keep going.”
Hours in the ring, weeks on the road, and miles away from family, the life of a luchador can be a solitary one. On average, a typical week could involve the following schedule, “Monday in Puebla, Tuesday in Mexico City ,Wednesday in Machuka or any other small town outside of Mexico City. Wednesday you’re going to Aculpulco, Thursday you’re going to Cuernavaca, then Friday you go to Mexico City. On Saturday you can go anywhere from Carretero back to Mexico City , depending whether you’re able to find the work or where your office will send you .Then you’re going again on Sunday, wrestling up to six times that day until the last match at 11.30 that night.”
“You’ve got to have a mental toughness if you’re going to do this for the Long Haul”, reflects Alexander,” It’s probably one of the toughest things a person could go through outside of military training.” For many luchadores, the brutal nature of training only serves to prepare one for the rigour of life as a luchador. The mental and physical endurance built through hours of training is the luchador’s only hope of longevity in and outside of the ring. Tireless hours spent enduring prolonged psychological stress and brutal physical blows can eventually take its toll. For many wrestlers, the importance of family becomes a welcome respite from the chaos of the ring. “It is important to have some place to decompress with the family,” adds Alexander, ” and to be the person under the mask. When you’re working seven days a week, you’ve got to learn to balance”.
THE MEN BEHIND THE MASKS
In Lucha libre, the most successful people are the ones that take a part of their personality and turn it up to ten. They amplify everything about themselves to become what people are attracted to.
Villano IV and V
On a late January afternoon in 1984, the popular Mexican television talk show Contrapunto invited legendary idol El Santo to speak on its panel. Appearing clad in his iconic silver mask, this enigmatic figure of ‘The Saint’ had seen many incarnations in households throughout Mexico. Over a career that spanned half a century, fans of El Santo were well acquainted with the image of their glittering chrome crusader, the Saint of Lucha Libre. Throughout the span of his professional career, the luchador was known to never remove his mask, even in private company- a “mealtime” variation had even been made with the mouth cut away to preserve his identity whilst he ate. However, on this particular afternoon, in an unexpected gesture of self-revelation, the 73-year-old wrestler found the threads of the disguise and slowly peeled back his mask to reveal the man behind The Saint. In this single gesture, the luchador signified his resignation from the world of wrestling and died a week later.
In a world shrouded with mystery, the mask of a luchador represents more than a wrestler’s disguise. It can signify a persona, heritage, and character. In pure dedication to preserving the myth, some wrestlers are known to attend funerals and weddings fully masked. In an interview, the son and successor of the iconic Lucha Libre legend Blue Demon confessed he was not aware of his father’s luchador alter ego until fans pounded on their car shouting “ Blue Demon!”. It was only in that moment, that the young Blue Demon Jr made the connection between the idol he followed religiously on the television screen, and the man he had known all his life.
Where the power of identity is a valuable and lucrative currency, selecting the right character can be critical to the success and longevity of a wrestlers’ career. For some, creating a character would involve curating and weaving parts of their personal past into their persona within the ring. “It’s about what you can relate to, what feels right to you”, explains Alexander. In the world of Mexican wrestling, promoters and managers hold the greatest sway in the creation of these identities. Mil Mascaras, or The Man of a Thousand Masks, was one such construct. The brainchild of a promoter, this resulted in a nationwide search for the perfect ambassador to this enigmatic namesake. Following months of searching, Mr. Mexico was selected, trained and moulded into the image of the fearsome and infamous fighter. Alongside El Santo and Blue Demon, he is considered one of Mexican Wrestling’s most famous and iconic personalities in Mexican Wrestling.
Wrestlers design their own masks, and there are specialist mask makers in Mexico city. Often, these masks are a collaboration between both wrestler and mask maker. Solar, the wrestler pictured above, dons a hand made costume. ” It’s abit like the Klangers”, remarks photographer Katinka Herbert, “it’s hand knitted, hand stitched and his wife made it for him. When I turned up to his house, he asked me what I wanted him to where. He then invited me upstairs and had this amazing wardrobe of variations of his costume.”
In similar fashion, iconic rudos such as Dr Wagner, were created in the image of a promoter’s vision of a medical assassino (the medical assassin). Embodying the archetype of the evil doctor, he would don white gloves and white scrubs. “It was the late 50- early 60s”, explains Alexander, “so he sat and thought, ok what don’t people like, people don’t like Germans. What’s a german name – Wagner. Ok, I’ll be Dr Wagner. It’s what worked for the time, so he could get work, feed his family and stop sleeping under a wrestling ring.”
THE IMMORTAL LEGEND
A man is reborn the moment a wrestler inherits his mask for the first time. For newer wrestlers, this marks the birth of a new identity, with many engineering a new character by creating their own masks and provenance stories. Future descendants of notable wrestling lineages would be tasked with the unique and precious responsibility of preserving a character held firmly in the hearts and minds of many. A fighter or character could be forty to fifty years in the making, with many luchador legends wrestling well into their seventies, at which point, they would have achieved the status of cultural icon. Subsequent generations of young wrestlers like Blue Demon Jr will assume the mantle of a family’s legacy, adopting the story, costume, and traits of their famous predecessor. “ I need to be better day by day”, remarks Blue Demon Jr, “ to preserve the legacy of my father”.
Villanos III with his two sons who are now active wrestlers.
However, what is born must eventually die. Within the world of Lucha Libre, unmasking represents the final death of a character, and where gods become mortal once again. Once a wrestler has lost his mask, his identity is forfeited and fully disclosed to attending spectators.In mask versus mask matches, a wrestler will receive a considerable financial compensation for surrendering his identity, but will no longer be able to wrestle under the mask of his alter ego.
For others, the legend continues. In conversation with the Lucha Libre legend Blue Demon Jr, the second generation luchador shares he has begun making plans for his future. “My son will inherit my mask,” he states, ” he is already in training”. Separate entities from the men who wear them, the characters of these masked heroes seem imbued with their own lives and legacies. And, as long as there are men to carry the mantle, the fighter’s story will continue to live on.
In our final moments, Alexander contemplates on his eternal fascination with the sport. “Lucha libre is someplace people can go to be free, to stop worrying about everything they have going on in life, take all their worries, throw them out the door, scream at the top of their lungs, let out all their frustrations and be happy”. For him, retiring from the life of a luchador is almost like waking from a dream. “You might have heard someone say, ‘I’ve forgotten more than you’ve ever learned’, I got to be in the ring with people who could say that, and that not be a lie.” In the world of Lucha Libre where aggression is enacted in a spiritually freeing mix of violence and vaudeville, and where normal working-class men can become immortalised as gods and heroes, it is clear you will never find anything in the world quite like it.
Dr Wagner Jr
A conversation with photographer Katinka Herbert
Lucha Libre has been described as, ‘theatrical bouts that fuse the lurid escapism of Bollywood with the athleticism of Premiership footballers and the traditional folklore of good against evil’. I was initially drawn to the sport through visual references in magazines and posters. There is something compelling about a masked wrestler. These men and women spend their careers being thrown around the ring and are phenomenal athletes.
Some of the wrestlers like Blue Demon Jr, took me four years to track down. It is a really tight circle and people don’t just hand out their numbers. You’re not meant to know who they are. I know a couple of them quite personally now but I don’t know their names. You’re not even allowed to mention where they live, because it ruins the whole mystique of their superhero status. I know what a couple of them look like, but it would be wrong to recognise them.
This series features some of the biggest names in Mexican wrestling. I had key people that I really wanted to work with and nearly all of them agreed. It took quite a long time to complete because they were initially suspicious of me being a female photographer, some even wanted to send a Selfie from their phone – it was really hard to penetrate the wrestling scene. Logistically it also presented some challenges. Sometime I would go over for the shoot, and they would say ‘I’m feeling abit fat. I’m feeling too fat to wear my lycra”. Sometimes you have one minute and you have to leave.
Dr Wagner Jr was the first one I photographed. I turned up in the main arena of Mexico City and they were rehearsing. They had left the doors open by mistake, and he was with an American wrestler training to be a masked wrestler. He was like ‘you’re really not meant to be here’, so I introduced myself and told him about my project. He thought it would be nice for me to follow him around, and it was a really organic process.
It was such an adventure, but it was amazing to be accepted into their inner circles. It took years to gain their trust and I felt quite emotional when I finished the project. However I had kind of a ‘hit list ‘of the people I wanted to track down, and it was incredibly hard to find them, so I thought when I have the core twenty luchadors, I’m done. It was also painfully slow process, and they were incredibly tricky but it was a privilege to do it.
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Photography by Katinka Herbert from her book SLAM www.slamthebook.com
Katinka lives in London and has established herself as a leading portrait and commercial photographer. Katinka has photographed a vast range of celebrities, from Brian Blessed to Beyonce, Heston to Hulk Hogan, Marco Pierre-White to Meatloaf.
Special Thanks to Jake Alexander, formerly known as Black Metal. Jake currently works as a promoter for the Empire Wrestling Federation in South California.