Bloody Glory in a Mask
The melodramatic brawls of lucha libre, Mexico's version of the World Wrestling Federation, draw crowds of all ages.
By RICHARD MAROSI
Times Staff Writer
On a shameful night years ago in Tijuana, Manuel de los Santos bet, and lost, his mask.
It was the lowest moment in Santos' career as a wrestler and small-time
impresario in lucha libre, the bloodier, Mexican counterpart to America's
Federation. Sure, a savage cut from a chair battle left one thumb shorter than the other. And one night he fell from a ring and cracked his elbow when he landed on a
discarded chicken bone.
But to lose his mask was to lose something of himself.
According to the strange honor code that guides lucha libre--literally
"free fight"--a wrestler's identity vanishes when he is unmasked. Camera
flashes light the arena,
and the wrestler's face appears in newspapers across Mexico. For fans, it's like watching a superhero being stripped of magical powers.
Cartoonish melodrama, true. But the matches can blend gripping morality
tales and biting social commentary. The spectators boo wrestlers costumed
patrolmen or Los Angeles police officers. When the Mexican economy was reeling, one tag-team appeared as the Dollar and the Peso. The Dollar was a muscular
giant, the Peso a 3-foot-tall midget.
And while American wrestling's popularity seems to have peaked, lucha's
appeal has stayed strong. It continues to pack arenas across Mexico, fueled
TV coverage, splashy magazines and, now, fan Web sites.
Mexican fans love their wrestlers for life, allowing some pudgy and
balding stars to grapple well into their 50s. For the mostly working-class
fans, lucha ranks as the
ultimate in escapist entertainment, especially in hard economic times such as these.
Santos' career captures lucha in all its dopey glory. A native of Mexico
now living in Montebello, the 38-year-old has wrestled in dingy rings on
both sides of the
border, fighting under the moniker Kiss, pronounced Keess in Spanish.
Though his aging body aches, and the rules of lucha forbid him from
wearing the mask again, Santos keeps fighting. He's even become a promoter
in Los Angeles,
struggling along with his ex-wrestler wife and three boys to keep alive their never-ending show biz dreams.
The floor may sag and the ring posts bend, but for lucha's fans and wrestlers, the mat's thrills play out week after week.
And even an unassuming man such as Santos can reach for greatness, at
least as lucha defines it. Because if you make it in lucha, you won't just
be a star. Soccer
players can be stars. But a luchador, improbable as it sounds, can also be a hero.
No wonder Santos--who usually discards the formal "de los" of his name--succinctly
summed up his career one night for a Tijuana taxi driver. The driver took
Santos' bulk and battered face. Was he a luchador?
"Por la vida," Santos shot back.
Savvy Matchups Turn on the Heat
Center ring sits in the Salon El Rey, a windowless banquet hall in unincorporated
East Rancho Dominguez, one shabby block from the comparatively clean streets
Barking Rottweilers patrolling fenced industrial lots near the hall greet fans filing into the dimly lit building, one of the few lucha outposts in Southern California.
It is a far cry from the huge arenas of Mexico City, where bouts draw thousands. But on this night, the 300-capacity hall is filling up.
Santos, a barrel-chested man weighing 225 pounds with smooth skin the
color of tobacco, is promoting tonight. He serves cheese-drenched nachos
to a pair of
masked little boys and then goes ringside.
He cracks a perfect, toothy grin. "I have to create good matchups," says Santos, speaking in rapid-fire Spanish. "So the heat builds.
"These fighters up next," he adds, "son buenos." They're good.
The beloved Mariachi Loco enters the hall waving a giant sombrero. His
partner is Huracan Ramirez Jr., a blue-masked wrestler who claims to be
a scion of one of
Mexico's most famous wresters. (Fans have lost count of how many others make the same claim.)
They face Rey Misterio, a body-building bad guy from Tijuana, and the
6-foot, 6-inch Hardkore Kidd, the evening's token white wrestler. The Kidd
yells "Viva la
Migra!"--Long Live the INS!--and the tiny hall rumbles with boos.
The wrestling commences. Arm-twists and boomerang moves stir the crowd,
but the match really starts when the wrestlers spill out of the ring, where
placed the chairs so close that spectators scatter--the men balancing beers, mothers clutching babies.
A longhaired beer-drinker urges on the bad guys, called rudos: "Los rudos! Los rudos! Los rudooooooos!"
A group of mothers then starts a counter chorus. "Abajo los rudoooooos!" Down with the rudos.
Some fans kick the wrestlers. Others hand them chairs so they can continue their beatings. Some spectators double over in laughter.
But then laughs turn to gasps as Rey Misterio strips off Huracan's mask and stuffs it in his shorts. Huracan dives to the mat to cover his face.
A fan throws him a towel, saving his hero from exposure.
Huracan recovers his mask and swaggers with Rey Misterio through the
only exit, taking the fight to the parking lot. The audience follows in
a funneling stampede that
overwhelms the lone security guard.
By the time it's all over--after some hood-thumping grappling on parked cars--the crowd, deliriously spent, files back into the arena.
"What a great match," says Marin Ruesga, who brought along his 7-year-old son. "I love lucha. It's relaxing. Here you forget your problems."
By Santos' standards, the night was a success. So many people showed up, Santos boasts, that he ran to a mini-mart for extra nachos and soda. His profit: $500.
A Culture of Masked Fighters
Lucha libre has American roots--arriving from the United States in the 1930s--but it evolved quickly into a uniquely Mexican spectacle.
Although Americans occasionally wore masks for their gimmicky appeal, in Mexico donning a hood became part of the sport's culture.
These days, almost every luchador wears a mask at some point in his
career. Some of Mexico's greatest grapplers were buried in their headgear
funerals attended by thousands.
In concealing their identities, wrestlers tap into Mexico's love of
symbols and imagery, dating to the country's pre-Hispanic roots, when Aztec
warriors covered their
faces with eagle-like masks.
These days, wrestlers don hoods to create character and mystique, taking inspiration from just about anywhere.
A fighting seminarian, El Seminarista, wore a blue mask emblazoned with a silver cross.
Super Pinocchio's mask features an elongated nose. One wrestler even wore a hood bearing a swastika.
He was known as El Fuehrer.
Santos drew his inspiration from the rock band Kiss. Known as El Kiss
to many fans, he modeled his mask on the garish makeup of the group's bassist,
The name mystified many fans who hadn't heard of the band, but they
liked his silver and gray body suit, the mask's demonic, flaming eyes and
his fast fighting style.
Lucha fused his love of athletics with another passion from his youth in the state of Zacatecas--comic books.
He fought in Mexico, the Caribbean and Japan. Among his proudest moments
was the night he was heaved over the top rope at the Los Angeles Sports
the biggest wrestler of all time, Andre the Giant.
It was a 22-man "battle royal" decades ago, and Andre--all 7 feet, 5
inches of him--tossed every opponent out of the ring. "Not bad," says Santos,
his brown eyes
lighting up at the memory.
In time the hectic pace caught up to him. The fights were staged, but
the injuries were real. The most visible scars crisscross his forehead:
Cuts, he says, left by
hundreds of chair shots. (Insiders say such scars come from "blading," self-inflicted razor-blade cuts to make bloodier bouts.)
In 1998, Kiss bet his mask against his longtime rival, Pierroth, a hated
Puerto Rican rudo. He was defeated in the cavernous Auditorio de Tijuana,
of transfixed fans waited to see his face for the first time in almost two decades.
For such a personal moment a wrestler is allowed to select someone to remove his mask. Most want their mothers or children to do it.
But Kiss ripped off the mascara himself and ran from the ring. "I didn't want them to humiliate me," he says.
Like many unmasked wrestlers, Santos' career was never the same.
He became a long-haired rudo and turned to promoting in Los Angeles,
one of many U.S. cities where Mexican immigrant populations keep lucha
him were his wife and three boys--Santos calls them the "three kisses"--and the family's life soon evolved into a kind of vaudevillian existence.
The eldest--Eric, 18, and Arnold, 12--run the nacho and souvenir stands,
while 8-year-old Dolph helps sweep up. Their mother, Angela (La Tejana
in her wrestling
days), takes tickets when she's not training with Eric, who aspires to wrestle, too. With her husband looking on with pride, she can easily arm-toss Eric to the mat.
Santos' shows feature Mexican stars as well as moonlighting scrap metal
dealers, waiters and bartenders paid as little as $5 per match. They once
performed in a
venue so small that the Hardkore Kidd smashed his head on the ceiling during a leap off the ropes.
After each show, the ring comes down. Santos and his boys shoulder the
heavy planks to the bed of his Ford truck. Last on board is the bell--scrap
from an old
"We're always taking down, or setting up the ring. . . . It's like a circus," Santos says.
Lucha Fame Earns Double Helpings
A week after the parking lot brawl, Santos motors toward the border
in his red 1967 Mustang. In Los Angeles, he plays ringmaster, but in Tijuana
he remains part of
Tijuana is the city of Santos' greatest, albeit modest, fame, where restaurateurs still serve him double helpings. But lucha has changed since he took to the ring.
Chair-throwing melees now break out--among the fans. Fighters have smashed
one another with fluorescent lightbulbs. And fans hurl anything into the
batteries, chili-drenched pork rinds, even baby bottles.
A railed-off pit area separates ring and spectators, but that often doesn't help. Before the night is over, a flying metal chair will strike an elderly woman in the head.
"It's not a fight night in TJ if nobody bleeds," said Tracy Allan, a freelance writer for American wrestling publications.
A timekeeper smashes the bell with a socket wrench and the fight begins: Kiss tosses off his black, sequined cape and charges toward the red-masked Solar.
The mild-mannered father has disappeared. He swears. He tears at Solar's mask. He swats a vendor over the head with an aluminum tray.
Booing sweeps the auditorium, packed to the cheap 20-peso seats with 5,000 fans. They cheer when Kiss's forehead starts streaming blood.
The wrestlers topple into the pit, where a chubby-cheeked schoolgirl,
15-year-old Marissa Arroyo, swears at Kiss and makes an obscene gesture.
She then swats
him in the neck with her camera-laden black purse.
Kiss laughs ghoulishly, so the girl leans over the rail and spits at him. Kiss spits back, but misses. Then a man in the front row drenches Kiss with his Tecate.
"I hate him," Arroyo says, giggling with excitement. "He's a loser and he's a lousy wrestler."
In a four-hour show featuring acrobatic midget wrestlers and hated rudos from Mexico City, the Kiss bout draws some of the rowdiest response of the evening.
Afterward, fans wait outside the arena as the wrestlers, still masked,
walk out of the tunnel. One midget luchador approaches a boy and draws
the wiggle design of
his mask as his autograph. He is then herded along with three other midgets into a white van that speeds off into the night.
Standing to one side, waiting for her grandchildren, is the elderly
woman who was hit when the metal folding chair sailed out of the ring.
Her head is wrapped in a
bandage, and blood seeps through the cloth.
"It only hurt a little bit," says 71-year-old Rosario de la Cruz. "I've sat in the same place for 30 years. . . . I'll be back next week."
Kiss, a thin bandage partially covering a long cut across his forehead,
emerges from the tunnel and slowly walks to a group of boisterous children.
"Hola, Kiss. Can
you sign my book, please?" says one little girl, holding up a pen.
Less than two hours ago, he was hurling insults and dodging beers. Now,
all is forgiven. He puts down his garment bag and cracks a smile, calling
sweetheart, asking their names, posing for photographs.
Is this any way for a rudo to behave? Probably not. The most famous
rudos don't mingle. After one blond, big-haired rudo from Mexico City picks
up his pay, in
cash, from the office, he dashes through a gantlet of young men to his waiting van.
"Agarren el dinero!" they scream. "Take his money!"
But Kiss remains with his fans, basking in a spotlight that, though fading, still shines.
Ensuring That Kiss Will Live On
One month after his Tijuana show, Santos pulled back the curtain at a new lucha venue in South-Central Los Angeles.
As usual, the show ended with a chair-throwing, table-crashing duel.
One woman spent the night wiping her neck after the black-caped El Punisher
tousled her hair
with his bloodstained hands.
Santos dreams of opening his own arena someday, a Lucha Hall of Fame
with murals and photographs of the greats. But if it doesn't happen, or
if someday the fans
stop coming, Santos takes comfort knowing that his fight legacy will live on.
Kiss may soon retire to make way for his son Eric, who is starting a career as Kiss Jr. Santos already forbids photographs of Eric without the Kiss mask.
"I want to teach my son and send him to Mexico," Santos says. "He's going to be a big star."
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