Mexico City: Mexican masked wrestling, lucha libre, is a must-see event

Inside the ramshackle arena in the Colonia Doctores neighbourhood of Mexico City, the large crowd roars with approval as a young man is viciously attacked. Moments before, Rush had ripped off his shirt and swayed his hips like a stripper, only to be hit from behind. He falls to the ground and is stomped on by his brutish assailants who then hurl him out of the ring.

With his luscious mane of hair, chiselled chest and comically bad acting skills, Rush is a hero of the vast 16,000-seat Arena Mexico. But in the fast-paced world of lucha libre – Mexican masked wrestling – even the good guys don't escape unscathed.

The Fabio-lookalike has little cause to complain. By round three, he has picked himself off the floor, and is once again the all-conquering hero, leaving the ring triumphantly as his opponents exit to catcalls from the crowd.

An intoxicating brew of sweat, Spandex and soap opera, lucha libre offers the melodrama of a telenovela as muscular luchadores run riot like children in a playground.

On a rainy Friday evening, the excitement begins long before the first punch is thrown. Outside the Arena Mexico, street vendors selling a colourful array of masks, dolls and other merchandise vie for attention with food vendors dishing up tlacoyos and tamales. Watched by security guards, the queue to purchase a ticket – 170 pesos (about $12) – snakes onto the street but moves swiftly.

Armed with tickets for the Viernes Espectacular (Friday Spectacular), we join the throng entering the indoor arena only to be diverted by the sight of two bare-chested gents in black masks and Spandex leggings flexing their arms and chests as they pose for photographs with fans. After a few happy snaps with my head locked under the arm of one of the man mountains, we take our seats inside the arena just as the women wrestlers make way for their hulking male counterparts.

Like its American counterpart, lucha libre is a raucous pantomime of sound and lights. Revved up by beer and snacks, the audience roars as scantily clad dancers gyrate as the next round of wrestlers bound on stage. With names like Terrible, Virus, Diamante Azul and Misterioso Jr., there are few shrinking violets among them.

Lucha libre is said to date back to the mid-19th century when Mexican wrestler Enrique Ugartechea developed a "free-style" wrestling based on Greco-Roman traditions. Its popularity exploded in 1942 when a silver-masked wrestler, El Santo, made his debut in Mexico City, beginning a five-decade career that included appearances in movies and comic books. El Santo famously removed his mask for the first time when he retired in 1984, but was buried with his face covered.

There is no shortage of organised tours to attend a wrestling event at the Arena Mexico or Arena Coliseo, the two main venues in Mexico City. However, a map, patience and a word or two of Spanish is sufficient to find the Arena Mexico, admittedly in a part of the city where visitors are warned to take care.

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Carefully choreographed, the action that unfolds across three rounds is nonetheless spectacular. Brute force is combined with spectacular aerial manoeuvres as fighters fly through the air, barrelling into each other or onto the canvas. At other times, they chase each other out of the ring, the fighting threatening to spill over into the front-row seats. Nothing and no one is sacred: the referee and commentators even cop a clip over the ears. At one point, a short-statured man dressed in a blue and yellow gorilla suit climbs onto the ropes and jumps onto a wrestler approximately three times his size.

The violence would shock if it were real or the acting better; instead, the audience roars with laughter as a wrestler is pummelled with a knuckle duster and bound to the ropes like a trussed up chicken. Another hapless wrestler is stretchered off wearing a neck brace, only to have his adversaries push aside the paramedics, grab the stretcher and use it as a weapon. The greatest insult is reserved for the wrestler who has his mask torn off by another fighter who then holds it to his face, gazes into its eyes like a hulking Hamlet and plants a kiss on the mouth hole of the mask.

Wrestling fans love a villain. In the age of Trump, with his demonisation of immigrants and threats to force Mexico to pay for a border wall, there are no prizes for guessing public enemy No. 1 inside the Arena Mexico. American wrestler Sam Adonis incites a rousing chorus of boos from the audience when he struts on stage waving an American flag emblazoned with the face of President Trump. Mouthy and bleached-blonde, Adonis then savages Blue Panther, who looks too old to be in the wrestling ring, with punches, kicks and karate chops to the neck. The crowd is enraged, the atmosphere febrile. But in a satisfying, entirely predictable plot twist, the Trump-loving loudmouth gringo receives a pummelling to the audience's delight. That's rough justice, lucha libre-style.

Andrew Taylor travelled at his own expense.

TRIP NOTES

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visitmexico.com

Traveller.com.au/mexico

The Smart Traveller website advises travellers to exercise a high degree of caution when visiting Mexico. See smartraveller.gov.au 

FLY

Qantas and Virgin Australia fly from Melbourne and Sydney to Mexico City via the United States.

STAY

Airbnb lists a number of properties to rent in Mexico City. Prices in the leafy neighbourhood of Condesa start from  about $30 a night for an apartment. See airbnb.com

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