Strolling through the ever-fascinating La Merced market in Mexico City, I happened upon a poster advertising a lucha libre, or “free fighting” match today, not far from my hotel in the centro histórico in Mexico City. And with a threatening thunderstorm rolling in, I dashed to the arena and purchased a mid-priced ticket after repeated attempts by the boletero to sell me the high-priced ringside seats. I wanted to experience the “alternative” Mexico City, but not necessarily from the front row. I was happy on this occasion to simply sit back inconspicuously and take in the experience from the relative afar.
And what a crazy experience it was – I expected to stay perhaps 45 minutes or an hour tops just to get a feel for the “show” but in fact after a couple beers and a surprisingly entertaining atmosphere, before long I found myself shouting on the edge of my seat as the finale neared at the end of Hour Two.
I’m not really a devotee of professional wrestling in the States, but Mexican free wrestling is not hard to follow. The structure of the lucha tends to follow a pattern of threes: three luchadores on each team, three caídas (literally “falls” or pinning rounds) constitute a match, and there are three matches per event. And each fight gets progressively better, with improving stunts and new fan-favorite fighters entering the ring.
The luchadores, all clad in spandex and most wearing with a distinctive mask which hides their identity. Similar to “professional” wrestlers in the United States they have flamboyant names and matching personalities, such as Guerrero Maya (Mayan Warrier), Mr. Niebla (Mr. Fog), Rey Cometa (King Comet), Sangre Azteca (Aztec Blood), Ángel del oro (Golden Angel), Super Porky (this one is obvious). All are heftily built and most with protruding bellies, they are clearly in very good shape to endure the blows, falls and various gymnastics that abound.
Lucha libre is high theatre – highly choreographed and enigmatic performance. I still don’t know if they actually rehearse the specific matches beforehand, but they probably at least practice the moves. There must be some way of letting each other know what is coming up since if these truly came out of nowhere there it would be actual fighting and tangible injury would result. The slaps, bites, twists, punches and blows to the body are clearly fake, while others are actually pretty amazing, especially when the caída (pin) is imminent.
It is obvious when a caída will occur – the acrobatics intensify, like fireworks building for the finale. The drama heightens between the contestants, often will all six luchadores in the ring at the same time, accompanied by hoots and hollers from the crowd, and usually the final blow will be a jump from the top line of the corner and landing impressively on the soon-to-be-vanquished – a feat worthy of the big-top circus.
Dazed, confused fighters, usually after a particularly histrionic blow to the chest or head, tend to fall out of the ring at regular intervals. This appears to be a device to hand over the reins to the others on his team. Often the fights occur outside the ring, enhancing the performance with these sideshows. The most impressive of all the moves is the flying leap over the ropes of the ring onto an opposing luchador on the ground – this is an especially dramatic free fall of over 10 feet.
One odd element is the enano (dwarf) – it could have been a child but highly unlikely – who made an appearance in the second match. Dressed as a skeleton (very characteristic for a death-obsessed Mexico), this diminutive fighter remained on the sidelines until the very end when he sprung into the ring at the moment the caída was all but secured and his teammates allowed him the honor of making the pin as the opponent lay defeated on the mat. There must be some significance in this lucha libre peculiarity, but it lost on me.
The lucha libre audience is an interesting mix: boisterous die-hards close to the ring gesticulating wildly to the unfurling events, couples and families (many women surprisingly) out for an entertaining afternoon, and pockets of tourists sprinkled here and there. Most striking to me was the number of children in attendance, although the under-fifteens are not allowed in the first three rows.
Vendors make the rounds selling beers and sodas in paper cups, popcorn and other snacks, and shiny photographic books and the prototypical lucha libre spandex masks. As in all of Mexico, botanas (snacks) and refrescos (drinks) are always close at hand.
The crowd roars constantly, not a moment is quiet in the area. Children rose to their feet shouting, adult fans berating their foes, groups of women cheer or boo. Roving camera men (this event was broadcast live) and official photographers dance skillfully ringside. Men in suits and earpieces stand in the aisles, apparently to maintain control lest pandemonium breaks loose.
The only section that displayed a racket was bordering the entrance to the ring. Here a group of men cajole the scantily-clad señoritas who announce each round. Of course this warranted as they flirt generously and swish their hips amid the manufactured fog, strobe lights, and triumphant music blaring.
Máximo – An Exótico in Lucha Libre
After two matches it was obvious that machismo reigns supreme in lucha libre. So when the luchador Máximo entered the ring for the finale, I was a startled by his overtly feminine outfit and demeanor. Sporting a Roman toga-esque “miniskirt” with pink hems, a ruddy rose lapel and a flaming magenta Mohawk, this “exotic” fighter was clearly outside of the norm.
As he pranced around the ring with his banner “Vivo mi vida a lo MÁXIMO” (“I live my life to the MAX”) and blowing kisses to the crowd, they responded with loud shouts of “puto” (fag). Oh dear, I thought. I am about to witness a classic case of gay bashing on public display pandering to a wildly machista audience – this was not something I could stand and was preparing to leave.
As soon as the fight began, it was apparent that Máximo was quite popular with the crowd and a strong luchador. As he maneuvered his opponents to the mat, the throngs howled “Kiss him! Kiss him!,” evidently one of his signature moves. None of the other fighters got such a rise from the audience, despite the derogatory epithets freely shouted, it was clear he was the favorite.
Since this was the headlining match, the spectacle was at its pinnacle so the roaring arena was filled with high-flying acrobatics. The pendulum of victory swung between each team at various points, but in the end Máximo’s team won and the crowd was thrilled. With triumphal music blaring, the crowd on its feet, and the gay man victorious, for a moment this “alternate” universe was in balance.
Reading about lucha libre afterwards, I learned his luchador persona is categorized as an exótico, or “exotic” type which features vampires, aliens, half-animal creatures, even homosexuals. These types tend to provide special entertainment value (such as foils, bufoons or jesters) and the crowd clearly responds with enthusiasm, although admittedly playing hard on the gay stereotypes of the effete and the effeminate.
Interestingly, the man behind Máximo is in fact not gay – in real life he is married to a woman – but plainly he has carved a “gay-for-pay” niche in the lucha libre realm. And apparently there has been quite a history of overtly homosexual luchadores in Mexican free fighting going back decades.
After two hours of fighting I finally reached my limit. I left the arena and perused the various stalls selling masks, outfits, photos and (of course) food). My hunger for “alternative” Mexico City was momentarily sated, thanks to a fine, filling taste of lucha libre.