|MEXICO CITY – Metalium has tied me into a human pretzel. He’s pinned one arm behind my neck, looped my leg behind my back, and has me in a lock designed to separate one’s shoulder from one’s body. In an unfortunate case of lost in translation, this big, boisterous wrestling student mistook “travel writer wants to learn” for “wrestler wants to fight.” The moment I entered the practice ring I was thrown against the hard ropes, picked up, slammed down, flung about, T-boned, elbowed, body kicked, rolled over and clamped tight. I’m slapping the floor with my one free palm, the frantic wave of submission, writhing in equal parts pain and shock at my latest predicament (the TV crew capturing all of this are laughing too hard to know how to stop the carnage). Serves me right for putting on a mask so I could throw myself into the story.
In Mexico, Luche Libre refers to the high-flying world of professional wrestling. Much like its WWE counterpart in North America, Luche Libre involves colourful characters, theatrical violence, multi-team tournaments and rabid fans of all ages. Yet Luche Libre (literally, “free wrestling&rdquo is also known for its breathtaking acrobatics, the tradition of its masks, and as one of the best nights out for any tourist to Mexico City.
It’s Friday night, and Mexico City is throbbing. The world’s biggest city is renowned for its pockets of culture and art, sport and music, all connected along choking lines of traffic. Outside the ArenaMexico, the sidewalks are choked too, as vendors sell masks, toys, T-shirts, food, and all manner of wrestling paraphernalia. It takes a few moments before I become accustomed to the grown men wearing the masks of their favourite Luchedore – they look more like flamboyant bank robbers. The kids are out in force too, for despite the violence to come, wrestling has always been fun for the whole family.
Luche Libre was born in Mexico in the 1930’s, but really took off with the advent of television in the 1950’s. The rules were simple: Opponents lose if they are pinned to the mat for three seconds, removed from the ring for twenty, or disqualified for illegal holds, groin strikes or the removal of a Luchedore’s mask. It is the mask that gives each wrestler his mythical allure, his character and personality. Ever since El Santo, the most famous Luchedore of all time, stepped into the ring with his silver mask, the public has been fascinated with these heroes of the ring. The mask does more than just conceal the true identity of the wrestler (who will never be named or seen without it in public), it becomes their honour, protected at all cost. Battles take place between archrivals for the right to remove the mask, and it is not uncommon for a Luchedore to lose his mask, continue wrestling, but never replace it. Others may retire a mask for a new one, allowing them to switch characters between the good “tecnicos” and the bad “rudos”. I had yet to decid if I was a hero or a villain when I stepped into the ring, wearing a customized mask with ESROCK glued across the top in red sequins. Metalium didn’t give me a chance. Under the eyes of his watchful trainer, he was hungry to show off his skills, and the Mighty Esrock proved easy fodder. Soon enough, Metalium will be ready to enter the ring, but it will still take some time before he can earn the right to wear his own mask. Dating back to the time of the Aztecs, colours have made way for designs of beasts, angels and gods, and choosing the right mask to resonate with the buying public can make or break careers.
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