Lucha Libre is an indefinable marvel of entertainment. It’s a sports competition, an acrobatics show, and a theatrical performance all at once, but at the same time, it’s not quite any of those. Lucha speaks to a very primal part of human nature; it satisfies our need for social interaction, our need to be inspired, and our semi-sadistic pleasure in violence that goes back to the days of the Roman coliseums.
Lucha Libre rose to prominence in the early 1900s alongside other forms of mass entertainment, such as cinemas and amusement parks. While wrestling existed in Mexico previously, it was only seen as a collegiate sport. Gradually, traveling athletes from the United States drifted down to Mexico City to perform, and the sport caught fire. In the 1930s, Lucha was officially seen as a business endeavor in Mexico. A man named Salvador Lutteroth established a promotion in 1933 called the Empresa Mexicana de Lucha Libre, EMLL. What’s almost more notable is that Lutteroth also created a school for the development of Mexican talent after realizing the need for local stars.
Shortly after the creation of EMLL (Now the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre, CMLL), Mexican wrestling sought to forge its own identity. Unlike the wrestling of the United States, Lucha Libre had theatrical characters; Luchadores weren’t just fighters, they were phantoms, spirits, angels, demons, and more. This made Lucha Libre extremely vibrant.
The presence of masked wrestlers is something largely unique to Mexico. This is accredited to a very poetic parallel between Lucha masks and traditions of pre-Hispanic Mexican culture, wherein priests at the head of indigenous rituals would often don masks of animals or beasts to transform themselves into greater beings. While the masks of indigenous tradition don’t form a direct line to the masks of Lucha Libre, they provided cultural roots that made masks and Mexican wrestling a match made in heaven.
Luchadores are like comic book superheroes come to life. This aura that surrounds luchadors is greatly strengthened by their masks. The luchadores themselves often cite a feeling of power generated by putting on their mask. Rey Fenix is one of these luchadores.
“The first time I put on my mask, it’s incredible! (It’s) almost like an explosion in your chest, and you feel like a superhero. That is how the people look at you, like a superhero.”
(El Santo, the most famous luchador in history)
The Creation of Carnies
The American pro wrestling scene developed much differently, and about half a century earlier. While EMLL was created for the local neighborhoods of Mexico City, American pro wrestling developed through traveling carnival shows. The key feature of many of these shows was a large, intimidating fighter put in place by the booker to put on open challenges against the spectators. Volunteers would try their hand and almost always lose, typically because of underhanded tactics by the hired wrestler. These wrestlers and bookers, the ones who held the nationwide open challenges, came to be known as carnies. This word has lingered in pro wrestling circles and is now used to describe the rampant nepotism in the business.
Carnies soon found great money-making in hiring traveling fighters to pose as spectators and “beat” their open challenge. This effective traveling scheme later developed into a formal business enterprise. These small, independent carnivals would form the National Wrestling Alliance, the first national wrestling promotion in the United States.
The characters that came out of American pro wrestling tended to be much more down to earth than the angels and demons of Lucha Libre. One of the more outlandish early American pro wrestling characters was Gorgeous George, a flamboyant, narcissistic wrestler who became one of the biggest wrestling stars of his time largely for his magnetic personality.
Not all American wrestlers had such enjoyable characters, though. Many heels were essentially racial stereotypes, usually of Arabs, Russians, and Germans. One of the most grotesque of these caricatures was introduced after the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, and was called Muhammad Hassan. He was a Muslim heel (played by an Italian-American) who prayed to Allah during matches as a way of garnering heel heat.
By the 1990s, two very different cultures developed around pro wrestling in the US and around Lucha Libre in Mexico, respectively. Some athletes had great success crossing over from the US to Mexico, or vice versa, but the real cultural diffusion between these scenes wouldn’t occur until WCW’s Monday Nitro.
Crossing the Border
Lucha Libre’s most momentous burst into the United States was through the creation of WCW’s cruiserweight division. Names like Juventud Guerrero, Psychosis, Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, and La Parka brought international attention to the incredible talent of Mexican luchadores. While they were never treated as the promotion’s top stars (that space was reserved for the heavyweights and the nWo), the Mexican cruiserweights made such an impact on the world of pro wrestling that their influence is still seen today.
Maybe the biggest influence that the WCW luchadores had over the scene of professional wrestling was their innovation of exciting, acrobatic moves. Of these, the two most popular are most likely Rey Mysterio’s Hurricanrana and Juventud Guerrera’s 450 Splash. Both of these have become staples in any great match, even on American soil. The wrestlers who use them (at least half of all wrestlers, I’d say,) owe their inspiration to the pioneers of Lucha Libre who broke national boundaries and expanded professional wrestling from its many disparate scenes to the vast, global artform we know it as today.
(Rey Mysterio, a living legend in the world of Lucha Libre)
Lucha’s Lasting Influence
Lucha is the theatrical cousin of the American tradition of professional wrestling. Though they both share the same origins of Greco-Roman style wrestling, Lucha and pro wrestling embarked on very different developmental paths. In the 1990s, Lucha Libre burst onto the American scene and refashioned professional wrestling with its acrobatic, show-stopping style. I’d also venture to say that, while outlandish characters existed in American wrestling before its diffusion with Lucha Libre, it was from Lucha that American wrestling found the inspiration for the mythical heroes that it would later create, namely the Undertaker and Kane.
The world of Lucha Libre is a vibrant, thrilling cornerstone of Mexican culture. It’s an enigma in the world of entertainment, lying somewhere between professional fighting, morality plays, and a traveling circus. However you choose to define Lucha Libre, what is undeniable is the inextinguishable love and passion rooted in its worldwide culture.
Sachdeva, Shiven. “Fenix talks about Rey Mysterio’s influence on his career and more.” Sportskeeda, 7
Tales of Masked Men. Directed by Carlos Avila. PBS, 2012.
Willis, Matt. “Legacy of the WCW Cruiserweights.” ESPN, 29 Sept. 2016.
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