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Who Was That Masked Man?

Stacy Brandt, Staff Writer

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Published: Thursday, December 5, 2002

Updated: Sunday, October 12, 2008

Exploringthe incredibly strange world of excess that is lucha libre

By Stacy Brandt, Staff Writer

There are people who think that wrestlingis an ignoble sport. Wrestling is not a sport; it is a spectacle. Thevirtue of wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess. -- RolandBarthes, Mythologies, 1956

The lights came on and, unfortunately, it was time to return tothe real world. The past several hours had been spent in a fantasyworld of violence, slapstick humor, gymnastics, over-the-top dramaand better moves than even James Brown can pull off.

It was a night spent in the Auditorio Municipal in Tijuana caughtin the bizarre world of lucha libre -- the world of Mexican wrestlingin which anything can happen and the audience is often as much a partof the show as the wrestlers themselves.

"It's more like Cirque du Soleil than WWE," someone in theaudience said as she was leaving the auditorium.

This is an oversimplification, yes, but an accurate description.It's difficult to give a concrete account of lucha libre. You reallyneed to witness it to understand. It mixes "The Three Stooges" withGreek mythology, comic books, politics and plenty of testosterone.Lucha libre is as much an art as it is a sport.

"I consider it along the same lines as dancing," said JakeShannon, a lucha-trained wrester now with the Incredibly StrangeWrestling troupe as El Libido Gigante. "It's athletic, but it'sentertaining. It incorporates theater, athleticism and stunt work allin one forum."

Thedifferences between lucha libre and its U.S. counterpart are nearlyas hard to pin down as a high-flying luchador. Lucha libre is farmore acrobatic and colorful than most of what is seen in the states.The matches are also usually structured differently, with three onthree bouts that require each wrester on each team of three to bepinned.

"I think the big difference is that lately American wrestling hasbegun to take itself too seriously," said Robert Rodriguez, creatorof the Web site Viva La Lucha Libre (vivalaluchalibre.net). "TheMexican shows are about putting on a fun show for the audience, andthe fans respond by being a lot more vocal at shows."

The crowds at such events are not only vocal, but they are alsodiverse. Among the chaos you will find middle-aged laborers gettingout their frustrations and forgetting about their troubles by hurlingprofanities at the villains. Their shouting might be overpowered bythe elderly couples and children screaming unprintable chants at thetop of their lungs just for the fun of it. Fans from every economicand social background come to witness the spectacle.

Theenergy is equal to that of a rock show. Luchadors are oftenconsidered to be more than just sports figures.

"The masks make many wrestlers appear larger than life," Rodriguezsaid. "It's like seeing a masked superhero in the real world."

For centuries, the people of Mexico have worn symbolic masks andelaborate costumes during festivals, but legend has it that the linkbetween Mexican wrestling and masks came in 1934 when El Enmascarado,an American wrestler, came to Mexico City. The masked man was animmediate success and started the mask-wearing craze that still holdsstrong.

Mask vs. mask matches are common but risky bouts in the luchaworld. Once a luchador loses a mask match, the winner removes theloser's mask. His previous wrestling identity is gone forever becausethe loser is never allowed to wear his mask in the ring again.

"Losing the mask takes away a lot of an enmascarados mystique andcompletely changes his image," Rodriguez said, "so it's really vitalto his livelihood."

Like Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne, most luchadors guard their masksand hide their identities vigilantly. They refuse to appear in publicwithout the mask. El Santo, the most famous luchador in the historyof Mexican wrestling, was even buried in his silver mask after hefought 15,000 matches and starred in more that 40 films.

Though the first Mexican wrestling organization, EMLL, was formedin 1933, lucha libre didn't begin to reach a broad audience until the'90s. Spanish-language channels began to regularly broadcast eventsand wrestling organizations in the United States started hiring morewrestlers with backgrounds in lucha libre.

Galavision televises entertaining matches every weekend, butwatching lucha libre on television can't compare with seeing it live.You can still enjoy the matches, but you miss half of the event. Thetelevision can't capture the chaos and energy of a live match. Luckyfor San Diegans, Tijuana is just a short drive away.

You can see the spectacle live at Auditorio Municipal on thecorner of Avenue Margaritas and Boulevard Agua Caliente. There aremany options for getting to the venue, but the cheapest and mostpractical is to walk across the border and catch a red cab on thecorner of Avenue Revoluccion and 4th in downtown Tijuana.

The red cabs are route cabs and run like busses, picking upadditional passengers along the way. It costs less than a dollar toget there. Be sure to specify that you want the route using a redcab, but not a special cab. It's quite a distance and would cost muchmore in a special cab.

The next event will be held at 8:30 p.m., Friday with additionalwrestling events scheduled every Friday night throughout December.The ticket price is $10 for general admission. Entry costs more ifyou want to be closer to the ring. Call the auditorium at01152-664-681-6474 or check out the message board onwww.luchaworld.com for information about specific weekends.

For those of us who are a little bit lucha libre and a little bitrock 'n' roll, there's Incredibly Strange Wrestling. Audra Morse, arock promoter in San Francisco, started ISW in 1995 with threelucha-loving friends.

"I never in a million years expected this," Morse said. "I went toschool for architecture and industrial design, and boy was my mamaproud when I told her I was going to be wrestling."

The combination of outrageous, lucha-style matches, loud rock 'n'roll bands and tortillas has been attracting attention ever since.

The crowds at each show toss about 36,000 tortillas, Morseestimated.

"They'll throw their girlfriends if they don't have tortillas,"she said. "They have.

"It's our way of letting the crowd be a part of the show withoutanyone getting hurt," she said. "Everyone wants to jump in the ring,they all want to be a part of it, but obviously they can't do that.You get a few bottles or a few drinks in the head and it hurts, so wecame up with the tortilla idea and it was perfect."

ISW manages to offend just about everyone with wrestlers who havenames such as: El Homo Loco, The Poontangler, Ku Klux Klown and Culode Muerte.

"I hate political correctness and everything about it," Morsesaid. "If I can offend you, I've done my job."

ISW is more entertaining than most other types of wrestling,Shannon said.

"It's very Andy Kauffman-esque," he said. "There's some realwrestling and then there's some stupid stuff. It's a good mix, Ithink."

You can experience ISW live with the music of The Swinging Uttersand Manic Hispanic on Dec. 8, at the DNA Lounge in San Francisco.Call (415) 824-9054 or visit www.incrediblystrangewrestling.com formore details.

ISW is planning to bring its twisted vision of wrestling aroundthe country next summer.

With America slowly starting to embrace the influence of maskedmen, Mexican wrestling organizations have started to put on moreevents stateside. It is becoming easier to witness the spectacle ofexcess known as lucha libre.

"You don't even need to understand Spanish to have a great time,"Morse said. "It all speaks for itself. You can't not have fun."

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