They took my camera away. Before I could even enter Arena Mexico for my first experience as a lucha libre spectator, an usher placed the camera in a cloudy Ziploc bag, handed me a little card with the number 25 on it, and pointed to a window by the entrance that said CAMARAS. For the television broadcast, he said, shrugging his shoulders. I could pick it up after the show.
When I got to my seat a few moments later, I immediately wished I still had it. Arena Mexico was almost completely empty; a permanent circus tent with seats cascading down toward the ring in rainbows, faded advertisements on the walls, and vendors wandering around with mountains of light-up toys and trinkets heaped in baskets slung over their shoulders. The scene itself felt like a photograph. This was not just an old arena, but a place actually frozen in time. A pair of women stood around the ring wearing almost nothing between their tall black boots and wide floppy hats, posing for pictures with men in suits and taking in scattered catcalls and whistles.
So this is lucha libre, I thought. We were almost an hour early, but the empty seats did not look promising—neither did the small-ish entrance set, which flashed advertisements in low definition and emitted occasional spurts of fog, like a sickly whale. The tunnels leading into each aisle were painted with seemingly arbitrary flags of the world—Canada, India, the USA, Mexico. We were seated in the Japan aisle. For weeks, I had been hearing about how popular lucha libre was; about the great crowds that gathered in Arena Mexico, especially for the Friday show, the Viernes Espectacular. But nothing so far was spectacular. The arena was dark. No music played. Everybody seemed calm, nearly to the point of drowsiness.
Arena Mexico was completed in 1956 on the foundation of an earlier lucha libre venue, Arena Modelo. The man behind the Arena Mexico, Salvadore Lutteroth, was, at least from a promotional sense, the founding father of lucha libre. Lutteroth was credited with bringing professional wrestling to Mexico in the early 1930s as well as shepherding the introduction of some of the sport’s most notable tropes, like masks. In its 60-plus years of existence, Arena Mexico has remained primarily a wrestling venue. The only notable exception has been boxing. (Arena Mexico hosted the boxing portion of Mexico City’s Olympics in 1968, including the dominant Gold Medal performance by a 19-year-old heavyweight named George Foreman). The venue seats about 17,000, but it feels much smaller both inside and out. From the outside, Arena Mexico blends quietly into its block in the Colonia Doctores. The marquee is faded and so are the painted signs on the façade. Colonia Doctores has a dangerous reputation, but at least in the hours before lucha libre events, the streets around the arena are bright and busy with people selling shirts, capes, and above all, masks.
The arena began to fill up. The upper level stayed mostly empty, except for a section or two directly across from the entrance set where fans hung banners over the railing. But by the time the lights went down and a young-ish announcer wearing a glossy suit and an even glossier hairstyle took the stage, the lower bowl was about two thirds full. More and more vendors, selling everything imaginable, began to stalk the aisles. Cup-a-Noodle soups, various sizes of bags of potato chips, popcorn, soda, toys, capes, masks, nachos, candy apples. A beer vendor invited us down into some open seats in his section, closer to the ring. For about $4, you could buy a pair of 12-ounce bottles of Victoria or Corona poured into a paper cup. The bottles were kept in cases piled up in the aisle. I bought many.
The immense echo in the arena made it hard to catch all of the names of the luchadores. Only some of them had introductory videos and theme music. But the crowd seemed to have opinions about everybody. The names of the fighters mattered far less than their costumes, which themselves mattered far less than their status as either rudos or tecnicos, malos or buenos, bad guys or good guys. Before Friday, I knew basically nothing about lucha libre. If I know one thing now—after one match attended and a few hours of reading—it is that lucha libre is a morality tale. The entire history of the sport is a long, cinematic metaphor for good and evil. The setup is simple: good guys get introduced first, and bad guys second. Good guys wear shiny bright colors and beautiful masks, and bad guys where dark colors and leopard print. Good guys fight from the southwest corner of the ring, bad guys from the northeast.
The difference between good and evil is more evident in behavior of the luchadores than it is in their appearance. Lucha libre is not like American professional wrestling, with its soap opera dynamics, vocal grudge matches, and elaborate story lines. The only WWE event I ever went to, at Staples Center, featured a planned wedding and a surprise elopement; Friday’s bout featured no more than two minutes of luchadores talking into microphones . Without the ability to speak publicly, and without elaborate background stories, the fighters must let the action in and around the ring reveal the nature of their character. Friday evening’s card played out like a series of silent movies with the rudos occupying the role of villains, tying metaphorical women to train tracks and twirling their greasy mustaches—cheating essentially. They constantly took advantage of the fact that there was only one, hapless referee. Tecnicos, on the other hand, were noble to a fault. They were more likely to lose honorably while being pounded by cheap shots than to sink to the level of their opponents. In the second match, a 3-on-3, the rudo team was disqualified when a luchador named Skandalo removed the mask of an opponent named Starman, leaving him writhing on the floor outside the ring, doing his best to hide his face and protect his identity while Skandalo and his pals kicked him repeatedly in the abdomen.
The mask is no small thing in lucha libre. The sport’s greatest hero, El Santo, was a masked man. When he went on television in Mexico a week before his death by heart attack in 1984, and revealed his face to the world, it was considered a highly personal and symbolic act. Santo was buried with his silver mask on. The mask was not only an identity and a brand, but an affirmation of morality. A man in a mask is not judged by how he looks, but by how he behaves, by his grace in the ring. This was what made Santo a national hero in Mexico.
Of course lucha libre is not all good and evil, and it’s not as moral as it is moralistic. Scantily clad women stand in a single file line and dance half-heartedly to greet each wrestler on his way to the ring. Slapstick comedy reigns. The ubiquitous Laurel and Hardy DVD box sets I’d been seeing for sale all around town began to make more and more sense to me throughout the night. In the manner of mimes and silent movie comedians, the comedy is deliberate and sometimes crude. The two most wildly received luchadores of the night, both buenos, were the two fattest—a woman named Goya Kong and a man named Brazo de Plato who looked like he could barely move, except to wiggle his immense and shiny belly in the direction of his opponenents.
In addition to his ample belly, Brazo de Plato had a mascota, which is the word commonly used here for pet. Unfortunately, in this circumstance, mascota refers to a little person dressed in an elaborate costume who accompanies a luchador to the ring. Brazo de Plato’s mascota was dressed as a bright blue gorilla. Brazo’s fight was another 3-on-3, and the opposing trio had two mascotas: a skeleton and an eagle. In a perfect confluence of lucha libre’s moralism and its slapstick nature, the skeleton and eagle mascotas jumped Brazo de Plato’s blue gorilla friend between rounds, beating him up with the help of the bigger wrestlers. It was awful. The crowd hissed righteously. I don’t remember who won the fight, but I remember the roar of the crowd after the next round, when with the help of his teammates, the blue gorilla got his revenge by leaping from the second rope onto the splayed bodies of his tormenters. I remember thinking that this was ridiculous and maybe tragic. It was either imperfect justice or unjust perfection. But I also remember cheering, and hearing the laughter of the couple seated behind us, and seeing the raised arms of the two adult men swigging beer through lucha libre masks across the aisle.
When the match ended, I made my way to the CAMARAS line, disappointed that I had no photographic evidence of what I’d just seen, but thrilled by the campy violence and the staged morality. We walked out into Colonia Doctores among the drunk fans and the smiling parents buying plastic trinkets and the little boys in gleaming masks practicing acrobatics on the front steps of the arena—buenos, all of them. A couple blocks away. we walked into a 7-11 to ask for directions. The woman standing behind the counter was bleeding out of every part of her face. Another woman and a man had just crashed their way out the door, gotten into a car parked in the middle of the street, and driven away laughing into the night. The show was just a show, and now it was over.