It's a cold Sunday night, the kind of night that eats at a man, makes him start thinking crazy thoughts, like heading out on the town for some kicks, maybe watching men in masks and underpants bludgeon the holy hell out of each other.
The Independent Wrestling Federation is putting on its first show ever at the Buffalo Rose (X-Treme X-Mas!), lured to Golden when that venue made a better offer than the deal the IWF has enjoyed for several years at Cervantes' Masterpiece Ballroom, and I'm here for a lucha libre smackdown. Walking into the bar, I stroll past a collection of grizzled drunks in heavy jackets, two of whom are discussing whether they should "settle this matter outside" — but their hobo fisticuffs are not the violence I've come to see. So I continue on to a mammoth back room entirely separate from the front bar, and at the back of that second room is a giant wrestling ring overseen by Tamera Halbeisen, owner/promoter/booking agent for the IWF. She explains that there will be several straight-wrestling bouts tonight, along with one mixed match pitting a masked wrestler against an unmasked one, and one actual lucha libre fight. She then introduces me to Jesús Hernandez, the IWF's head lucha libre trainer as well as its talent scout.
"The regular wrestling matches are a bit more focused on the actual fighting," he tells me. "With the lucha libre fights, the wrestlers are definitely physical as well, but it's a bit more theatrical. More like sketch comedy." Sketch comedy, eh? I'm in. Especially because one of the comedy artists will be Jesús's son, Jesús Hernandez III, who's been wrestling under the name Quantum since he was two. Now fifteen, Quantum has tangled with some of the biggest names in lucha libre, including such Mexican stars as Atlantis, Dr. Wagner and Porky.
I sit down to wait for the show, and take in the gathering fight fans: tough-looking twenty-somethings slamming pitchers of beer, stern vatos with arm tattoos, students in watch caps and sweatshirts bearing the Colorado School of Mines logo, families with small children out for a Sunday night throwdown. This may be the first IWF event at the Buffalo Rose, but these people are clearly fight veterans. I may be the only wrestling novice in the bunch. But what can I say? I've never liked the sport. And it's all because of my cousin Skippy.
At least, that's what I like to call him.
When I was around ten, I was toted to Phoenix by my parents, who informed me that we had distant relatives there — fourth or fifth cousins — and were going to visit them. A small child, devoid of any free will, I really had no say in the matter, and I soon found myself seated in the living room of said relatives, keeping company the way white Americans tend to do: through awkward conversation and hard candies. I cannot recall the cousins' names, faces or any other defining characteristics, but I distinctly remember palm trees outside their condo complex and the unsettling impression that everything around me seemed beige, a medical condition that I later learned is known as phoenixia, a fear of strip malls. I also remember that this household included a teenage boy who looked just like Skippy, the neighbor on Family Ties who was always after a piece of that Mallory Keaton ass. Skippy was summoned from a back room and told to keep me entertained while the grownups talked. He led me down a hallway, paused, then opened the door to his bedroom. And with that one twist of the doorknob, we were no longer in Phoenix. We were in Wrestlemania.
Skippy's room was festooned with posters and photographs, banners and buttons all dedicated to those giant heroes of the late '80s who clad themselves in the tightest of tight tights, then jumped into a ring and bashed each other with folding chairs. Chief among these warriors — at least according to Skippy's interior decor — was Hulk Hogan, a man who would go on to encourage his daughter to pop-star dreams far beyond her God-given abilities. When Skippy spoke about the Hulkster, there was a frightening glimmer in his eyes, and even at my tender age, I sensed that his fascination with this man, this sport, went far beyond mere appreciation to something more primal, more profound. And then Skippy showed me his most prized wrestling possession: a framed photograph from the local paper of him practically crowd-surfing atop a sea of wrestling fans, desperately lunging to receive a high-five from Hulk Hogan. And although Skippy was probably five, six years my elder, I knew in that exact moment that as our paths diverged on this planet, I would get laid way more than Skippy.
And that I would never be that into wrestling.
So as I grew older and watched a few classmates go off on tangents about Andre the Giant and Rowdy Roddy Piper, I stuck to listening to New Kids on the Block and stealing small amounts of cash from my mother's purse.
But then at some point, lucha libre penetrated the pop-culture canon, and something about those masked wrestlers clicked with me. Maybe it was because they looked like comic-book superheroes sprung to life. Maybe it was because their performances in the ring seemed more tongue-in-cheek, like they were in on the joke instead of trying to pretend they were the biggest badasses on the planet. Maybe it was just because it's hard not to get caught up in the insanity of the whirling content that dervishes across Mexican television. Whatever it was and is, I became intrigued with lucha libre.
So by the time Larry Nelson, a beach-ball-shaped man billed as "the voice of IWF," climbs into the ring at the Buffalo Rose and asks the audience if we're "ready to get extreme," I can honestly say I am. If there were a Mountain Dew near me, I'm pretty sure I'd chug the whole thing.
"You want to see some blood? You want to see some violence?" Nelson screams.
The audience roars, and Nelson introduces the first lucha libre fighters: the 275-pound Mascara Meshika and the far lighter Fuerza Chicano, up from El Paso. (I will later learn that both men live here, but lucha libre is all about creating an identity.) Mascara Meshika (in a yellow mask with blue trim) and Fuerza Chicano (black-and-white mask) proceed to traipse around the ring, periodically engaging in some truly impressive (and loud) flips and body slams. They also ham it up like clowns, with one soliciting responses from the crowd while his foe, mistakenly considered down for the count, suddenly attacks. In lucha, I quickly learn, you never turn your back on a fighter, sucka, no matter how out he seems. The luchadores climb up on the ropes and leap through the air, kicking and punching and slamming each other around the ring as the audience howls in delight, catcalling at the wrestlers.
"Power-slam straight from Mexico City!" one particularly adept shit-talker in the front row screams after Fuerza Chicano is dropped. "You're going to have to bring more than that to the lucha, Chicano! That's amateur!"
"Pegas como una vieja, juey!" someone yells from the back. "You hit like an old woman!"
After about ten minutes of lucha action and several oh-so-close-but-no-cigar two-counts, Mascara Meshika finally pins Fuerza Chicano for three, and the first match of the evening ends. Next up is an American-style wrestling throwdown between Chris Wrath of Texas and Evan Noble of Washington, D.C. (both are actually from Colorado — no reason the luchadores should have all the fun). From the get-go, it's obvious that this is Evan Noble's crowd. He gets the loudest applause, and he doesn't even fight dirty — unlike his opponent. A kick in the back? Total dick move, Wrath. The faux Texan does win some points with a kick-ass backflip off the bottom rope, but it's Noble's ridiculous leap off the top rope, followed by a scruff-of-the-neck slam-down, that ends the bout. The audience calls for more blood. And Bud Light.
Me? I just want more masks.
The next bout delivers: Prodigee versus Quantum. Prodigee is called first, and the unmasked, ponytailed miscreant bounds out from behind several large IWF placards to blaring gangsta rap, spitting water into the air. Apparently he's a bad boy — even though he's carrying what appears to be a Raggedy Andy doll. And then out comes Quantum, a luchador hailing from Juárez, Mexico (Colorado), weighing in at 160 pounds and wearing an elaborate red outfit, complete with a pointy, devil-eared mask.
Quantum is truly a sight to behold. While all the fighters on the card execute impressive physical feats, Quantum seems capable of actual flight. He bounces around the ring like an electron, never standing still. And even when he's flipped or slammed, he makes an extra roll, spinning that much faster through the air. Although he loses the bout, he's clearly the best athlete in the ring this night.
During more American-style fights that follow, I talk again with Jesús Hernandez. The week before, Pro Wrestling America, his company that works in conjunction with the IFC, put on an all-lucha libre fight at the National Western Events Center that drew 1,200 fans. He says he's worked out a deal to put on a monthly show at that venue starting in February, and that he'll fly in some of the biggest lucha names to compete. He also tells me he'll be holding several lucha libre practices at the IWF gym, aka "the Butcher Shop," in Northglenn in the coming week, and that I'm welcome to attend. I tell him I'll see him the following Friday.
In the ring.
According to legend — and by legend, I mean a few articles I found on the Internet — the tradition of lucha libre (Spanish for "free fighting") dates back to 1933, when Salvador Lutteroth brought pro wrestling to Mexico after witnessing a fight in Texas. But it wasn't until the following year, when an American wrestler visiting Mexico City donned a black leather mask and fought as "El Enmascarado" — The Masked Man — that lucha libre really took off. Both the ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures had dressed fighters in brightly colored masks depicting the gods, and the masks resonated with Latin wrestling fans. Promoters quickly noticed, and soon masked Mexican wrestlers were popping up at events around the country.
Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta truly defined the sport. Officially called "El Enmascarado de Plata" (The Man in the Silver Mask) but known to all by the nickname El Santo, Huerta was the first fighter to cultivate the persona of the luchador, donning his famous silver mask in the early 1940s and never revealing his true identity to anyone. He was not merely a man wrestling as El Santo; he was El Santo. A weekly comic book dedicated to his exploits sold millions of copies, and when the film industry came calling for El Santo, the sport's popularity exploded. After his death in 1984, he was buried in a mausoleum in the nation's capital, wearing his silver mask. To this day, El Santo is remembered as a Mexican folk hero.
While El Santo was turning lucha libre into a pop-culture phenomenon in the 1940s and '50s, the structure of the sport began falling into place. The concept of the "técnico" and the "rudo" was born, with the técnico representing a good, clean fighter, and the rudo adhering to more of a brawler, bad-guy role. The notion of the mask as something sacred evolved during this time as well, with the unmasking of a wrestler essentially signaling that wrestler's death. By the early '60s, lucha libre had a firm hold over Mexico and had spread into several other Central American countries.
"In Mexico, everyone knows the history of lucha libre, the legends, they all have their idols," Jesús Hernandez tells me. "Soccer is the biggest sport there, boxing is probably second, but close behind it in terms of popularity in Mexico is lucha libre. It would be like the equivalent of an American kid growing up watching basketball or something. With the growing Hispanic population here in the States, I think there's the real opportunity to make it big here, too. It just makes sense."
Thirty-six-year-old Jesús was born in El Paso but moved to Aurora when he was two and later attended Overland High School. Although as a teenager he occasionally watched fights on television and even went to a few live bouts when he was with relatives in Juárez, he didn't wrestle at school. But when he was seventeen, he visited a buddy in Albuquerque who'd set up a ring in his garage, and from the moment he set foot in the ring, Jesús was hooked. "I had absolutely no idea what I was doing," he remembers. "But ever since that moment, it's been nothing but moving forward in the sport for me. It's been all about the lucha."
Still, he didn't make it to an actual match for several years. In the meantime, he trained: figuring out the moves, the holds, the rolls, the bumps, the art of lucha. Eventually he started wrestling for real, hooking up with different promoters and traveling to competitions around the West once or twice a month, when he'd fight as Confusion Chicana. Although he paid the bills by managing a pizza joint or whatever else he could find, wrestling is what drove him.
"That's the high, the rush, the adrenaline for me," Jesús says, pantomiming the strapping on of wrestling boots. "To go out into public and wrestle makes some people nervous, but for me, when I get in the ring, everything is right in the world."
When Jesús Hernandez III was born, Papa Lucha wasted no time in sharing his obsession, teaching the little luchador moves when he was just two. By the time he was eight, little Jesús, or Quantum ("infinite possibilities," he explains), was already competing in public fights.
Today, fifteen-year-old Quantum is considered the top luchador in Colorado. A straight-A student and starting fullback at Boulder High School, Quantum has wrestled at the Denver Coliseum before a crowd of around 1,500 people and was part of an all-expenses-paid lucha tour arranged by World Power Wrestling, a promoter out of Anaheim, California, that hit seventeen cities in Mexico. "I was thirteen at the time, and it was great," Quantum remembers. "We traveled all over, and the crowds seemed to really like me. A young kid wrestling is rare down there, too. Even though the next youngest wrestler was probably around twenty or so, we all got along real good. I learned a lot from them, but they just treated me like one of the gang."
People in Denver also appreciate his chosen sport. "All of my friends think it's cool," he says. "Nobody has ever made fun of me for it or anything. My long-term goal would be to be up there with the big names in lucha libre — people like Santo, Blue Demon. I want to end up a legend in this sport."
And his father wants to help him get there. So last year, after an attempt to operate a lucha libre school with another wrestling company proved unsuccessful, Jesus got in touch with Tamera Halbeisen. She agreed that his company and the IWF would work together to promote lucha libre wrestling, and also share gym space.
At the gym where I'm about to get served.
While other wrestlers stretch or run on the treadmill or chat up the two promoters sporting mustaches and dark shades, Quantum and his father are already in the ring at the Butcher Shop in Northglenn. They're unmasked (during practice, a luchador doesn't have to disguise his identity, although Jesús says that no photos can be taken of their faces) and getting in a few moves before practice officially begins, strutting their stuff as eyes begin turning their way. In one move — a sunset, Jesús explains — Quantum runs to the corner and leaps up on the top rope so that he's facing outward, gazing out over a non-existent crowd. His father runs up to Quantum and places his head between his legs, grabbing hold of his son's calves. Quantum flips around in the air until he's essentially sitting on his father's shoulders, then rolls forward into the ring as both go tumbling back toward the center with an explosive boom that ricochets off the brick walls like a thunderclap. Quantum immediately starts pacing. Jesús gets up, panting.
"Fúmate otro cigarillo!" one of the promoters catcalls. "Smoke another cigarette!"
They're just messing with him. It's obvious that Jesús has skills as both a coach and a wrestler. "Bueno, empezamos," he yells with a smile, signaling for everyone to join them. He looks at me and nods. For a second, I feel like I'm going to vomit.
When I told Jesús that I wanted to wrestle, he warned me that I could hurt myself if I don't know what I'm doing — and I don't. He promised to teach me a few moves but made no promises about letting me in the ring. And having witnessed the father/son backflip, I'm no longer eager to go there. I'm fond of my well-formed and calcium-rich collarbone and have no desire to see it on the outside of my body.
Jesús nods again, and finally I scramble under the rope, trying my best to look cool and not out of place, while inside I'm terrified. The other wrestlers eye me curiously. Picachu, the only one who's actually fought in front of a crowd, looks particularly skeptical. He's small, with sharp, Aztec features — but he carries himself with the weight of someone who knows he's legit. In a blatant attempt at degringofication, I say a few words to him in Spanish, and he seems to warm up. The others — a referee who goes by the name Franco and a newbie recruit called Berto — are friendly, but they don't pay me much attention. They're here to practice, not gawk at the güero in the ring.
We begin with some simple somersaults, starting in the corner, planting our fists on the mat and then springing out of the roll: Quantum first, Picachu second, the referee, Berto, then me, Águila Güero. White Eagle. I tell everyone in the ring that this is my wrestling name, but no one seems to think it is as funny as I do; I blame the culture clash. I hang with the boys on the somersaults, no problem, a little dizzy but all good. Then we move on to more elaborate moves: a three-quarter roll over the shoulder, which involves leading with the right arm as you dive into the mat as though it were a pool, then quickly rolling up off your shoulder and upper back so that you wind up on your feet, facing the direction from whence you came, ready to ward off any foe. One, two, three, four — the luchadores dive and roll. And then Águila Güero rolls, and my right foot winds up tangled in the ropes, much to the delight of the mustachioed promoters.
Over the course of the practice I do probably thirty to forty more of these rolls, and pretty much every time, I do it wrong. Jesús patiently explains to me that the key is taking the brunt of the fall in your tricep, shoulder and upper back so that you don't hurt yourself, but on every attempt, for some reason I kidney-slam myself into the mat with either a faint but painful wheeze or a disquieting pop, like someone just stomped on an inflated Ziploc bag. Each time I ignore the pain, though, spring up and get back in line. Have to save face with the luchadores.
"You'll get it," Quantum says with a nod of encouragement. "These are all the fundamentals. Once you get these down, it's amazing how fast it can all come together."
That's easy for a fifteen-year-old lucha stud to say. I'm a washed-up soccer player in Kappa pants, with a booze-addled kidney that feels like it's about to explode.
But I can't think about that; it's time to put these kidney-blasters to use. The next drill calls for one wrestler to stand in the middle of the ring while another comes at him from the corner. The aggressor slaps the collar of the man in the middle, who promptly grabs his arm and tosses him over his shoulder into a — drum roll, please — three-quarter over-the-shoulder roll! When the aggressor comes at the would-be flipper, he's supposed to yell "Chingaso!," which technically translates to "a hard hit" but in Mexican slang also means "fucker." The luchadores refer to this move as the "Chingaso," but I choose to call it the Fucker.
We do Fuckers for about fifteen minutes, then move on to more drills: handsprings, back handsprings, falling flat on your back on the mat with a loud thwak for effect, bouncing off the ropes, trotting gingerly on your toes from side to side, back and forth, like a little kid spinning himself in circles for the buzz of it. I manage all of these with relative aplomb. Granted, I'm the worst in the ring, but I'm not making a fool of myself. But when Jesús has the fighters dive between the ropes of the ring, placing one hand on the outside of the mat and landing on their feet — outside the ring! — I draw the line. When I was nine, I jumped down ten steps and tore ligaments from my ankle to my knee — and ever since, I've known when to call it quits. Ever since when sober, that is, and watching the luchadores shoot through the air and out of the ring is about as sobering as it gets. Besides, by this point, two of the fighters' girlfriends have arrived, sipping Starbucks, and their nonstop pointing and chuckling has gotten all up in Águila Güero's head. Águila Güero's not ready for ridicule. Not here. Not now. The lesson is over.
As I climb out of the ring, the true luchadores step it up a notch, free from the restraints of a rookie fighter. The sight of them smoothly stringing together the moves I've clumsily struggled with is almost breathtaking. Lucha libre is more about acrobatic twists and turns than the basic hit and bumps of American wrestling, Jesús says, and seeing skilled luchadores like Picachu and Quantum apply their abilities at high speeds, witnessing the balance and symmetry of two bodies playing off each other so that both fly through the air and land with bombastic crashes, makes this seem more like an art than a sport. More like ballet than wrestling.
But coach Jesús's frequent exclamations of "Eso, cabrones, así!" reminds me that these are fighters, after all, and even though the activity is staged, the beefs fabricated, this is a game of blood, sweat and tears. And sometimes catastrophic injuries: The fact that Águila Güero is standing on the sidelines is testament to this fact. Still, watching the fighters, I can see how lucha libre becomes addictive.
When Jesús calls a break, we chat about the future of lucha libre in Colorado.
"My thing is, I'm not going to stop until lucha libre creates a home right here in Denver," he says. "And I want everyone to know that when it comes to lucha libre, I'm the one holding the events."
He talks excitedly about his plans for the future, telling me to make sure to list the IWF's website (www.iwfpromotions.com) and rattling off the names of the luchadores he's lining up for his February event. In addition to a litany of Mexican professionals, Quantum and Picachu will be there. Then a lightbulb goes off above his head.
"So, what did you think of today?" Jesús asks, gesturing toward the ring.
"It was fun," I tell him truthfully, kidney sore but with a newfound respect for wrestling. "Challenging, for sure."
"You think you're going to keep coming back?"
"I don't know, maybe," I say, knowing that I will never climb in that ring again.
"Because a Caucasian lucha libre fighter, that would be a big draw," he continues. "I don't think there's ever been anything like that. That would be like a kid wrestler or something."
I look over at Quantum and picture him wrestling in Mexico. He's smiling, nodding his head at his father's idea.
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"Food for thought," I say, and take my leave.
But on the drive home, it's a meal I can't escape. If I table all extracurriculars and just focus on lucha training four to five days a week, I figure that within six months, I'll be ready to wrestle at an actual event. The accuracy of this timetable is completely debatable, but it's my fantasy, so I allow myself to run with it. And in my fantasy, word of Águila Güero spreads quickly throughout the land. Everyone flocks to see the villain, the gringo wrestler infiltrating a Mexican sport, taking it over just like white explorers took over their country so many years ago. The audiences will love to hate me, and in the flashy world of intrigue and drama that is lucha libre, a bad white boy will be a big draw. I'll play it up, too. Maybe I'll wear an American-flag wrestler mask, call myself Blanco Norte, White North, make mock Tancredo-like comments to inflame the throngs.
I start envisioning myself a year and a half down the road, picture myself in Mexico City, in front of a crowd 100,000 strong at the Estadio Azteca. The night's marquee matchup will be me versus whoever's hot in Mexico at the time, and it won't matter if I win or lose: That's not what lucha libre's about. It's about how good a show I can put on. And how many smoking-hot Latinas I manage to land while I'm down there. I know that I can put on a hell of a show, one of the best the sport has ever seen! Maybe I'll even find myself a Mexican bride, put an end to this cursed whiteness that has plagued my perpetually sunburned ancestry.
And as I drive south on I-25 toward home, these thoughts and more fill my mind, cries of "Lucha, lucha, lucha!" echoing back and forth across my skull.