Kiwi professional wrestling buff Niwa McIlroy took a leap of faith and flew to Mexico to make it in the high-flying sporting phenomenon that is lucha libre.

Now as Johnny Idol, the 24-year-old is a pin-up star surrounded by fans, performing to packed venues and pay-per-view audiences, and featuring in TV and radio shows and magazine articles.

"It's pretty cool. I go to a lot of places and people will notice me," said McIlroy. "Even before the shows, in the parking lot there'll be loads of fans waiting to get photos."

Audiences of up to 16,500 a time include travellers from his homeland. Lucha libre in which wrestlers, often masked and costumed, perform spectacular aerial moves is hugely popular in Mexico and frequently included in tourist packages.

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"There will be a lot of Kiwis in the front row. I'll hear them cheering for me," said McIlroy, who wears the silver fern on his wrestling outfit.

Of Ngati Porou and Ngati Kahungunu, he believes he is the only Maori competing in lucha libre in Mexico.

Wrestling several times a week, McIlroy is now able to command up to 5000 pesos (NZ$386) a match.

It's a far cry from when he initially moved to Mexico in January 2016, after having saved for a year to make the journey. "When I first got here it was pretty hard. I didn't know anyone."

Wrestling in front of audiences as small as around 30, he made as little as 300 pesos (NZ$23) a time.

"But I always knew my goal was to wrestle at the big company I'm in now, CMLL (Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre). I gave myself six months to make it, and right on the fifth month I got signed."

He is understood to be the first New Zealander to get picked up by the major lucha libre promoters.

McIlroy was gripped by the spectacle of pro wrestling from a young age, watching its superstars on TV growing up in Wellington.

At 14 he began performing himself, in shows as far away as Gisborne and attracting his stage moniker. His middle name is John, and a friend suggested adding the Idol.

Leaving school, he worked towards his dream of a career as a pro wrestler – continuing to compete, and working in gyms to pay the bills.

He moved to Auckland at 21 to join the IPW (Impact Pro Wrestling) and then to Mexico City two years later.

McIlroy, a tecnico (the "good guy" role), competes in individual matches to three-man tag teams using such signature moves as the moonsault – a back flip splash.

At 183cm and 100kg, he is often bigger than the Mexican luchadores, who propel themselves in the air in demanding acrobatic manoeuvres. "It's pretty much like watching superheroes fly around; masks, capes".

He had early preparation for such moves as flipping his body backwards off the top rope of the ring.

"I had a trampoline when I was young, so I'd practice a few things on there. It was a little bit natural. Doing backflips was just easy."

And 10 years playing rugby in the forwards toughened him up to deal with the inevitable "bumps and bruises".

His worst injury, a disclocated left shoulder, happened in New Zealand. "I came off the top rope and I had my elbow down. And my shoulder came out the front. I rolled onto my stomach and it popped back in."

To keep in shape for the high-flying action, McIlroy trains with weights every day. "It's a mix of powerlifting and bodybuilding. In wrestling you've obviously got to be strong but you've got to look the part as well."

His appearance, including a mane of hair he has been growing since 16, has attracted attention from female fans. "I've had a lot of messages asking to meet up and go on dates."

McIlroy has a girlfriend however - Johanna Andreassen, 27, from Sweden, who was in Mexico studying linguistics. They met after she attended one of his matches.

His locks, nearly down to his lower back, are under threat. Hair-against-hair matches, where the loser's tresses are shaved off, can attract big bonuses for the winner. "I've heard cases of like US$10,000 (NZ$14,600)."

McIlroy, living in an apartment across the road from Arena Mexico – dubbed the "cathedral of lucha libre" – is delighted he can now enjoy the life of a fulltime professional wrestler.

"Obviously I look at it as a job. But it's always going to be my passion, so it's never going to feel like a chore."

He is aiming to wrestle in Japan and Europe in the future, and one day try for the WWE.

He'd also like to leave his mark in Mexico with a contest people will long remember – "maybe a hair versus hair match".