Grappling-hooked in Mexico City

By Robin Esrock

Who is that masked travel writer? Robin Esrock and he's down for the count.

Luche Libre provides the thrills to delight any tourist. Photo / Robin Esrock
Luche Libre provides the thrills to delight any tourist. Photo / Robin Esrock

Metalium has tied me into a human pretzel. He's pinned one arm behind my neck, looped my leg behind my back, and has me in a lock designed to separate shoulder from body.

In an unfortunate case of lost in translation, the boisterous wrestling student mistook "skinny travel writer wants to learn" for "powerful wrestler wants to fight".

The moment I entered the practice ring, I was thrown against the ropes, picked up, slammed down, flung about, T-boned, elbowed, kicked, rolled over and clamped tight. I'm slapping the floor with my one free palm, the frantic wave of submission, writhing in equal parts pain and shock. Serves me right for putting on a mask just to throw myself into a story.

In Mexico, Luche Libre refers to the high-flying world of professional wrestling. Much like its WWE counterpart in North America, Luche Libre involves colourful characters, theatrical violence, multi-team tournaments and rabid fans. Yet Luche Libre (literally "free wrestling") is also known for its breathtaking acrobatics, and a tradition of masks and heroes.

It's Friday night and Mexico City is throbbing. It's renowned for its pockets of culture and art, sport and music, connected along choking lines of traffic. Outside the ArenaMexico, the footpaths are choked too as vendors sell masks, toys, T-shirts, food and all manner of wrestling paraphernalia. It takes a few moments before I become accustomed to the grown men wearing the masks of their favourite Luchedore - they look more like flamboyant bank robbers. The kids are out in force too, for wrestling has always been fun for the whole family.

Luche Libre was born in Mexico in the 1930s but took off with the advent of television in the 1950s. The rules are simple: you lose if you're pinned to the mat for three seconds, out of the ring for 20, or disqualified for illegal holds, groin strikes or the removal of a mask.

It is the mask that gives each wrestler his mythical allure, character and personality. Ever since El Santo, the most famous Luchedore, stepped into the ring with his silver mask, the public has been fascinated with these heroes. The mask does more than conceal the identity of the ring warrior (who will never be named or seen without it in public). It becomes his honour, protected at all cost. In each bout, there is also a good "tecnicos" hero and a "rudos" villain. But I had omitted to opt for good or evil when I stepped into the ring, wearing a customised mask with "ESROCK" glued across the top in red sequins. Perhaps that's why Metalium didn't give me a chance.

At Luche Libre events, the announcer hypes up the crowd with his deep voice, beautiful girls in bikinis line up behind the ring and thousands of fans marvel at the acrobatics. The hard ropes of the ring are designed to provide extra spring for the Luchedores whose somersaults and leaps add all the excitement of a Cirque du Soliel performance.

I ask Metalium just how fake the fights are. He explains that moves, holds and blocks are taught so opponents know how to absorb the blows, land safely and avoid getting hurt. What moves they decide to use can be rehearsed or decided on the spot.

Since he initially believed I was a wrestler (Luchedores come from the US, Canada, even Japan), he assumed I would know how to block his high-flying kick to my chest. I assumed my ribs were only bruised, not broken.

Teams are battling each other in the 16,000-seat stadium, and it's easy to determine the favourites. The good guys play by the rules, receive their acclaim with honour, and always seem to come back after receiving an horrific beating. A midget in a white mask pulls off the most incredible manoeuvre, spinning with his legs around the heads of his opponents, and throwing them out of the ring. Kids scream their approval, the atmosphere is electric and, while the contest seems to have shifted from camp to the bizarre, the entertainment value is top notch.

The best of three rounds always goes to the wire, the bad guys always threatening to remove the mask of the tecnicos and, in one case, actually do. It may be a wardrobe malfunction. The unmasked Luchedore clutches his face wildly and is led out before his true identity is revealed. For unmasking, the villain is disqualified and justice is served.

Luche Libre is a form of physical theatre, designed to steam up our emotions and provide dazzling entertainment. The weekly tournaments in Mexico City will thrill any tourist. Just don't step in the ring before you've earned your mask.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand has daily flights from Auckland to Mexico City, via Los Angeles, in conjunction with one of its partner airlines. Economy airfares start from $2600, excluding airport taxes.

Luche Libre: Matches take place on Friday nights in Mexico City at Arena Mexico. Seats cost between $8 and $40, available at the box office, and tournaments last about three hours. Go early to enjoy the festive market outside.

Robin Esrock co-hosts Word Travels seen on Travel Channel.

- NZ Herald

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