Brett Atkinson plays in a real-life cartoon and learns some phrases best kept in the lucha libre arena.

Everything I know about swearing in Mexican I learned from a sweet old lady and an angelic toddler. And amid the crowd at Mexico City's Arena Mexico, they're not alone in providing passionate but profane advice to the lucha libre wrestlers enlivening the ring with a salsa of spandex, acrobatics and truly bad acting.

Like the telenovelas (TV soap operas) devoured throughout Latin America, lucha libre wrestling is carefully framed by its own rules and conventions. In this largely conservative country, Mexico's unique blend of entertainment and athleticism is defined as an elemental encounter between good and evil. A typical match usually involves a team of three tecnicos — aka the good guys — taking on the nefarious rudos, or bad guys.

Factor in the occasional appearance by wrestling dwarves, los minis, and camp cross-dressing luchadores dubbed exoticos, and experiencing this living, breathing, real-life cartoon is the only place to be in the Mexican capital on a Friday night.

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Wrestlers are introduced against a surging soundtrack of Puerto Rican reggaeton music, blinding neon and the occasional hokey ad for the local Ford dealership. Everyone seems to be in the act as crescendos of support reverberate around the arena. There's no actual Mexican wave, but fans — more than a few wearing the signature mascara (mask) of their favourite luchador — stand up randomly to cheer, boo and curse as the battles in the ring intensify. Tacos, hot dogs and overflowing paper cups of Victoria beer are all passed on carefully to fellow spectators, and the event feels more like a carnival than a contest.

Combatants include long-haired and unmasked Fabio lookalikes and leather-clad biker dudes straight from Mayans MC, while other luchadores have spent way more time and money on their look. A pot-bellied but surprisingly athletic wrestler has gone full Transformers with his full-body, red-and-black ensemble, while another emerges from a halo of bikined promo girls and dry ice, decked out in leopard skin, and resembling a proudly African king of Wakanda.

Top of the bill is Blue Demon Jr, the adoptive son of Alejandro Munoz Moreno, who fought as Blue Demon in the 1950s and 1960s. Back then he was a huge rival of the legendary El Santo (The Saint), who transcended his in-the-ring status by becoming a comic book character and acting in more than 50 Mexican action movies. When he retired from wrestling in 1984, El Santo briefly removed his mask for the first and only time on national TV. After he died of a heart attack just a week later, the ever-present mask was reinstated for his funeral and wake. More than 30 years later, there's now an El Hijo del Santo shop at Mexico City's international airport where his son, also a luchador, sells Mexican merchandise including El Santo-branded key rings, sneakers and pillow cases.

In the ring, the action is both ridiculous and ridiculously entertaining. Photo / Getty Images
In the ring, the action is both ridiculous and ridiculously entertaining. Photo / Getty Images

In the ring, the action is both ridiculous and ridiculously entertaining. Flying drop kicks take out opponents, seemingly dazed beyond comprehension, but just moments later they're performing huge flying leaps from atop the ropes. Wrestlers go hurtling out of the ring, crash landing beside the most expensive ringside seats, and when an "injured" athlete is being carried off, he's unceremoniously dumped on the ground and his stretcher is used to beat up the ringside "doctor". Wrestlers chase each other around the ring and the arena like a real-life remake of Tom and Jerry or Road Runner & Wile E. Coyote. Relaxing at the end of the working week, the crowd plays along with a mass knowing wink.

Fighting in the evening's last bout is Marco Corleone, born Mark Jindrak in New York, but now channelling his mother's Italian heritage with a fighting name referencing The Godfather. Entering the ring unmasked, he's decked out in the Italian tricolour of green, white and red. When he drapes himself in the Stars and Stripes, the crowd kicks off with a chorus of anti-Trump boos and jeers. It's good-natured though, and courtesy of the fired-up abuelita (grandmother) beside me, I make a note to add pendejo (dumbass) to my list of preferred international insults.

I've certainly heard worse tonight.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

For NZ travellers, Mexico City is most easily reached on direct flights from Los Angeles or Houston.

DETAILS
Estacion Mexico offers small-group tours to experience lucha libre. Tickets cost about $50 and include an authentic lucha libre mask and drinks at a traditional Mexican cantina.