I've loved professional wrestling ever since I was a kid, but to be honest in recent years it has lost much of its luster.
What I remember as a kid was my father taking me to the matches — which were often held in smoke filled auditoriums — and seeing these larger than life characters battle it out in grand morality plays that were all about the honor.
The "good guys" (or "babyfaces" in the wrestling vernacular) were these clean-cut sort of All American guys, who usually won their matches clean against the more colorful, but dastardly "bad guys" (or "heels"), with names like Ripper Collins, Curtis "The Bull" Iaukea (the matches I saw were in Hawaii), and "Crazy" Luke Graham.
Even though the babyfaces always played by the rules (well, most of the time anyway) and the "heels" would blatantly break the rules, I always liked the heels because they just seemed so much, well you know, "cooler."
As anyone who follows American pro-wrestling will tell you, it's a cyclical business. For the past few years it has also been experiencing a bit of a downturn since the last boom period in the late nineties. Back then, people like The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin sold out arenas and produced huge ratings on Monday night cable TV wrestling shows like WWE's Raw and WCW's Nitro.
The current slowdown has been blamed on many factors. But what I think it really boils down to is the fact that the basic formula of those morality plays pitting good against evil has become a lost art form. Well that, and the fact that in the process of becoming the huge billion dollar spectacle of ten or so years ago, a lot of the mystery was removed from it.
However, in places like Japan, and especially Mexico, pro-wrestling remains as big as ever. In Mexico especially, wrestling is huge, and I believe the reason can be traced directly to both those morality tales and, in the form of Mexico's masked lucha libre style, the mystery behind it all.
As shown in the excellent new one-hour documentary DVD Lucha Libre: Life Behind The Mask, lucha libre isn't just taken seriously by both practitioners and fans in Mexico, it is in fact a way of life.
Although American wrestling fans will tell you that they know lucha libre, the fact is that its exposure here has been quite limited. The masked wrestler who is currently its best known star in America — WWE's Rey Mysterio — in fact once allowed himself to be unmasked on an American TV wrestling show (in the now defunct WCW). As this DVD shows, this would be unthinkable in Mexican wrestling because the wrestler's honor would have been sacrificed.
As we discover quickly in Lucha Libre: Life Behind The Mask, Mexican wrestling is, in fact, all about the honor. In this film, the stories of several luchadors are followed both behind the scenes, and in the ring. None of the luchadors profiled here break character once the whole time we are allowed this rare behind the scenes access.
When the masked tag team Los Chivos practice their moves in a gym (that really looks more like a basement), they never remove their masks in front of the cameras, and during private moments with their families their faces are always blurred "to protect the image."
Lucha Libre is all about the honor.
When Los Chivos wrestle their match, they do so as "Rudos" (the lucha libre equivalent of American wrestling "heels"). In a storyline turnabout (at least to American fans), they come to a Mexican ring waving American flags and shouting "USA" from the ring, drawing boos from the Mexican fans. One of the Chivos is earlier shown in his day job, teaching English in Mexico. When his students see him come to class with bruises on his face, maintaining his secret wrestling identity "becomes problematic," he explains.
In another story, we meet Dinamic, an aging wrestler about to face his final match. Dinamic, who wrestles without a mask, does so because as a youngster he made the mistake of once coming to the ring forgetting to put it on, and he was never able to wear it again as a result of that youthful error. He had dishonored the mystery of the mask.
Here, Dinamic — who works as a barber by day and who also promotes lucha libre shows himself — is about to put his hair on the line in a "hair vs. mask" match. Although most American fans would figure (and correctly so) that the outcome has already been pre-determined, Dinamic never lets that on for the filmmakers, professing his nervousness about the "bet" right up until the ring bell sounds.
Dinamic's honor and love for the "sport" are never in question, even after he loses his match and his face is a bloody mess. He even maintains his "embarrassment" and desire for revenge during a family gathering afterwards.
In the parlance of American pro-wrestling this sort of sense of honor and devotion to keeping the secrets of the sport is something the wrestlers themselves refer to as "kayfabe." As American professional wrestling became a victim of its own success during the eighties and nineties, a lot of those secrets have become lost. Likewise, as those good vs. evil storylines have become increasingly more blurred, the fans are no longer sure who to root for or against.
Yet in Mexico's Lucha Libre, where the mystique and the honor remain entrenched as tradition, the fans continue to come to the matches.
Vince McMahon could learn a lot from watching this film.