A big man in tights, dyed-blonde hair, black boots, and a large black cape makes his way to the ring. He kisses his toned arms, and the crowd goes nuts.
It's a familiar ringside scene from Mexican wrestling, captured in the new award-winning documentary Lucha México, which takes a peek behind the mask of one of country's most popular pastimes after soccer.
Co-directed by Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz, who spent more than four years collecting 500 hours of footage for their documentary, Lucha México is as colorful as it is complex. Mexican wrestling is a combination of sport mixed with performance art, brought to life by over-the-top characters.
The documentary, which premiered in New York last Friday, looks at the incredible athleticism, psychology and spirit of Mexico's professional wrestling scene over the past five years. The film follows the lives of iconic luchadores who bring loud personalities and different styles to the ring. Wrestlers such as 1000% Guapo, Strongman, Blue Demon Jr, Fabián el Gitano and El Hijo del Perro Aguayo—the last two of whom have died since the making of the film.
Lucha México shows that professional wrestlers train and work out as hard as any other professional athletes. Take 1000% Guapo (1000% Handsome), a second-generation wrestler who continues to train in the gym every day, despite suffering multiple injuries, dealing with depression, undergoing many surgeries and attempts at rehab, and losing his mask in a match against Mr. Niebla.
It's that endurance of Mexican wrestlers that resonates with the public.
“If they [wrestlers] had a late night out the day before, they are still there in the gym the next morning. Sometimes they have two or three shows in one day,” director Markiewicz told me in a Skype interview.
The independent film, which runs almost two hours, shows that wrestling is not really fake, despite being theatrical. Professional luchadores regularly risk their lives for entertainment in large and small arenas across Mexico. And some even die in the ring, including el Hijo Del Perro Aguayo Jr., who suffered a cervical spine trauma during a match in Tijuana.
After years of pain and injuries, wrestlers ultimately face their greatest fear at the end of their careers: Retirement from the ring.
“We think we’ll always be in headline matches and make great money but time doesn’t forgive, you know. So then comes the decline of the wrestler. What will I do after?” says Fabián El Gitano, who died in 2011.
Lucha México also explores the tradition of wearing a mask 18 hours a day, what it means for a wrestler to lose his mask—being outed publicly, and stripped of your honor and identity— and how lonely life can be for them outside the ring.
Mexican wrestling is about tradition, but it's not stuck in time. Lucha libre has evolved over the years, and there are some wrestlers who are breaking with the masked tradition.
“There are some wrestlers who lose a lot of popularity when a mask comes off. But now some professional wrestlers don’t want to wear a mask,” says Markiewicz.
Such is the case with Perros del Mal (extreme wrestlers) who are part of Mexico’s top lucha libre organization.
Despite the changes to Mexico's lucha libre, it continues to draw big crowds.
“It’s a people sport," co-director Hammond says. "Everyone comes together, men, women, children, grandmothers, grandfathers, rich, poor.”
And there is a real intimacy at wrestling matches, even at big areas in Mexico City that hold 13.000 spectators. “There is a lot of interaction between the wrestles and the fans and there are very accessible in a lot of ways,” says Markiewicz.
Violence and a slumping economy have taken a toll on the wrestling industry. “All of the [arenas] in [the] north, including Juárez, Chihuahua, Matamoros, Laredo, Mexicali, Tijuana. All of those arenas collapsed due to the insecurity,” says former wrestler El Pato Soria in the movie.
But overall, the wresting is alive and well, and Lucha México tells a positive story about Mexico.
“It is just nice to be able to make something that is set in Mexico and about Mexico and it shows Mexico in a positive way. It shows a good side of the country, because I think there is way too much [negative] press in the US about Mexico,” says Markiewicz.
Ana Luisa González writes about Latino arts and culture and also makes documentaries.