When people profess their love for Lucha Libre wrestling, what they usually mean is "I love those nutball masks." But there's so much to enjoy below the neck. Like the chest-smacking, high-jumping, acrobatic-flipping, crowd-taunting, muscle-flexing, costume-wearing balls-out insanity.
How insane? Lucha Libre is hugely popular in Japan. Do you really need to know any more? (Yes. Yes, you do.)
Lucha wrestling is like someone took a microphone at American-style wrestling and kept shouting to the crowd, "Should we make this even crazier?" And the crowd never stopped shouting "yes!" And nobody ever told anybody to stop, ever.
There are good guys and bad guys, yes, and a lot of clean moves and dirty moves and plenty of hitting the floor.
But the ring sounds like it's made out of thunder sheets and baking pans and it is entirely possible that a guy in a full-on dragon outfit will show up for that eight-way tag-team match. You know who else might show up? A woman, Xena-ing a trail of ass-kickery and tears right alongside the men. No, not in a women's match; right alongside the men. (Here's a list of the hottest names in women's professional wrestling who can kick your ass.)
And the acrobatics. Holy crap, the acrobatics. If you've ever wanted to see a man jump into the air and catch himself on another guy's neck with his feet, this is your new spectator sport.
It is immensely fun to watch. It feels like giving your inner child an entire box of Franken Berry and a fistful of Pixie Stix. And, unlike with MMA, you don't have the nagging feeling that you're witnessing actual brain injuries.
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But also, okay fine, the masks are pretty important. How important? Find out in this exclusive clip from the new "reality" show, Lucha Underground.
Wait, what? Was that a real thing that you actually watched, or did you just dream it? Maybe a little of both.
Lucha Underground -- which premiered Oct. 29 on the El Rey network -- brings traditional Lucha Libre wrestling and piledrives it into modern TV sensibilities and bounces the whole thing off the turnbuckle and into an agreeably grimy warehouse in Boyle Heights, complete with a live band and the toughest accordion player you've seen in your life.
(A side note to aggressively hip people: For chrissakes, do not ruin this. I promise you, the universe will not explode if you enjoy it unironically. You don't need to broadcast to the world that you get the joke, and that you are getting it harder than anyone else. Just take an hour, enjoy watching people launch themselves out of the ring and into each other's faces, and relax. You must be exhausted.)
While it's definitely aimed at a modern audience, Lucha Underground takes pains to hit the marks of classic Lucha Libre. I attended one of those warehouse tapings, and the guy sitting next to me had grown up with Lucha wrestling. He assured me that there was a real respect for the tradition. Which sometimes involves some seriously goofy theatrics.
Even talking to these guys after their match, there's no shortage of drama. They know how to discuss their sport like they're characters in a gladiator movie. "I think I have the best clothesline in the world," a charming 300-pluis pound guy named Big Ryck tells me. "It's very exciting for me, but very scary for the person who's about to take it. That moment when I see an opponent lining up and it's time to unleash Hell… Hell is coming."
Chavo Guerrero, Jr., a third-generation wrestler and five-time world tag-team champion, informs me that his last name means "warrior," and he comes from a long line of fighters "all the way back to the Aztec Indians. We have been pro boxers, pro wrestlers, matadors, a few Olympians. I don't know why fighting is in our blood, but it is our blood."
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One of the traditional Lucha Libre figures is the Exótico: A flamboyantly gay character, assuming that you use the definition of "gay" that people used in about 1953. There's no distinction between "gay," "trans," "feminine" or “off the sexual and gender binaries," just a walking collection of stereotypical signals that one is not a straight dude. We're talking butt-first defensive moves and the audience howling with laughter as the macho wrestlers try to avoid getting kissed. You've seen Three's Company episodes and Rock Hudson movies with a more sophisticated take on sexuality.
That said, the Exótico I saw at Lucha Underground, Pimpinela Escarlata, was a huge fan favorite, and not in an ironic way. When other wrestlers illegally ganged up on Pimi, the audience chanted "Culero!" (Asshole!), and Pimpi got huge roars of applause -- easily the biggest of the entire night. And Pimpi, a veteran of the Mexican AAA circuit, kicked just as much ass as anyone else in the ring. No coddling, and no moments of helplessness or needing to be rescued by a team member. Just lots of elbow and maybe a beso (a kiss) if he's got you down on the mat.
In a way, his faintly disturbing packaging helps the Exótico delivers a devastating chest-punch to the hypermasculine culture he's in the middle of: Go ahead and get as macho as you want, Pimpi's presence says. I will still slam your face into the mat and I will do it while wearing lipstick and a spangly bathing suit.
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