Mexico's wrestling heroes give the smackdown to vice

The crowd gasps as the Blond Beast - who resembles the Cowardly Lion in most ways except the scowl stitched to his mask - slams Star Boy to the mat, pulls him up by his hair, and slings him through the ropes onto the concrete floor below.

Getting to his feet, Star Boy - a "good-guy" wrestler - hitches up his white tights and stumbles over to Alejandra Gallardo Lopez for advice. The grandmother, in her usual front-row seat, puts her arm around the battered hulk and yells above the din: "You can do it. You have to win for us."

After a revitalized Star Boy gets back into the ring and earns his victory, Mrs. Lopez explains why she's been coming to Mexico City's Naucalpan Arena every Sunday night for the past six years: "It's so exhilarating. And because they fight for good."

Lucha Libre - which means Free Fighting - is the Mexican version of professional wrestling. But, to millions of Mexicans, it is far more than a mere diversion. The nation's urban poor have followed the hulking, cartoonish stars for 70 years with a life-or-death passion that would amaze even Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.

Lucha Libre is Mexico's third-most-popular spectator sport, after soccer and boxing. "The people of Mexico support Lucha Libre with their whole hearts," says Rafael Nunez, a soft-spoken man who calls himself the Dorian Gray of wrestling and fights as the character El Scorpio, "a malicious guy who'll hit you with a chair, cheat, do whatever he can to win."

El Scorpio's nose is like a summer squash and his forehead is a maze of tiny scars, after 35 years in the ring.

Sometimes the luchadors fight for good, and not just metaphorically. The popularity of the event has spawned a venue for human rights activists and others who take on wrestling personas to fight for their beliefs.

Bad guys like El Scorpio are needed to build the stature of the good - figures like El Santo, or The Saint, who remains one of Mexico's biggest heroes even 17 years after his death. "To call Santo a cultural icon is an understatement. He was the John Wayne of Mexico, only bigger," says John Molinaro, a Canadian writer and fan of Lucha Libre.

Like super-heroes, most luchadors wear masks and never reveal their identities. The mystique of the mask transforms many into icons of justice, virtual opponents of the corrupt cops and street toughs that many poor Mexicans contend with.

So, while Jesse "The Body" Ventura had to trade in his tights and nom de guerre for a suit and the name his mother gave him in order to run for governor, some would-be Mexican politicians put the mask on to ensure their success.

"We Mexicans like to talk in symbols, and Lucha Libre has a very simple symbolic structure, the good against the bad. People identify strongly with that," says Marco Rascon, the brains behind Super Barrio, a "wrestler" who fights for the rights of Mexico City's poorest.

Super Barrio became Mr. Rascon's springboard to national prominence. He created the character in 1987 to fight for federal funds to rebuild houses for 500,000 people left homeless by a devastating 1985 earthquake. "We were overwhelmed by need, so who could we turn to? We had to create Super Barrio."

The masked crusader would arrive with TV cameras and prevent the government from evicting families from the destroyed buildings they were squatting in. He led rallies of tens of thousands demanding the government do more to help the poor. Rascon served in Congress from 1997 to 2000.

"If it was just me talking, I had a hard time getting through to people. But if it's Super Barrio, everyone wants to listen," says Rascon.

Masks have always had symbolic resonance in Mexico. Aztec dancers wore masks to invoke the gods, and later, Mexicans incorporated those ancient traditions into their celebrations of Roman Catholic saints. Some intellectuals say the popularity of Chiapas insurgency leader Subcommandante Marcos stems from his Luchador-like refusal to take off his mask and reveal himself as a normal man, warts and all.

While the wrestling may be staged, the fighters are incredibly acrobatic, incorporating a muscular ballet with their strutting and taunting of the crowd. "It's much more of an art form. It has an inherent beauty in it that you don't see in wrestling on cable TV in the US," says Molinaro.

But there are fewer and fewer body slams, as TV and global culture give the young new heroes. Wrestling arenas are closing. Marco Moreno, the owner of the Naucalpan Arena, estimates there are 40 wrestling venues across Mexico today, compared with 250 in the 1980s.

Some even blame the march of global culture for Lucha Libre's relative decline. "Globalization is a threat to Lucha Libre. The people are being diverted to more modern and commercialized events," says Rascon, who is also one of Mexico's leading antiglobalization activists.

Still, at Naucalpan on a Sunday night, 2,000 fans scream, ring bells in support of the good guys, and hurl curses, insults, and the occasional plastic cup of beer at the bad guys.

Pablo Santa Maria, a security guard who's been coming to the arena for 25 years, says wrestling gives him the sense that he's participating in a struggle for something bigger than himself. "I know it's a show, but there's a realness to it also. When I support the good fighters and they win, I feel like I'm a part of their victory."

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