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Lucha! Behind the mask

The film 'Nacho Libre' has raised the profile of lucha libre, a style of wrestling steeped in Mexican tradition.

By Teresa MéndezStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 23, 2006


Before I make my way to an industrial section of South Philly, to a small arena that smells faintly of cotton candy, Mike Quackenbush, head trainer for the Chikara Wrestle Factory, asks if I want to join in the lucha libre.

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Chikara is one of the few schools in the country that teaches authentic Mexican wrestling to novices. Filled with visions of participatory journalist George Plimpton's spectacularly unsuccessful bout against boxer Archie Moore, I e-mail a hesitant reply, including my vital stats. I'm 5 ft., 6 in., and weigh about 107 lbs.

Quackenbush is unfazed. "Your size and weight are no issue, believe me," he writes back. But it would take seeing the diminutive "Daizee Haze" and "Angel de Fuego," an unassuming luchador, to convince me that the most unlikely people can wrestle in the Mexican style.

Even in his stretchy pants, the rotund actor Jack Black, whose new movie "Nacho Libre" has raised the profile of the sport, doesn't seem out of place in a lucha ring.

The wrestler's mask is the distinguishing feature of lucha libre. For the uninitiated on this side of the border, the mask may be lucha's biggest draw, part of what Keith Rainville, creator of an English-language lucha fanzine, calls its "amazing iconic value."

With hints of pre-Colombian civilizations and comic-book heroes, the mask does more than create a character in the ring: it defines its wearer for life. A luchador never breaks character in public. After a show, he'll strip off his tights, boots, and cape – but the mask stays on. The most famous luchador, "El Santo" (The Saint), was buried in his.

By obscuring one's identity, the mask transforms a wrestler into any man – and everyman. Because lucha's physical profile has room for midgets, the obese, and everyone in between, fans have an easy time seeing themselves in the wrestlers. And why not – a Mexican Catholic priest who lived an alternate life as a luchador is the real-life inspiration for "Nacho Libre" (which earned an impressive $27.5 million in box-office sales last weekend). So it seemed reasonable for an unimposing reporter to entertain the possibility herself – even if just for a moment.

In the US, gyms, such as Gil's Garage in Los Angeles, that train serious luchadores tend to be insular and inconspicuous – you won't find them on the Internet. But Chikara more closely approximates the accessible neighborhood lucha schools throughout Mexico.

On a recent Tuesday night, nine people join Quackenbush at the New Alhambra Arena. Most are relative beginners to the lucha style, and most have day jobs; wrestling is a passion or curiosity. Only "Angel de Fuego" (Angel of Fire), who is from Mexico, has trained there. They line up along the elevated ring, from most to least experienced, following Quackenbush through a warm-up. I bring up the rear.