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.
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.
Chikara is Japanese for strength, and Quackenbush teaches a variety of styles. But his favorite is lucha libre, which literally means "free fight." People familiar with wrestling say lucha is the most beautiful form. "Lucha really is an art and a beast unto itself," says Quackenbush. His wrestling name comes from a character in John Knowles's novel "A Separate Peace." He became acquainted with lucha while sparring with "El Hijo del Santo," whose name is taken from his father, "El Santo," the fabled '50s luchador whose popularity extended to comic books and B movies.
Lucha's sequences of leaps, flips, and violent arm drags buoyed by the ropes – like a pas de deux on steroids – make it appear both balletic and barbaric. Even during this uncostumed practice, I find myself cringing as the wrestlers climb corners, crouch like tigers, and take flying headlong leaps or perform a horrifying maneuver that entails wrapping one's legs around an opponent's neck as he spins and flips you.
Like American pro wrestling, lucha is "sports-entertainment," an unusual amalgam of script, improvisation, athleticism, and acting. Ever since a Mexican businessman discovered pro wrestling in Texas and brought it to Mexico in the 1930s, it's held an exalted place in Mexican culture – surpassed in popularity only by soccer. Lucha story lines tend to pit good against evil, and it's common for entire families to gather for an evening of populist entertainment and allegory.
In the '80s, lucha masks became popular in the US as "pop kitsch." But in the past decade lucha has acquired a strong cult following. At its peak in the late '90s, Mr. Rainville's magazine, "From Parts Unknown," which is no longer published, was selling 5,000 copies three times a year. He's now at work on an animated feature film of the cartoon "!!iexcl!!Mucha Lucha!".
Thanks to a booming Latino population, lucha matches regularly sell out in southern California, and they have filled large arenas in St. Louis and Chicago. Hoping to tap this audience, World Wrestling Entertainment has also embraced the luchador. The current heavyweight champion is the 5-ft., 6-in., 165-lbs. masked "Rey Misterio." The movie "Nacho Libre" will probably nudge lucha further into the mainstream.
As the evening at the New Alhambra progresses, two of the least likely performers stand out. "Daizee Haze," a 5-ft., 3-in., 115-lbs. former cheerleader from Missouri, is all blond ponytail, and lucha's high-flying tricks suit her. As the warm-up ends and the passes speed up, "Angel de Fuego," in an Incredible Hulk T-shirt, shines.
I'm no Plimpton. He made it three rounds. I last all of about five minutes. Once Quackenbush introduces the largo somersault – preceded by a flying leap – I demur, opting to note the cataclysmic acrobatics from the safety of the top rung of a metal bleacher.
"I think it will become more mainstream," says Quackenbush, ruminating on how the movie may change his profession. But he adds, "I don't know that learning it will become easier."