It’s 6 p.m. at the Arena Mexico in downtown Mexico City, and the crowds are gathering for a historic smackdown in lucha libre. The venue is sold out, for tonight’s headliners are big draws: Perro (full name Hijo del Perro Aguayo) versus Il Ultimo Guerrero (the Ultimate Warrior) — famous fighters for whom the referee is often just another person to pound out of the way. A bout of lucha libre — roughly translated as “free fighting” — makes boxing seem almost genteel, and there’s often more action happening outside the ring than in it. Spandexed Mexicanos in brightly coloured masks, each weighing up to 300 pounds, dive in and out of the ropes, slam one another into poles, onto the mat, onto the floor at ringside and onto one another.
The setup, such as it is, is long on theatre and short on rules. A series of fights featuring lesser-known lucheros helps build tension up to the climactic showdown. Bouts feature teams of two or three luchadors, with each wrestler introduced by a line of comely showgirls. First out tonight is Astro Boy, resplendent in a dramatic silver-and-blue mask and shiny cape. He’s quickly followed by the opposing team’s leader, Apocalipsis, in black mask and spandex suit. In all, four wrestlers share the ring. Astro Boy’s team are técnicos — the clean players; Apocalipsis’s band represents the rudos — the dirty fighters. The ref motions for the action to start, and four fighters start circling one another warily.
Técnicos usually start a fight by picking on just one person at a time. The rudos, by contrast, are always the first to start kicking someone in the face or fighting two-on-one. Once that gets going, the fight devolves into a melee of flying limbs, slaps, pins and thuds as one massive wrestler takes a flyer off the ropes to crash into another. The goal for each bout is for a team to pin all of its opponents. Unmasking an opponent happens, but it is considered dishonourable and grounds for disqualification — unless, of course, the teams are engaged in a mask-versus-mask fight, in which case it’s the point of the bout. At one stage, white-coated doctors arrive to check out a luchador splayed on the ground. The “patient” was signing autographs not even two minutes later.
It’s all just stage-setting for the last bout, the one we all came to see: Atlantis, Lizmark Jr. and Ultimo Guerrero versus Hector Garza, Perro and Villano V. The crowd’s favourite is alpha luchero Perro. Before the fight, Perro told the luchas press that another legendary opponent, Mistico, who was supposed to fight this evening, had invented an injury in order not to face him. Perro, a compact barrel of a man bursts off the walkway — with his long black hair flying, chest bare and tight red tights — up to the ring and starts to attack all three opponents at once. Both teams are now fighting dirty. Perro gets the roar of the night when he walks into two flying wrestlers with his fists outstretched, leaving them both bouncing on the mat.
Ultimo Guerrero soon realizes his team is losing. He runs to the master of ceremonies, thumps him to the ground, and grabs the microphone to demand a final smackdown from the fight’s “commission,” a shadowy body supposedly presiding from a box far above the ring. The commission rules against it, but no matter. Perro pushes the referee out of the ring, and the two go at it anyway. Grown men leap to their feet, kids scream, sirens sound — and then the ref finally steps in to end it all. The crowd howls its disappointment — but it knows the action is only over for tonight. Next week’s bout will be a whole different story.