A masked Aztec god, the muscles of his chest outlined in black tattoos, launches from the top rope of the ring, glittering feathers streaming from his costume. Below, a pair of little people in yellow spandex hold down another masked wrestler in a spread-eagle position. The flying Aztec flips and plunges through the thin fog of dry ice hovering over the mat. He lands with a thwack and the crowd groans with pleasure at the sight of a perfectly executed desnucadora (power bomb neck breaker). The Aztec rolls his opponent onto his back and the referee slaps the mat: "¡Uno, dos, tres...!" It's una caída (a pin). Still, it's not over. Using his knee, the Aztec shoves his opponent's face into the mat; with one hand he pulls his victim's head back into a quebradora de a caballo (camel clutch chin lock), and with the other hand tugs the man's mask away, dealing a death blow...to the loser's pride.
It's just another night of Lucha Libre, Mexico's in-your-face brand of professional wrestling. Lucha Libre which translates to "free fighting," is second only to soccer as the country's most popular sport. The use of masks mimics traditions of the original Aztecs, who wore them into battle to inspire fear, and has been popular since the sport began in Mexico City in the 1930s.
Today, you can find masked warriors duking it out almost anywhere in Mexico on almost any night of the week. All major cities, including Guadalajara, Monterrey, and Tijuana, have at least one venue for matches with wrestlers from the two major professional leagues, the CMLL and the AAA. (You're also likely to pass a parking lot or school gym with a homegrown local match between amateurs.) The best place to take in the action is Arena Mexico in Mexico City (189 Calle Dr. Lavista, Col. Doctores, 011-52/55-5588-0385). Known as the Catedral de Lucha Libre, it's the CMLL's home base and the most prestigious wrestling stadium in Mexico, hosting big name stars and the truest-to-tradition fights. Tickets start at $10. If you wouldn't mind a wrestler landing in your lap, ask for a ringside seat. Matches generally take place on Friday, start at 8:30 p.m., and last until around 11:00.
Part of the fun is deciphering all of Lucha Libre's uniquely detailed rules. Whatever arena you choose, fellow fans include everyone from middle-class families with kids to masked older men with dates in tow. Dolled-up teenage girls scream for the oiled-up técnicos (heroes) who strut in accompanied by buxom, bikini-clad dancers. Matches are fought tag-team style; the teams can be made up of a combination of men and women, including minis (little people). There are two types of characters: técnicos and rudos (villains). Sometimes it's tough to tell who's who. (One clue: if you see a gringo wrestler--such as the one named Mr. Texas--you can be confident he's a rudo.) Everyone enters to his own theme song--usually hard rock or mariachi. Unlike the American version, where a single pin ends a match, Lucha Libre requires the best of three caídas, creating soap-operatic tension as each side is virtually guaranteed to win at least one of the first two caídas, forcing a third to decide the match. The most dramatic of all are the revelos suicidas, matches where the losing wrestler agrees to have his head shaved, or worse, surrender his mask. (The importance of the mask cannot be overstated. It represents the honor of the wrestler, and to have it taken is the ultimate humiliation. Mexico's most famous wrestler, El Santo, chose to be buried in his.)
Thanks to an enthusiastic fan base and a growing industry, it's remarkably easy to track down a match. The CMLL website, cmll.com, lists upcoming events in Mexico. And cmllusa.com posts updates about Lucha Libre tours of the U.S. In each Mexican town, promoters place ads for matches in newspapers and the magazines Lucha 2000 and Box y Lucha, as well as on the chat boards of TV stations Univision and Galavision. In the States, Los Angeles--based production Lucha VaVoom integrates Lucha Libre wrestling with a burlesque show and comedians and takes it on the road. The next Lucha VaVoom, a greatest-hits show, is June 29 and 30 at the Mayan Theater in downtown L.A (luchavavoom.com).