When Mexican wrestlers hit U.S. rings, cultures unite
Arizona Republic
May 7, 2008


(Phoenix, AZ) -

Author: John Faherty, The Arizona Republic

The room is divided roughly into two groups. On one side, a group of Anglos. On the other, Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants.

Each group is shouting. They are screaming for blood. They are passionate, and they are drinking beer. Lots and lots of beer.

But the 100 people are not shouting at each other. They are shouting with each other.

They are watching Jay "Mr. Showtime" Garland fight Lucha Reigns in a makeshift wrestling ring at a Tempe bar.

It's American-style wrestling vs. lucha libre wrestling, and this may be one of the places left in the Valley where people from both sides of the border celebrate what they have in common, even if it is wrestling.

"Coming to wrestling events, it's real easy to get along," said Glenda Jarboe of Tempe.

Jarboe was at the April event to watch her daughter wrestle yes, women also wrestle -- and she, too, was struck by the camaraderie in the room.

"No fighting. Just people having a good time."

Lucha libre wrestling is the first cousin of the brand of wrestling made famous on this side of the border by the likes of Gorgeous George, Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan and the Undertaker.

Decades earlier, starting around 1950, it became widely popular in Mexico with iconic characters such as El Santo and Blue Demon. The sport remains a favorite today in Mexico, Central America and Japan.

It is different from American wrestling:

* Lucha libre emphasizes acrobatics more than strength.

* The wrestlers, or luchadores, usually wear masks.

* The matches are theatrical, with elements of comedy, drama and camp.

Juan Martinez, 38, of Phoenix, started watching lucha when he was a child in Mexico City. Now, he takes his children to matches in the Valley.

"I went when I was a boy," Martinez said. "I like lucha and the American. Now, my kids get both traditions."

On the second Sunday of every month, the Sets, a bar in Tempe, holds a lucha event.

Sport and spectacle

The matches occur sporadically across the Valley. They draw fans who love the sport and the spectacle.

Wrestlers come in from across the state, the Southwest and Mexico.

Most arrive an hour or two before the show. They gather and chat about life before heading to their dressing room -- a curtain hung next to the ring, itself constructed in the hour before the fights -- and change from their everyday clothes into costumes and masks.

Few lucha wrestlers will make a regular living in the ring. Many performances will net them $50.

But in the dressing room, their love for the sport becomes more evident.

The mood changes in the last moments, as the men and women get into character for their performance.

As they are announced for their matches the luchadores stomp out from behind the curtain and immediately stake their claim as either good guys or bad guys.

The fans cheer and hiss, and the only people having a better time than the fans are the wrestlers. The matches require incredible athleticism, even if they appear entirely scripted.

Another appeal is that the fans are part of the show. The fans respond to the wrestlers and the wrestlers to the fans. Everyone takes part in the theater.

So, when the fans yell at the luchadores, the men behind the masks may pause for a moment and yell back, or challenge the fan to enter the ring if he dares.

"Everybody has a good time at a lucha match," Jose Luis Yeo Santa Marie said in the minutes before he put on his mask and tight red leotard, which did nothing to hide the fact that he is 57 years old.

Still, there is no denying the physicality in the ring.

The body slams are real. The flying leaps are real. The jumping from the highest rope is real.

And the wood floor underneath the thin mat is very real.

"I've got really bad knees. A bad neck. Bad elbows. Sometimes, it all hurts," said Roberto Gallo who grew up in Prescott and now wrestles as the Ghost Walker or GQ Gallo.

'Too pretty for a mask'

Gallo is all muscles and long hair and white teeth. He looks like he should be posing for the cover of a romance novel holding a woman in her ripping bodice. He does not wear a mask.

"I'm too pretty to wear a mask," Gallo said, smiling.

He is half-Italian, half-Navajo and will frequently play up his Indian blood when he wrestles in places like Japan. Gallo, 29, who now lives in Chandler, got into wrestling eight years ago when he decided it was time to chase his dream.

Gallo does not speak a word of Spanish but says the language of wrestling is universal.

Shortly before his match, Gallo stood up slowly and grimaced as he grabbed his knee. He knew he was about to be asked why he does this.

"It's fun. You get to be a superhero," Gallo said. "Everyone wants to be a superhero. Right?"

Skinny and bespectacled

Lucha Reigns is a 25-year-old man who does not look like a wrestler. He is thin and wears glasses. He is announced as weighing 150 pounds, but that looks like a stretch.

The most wrestler-looking thing about him is a jagged scar that streaks across his abdomen. It's from a car accident.

But when he puts on his mask and steps into the ring, he reveals a feline agility and the ability to withstand a lot of pain.

In his match against the far heavier "Mr. Showtime," Lucha Reigns does flips and jumps off the ropes. He hits Showtime and then disappears.

The crowd loves it.

Ultimately, Showtime wears him down. Lucha Reigns is finally pinned with a move a veteran fan called "a variation of the octopus stretch," which seemed as good a name for it as any.

After the match, Lucha Reigns walks slowly from the ring. Each dramatic step lets the crowd know how badly he was hurt. On his way to the makeshift dressing area near the makeshift stage, he stops and signs his autograph for a young boy.

What he will not do is reveal his name.

It's part of the tradition of the sport to keep your mask on and your identity secret.

Lucha Reigns will say that he has lived in the Valley for 10 years. That he grew up in the United States and Mexico, and is an American citizen. He speaks both languages without accent .

Lucha Reigns works at Wal-Mart where he keeps his alter-identity secret.

"People don't know," he said. "I don't really talk about it. It's kind of hard to explain."

The fans at this event would understand completely.

Some look like they are thinking about their past. Others remain right in the moment. But for all the fans, Anglos and Mexicans, the differences between them seem to dissolve.

"I guess because we all love the same sport," Martinez said. "We have very much in common here. Tonight, this is our culture."

Edition: Final Chaser
Section: Front
Page: A1
Dateline: AZ
Record Number: pho102157734