Most days of the week, outside Mexico City’s hallowed Arena México, the haunting screams of professional athletes can be heard emanating from beyond the iron-barred entrance, as they go through their daily dose of Lucha Libre training.
Back-hand chopping or jumping from the turnbuckle, the men and women inside are warriors of the city, king-of-the-ring hopefuls who like nothing more than wearing tight pants while fighting in front of a paying audience.
They are renowned for their bravery, their willingness to quite literally fight through pain, and to put on a show that hard-working families of the capital pay good money to see.
But to sit down with two of these luchadores, like Sam Adonis and Johnny Idol, is to experience a very different side of the story. Both charming and polite, these foreign-born fighters show the professionalism and quality needed to perform in the world’s oldest wrestling federation, the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre.
Sam, 26, the self-styled “El Rubio Fantastico” and a Pittsburgh native is, with eight years under his wrestling belt, the more experienced of the two. Blonde haired and 6-feet-4-inches tall, he tends stand out from the crowd. He has worked in both Europe and the world-famous U.S. WWE federation but believes there’s something a little different about the wrestling in Mexico.
“It’s more part of the culture here,” Sam says, “Arena México is especially unique; it’s the only place on earth like this. It’s built for wrestling. It’s part of the city!”
Johnny Idol, the younger of the two at 23, hails from New Zealand. Dark haired, solidly built and over 6-feet in height, Johnny is busy making a name for himself on the Lucha scene. Until recently he was often mistaken for a Brit on account of his costume that featured a pair of speedos emblazoned with the Union Jack. To avid the confusion, his pants were changed and they now proudly show the Silver Fern of his home country.
Lucha Libre, translated as “free fight” in English, has a very particular role in Mexican history and is a uniquely Mexican product. An integral part of the nation’s identity, stars of Luca Libre become household names. Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta, better known as the legendary ‘El Santo’, is the greatest ever figure and launched a successful film career on the back of his in-the-ring exploits. When El Santo died in 1984, his funeral was one of Mexico’s biggest ever attended.
How then, do fighters coming from outside the country experience the Lucha Libre lifestyle? Can they be loved by fans in the same way as their Mexican counterparts? What sort of reception do they receive, as foreigners in Mexico?
“It’s great,” Johnny explains. “I last fought on Tuesday and there were people in the crowd shouting ‘Come on Kiwi! Come on Kiwi!’”
For Johnny, as a “técnico” (technical), the crowd is generally on his side. Known as a “face” in Stateside wrestling parlance, the “técnico” is the law-abiding good guy and champion of the people, who will, as Johnny explains, “win clean whenever possible.”
But if Johnny is the shining light of justice, Sam represents a darker side. Bringing to mind The Joker with his Cheshire-cat grin, Sam is a “rudo” (translated as rough or rude) and offers the audience the other side of the coin. This is a part he plays up to maximum effect, frequently donning tights with Donald Trump’s face printed onto them. Sam explains this as a tactic to help whip the crowd into a frenzy: “I wanna come here and create chaos. The more energy in the building, the more fun people are having. The more fun people have, the more likely they are to return to see you again. And that’s how you raise your equity and that’s how you make more money,” he says.
But do people understand that the Trump pants are a joke? “It’s on the fence,” he says. “At a show in Estado de México last week, people were seeing red. It was a family show but there were fathers cursing at me, getting really energetic. It wasn’t just wrestling, they wanted this guy dead!”
Though Lucha Libre is part pantomime and the spectacle is important, there is an educational element to it too, say the luchadores. “At the end of the day, it’s a morality play. We teach the public good versus evil. The more you pay attention the more you get from it. We play out everyday struggles that people face, decisions that need to be made all the time.”
The dangers of professional wrestling seem obvious to spectators, but it’s obvious to the wrestlers too. Johnny attempts to mitigate the possible injury by keeping to moves he knows. “Stick to your strengths,” he says. This, from a wrestler whose Twitter profile contains a picture of him jumping off a 10-foot turnbuckle towards an opponent.
Ramping up the danger is the fact that the wrestlers don’t actually run through the match beforehand; they just fight. Everything is improvisation. Of course, they both admit, this makes things riskier. But as professionals, this is what they’re trained to do. It’s a topic Sam is passionate about.
“That’s the misconception about professional wrestling,” he explains. “Everyone uses the word ‘fake’ and that’s so ridiculous. If people knew how talented most professional wrestlers are we would be held in a higher regard. It’s an art, it’s a skill. Wrestling is something that the average person can’t be taught, simply cannot do. It’s physical, it’s athletic, it’s improv. We have a different script every night of the week in front of a different live audience. There’s nothing on the planet like it, and I truly believe it’s misunderstood.”
Seeing lucha libre live only confirms Sam’s claims. The athleticism on show is breathtaking and the pain the luchadores endure must sometimes give them pause for thought. But their daily routine — a two hour class in the morning, weight training in the afternoon and six to seven meals throughout — seems to prepare these daredevils well enough.
The life of a professional wrestler is not your average nine-to-five. Surely the stresses can become too much at times?
Johnny believes he’s been lucky, only ever dislocating his shoulder in an ill-fated attempt at jumping from the top rope. Sam, with his few more years of experience, has put his body through a lot.
“Seventy percent of wrestlers have knee surgery at some point in their life,” he said. “I’ve had three already and I’m 26.”
And yet don’t stop. Their love for this life of theatre and sport means both these wrestlers will continue putting themselves through the pain for the sake of their art, and our entertainment.
“Good times outweigh the bad,” said Sam. “We’re some of the lucky few who get to travel the world doing the thing we love. We’ve seen the world and had fun doing it.”