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Legends of the Squared Circle: A History of Mexican Lucha-Libre (Part One)

Michael East, Red Revolution

In July of this year, Mexico City declared that lucha-libre, the Mexican sport of professional wrestling, was Intangible Cultural Heritage, giving the sport a status to stand alongside any other of the many cultural and historic riches that Mexico can offer. The status was applied using the international standards on intangible heritage set forth by UNESCO, and recognises that the customs, representations, expressions, knowledge and techniques of lucha-libre are an integral part of Mexican cultural heritage. Lucha-libre is more than professional wrestling, it is ingrained in the very fabric of Mexican culture in a way that even American and Japanese wrestling is not, so much so that the Mexican luchador is now seen as every much a symbol of Mexican culture as the Aztec warrior or stereotypical mustachioed bandit.

The Mexican luchador has become synonymous with Mexican culture

Wrestling in Mexico dates back to the middle of the nineteenth century as a sideshow attraction, a circus act between local strongmen and the patrons. It is here we find a Frenchman, Turin, who would conclude his stunt show with a challenge to any member of the audience to face him in combat. It was Turin who participated in possibly the first international match in Mexico as he squared off against the  American El Rey de Los Luchadores. Publicly making statements to denigrate the other, the duo innovated the use of promos to hype their match, also previewing the concept of the foreign heel (or rudo) in Mexico that the likes of Los Gringos Locos would one day make an art form of.

During the time of the Second French Intervention in Mexico in 1863, the Siege of Puebla saw the forces of the Second French Empire attempting to advance on Mexico City, being blocked by Mexican Forces under the command of General Jesús González Ortega. Beginning on March 16, the siege would last until May when the French occupied the city and opened the road to the capital. The defeat at Puebla left the Mexican government in a precarious position, with French forces advancing they had little choice but to vacate the capital. Once the government had fled, the commander of the Puebla garrison General Bruno Martinez surrendered to the French forces. Martinez issued a declaration that recognised General Élie Frédéric Forey as the supreme authority in all of Mexico, an action that led to Irish forces under Forey entering the city on June 7 1863. For his actions in Mexico Forey received the reward of the marshal’s baton, becoming a Marshal of France.

It was during this time of occupation that newspapers reported that a tournament was to be held in honour of the marriage between General Bazaine and the wealthy Mexican Josefa de la Peña, Bazaine’s first wife having died while he was in Mexico. It was Bezaine’s decisive action at Puebla that was instrumental in the seizure of the city and he was rewarded with both a citation and being appointed as the new head of the expeditionary corps following Forey. Maximilian I offered Bazaine the Palacio de Buenavista, and there were those who said Bazaine intended to seize the throne for his own ends, or at least serve as a puppet-master to Maximilian.

The Palacio de Buenavista in now the National Museum of San Carlos

Taking place at the Palacio de Buenavista, the tournament was a Greco-Roman style wrestling contest between French soldiers and infantry of the Marine Corps. This was the first record of a wrestling show ever being performed in the country. Witnessed by Maximilian and his Belgian wife Carlota de Habsburg of the famed European House of Habsburg, the tournament perhaps sparked more widespread interest in Mexico for the sport beyond the circuses, for it is after this point that Greco-Roman wrestling begins to increase in popularity throughout the country and was seen perhaps been seen as having a royal seal of approval.

The following years are marked by the emergence of Don Antonio Pérez de Prián, an individual that is identified as the first ever Mexican wrestler. Pérez de Prián learned the craft from an unknown French soldier after watching the foreign troops train and took his skills into circuses, theatres and carnivals in the same manner of his American, British and European counterparts of the age. After taking on challAngers and performing feats of strength and acrobatics at the amateur level, his debut as a professional fighter came against the American Henry Buckel at the San Pablo Bullring, the first such match in Mexico. Said to be both impressive in strength and fear-inspiring, Buckel would no doubt have been the “foreign monster heel” of the day, losing here to the hometown favourite of Pérez de Prián, a wrestling trope that has not changed for a hundred and fifty years. Prián would take the name El Alcides Mexicano, derived from the birth name of the legendary Hercules – literally he was the Hercules of Mexico.

The figure of Hercules was immensely popular in Mexico during this era, individuals playing characters based upon the Greek legend appearing throughout the country. The first circus strongman in Mexico had also been a Hercules and it is perhaps here that Pérez de Prián found more inspiration, creating a parallel between the first strongman and the first wrestler. As regent of the Hygienic and Medicinal Gymnasium, Alcides would teach the art of Greco-Roman wrestling to many new students, vastly expanding the array of talent and interest in the sport.

The great Italian strongman Cosimo Molino, better known as Romulus

It was some years later in 1894 that a young boy of 13, Enrique Ugartechea, witnessed the great Italian strongman and wrestler Cosimo Molino, better known as Romulus. Usually partnered, of course, with Remus, Romulus was a slight 5ft3′ and weighed just 167 pounds and yet was by far one of the strongest men of all time within his era. Despite his limited size, Romulus was noted for his physique and impressed the Mexican audiences who heavily favoured the “physical specimen” in perhaps another echo of the Vince McMahon dominated future.

In the latter stages of the 1890s, Romulus was often pitted against African-American boxing champion Billy Clark who, after finding little money boxing, would stage fights against a wrestling bear. Accomplished in his self-promotion and patter, Clark drew huge crowds through his claims of wrestling bulls and all manner of other wild animals. A master of putting on a show and cultivation of his own image, Clark would advertise his appearances with life-size lithographs of him dominating six horses and a bull at the same time. Taking inspiration, Enrique Ugartechea himself became a renowned strongman, being dubbed “Mexico’s Strongest Man” after he became a representative of the Spalding brand in the country.

Enrique Ugartechea starred in the 1918 film Maciste Turista by director Santiago Sierra

Ugartechea combined the Greco-Roman style with Olympic style wrestling to become one of the early developers of the lucha-libre style and in 1903 the youngster would face his idol Romulus, the first of two matches that could almost be seen as “passing the torch” to the young lion. Ugartechea would defeat his idol and become the champion of Mexico soon after-ward and is seen as the man who ensured that wrestling was seen as an individual sport in Mexico, not a variation on boxing, strongman contests or a circus act.

Looking to exploit and nurture Ugartechea’s growing fame, Spalding invited the wrestler to be one of the judges of the wrestling at the 1904 Olympic Games, taking place at the ongoing Louisiana Purchase Exposition, commonly known as the St. Louis World’s Fair. Taking place from April 30, 1903, to December 1, 1904, the event attracted 19.7 million people and was a significant success. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the Olympic games, which were overshadowed by the fair itself and devoid of many European athletes through travel expenses.

A woodcut engraving of the Palácio de Cristal which was constructed specially for the 1865 World’s Fair. The Illustrated London News, 18th November, 1865.

The World’s Fair has a strong tradition of wrestling, with the first appearance of a masked wrestler being noted at the 1865 International Exhibition in Porto. Portugal, not long after the first recorded use of a mask in wrestling in Czechoslovakia in 1857. Over the next decade, masked wrestlers would appear at circuses across Europe, in particular in France. While in later years masked wrestlers would often be local personalities or wrestlers that a promoter was looking to disguise, the French tradition dictates that a masked man was of high birth who was looking to test his hand against professionals or answer a personal matter of vengeance, possibly linking the mask with the legend of the so-called man in the iron mask of French revolutionary legend. There were masked wrestlers in Romania rumoured to have been royalty, in Hungary, Germany, Poland, Russia, England and many more, America’s first masked wrestler appearing as early as 1877. Despite the legends, it is unlikely these men were actually royalty or highborn, rather this was merely the early adoption of a gimmick in order to sell the fights to a willing audience.

During the later stages of his career, Enrique Ugartechea would travel all over Mexico and become the first individual to create a gym exclusively for the training of professional wrestlers, training El Gladiator amongst many others. Yet it is many years before, here at the turn of the last century, that we see the lucha-libre style in its infancy, still malleable and developing as it begins to form. Lucha-libre would add influences from not only America and the Greco-Roman tradition to its widely varied repertoire, but also take elements of the Olympic “amateur style” and before the end of the 1900s the Japanese style of martial arts, particular judo.

Mitsuyo Maeda, pictured here c.1910, is considered one of the toughest men to have ever lived.

Soshihiro Satake and Mitsuyo Maeda, students of the legendary Kodokan Judo academy, were experts in their craft. Satake was unparalleled in amateur sumo at 180 lbs while Maeda was eminent in judo. After accepting an invitation to teach judo in America, Satake and Maeda travelled to Europe and were joined by Tokugoro Ito and Akitaro Ono where all four engaged in combat. In September of 1909 Soishiro Satake, under the alias of Nobu Taka travelled to Mexico City to challenge Mitsuyo Maeda for the “World Jujutsu Championship,” the two would trade the title between them. By 1911,  Satake, Maeda, Ito and Ono had become known as The Four Kings of Cuba and after showcasing their skill at jiu-jitsu the popularity of their technique led to elements being incorporated into the lucha-libre tradition.

By 1914, the popularity of the masked wrestler was such that The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company produced a film featuring such a grappler, The Masked Wrestler. The film, loosely based on the novel That Frenchman! by Archibald Clavering Gunter starred Francis X. Bushman as Louis de Luzon, the masked wrestler of the title. In the film a French masked wrestler refuses to remove his mask when asked to by a young woman named Margery, defeating his love rival and the villain of the piece Monsieur Lefevre, played by Bryant Washburn. Swearing his vengeance, Lefevre bribes Luzon’s opponent in an upcoming French Championship match to unmask our hero, the determined Luzon soundly winning the match and unmasking himself for Margery and both winning her heart and retaining his title. The success of the film inspired German promoter Samuel Rachmann to debut a masked wrestler of his own at the Manhattan Opera House (latterly known as The Manhattan Center) – the Masked Marvel, a character that became an overnight sensation when he faced off against Joe Stecher.

Actor and bodybuilder Francis X Bushman was one of Hollywoods first sex symbols and star of the 1914 film The Masked Wrestler

The wrestling of exhibitions became steadily more popular throughout the United States and Europe throughout the 1910s and 1920s, becoming known as professional wrestling in the process. Greco-Roman wrestling was slowly replaced by the American collar and elbow style as American and European wrestlers started to become known in their own right, the big stars of the age being legendary names such as George Hackenschmidt and Frank Gotch before the duo gave way to the next generation of stars with names such as Ed Lewis and Stanislaus Zbyszko being most noted. Zybyszko would wrestle The Masked Marvel to a series of famous two-hour draws in 1915, the Marvel having been revealed as Mort Henderson in the press the day before their first bout. While The Masked Marvel wasn’t the first masked wrestler in America, he was the first to be promoted as a top draw and his success inspired others to don the mask in an effort to emulate his success. One of these stars was the Constantinos Pappaniou, better known as Gus Pappas, one of a Greek generation of wrestlers who were noted for their use of masks in their performances.

San Pedro Daily Pilot, December 22, 1915. Pappas had defeated Tony Ajax (2-0) on November 17 at the Western Athletic Club in Los Angeles.

Born in Greece in 1881 and emigrating to the United States in 1905, Pappas began wrestling in 1910 and, unfortunately, the early years of Pappas career are both contradictory and unverified. Some claims suggest he may have won the Middleweight championship of Canada as early as 1912 and by 1915 he defeated Tony/Lonny Ajax for the Middleweight Championship either in Chicago or LA, working around the Pacific coast area as far afield as San Pedro, Los Angeles and Texas. He would officially hold the title until 1921/1922 when he lost it to the noted Ira Dern in Salt Lake City. By the late 1920s and into the 1930s Pappas was working in El Paso and there is some indication he may have promoted boxing and wrestling at carnivals in the Rio Grande. It was while working here in El Paso however that he gained a loyal fan – Salvador Lutteroth.

Salvador Lutteroth Gonzalez was born in 1897 and by all accounts had no interest in the burgeoning sport of professional wrestling, or indeed sport of any kind. Lutteroth dropped out of agriculture school at the age of 17 to partake in the Mexican revolution, serving at the command of General Alvaro Obregon against the forces of the infamous Pancho Villa. Despite reaching the rank of First Captain, Lutteroth tired of the military and left the service in 1924, becoming a tax collector by trade. By 1929 Lutteroth found himself working in Ciudad Juarez in Northern Mexico, travelling into El Paso on a regular basis and it is here at El Paso’s legendary Liberty Hall that Lutterroth would see his first glimpse of Gus Pappas.

A young Salvador Lutteroth

Enthralled by the spectacle and showmanship of the masked Pappas, Lutterroth set his dreams on becoming his own wrestling promoter, not just at the local level as he had seen in El Paso, but nationally. Over the next four years Lutteroth set about putting his dreams into action, saving his own money and securing the partnership and financial backing of Francisco Ahumada to set-up his new endeavour. In 1933 wrestling in Mexico made the final leap from being a regional phenomenon to being a national entity when Lutteroth founded Empresa Mexicana de Lucha Libre (EMLL), the company that is today known as Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL).

The founding of EMLL was the first major step in taking lucha-libre into the Mexican public consciousness, Salvador Lutterroth being considered the father of lucha-libre in Mexico. However, while Lutterroth was indeed vital to the rise of the sport as a cultural phenomenon, individuals such as Antonio Pérez de Prián and Enrique Ugartechea must be recognised as the grandfathers of lucha-libre to Lutterroth’s father. They were pioneers who moulded and held together the developing tradition in its very infancy, allowing EMLL to take the sport to the next stage of its development. From being a sideshow attraction to a globally recognised symbol of Mexican culture, the origins of lucha-libre are born here.


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