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Unmasked: Wrestling (and barely surviving) in Mexico

Friday nights at Arena Mexico is part Cirque, part WWE.

robin esrock The Globe and Mail

Metalium has tied me into a human pretzel. He has pinned one arm behind my neck, looped my leg behind my back, and has me in a lock designed to separate one's shoulder from one's body. In an unfortunate case of lost in translation, the boisterous wrestling student mistook "skinny travel writer wants to learn" for "powerful wrestler wants to fight." The moment I entered the practice ring, I was thrown against the hard ropes, picked up, slammed down, flung about, T-boned, elbowed, body kicked, rolled over and clamped tight. I'm slapping the floor with my one free palm, the frantic wave of submission, writhing in equal parts pain and shock. Serves me right for putting on a mask just to throw myself into a story.

In Mexico, lucha libre refers to the high-flying world of professional wrestling. Much like its WWE counterpart in North America, it involves colourful characters, theatrical violence, multiteam tournaments and rabid fans of all ages. Yet lucha libre (literally "free wrestling") is also known for its breathtaking acrobatics, and a tradition of masks and heroes. All this can be thoroughly enjoyed from the cheap, or expensive seats, at the Arena Mexico.

It's Friday night, and Mexico City is throbbing. The city is renowned for its pockets of culture and art, sport and music, all connected along choking lines of traffic. Outside Arena Mexico, the sidewalks are choked too, as vendors sell masks, toys, T-shirts, food and all manner of wrestling paraphernalia. It takes a few moments before I become accustomed to the grown men wearing the masks of their favourite luchador - they look more like flamboyant bank robbers. The kids are out in force too, for despite the physical violence, wrestling has always been fun for the whole family.

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Lucha libre was born in Mexico in the 1930s, but really took off with the advent of television. The rules are simple: Opponents lose if they are pinned to the mat for three seconds, removed from the ring for 20, or disqualified for illegal holds, groin strikes or the removal of a luchador's mask. It is the mask that gives each wrestler his mythical allure, his character and personality. Ever since El Santo, the most famous luchador of all time, stepped into the ring with his silver mask, the public has been fascinated with these heroes of the ring. The mask does more than just conceal the true identity of the wrestler (who will never be named or seen without it in public). It becomes his honour, protected at all cost. Battles take place between archrivals for the right to remove the mask. There is always a tecnico (hero) and a rudo (villain).

I had yet to pick good or evil when I stepped into the ring, wearing a customized mask with ESROCK glued across the top in red sequins. Metalium didn't give me a chance. Under the eyes of his watchful trainer, he was hungry to show off his skills, and the Mighty Esrock proved easy prey. According to his trainer, Metalium will soon be ready to enter the main ring, but it will still take some time before he can earn the right to wear his own mask. Choosing the right mask to resonate with the buying public can make or break his career.

The announcer hypes up the crowd with his deep voice, beautiful girls in bikinis line up behind the ring. Thousands are not so much ready to rumble as they are to marvel at the acrobatics. The hard ropes of the ring are designed to provide extra spring for the luchadores, who are regarded as among the most agile and versatile of all wrestlers. Their somersaults and leaps add all the excitement of a Cirque du Soleil performance.

I ask Metalium just how fake the fights are. He explains that moves, holds and blocks are taught so opponents know how to absorb the blows, land safely and avoid getting hurt. What moves they decide to use can be rehearsed or decided on the spot. Since he initially believed that I was a wrestler myself ( luchadores come from the United States, Canada, even Japan), he assumed I would know how to block his high-flying kick to my chest. I assumed my ribs were only bruised, not broken.

Teams are battling each other in the 16,000-seat stadium, and it's pretty easy to determine the crowd favourites. The good guys play by the rules, receive their acclaim with honour and always seem to come back after receiving a horrific beating at the hands of the rudos. A midget in a white mask seems destined for punishment, until he pulls off the most incredible manoeuvre, spinning with his legs around the heads of his opponents, and throwing them out of the ring altogether. Kids are screaming their approval, the atmosphere is electric, and while the contest has shifted from camp to the bizarre, the entertainment value is top-notch. The best of three rounds always goes to the wire, the bad guys always threatening to remove the mask of the tecnicos, and in one case they actually do. It appears to be a wardrobe malfunction. The unmasked luchador clutches his face wildly, and is led out of the ring before his true identity is revealed to the masses. For unlawful unmasking, the villain is disqualified, and justice is served.

Lucha libre is a form of physical theatre, designed to steam up our emotions, wow our senses and provide dazzling entertainment. With its free-wheeling high-flying moves and lack of commercialized pretension, weekly tournaments in Mexico City are guaranteed to thrill any tourist. Just don't step into the ring.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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Catch up with Robin at or on the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels.

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