by Jeff O’Brien
It was late afternoon. The daytime temperature had hit 45 C and a strong wind pushed it in our faces. We had gone into the city’s sprawling galerias to escape the early afternoon heat, but the time had come for something different.
It was my first trip to Monterrey and the first time I ever saw las luchas. Luchadores have been called Mexico’s super heroes–El Santo was as revered as Superman.
A lifelong fan of Mexico’s cheesy Santo and Blue Demon movies, and I was about to see the real thing.
The Arena Coliseo is downtown, next to the bus station, an area not for jittery tourists. It was still hot in early evening when we parked. In order to buy our tickets, we had to navigate street vendors, taco carts, and lap dance hustlers.
We immediately ordered Tecates. They went down faster than a European soccer player. The heady odors of peanuts and popcorn and tamales filled the air. Vendors made the rounds with churros, tortas and other tasty treats.
As I looked around, my impression of Monterrey’s Arena Coliseo was of an old barn: hard wooden seats and dimly lit. I would not have been surprised to see a sawdust floor. I felt like I had as a child when my father took me to see wrestling in the small town of Cloverdale near our home. Childhood memories of meeting legendary wrestler Gene Kiniski made me anticipate even more what was to come.
Another reason for the nostaligia was that it was Martes Nice, or “Nice Tuesday,”which meant it was family friendly. Children outnumbered adults three to one. The kids are as much a reason to go to las luchas as are the luchadores themselves. In between matches, kids take over the ring and practice their moves. We saw tots as young as four on the ropes. Mexico is not a smothering nanny state and kids are allowed to be kids as happy parents look on.
The first matches were between young luchadores, nervous and a little ring shy but still game. The crowd was able to overlook the young gun’s hesitation and nerves and loudly cheered the efforts.
The spectators were raucous and happy. Mexico watchers would have noted the crowd was bien vestido – well dressed. Embroidered cowboy suits, dark slacks, traditional norteño straw cowboy hats and belt buckles the size of license plates were not uncommon. Even those in shorts and tees appeared to have washed and pressed them just for the occasion. Pride in appearance is a Mexican national trait and it often seems no matter how old the clothing or how tattered, it is always clean.
The more experienced luchas then took over. With their trademark masks, colorful costumes and capes, they really did look like comic book superheroes. And super villains.
No one who has ever been to a sporting or entertainment event in Mexico can forget Mexican crowds and how vocal they are. Colorful curses, cheers for favorite luchas and jeers for hated ones rang in our ears, all delivered by rabid fans, much to the delight of the parents sitting next to their popcorn-tossing, drink-flinging children.
The luchas gave as good as they got. I was taunted all night by luchas yelling things like “Oye güero, you from Houston?” Monterrey is a fine city but not a tourist city and a gringo face sticks out, especially in the front row.
All the conventions of American wrestling could be found. Devious referees, chairs suddenly appearing in the ring, equipment malfunctions, twists and turns, and nail biting suspense. Wrestlers had their familiar rock n’ roll entrance music cranked up all night, but I preferred the norteño mariachi band that entertained in between matches.
One tag team match featured wrestlers done up like monsters out of a Japanese TV series and each one with a midget mini me monster. One looked like the killer doll from the movie Chucky.
And when I said high-flying, that was not just hyperbole. Luchas are known for their amazing agility and grace. As much acrobats as wrestlers, they defy seem to defy gravity. Until they leave the ring that is. We had our seats at ringside next to the entrance ramp for the wrestlers, which meant being very quick when a flying wrestler spit water or other fluids at another wrestler or when one went over the top rope. The wooden seats are not comfortable and I have the highest respect for these men who crash into them and take out an entire row. Wrestling may be scripted but it is NOT fake. Spectators gleefully ducked and dodged and dropped their beers.
Finally, we left for our car. It would have taken a surgeon to remove the grin from my face. The only thought in my mind was “when can we go again?”