Lucha for Beginners

L to R: Negro Casas, Penta el Cero Miedo, Barbaro Cavernario, La Sombra

I was listening to an episode of the “Between the Sheets” podcast, hosted by Kris Zellner and David Bixenspan, and I heard something that peaked my curiosity. As they do on each episode, they look at newsletters like the Observer and PWTorch and cover results and news from a given week in the past. The show is broken up into different sections covering different promotions or regions. There’s usually one section for WWF, one for WCW, one for independents, Japan, Mexico, and so on. In this particular episode, the hosts were talking about results and news from Mexico in late March/early April 1998, from places like AAA and CMLL. The Mexico section was a bit longer than usual and while sitting at a red light and listening to the show, it triggered a thought. 

What exactly do I know about lucha?

I discussed this very thing on an episode of the “Flight of 5” podcast with fellow Wrestle Inn writer Ryan Dilbert where we talked about our biggest blind-spots in professional wrestling. We each discussed five things that we know nothing or very little about in the world of wrestling, and one of the things that made the list for me was lucha. I’ve watched very little lucha libre over the years and it seems to be one of the things that’s easily forgotten about by some fans. Sure, recently there’s been a lot of exposure for AAA in large part due to Kenny Omega holding the AAA Mega Title seemingly forever, Deonna Purazzo as the AAA Reina de Reinas Champion, and FTR holding the AAA Tag Team Championship. But to me, that’s just the surface. What’s below the surface? Who are the top stars in Mexico? What are some of the best matches, past and present? These are questions I want to find out the answers to.

But first, I need to start with a base.

Like most anyone who grew up with wrestling during the Monday Night Wars era, my first exposure to Mexican wrestling and lucha libre was the cruiserweight division of WCW. I remember when I first saw Rey Mysterio Jr. I thought wow! He’s pretty cool! Then there was Psychosis with the giant horns coming off of his mask, Juventud Guerrera speeding through the ring quicker than anybody I’d ever seen before, the suave and cool Super Calo with sunglasses attached to his mask, and of course the human skeleton La Parka. There were wrestlers like Ultimo Dragon, Konnan, Eddie Guerrero, and many, many others who all had cool looks and performed amazing moves I’d never seen before. It was like this mysterious, colorful world had just been unlocked!

The cruiserweights had some of my favorite WCW matches as well during that time frame. Matches like Rey Mysterio, Jr. vs. Dean Malenko (Great American Bash 1996), Mysterio vs. Psychosis (Bash at the Beach 1996) and Hector Garza, Juventud Guerrera, and Lizmark, Jr. vs. La Parka, Psychosis, and Villano IV (Bash at the Beach 1997), which garnered a 4 ¼ stars rating from the Observer, so seriously, if you haven’t seen that match, go watch it on the WWE Network and/or Peacock) And let’s not forget the iconic Eddie Guerrero vs. Rey Mysterio match from Halloween Havoc 1997.

Credit: WWE

WWF got in on the Lucha Libre phase in 1997 as well, particularly with the Royal Rumble that year. They held it in San Antonio and some of the undercard had a heavy AAA presence. The tape of the show was one that my local library always had on the shelf, and therefore, a tape I would always rent. The first time I watched it, there was this odd six-man tag match on the show featuring Hector Garza, Perro Aguayo, and Canek (or El Canek as WWF called him) facing Fuerza Guerrera, Jerry Estrada, and Heavy Metal, with someone named Pepe Casas as the referee. I knew nothing about any of these six (or seven if you count the referee) men aside from what Jim Ross was telling everyone on commentary. The match was interesting and kinda fun, it was different wrestlers than what I was used to seeing on a WWF show. Then came the Rumble match with several different stars like Cibernetico, Latin Lover, Mil Mascaras, and Pierroth. I knew nothing of any of these people except for maybe reading the name Mil Mascaras in Pro Wrestling Illustrated or one of the other wrestling magazines around at the time. Pierroth always stood out to me with his slick black and yellow attire, which I still remember today.

I’d also heard about this show called “When Worlds Collide” around this time, a 1994 AAA/IWC pay-per-view produced with the help of WCW. The first I remember reading or hearing about it was in one of those PWI Almanac books that had the results of every pay-per-view event listed in it. The first match I ever saw from it was the legendary Los Gringos Locos (Eddie Guerrero & Love Machine) vs. El Hijo del Santo & Octagon match that was featured on the Eddie Guerrero DVD that WWE released in 2004. 

This was the early to mid-2000s and from there my exposure to lucha was very limited. I’d see maybe something from years back on tapes or bootleg DVDs I’d borrow from friends, but I never quite understood it. I recognised some of the names like Abismo Negro or Shocker because they would pop up occasionally in places like TNA or in the independents. There were the leftover stars from the 90s like Juventud Guerrera and Super Crazy who would turn up in WWE undercards. Meanwhile, Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero and his nephew Chavo Guerrero were running the show on SmackDown with great matches as part of the “Smackdown Six” across 2002 and 2003 every Thursday night. More recently, I’ve seen CMLL wrestlers like Barbaro Cavenario, Hechicero, Volador Jr., and Stuka Jr. on some 2019 ROH shows, AAA stars like Laredo Kid and Black Taurus have turned up in Impact, and AEW has major lucha stars like Penta Oscuro and his brother Rey Fenix, collectively known as the Lucha Brothers.

The Lucha Brothers, Rey Fenix and Penta el
Credit: AEW

Now that my base is established. Where do I go from here? What’s my “entry point” so to speak?

I racked my brain and tried to think of people I follow online who know about lucha and would give me some good advice. My first thought went right to someone I’ve heard as a co-host and occasional guest on the 6:05 Superpodcast, noted lucha fan and expert, Vandal Drummond. I reached out to Vandal to get some answers to my simple questions, to help me get a better foothold in the world of lucha.

If someone only knows lucha from the WCW cruiserweights, where would you recommend they start if they wanted to dive in a bit deeper?
“My personal recommendation (and this might differ from lucha folk to lucha folk) is begin watching late 1980s-mid 90s CMLL, and early AAA. In my mind, that is the golden era of lucha in the past 40 years. If you do not speak Spanish, be patient with understanding the nuances as they will come with time, even if you never learn the language. Two key things – rudos and tecnicos are slightly different from old school babyfaces and heels. They are styles, as opposed to a good guy being nice, and the heel being a dick. The rudos are expected to do more punching and kicking, while the tecnicos are expected to stick to the rules until they’re pushed too far. While the referees are not “heel refs,” they’re expected to give a slight edge to the rudos. It’s as if the sport has rules similar to a morality play. What’s really fun in those days are title matches: more often than not, those are the times the heels are expected to play by the rules for the entirety of the bout, including hugs and handshakes after the match (I have an American friend who was on a rudo team in Tijuana; during a title match, both the ref and a commissioner told him to “cool it” with punching and kicking!).” 

I don’t know much about CMLL aside from it being one of the main promotions in Mexico. The rudos and the tecnicos aspect I knew about from hearing Mike Tenay’s commentary during cruiserweight matches on Monday Nitro. Having Vandal clarify that it’s more of a style instead of heels (bad guy) and babyfaces (good guy), like most everyone is used to, is vastly helpful – I always thought that it was the same thing!

Vandal continued, “In tag matches from that era, you’ll see that six man tags each have a captain. Rules are that a team wins a fall when (a) the other team’s captain is beat, (b) the other two wrestlers on the team are beat, or (3) one team can just defeat all three men! Again, this is good to know if you speak no Spanish.”

These rules confused me when I was watching the earlier mentioned Los Gringos Locos vs. El Hijo del Santo & Octagon match from When Worlds Collide, because I’m used to the fall being over when a wrestler is pinned. The “captain” thing is mostly new to me too. I’ve heard of it before, mainly in the old southern territories were on some house show cards they’d do a singles “captain’s match” between two members of opposing teams. Then later in the show the main event would have the two teams in a tag-team match with designated captains having to be defeated for the win. After the first pin, it was mentioned by Mike Tenay and Chris Cruise who were doing English commentary for the show, about the captain’s rules. In theory, you could end up with a 2-vs-1 scenario if the non-captain is pinned first during a fall. As confusing as that sounds, it’s actually pretty interesting!

Vandal’s final piece of advice on where to start, “Also, dive into the sites Luchawiki and Luchaworld, both are “must read” sources for both history and current wrestling.” 

Konnan in defeat after losing a mask vs. hair match

I’ve used LuchaWiki in the past, especially when I was researching my Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame ballot, but Lucha World is a site that I’m not familiar with. I checked it out and there is a wealth of information there from results and news to biographies of stars who have passed away and previews of upcoming lucha shows. Plus there’s additional content such as podcasts and their YouTube channel, featuring classic lucha matches from the 80s up to the late-90s.

I subscribed to the YouTube channel and quickly found myself falling down the rabbit hole. One of the first things I watched were some Hair vs. Mask matches (aka lucha de apuestas or máscara contra cabellera). The first was Perro Aguayo vs. Konnan (March 1991) and the other was Negro Casas (more on him later) against the aforementioned El Hijo del Santo from the Olympic Auditorium in July 1987. For the first actual lucha matches that I’ve seen in quite a while, these were just tremendous. The pace, the story, each match having real stakes as both combatants fought to keep something they valued. But, in my never-ending quest for lucha knowledge, watching those matches sent my mind wondering once again about perhaps the most obvious part of lucha… the masks.

I don’t know much, if anything, about the history of masks in lucha. What I do know, though, is stuff I’ve picked up along the way from watching wrestling over the years, that being that the masks are sacred. Take the example from the recent Rey Mysterio/Miz feud on RAW during the build-up to WrestleMania. In one segemnet, Miz ripped off Rey Mysterio’s mask and then Dominik, Rey’s son, quickly intervened and covered Rey’s face with a towel. with the commentators saying something like, “That’s the most insulting thing you can do to a masked wrestler!”… But why? I don’t recall if it was fully explained either later that episode or the next episode but there should’ve been some sort of follow up to that. Context, pal!

Anyway, the mask is the thing that ties everything together. Without the mask, it would just be a person in a costume. However, with the mask you have a complete character. Let’s look at another modern luchador, Black Taurus. The giant mask he wears to complete his outfit is fantastically bonkers! The giant snout, the horns, the dark colors. It perfectly ties everything together. It just works and adds a level of terror and amazement that draws you in, that lets you know this dude is really cool! Now, think of him in the same ring attire but without the mask. Not quite the same is it?

Credit: IMPACT Wrestling

My next question was: Who are some more modern stars that new lucha fans should watch for?
“’I’m not too up on modern lucha. Of the modern stars I am familiar with, my key picks are Barbaro Cavernario, Hechicero Negro, El Hijo de Vikingo, Black Taurus, Lucha Bros, Andrade (his work as La Sombra when he was in CMLL, in my opinion, is out of this world! Could emit so much emotion with a mask that hid all his features!), Pimpinela Escarlata (number one exotico, in my book), lady luchadora Amapola (though in the twilight of her career), and while he is nearing retirement, I believe Negro Casas to be one of the greatest wrestlers I have ever seen in my life, and not just in lucha libre.

Obviously, I know the Lucha Brothers and Andrade from AEW and Black Taurus from IMPACT. The others I’ve heard of, but I’m not too familiar with at all. I’ve seen maybe two or three Barbaro Cavernario matches, and that’s only because he did a tour with Ring of Honor in 2019. Same with Hechicero Negro, who I believe was just called Hechicero during that same tour. I’ve heard the name El Hijo de Vikingo, but I’ve never seen any of his matches, and I’ve also never seen any of Andrade as La Sombra in CMLL. I knew he came from there when he joined WWE but that’s as far as my knowledge of his CMLL time goes.

The last three that Vandal mentioned, Pimpinela Escarlata, Amapola, and Negro Casas, I know I’ve never seen any matches of. He also said that Pimpinela Escarlata is an “exotico”. That leads me to another question, what exactly is an exotico? A quick Google search led me to find that it’s basically a male wrestler that competes in drag and accentuates feminism. These wrestlers may or may not be gay, but often are. They most often fall into the rudo category, fans tend to see them as such since they are not perceived as “macho”. Besides Escaralta, another well known exotico from Mexico would be Cassandro, who I remember from the ROH “Big Bang” PPV in 2010 in which he broke his leg in a match against Rhett Titus. For more American based wrestlers, Rico and Sonny Kiss could fall under the exotico heading.

Negro Casas
Credit: CMLL

Negro Casas is a name I’ve heard primarily in passing. I’ve heard of his exploits but never really seen any of his matches, aside from the earlier mentioned mask vs. hair match against El Hijo del Santo. I looked up his profile on Cagematch and was stunned to see he’s competeing in over 3,000 matches! Curiously, 14 of those matches were for the WWF in the middle of the Attitude Era on the Super Astros show. Clearly though his his home promotion is CMLL, although he has wrestled a healthy sum of matches for New Japan too. He’s definitely someone I’m going to look up more matches of!

The last question I presented to Vandal was a general one: What’s one thing new lucha fans should keep in mind if they decide they want to dive in?
The older material is a little harder to follow than current lucha libre. Both are awesome. While lucha is still a bit distinct from American, Japanese, and probably British wrestling, what is so cool is that the different styles are merging where there are more wrestlers from each style working with one another, and with less style clash. I got frustrated with my fellow gringo wrestlers when I was younger, who always bitched and moaned when one would say, “Oh great, I got to work that south of the border shit style tonight.” And in fairness, I bet it worked vice versa. Fast forward to a few years ago, I saw a tape of Zack Sabre Jr. wrestling Negro Navarro, and after the match, he got on his knees and bowed to the legend he just wrestled. You saw little of that back in the day, and I love the way modern wrestlers appreciate other styles.

Vandal mentions “American style” here and I want to pause for a moment and talk about a lucha show I recently watched, that being TripleMania 2021. It’s the biggest show of the year for AAA. I was expecting lots of high-flying lucha style matches and instead it felt more like a WWE style with elaborate entrances, referee bumps, heel refs like El Hijo de Tarantes blatantly cheating for the rudos, and a slower paced style of, for lack of a better term, storytelling. I was also expecting the usual two out of three falls matches I’ve been accustomed to watching. Instead everything was just one fall (or una caida as the ring announcer yelled) and the ring was the six-sided ring, like TNA/IMPACT previously used. I also found it a bit difficult to differentiate the rudos from the technicos, except in the main event and in the women’s match. The matches were fine, but the triple threat match with Lucha Brothers facing Brian Cage & Black Taurus and El Hijo del Vikingo & Laredo Kid was probably my favorite of the show.

After that, I found the official CMLL YouTube page and watched a recent show of theirs and the difference in styles is wild! Here the matches are faster paced, lots of high-flying and the rudos and technicos are clearly spelled out. The matches are also the captain’s style three falls variety and there’s a scoreboard at the end of each fall that helps you follow along. The crowd is very invested which helped my enjoyment a lot. The heel ref tactics didn’t feel as blatant either, which was nice. There were several wrestlers on there I’d heard of like Stuka Jr., Negro Casas, and Blue Panther – hey, cool! I know of these names! It was also my first look at Amapola, who Vandal mentioned previously as someone to watch for. The one common denominator I noticed between the two events was the “lucha rules” in tag team matches, meaning when a competitor goes to the floor another competitor can take their place in the ring without a tag, leading to some incredibly fast-paced matches.

Taking all that information I’ve gathered, I think I have a better knowledge base now than I did when I first started thinking about that initial question, what do I know about lucha? 

I used to think that lucha matches were just flips and dives, a lot of high-flying but perhaps less nuance. After digging through YouTube so much that my ads are now in Spanish, my opinion has completely changed. Sure, there are the dives and flips and craziness, but it’s a world all of its own with wild characters, eccentric masks, unique match rules. My investigation has led me to discover veteran wrestlers like Negro Casas, Perro Aguayo, and El Hijo del Santo, names I never would have discovered if not for this project and this article! Plus, I have a newer appreciation for current stars like Penta Oscuro, Laredo Kid, and Black Taurus along with the others that are out there!

I think I’m going to be adding lucha into my regular rotation of wrestling I watch. Will I be able to keep up with it weekly? No way. But will I have an interest in the big shows like AAA TripleMania or CMLL Anniversario? Hell yes. Will I go back into the archives on YouTube and watch old lucha matches? I’m already there. It turns out that I know a lot more about lucha than I thought!