Dropkicks and body slams, punches and flips. The moves might be familiar to fans of WWE professional wrestling. But the wrestlers — with their faces concealed behind intricate masks —might just be your neighbor or a barista at you local coffee shop.
This is the unique world of lucha libre, a traditional style of Mexican wrestling which translates in English to “free fight.” Recently, one of the most popular sports in Mexico has carved out a surprising following in the Northwest.
The masked athletes flew around the ring at the University of Puget Sound during the 4th annual Lucha de Sound earlier this month.
The crowd, a mix of both Spanish and English speakers, flooded the gymnasium with cheers and the honking of airhorns as they watched their favorite characters battle. The theatrical Mexican wrestling match attracted dedicated lucha libre fans and curious newcomers to watch as well-trained luchadores (and one luchadora) from the Lucha Libre Volcánica studio took the ring.
Lucha Libre Volcánica, the only school of its kind in the Pacific Northwest, began offering lucha libre training in 2010 when former professional luchador, José Gómez, noticed the lack of wrestling studios in area.
When the school first opened in Renton, Gómez had just two students – his son and his nephew. Five years later, he has over 20 luchadores and luchadoras in training, with ages ranging from 11 to 60 years old.
Shortly before the match starts, Gómez mans the sound table and selects a mix of American pop songs and upbeat Mexican tunes to please the mixed crowd that’s slowly beginning to file in.
It’s the studio’s first big event of the year, so Gómez is excited for his students to showcase their new moves. He stresses the amount of preparation it takes to perfect the acrobatic routines, both to make the performances as believable as possible and to keep the luchadores safe.
“All the movements have been practiced many, many times to make sure that nobody gets injured,” Gómez said.
The show is all about entertainment, but avoiding injuries is a main concern for Gómez and the Lucha Libre Volcánica students, especially because of the recent death of professional Mexican wrestler, Hijo del Perro Aguayo during a match last month. Saturday’s event began with a tribute to Aguayo and moment of silence to honor the famed wrestler.
As soon as the first costumed athletes entered the ring, it became clear why Gómez and his athletes prepare for each match extensively. Between kicks, hits, and punches, characters somersaulted over each other and even soared out of the ring and onto one another.
“It’s simultaneously cooperative and competitive,” Ave Rex, a popular Lucha Libre Volcánica luchador, said. “When you get in the ring with someone, you’re trusting them with your life. In a way I’m putting myself in a vulnerable position. We have to trust each other because that’s the foundations of the sport.”
The necessity of trust and cooperation is what sets lucha libre apart from American wrestling, Gómez says. To him, it’s a high intensity performance that is more art than entertainment. Each wrestler must take on the identity of their mask and compel the audience to support their character, all while artfully displaying tricks of combat.
A clear display of synergy between opponents occurred when La Avispa, the only female luchadora competing on Saturday and one of only three female students at the studio, took on men easily twice her size. A fan, Brittany Aubert, describes her surprise at “watching the girl throw these men over her head effortlessly.”
La Avispa is proud of her ability to represent women in a sport – and studio – dominated by men.
“I find that a powerful position to be in,” La Avispa said. “People see me up here taking on all these men and that’s awesome.”
Large portions of the packed gymnasium swarmed the luchadores after the final match for autographs and pictures. Little girls crowded around La Avispa, all getting matching signatures on their forearms. Developing attachments to particular lucha libre characters is what the sport is all about, according to Aubert.
“I love the storytelling and the characters,” Aubert said. “I come in not knowing anyone and by the end of it I find myself rooting for one person and wanting to follow them. It’s more than just wrestling, it’s the people involved.”
You can catch La Avispa, Ave Rex and the other luchadors from Lucha Libre Volcánica at the Taco Libre Truck Showdown this Saturday, May 2, in the International District.