Lucha Libre (which translates literally as Free Wrestling or Free Fighting) is the professional wrestling performed in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Starting in the early 1900s it was mainly a regional phenomenon until Salvador Lutteroth brought wrestlers from the United States to Mexico in the 1930s, giving the sport a national foothold for the first time.
Mexican wrestling is marked with a lessened emphasis on power moves than in the United States or Canada. Instead, there are rapid sequences of holds and moves, as well as spectacular high-flying moves, many of which have been adopted north of the border. Recently, American style promoting and Japanese shoot-style offense have also been integrated into the style. A Lucha Libre performer is known as a luchador.
In Mexico and other Spanish-speaking areas such as Puerto Rico, lucha libre is used to refer to all forms of professional wrestling, not just the Mexican style. However, since Mexico is the largest and most influential Spanish-speaking market for wrestling, the term is more synonymous with Mexican professional wrestling in non-Spanish speaking areas. In Peru the term "cachascán" (from "catch as can") is used. Wrestlers are called cachascanistas. In Argentina, in addition to lucha libre, professional wrestling is also referred to as "catch".
The rules of Lucha Libre are very similar to its American predecessor in singles matches; matches can be won by pinning the opponent to the mat for the count of three, making him submit, knocking him out of the ring for a count of twenty or by disqualification. Using the ropes for leverage is illegal and once a luchador is on the ropes, his opponent must release any holds and he will not be able to pin him. Disqualifications occur when an opponent uses an illegal hold or move, hits his opponent in the groin (faul), uses outside interference, attacks the referee or rips his opponent's mask completely off. Most matches are two out of three falls (Dos de tres caídas)
Masks have been used dating back to the beginnings of Lucha Libre and have a historical significance to Mexico dating back to the days of the Aztec. Early masks were very simple with basic colors to distinguish the wrestler. In modern Lucha Libre, masks are colorfully designed to evoke the images of animals, gods, ancient heroes, and other archetypes, whose identity the Luchador takes on during a performance. Virtually all wrestlers in Mexico will start their careers wearing masks, but over the span of their careers a large part of them will be unmasked. Sometimes, a wrestler slated for retirement will be unmasked in his final bout or at the beginning of a final tour, signifying loss of identity as that character. Sometimes losing the mask signifies the end of a gimmick with the wrestler moving on to a new gimmick and mask. The mask is considered "sacred" to a degree, so much so that fully removing an opponents mask during a match is grounds for disqualification.
During their careers, the masked luchadores will often be seen in public wearing their mask, keeping up the Kayfabe of Lucha Libre; in effect, the mask is synonymous with the luchador. El Santo (English: "The Saint"), Mexico's most famous and well loved luchador, kept his mask until after retirement, revealed his true identity only in old age, and was actually buried wearing his silver mask.
More recently, the masks that the luchadores wear have become iconic symbols of Mexican and Mexican-American culture. Contemporary Mexican-American artists like Francisco Delgado and Xavier Garza incorporate wrestler masks in their paintings.
Luchas de Apuestas
With the importance placed on masks in Lucha Libre losing the mask to an opponent is seen as the ultimate insult and can at times seriously hurt the career of the unmasking wrestler. Putting your mask on the line against a hated opponent is a tried and tested tradition in Lucha Libre as a means to settle a heated feud between two or more wrestlers. These battles are called Luchas de Apuestas (English: Matches with Wagers) where the wrestlers involved "wager" something, either their mask or their hair. The "Luchas de Apuestas" match was first presented on July 14, 1940 at Arena Mexico. The rule came about because the defending champion Murchiélago was much lighter than his challenger Octavio that he requested a further condition before he would sign the contract: Octavio would have to put his hair on the line. Octavio won the match and Murchiélago had to unmask after the match giving birth to a tradition in Lucha Libre.
The most iconic match is máscara contra máscara (English: mask versus mask), where two masked luchadores bet their masks, and the loser is unmasked by the winner and his real name is often revealed as well.
Another well-known type of "Luchas de Apuesta" is máscara contra cabellera (English: mask versus hair), in which one masked wrestler and an unmasked one compete; at times the unmasked one has lost his mask to the masked one in a previous bout. If the masked luchador wins, the unmasked one has to shave his head as a sign of humiliation. If the unmasked luchador is the winner, he keeps his hair and the loser is unmasked.
The third kind of "Luchas de Apuesta" is cabellera contra cabellera (English: hair versus hair), where the loser of the match has his head shaved bald. This can occur both between unmasked wrestlers and masked wrestlers who have to remove their mask enough to be shaved after the match.
A traditional division of luchadores is rudos (bad guys, or heels, literally "rough" or "rude") and técnicos (the good guys, or faces, literally "technician") who always play by the rules, in theory at least.
Luchadores, like their foreign counterparts, seek to obtain a campeonato ("Championship") through winning key wrestling matches. Lucha Libre uses a more specific weight class system to classify titles. Popular weight classes include; heavyweight, light-heavyweight, welterweight and middleweight. Lightweight and super-lightweight titles are also used. "Cruiserweight" is often associated with Lucha Libre, even though in Mexico, it would be declared light-heavyweight. (The term "cruiserweight" is derived from boxing, where it is a weight between Light Heavyweight and Heavyweight.) Titles can be defended as few as one time per year and wrestlers usually only wear their belts on big shows and when they are defending them. In recent years, weight classes have been mostly nominal and there are occasions where a wrestler will have titles in two different weight classes. Title matches are still major accomplishments and many shows are built around title defenses.
In recent years, several luchadores have found success in the United States. Notable former luchadores who are thriving in the USA today are Juventud and Rey Mysterio. A fanciful take on the lucha libre concept can be seen in the animated cartoon ¡Mucha Lucha!. The motion picture Nacho Libre stars Jack Black as a priest-turned-luchador (somewhat similar to the real-life Lucha Libre personality Fray Tormenta, aka Father Sergio Gutierrez Benitez).