Travel: Lucha Libre and El Toro in Mexico

My only acquaintance with spectator sports is foreign. An American father, plus four women in a very English house, meant even my little brother grew up with as much interest in English football as the stock market. Now basketball, I can watch. It’s quick, gripping and above all, civilised. When Blake Griffin (LA Clippers) fouls, he holds his hands up to the umpire and says “my bad, my bad”. Something something John Terry.

Lucha Libre, Guadalajara

Lucha Libre (‘free wrestling’) is Mexico’s answer to WWE and is everything but civilised. It’s a dwarf in a chicken suit being stamped on by four masked men with beer guts clad in lycra. It’s ‘ruddos’ (baddies) fighting dirty with ‘técnicos’ (goodies). It’s bad-mannered, outrageous, and 100% entertainment.  And the fans take it very seriously.

Sorry about the bad phone quality. No cameras allowed.

Pro-wrestling is massive in Mexico. The Tuesday night fight will be on the TV in any given cantina. Its story lines might be soap operas, but its stars act out Mexico’s social anxieties. Técnicos fight for the honest, working people and the poor, represented as comic book heroes and ancient warriors. Ruddos are arrogant, vulgar and they cheat. They are the problems facing honest Mexicans; drugs dealers, cartels, and corrupt police and politicians.

On the advice of a friend, we paid top peso ($160, about £8) for ring-side seats in Guadalajara. He told us to expect the luchadores (wrestlers) to get thrown out of the ring into the first row and he wasn’t wrong. Wrestlers walk out down a runway into the ring to their theme tune like in WWE, and are met by the crowd with cheers or boos. In one fight, with three on three, the ruddos tore off the masks of the técnicos to try and reveal their secret identity and fans rushed to the ring-side to throw in their shirts to cover the faces of their heroes. At one point, the whole front row to the left of us lept out of the way of two wrestlers being thrown clear of the rope, right into the seats. A ruddo, in reaction to a fan goading his filthy tactics, theatrically wiped his arse with his hand and with it, blew a kiss into the audience.

While we were close enough to smell the sweat, our ring side seats were in a quiet section of the stadium (a rare occurrence, I think), and we didn’t get the education in dirty Spanish words we were expecting. From what i’d read of Lucha Libre, the crowd spend more time insulting each other than watching the match. Chants like “Pobres! Pobres! Chingas a tu madre!” (“Poor people! Poor people! You fuck your mother!”) were gleefully anticipated, but for some reasons we didn’t catch any. I suspect we just couldn’t pick up the Mexican slang. But as always, the seats at the back are where the best action is.

The bullfight, Mexico City

A whole different experience at the bullfight in Mexico City. We were part of the crowd this time, in the cheap seats, being distracted from a spectacle we didn’t actually want to watch. All very well because in Mexico, the crowd is usually far more interested in itself than in the sport it’s come to watch.
I’m not glad i’ve seen a bullfight. Part of me wanted to see what might be one of the last bullfights in Mexico, because i’ve recently read Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, and I was compelled to apply his commentary on fear and braveness in the bullring to it myself. The rest was curiosity.

But I saw no valour in the event. Simply arrogance in the matador and a job made pretty easy by the fact that before he even enters the ring, the bull is half-dead anyway, maimed by six deep gouges in his neck from the hooked spears of six picadors. If that and a good baiting doesn’t finish him off, the matador stabs the bull through the head with his sword. There’s very little competition between a man with a sword and a confused, dying animal.

The first fight ended with a lap of pomp from the matador, wiping the sweat from his brow with a hat thrown into the ring from the audience, despite looking like he’d barely got out of breath. It was after watching this fight far too closely, through grimaces, that we realised that no-one else in our cheap seats up the top was paying any attention at all to the fight itself. They were passing around leather kidney bags of booze, calling to strangers to come and join their section, and laughing at each other’s friendly taunts.

The elderly Spanish man next to us was concerned that we weren’t enjoying ourselves. Eventually we translated that he was saying to us, “Don’t worry about the fight, it’s OK, it’s not a bad thing”. He bought us beer to thank us for coming all the way from England to be there and he was pleased we were. Then the kidney bags came our way. Regularly. Suddenly we weren’t so distressed by the bullfight, more concerned with laughing in the right places at the good-humoured teasing aimed at the Spanish man for his interest in us. Someone suggested he wanted to take us home and he waved the notion off, a little embarrassed, and tipsy. By the time the last fight was over, we had sampled the kidney bags of everyone within a row’s reach, and we were quite, quite pissed.

The family we stayed with in Mexico City told us when we got home that we could have stayed to enjoy a glass of the bull’s blood as they carved it up to be sold for meat. We were glad we didn’t stick around. Of the two big spectacles we went to in Mexico, the bullfight left a nasty taste where the Lucha Libre was delicious, but we were glad to be part of the crowd that time, to experience an intimacy in the crowd that not even the Olympics could evoke.

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