At the 2300 Arena in Philadelphia, one of the most historic arenas in wrestling history, a short man dressed like a masked superhero scaled the ropes surrounding the wrestling ring.
Instead of crushing his opponent when he launched himself off the ropes, the wrestler landed a few feet away from his opponent. This wasn't his only misstep, but his fans—Mexican families, die-hard wrestling aficionados, and pop culture buffs—didn't mind his mistakes. Jumping and falling, pain and victory, are parts of the lives of luchadores, the Mexican wrestlers who work at various independent professional wrestling circuits around the world.
The last Saturday of April, I visited the arena to watch Masked Republic's first MaskedMania event in Philadelphia. "The entire concept behind MaskedMania was to test bringing an authentic lucha libre show to a market that does not traditionally get lucha libre—or, in the case with Philadelphia, had never had a traditional lucha event period," said Kevin Kleinrock, president of Masked Republic. "We wanted to bring our event to an underserved city. And, with the rich tradition of wrestling in Philly and the extremely supportive 2300 Arena, it seemed like a perfect fit."
Several local promotion companies have called this arena home, and the venue has served as a breeding (and bleeding) ground for dozens of wrestlers who eventually fought in the WWE—the rafters' banners include names like Terry Funk, Jerry Lynn, and Sandman.
Like at many other wrestling events, the men jumped on their competitors, their big bodies banging against each other and flying throughout the ring. It was a freak show, but it was an inclusive freak show, starring women, young guys, old guys, tall guys, short guys, straight guys, and gay guys—yes, gay crossdressers known as exóticos.
In lucha libre tradition, most exótico luchadores are gay men dressed in drag. "Everyone knew I was gay, but I never had a closet, so I was never in the closet," said Cassandro, one of the most famous exóticos in the world. "Everyone knew I was gay except me."
Many luchadores wear masks to disguise their faces, but the 44-year-old Cassandro has used heavy-handed mascara and eyeliner to draw attention to his naked face. He began his wrestling career with a mask, but when a big wrestling promotion in Juarez, Mexico, needed an exótico, he knew the mask had to go.
"Lucha libre has been the worst thing to ever happen to me and it has been the best thing," Cassandro said.
In addition to surviving a suicide attempt and having to work long hours to prove himself, Cassandro has suffered back injuries and torn his ACL and PCL. After another luchador, LA Park, kicked him in the face four months ago, he had to buy a new set of teeth. His next three surgeries have to wait until after he tours Japan and Europe in the fall.
"The doctor said, 'Urgent surgery.' I said, 'Urgent for you, not for me!'" Cassandro laughed. "It's lucha libre, not a beauty salon—even though sometimes it may look like it."
Lucha libre's traditions date back to the late 19th century. According to Steve Sims (a.k.a. Dr. Lucha, an authority on the sport with encyclopedic knowledge), the first Mexican wrestling competition in America possibly took place in the 1920s in California or Texas. In 1933, back in Mexico, Salvador Lutteroth González, the father of lucha libre, formed a popular promotion company called Empresa Mexicana de Lucha Libre. Over 80 years later, González's company still exists.
In the 1940s, many Mexicans immigrated to America, because World War II had vacuumed up most American men, bringing wrestling and other Mexican customs with them. Lucha libre was so popular in the 40s, promoters in California and Texas organized fights between Mexican wrestlers.
Since then, the tide of interest and support in the United States has crested and receded, but with recent partnerships between companies north and south of the border, lucha libre may be ready to ride the wave again. According to experts, the two biggest promotions in Mexico, CMLL and AAA, may respectively gross as much as $10 million or $15 million this year. CMLL has partnered with Warner Bros. to handle the marketing of luchadores, while AAA has made a deal with El Rey Network to bring lucha libre to television. While these promotions represent a push into the United States from Mexico, companies like Masked Republic are also starting here, bringing luchadores to America, which makes sense considering the WWE grossed more than $125.6 million in 2014's first quarter.
MaskedMania-type events are also growing in America. Steven Steffel, a fan from Falls Church, Virginia, drove two and a half hours to see the match. "I'm a general wrestling fan, but I like the high-flying, risk-taking acrobatics aspect [of lucha libre]," he said. Josh Mitchell from York, Pennsylvania, agreed: "Lucha libre to me is like real life superheroes," he said. "You can get behind somebody, and they have a persona you can buy into, that they can do anything. It transcends larger than life. I think of lucha as live action comic books."
Although the American market has boosted lucha libre's popularity, Cassandro and other athletes grunted and sighed when I asked them about the gringos who joined lucha libre. The influx of white wrestlers reminded me of when Prime Minister Pete Nice and MC Serch broke out on the rap scene. At the time, rap was a small subculture, so the rappers' ethnicity didn't draw as much attention, but as rap became more popular, white rappers, like Eminem, drew flack. Cassandro now sees the positive benefits of the American wrestlers: "It's very obvious there are two different schools, American wrestling and lucha libre Mexican-style, but if you don't lose touch and skills and talent, it raises the bar and helps us both."
Before each match, wrestlers and luchadores did push-ups, prayed, and shadowboxed invisible opponents backstage. While production people frantically scurried to referees, Cassandro stood silently with his glittering, pink robe's long train flowing across the floor behind him, like a bride waiting to walk down the aisle.
When Cassandro's theme music began, he strode with confidence through the curtain and down the walkway. As Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" started to play, he entered the arena and the crowd lost it. Men catcalled; women whistled. Even the bored children who had been dragged to the event by their parents dropped their toy masks to watch Cassandro.
After Cassandro sauntered down from his perch on the top of the rope, he played out a charade of overt and rejected sexuality with his American opponent, Matt Cross, to the cheers and jeers of people in their seats. At the start of the match, Cassandro wrapped his arms around Cross from behind and then squeezed his pecs. Cassandro and the crowd enjoyed this, but Cross did not.
In many ways, the match symbolized the contrasts between American and Mexican wrestling. More than any other fight that night, the battle pitted the lucha libre-style against traditional American wrestling. Where lucha libre fighters perform moves on their opponent's left side, American wrestlers deliver moves to the right.
Eventually, Cassandro landed a missile dropkick before executing a top rope rana and pinning Cross for a three count, winning the match. The crowd exploded in the longest, most sincere round of applause of the night.
"People went crazy for me tonight. Even the white guys were like, 'Mexico!' I was like, 'Awesome!'" Cassandro said after the match. "I'm not used to wrestling American-style, and Matt isn't used to lucha libre-style, but we were pretty good. I still did my stuff, and he still did his awesome stuff. It was good."
"That was my first time seeing Cassandro, and that was fucking awesome," said Philadelphia resident Jason Goldberg. "He's my new favorite wrestler!" Along with being a longtime wrestling fan, Goldberg handles vocals for Eat the Turnbuckle, a band that describes itself as "ULTRA-VIOLENT DEATH MATCH ROCK AND ROLL." From occasionally rocking lucha libre masks on stage to performing wrestling stunts during live performances, their wrestling appreciation is more than a gimmick—they love the sport.
"Look at today. It was a great turnout; it was a great show. And Philadelphia doesn't very often have a lucha libre show. It was mixed, but the result was obvious," Cassandro said. "The fans, adrenaline. I love my job. I'm so blessed."
This story originally appeared on Vice.