Lucha Libre in the L.A. Underground

Random Lengths News | May 2, 2007
Throughout human history, masks have been imbued with transformative powers to bend time and alter reality. Epic dramas are told behind masks, from battles between good and evil, to fallen angel motifs where heroes turn bad, and back to good again in various prodigal son-motifs. Such epic dramas make good entertainment and as author Dan Madigan explains in his new book, Mondo Lucha A Go-go: The Bizarre & Honorable World of Wild Mexican Wrestling, are perfectly made for television.

Last Saturday, on Apr. 28, Madigan held a discussion and booksigning of his new book at the Under the Bridge Bookstore and Art Gallery in downtown San Pedro.

Mondo Lucha traces the roots of Lucha Libre, Spanish for "freestyle fighting" to the professional wrestling matches that emerged along side professional prize fighting in late 19th century. The Lucha Libre style of wrestling, Madigan said, came from a Spanish style of wrestling heavily influenced by what was called "catch as catch can" or "catch" for short in the United States. This was a wrestling form that began when old time traveling carnival circuits staged friendly grappling matches, set up between performers and the locals. The Spanish passed on this fast-paced wrestling style to their Mexican counterparts.

Lucha Libre, as it is known today emerged in Mexico during the 1930s, and began with entrepreneur, Don Salvadore Lutteroth, who was inspired after watching a masked wrestler perform at a match in Liberty Hall, Texas. Lutteroth became -- as Madigan described -- a P.T. Barnum/Don King-like figure in Mexican Lucha wrestling. As a promoter he built a super league of wrestlers.

Aside from the cross-pollination of professional wrestling, the tentacles of Lucha Libre wrestling was deep and extensive in Los Angeles -- including matches at larger venues in the Olympic Auditorium near Downtown LA and other smaller venues in around South Central Los Angeles. Madigan explained that most would not even be aware of Lucha Libre wrestling if not for the legions of loyal fans in Mexico who grew up following heroes like El Santo, wrestlers that had no special powers but fought all too real bad guys -- at least real in the sense the bad guys were rooted in real in life.

Early on in the book, Madigan recalled the reaction of his friends when he told them he was going to the La Fuerza Mexicana de Lucha Libre in Compton to the to see a match.

"'You're going Compton?' they both said in curious unison. 'Yeah,' I shrugged. 'You better bring a gun,' the husband told me."

Typically known as the birthplace of gangster rap, and where two successive mayors were convicted of corruption, in addition to having more social ills than one can shake a baton at, Compton would not necessarily be pegged as a destination for family friendly Lucha Libre entertainment. The reaction of Madigan's friends isn't surprising given the lag between perception and the reality of the majority Latino, working-class neighborhoods in Compton.

The ever-increasing reach of Lucha Libre into the world of professional wrestling, and increasing number of fans in both Southern California and the rest of the world is a testament to the increasing cultural, socio-political, and economic clout of Latinos.

Despite his multi-cultural outlook, Madigan worried that race would be a factor in allowing him entry into the Lucha world, only to be set at ease when his bodybuilder physique and knowledge made other luchadores think he was a wrestler himself.

Though Madigan's background is in writing and art, he also grappled in high school, college, and in the army. In an interview ahead of the of the book signing, Madigan explained, "At 18, I made a choice between going to Killer Kowalski's Wrestling School in Massachusetts and art school to become an artist ... painting was my first love. So I decided to become a starving artist rather than a starving wrestler."

"Wrestlers are a closed-mouthed people, if you're not in the biz, they're like magicians, they don't impart too many secrets to strangers. But because of my background the guys would give me a wink and nod to let me know what is going on," he said. "I knew going in what the business was about and I respected it from day one."

Madigan’s career as a writer has been on a steady incline -- especially after he joined the larger than life figure of American professional wrestling, Vince McMahon at his new film division World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).

During his first meeting with the producers of WWE films, they started talking about old time wrestling and were impressed with his encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. The producers asked if he would like to write for the WWE show, and Madigan deadpanned, "People write that stuff?"

"I came up with this insane storyline with a group of masked wrestlers from South America possessing everyone's soul and it ends with an exorcism with the ring levitating and Vince McMahon throwing holy water saying "the Power of Vince compels you ... the Power of Vince compels you." The producers read it and said 'we want to hire this guy.'"

This lead to WWE films signing Madigan to write a script for Kane, a 7-foot, 326-pound WWE wrestler whose signature moves included the choke-slam (a maneuver that looks like it sounds) called "See No Evil."

Madigan met McMahon by pitching his work, he recalled. "But all the time I was there was I was trying to bring back some masked wrestlers back into the WWE, I thought it would be good to bring these guys back up."

"The Latino market is growing and they are a very loyal market, they love their product. When I first got into this, there were only two masked wrestlers, Rey Mysterio (Rey Rey who is a great, great guy and a great wrestler) and Ultimo Dragon a Japanese wrestler."

When Madigan began working for WWE, Ultimo left a couple of weeks later.

"I told Vince, 'the fans want to see more masked wrestlers,' but the ideology of the WWE was that 'we have one masked wrestler, too many masked wrestlers will confused the fans.' But I'm like, 'Mexico has thousands of masked wrestlers and they don't seem to get confused there.'"

Madigan is philosophical when he considers the impact of corporate commercialism on wrestling, explaining that, "The problem is that its such a big corporation that you have to fit yourself into the way they want things done. They brought some Mexican guys in a couple of years ago but made them into some kind of clowns."

Madigan wrote Mondo Lucha a Go-Go as a labor of love, inspired by the first time he saw El Santo on a rabbit-eared, black-and-white television set as a kid. Madigan's observation of American pop culture's ability to absorb other cultures into its own soup, divorcing cultural phenomena such as Lucha Libre from their historical and cultural roots, oftentimes turning these art forms into minstrel shows where no one can tell whose winking at who. More writers rooted in the love of their craft are needed to fight the corporate machine gobbling up cultures and spitting out generic non-sense.

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