Masked Avengers

Posted by Scott Grover and Cord Jefferson

On the day Lucha Libre USA is to debut at the Pico Rivera Sports Arena, the heavens open up and drench the entirety of Greater Los Angeles in wild torrents of rain. The open-air stadium, which seats more than 5,000, is generally used for charreadas, Mexican rodeos, and it’s not long before all the water has turned its dirt floor into a slippery mud pit. By the time the sun comes out in midafternoon, it’s the ideal environment for, say, a pig looking to cool off, but far too soggy to set up a wrestling ring and let 300-pound men heave each other off the top rope. A couple of phone calls are made, and soon the event has a new, bone-dry venue, albeit a smaller one that can only fit a few hundred fans instead of thousands. El show debe continuar.

The new venue is 15 miles away in Huntington Park, a city of about 60,000 located just south of East L.A. Though you can see the dim lights of newly trendy downtown from several of its neighborhoods, Huntington Park is a working-class area where few white Angelenos tread. Ninety-seven percent of Huntington Park’s population is Latino. To get to the venue, I drive past Jaime Escalante Elementary, a school named in honor of the Bolivian-born calculus teacher immortalized by Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver. Despite its name, a 2011 California state report found that Jaime Escalante had not made “adequate yearly progress.” The report also found that Jaime Escalante students, the vast majority of whom are characterized as “socioeconomically disadvantaged” and “English learners,” were not proficient in English or math.
 
The sun is setting when I pull up to the venue, a big garage about 100 feet long and 60 feet wide in a lot next to some train tracks. The adjacent space is filled with rows of nondescript delivery trucks. High-tension power lines dangle overhead. Save for a vinyl sign that’s tied to a chain-link fence and reads “Masked Warriors” in a font generally reserved for death-metal T-shirts, there is no indication that people in capes and tights are mere feet away preparing to manhandle one another.
 
Lucha Libre USA is only a two-year-old operation. The company is American, the brainchild of CEO Steve Ship, a former music manager from New York City who founded it with a couple of investors after he saw a business opportunity in the growing number of Mexican-Americans hungry for the culture in which they grew up. Ship won’t reveal the company’s revenues, but clearly Lucha Libre USA is still finding its way.
 
Ship will later tell me that the garage he nailed down for tonight’s event is a “training facility” he discovered through the grapevine. But a Google search indicates it’s a warehouse that in recent years has played home to a bumper-repair operation and a sheet-metal shop. How it became a wrestling ring I don’t know, and when I ask Ship to explain he trails off and asks to be excused for a minute. Ship seems to be getting anxious as people arrive, perhaps worried that the venue is too cramped or simple. (Shows can draw up to 6,000 fans.) Latino families are trickling in, unsure of whether they’re in the right place until they see the merchandise table bearing posters and $20 glittering masks. I see a boy waiting in line to use a Porta-Potty outside. He’s wearing a T-shirt that says “Hecho en México” and holding his groin the way little kids do when they have to pee. “You ready for some wrestling?” I ask him. “Heck yeah,” he says. “Heck yeah.”
 
To those who are in the know about lucha libre’s American incarnation, tonight’s match is a big deal: RJ Brewer is in the building. Since starting with Lucha Libre USA when it was founded in 2010, Brewer has become infamous as the company’s resident asshole. He is intimidatingly muscular and marked by a glaring, pushy demeanor, but he’s notorious because he’s made it his goal to degrade Lucha Libre USA’s predominantly Latino audience whenever he sets foot in a ring. Brewer purports to be conservative Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s son—he’s not. He is, however, part of a Lucha Libre USA crew called The Right, along with his colleagues Petey Williams and The Firewall Jon Rekon. It is not uncommon for Brewer to stare down an audience of thousands of Mexican-Americans and tell them he thinks they all need to go back to Mexico.
 

 
People hurl things at Brewer a lot. “I had a full beer can thrown at my knee once,” he tells me in a phone call three days before the match. “Pretzels, too. I had a Mexican flag thrown in my face.” It turns out Mexicans don’t like to be harangued about immigration, especially not by a man in tights emblazoned with “SB 1070,” the title of Arizona’s controversial immigration enforcement law. Brewer doesn’t care what they like. “The more people do this stuff and yell at me, that means I’m successful at what I’m doing,” he says.
 
Nationalistic posturing is nothing new in professional wrestling. In the 1950s, Guy Larose, a massive French-Canadian wrestler, took the ring name Hans Schmidt, propelling his career as a villain character by capitalizing on residual post-World War II anti-German sentiment. During the Cold War, Nikolai Volkoff, sometimes called The Mad Russian, began his World Wrestling Federation matches by singing the Soviet national anthem. And in the 1980s, just a few years after the Iranian hostage crisis, wrestler Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri enraged audiences as former Iranian soldier The Iron Sheik. But Lucha Libre USA is different: The bad guys are white Americans.
 
The point of the Brewer storyline is “to keep the show relevant to U.S. Hispanic culture,” says Ship. “RJ is a phenomenal wrestler, he’s certainly entitled to his opinion, and I think a wrestling ring is the perfect place to shine light on the topic.” Ship tells me another storyline he likes that involves a Lucha Libre USA female wrestler named Rebecca Reyes, who is drugged and tricked into marrying Pequeño Halloween, a wrestler from Tijuana who paints his face like a jack-o’-lantern. The story is relevant to American Latinos, Ship says, because Reyes is Catholic and doesn’t believe in divorce, which forces her to stay with the maniac in the orange tights.
 
American Latinos should, in theory, be flocking to Lucha Libre USA. According to Nielsen research from last year, World Wrestling Entertainment’s Raw is the second-most-watched regularly scheduled entertainment program on prime-time cable among Latino viewers. On the SyFy network, WWE’s SmackDown is Latino viewers’ most watched show. The message is clear: America’s 54 million Latinos want their wrestling, and the WWE is eager to please. WWE now has three Mexican wrestlers on the roster. And in March of this year, WWE opened a Miami office to have a better entry point into Latin America. Lucha Libre USA isn’t out to compete with the WWE, Ship says, but the company entered the American market with an MTV2 reality show called Masked Warriors. It was canceled at the end of 2011 before concluding its second season. Ship says he is “in talks” with another network. In the meantime Lucha Libre USA is taking its show on the road with one-off events in arenas for locals, the way luchadores did decades ago in Mexico.
 

 
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In 1929, a property inspector for the Mexican government named Salvador Lutteroth attended a few wrestling matches across the border in a small Texas town. He fell in love with the sport and decided to bring it back home. Lutteroth got a partner, Francisco Ahumado, and on September 21, 1933, the pair staged Mexico’s first official wrestling match in a small auditorium in Mexico City. One year later, Lutteroth and Ahumado bought their own arena. They co-opted the term “lucha libre” from the publicly sanctioned prize fights popular in Mexican villages and established the world’s first professional wrestling league: Empresa Mexicana de Lucha Libre (EMLL).
 
The EMLL was a hit, and each year found Lutteroth and Ahumado needing larger venues. The sport’s increasing pageantry and dramatic flair kept audiences entertained. The wrestlers were divided into two camps: Rudos (“roughs”) were the bad guys; they brawled without technique and cheated—RJ Brewer is a rudo. Tecnicos (“technicals”) were the good guys—valiant, fair, and possessed of athleticism that allowed themto beat even the strongest rudos. In the United States, wrestlers had also begun to develop characters and story lines, but lucha libre offered distinctly Mexican elements such as masks, a staple of folkloric culture that added a literal layer of mystique. In some special matches, losers were shamed by being unmasked, while winners in masks remained anonymous, making their successes seem less egotistical. Lucha libre even started drawing the attention of large numbers of Mexican women, who perhaps came for the morality plays and stayed for the side of whoop-ass.
 
The EMLL helped launch a new era in Mexican entertainment. In her book The World of Lucha Libre: Secrets, Revelations, and Mexican National Identity, cultural anthropologist Heather Levi writes that luche libre was one of the first pieces of Mexican pop culture to get widespread acclaim. “Local talent emerged and local fan bases grew,” she writes. Then came television, which exposed lucha libre to an even wider audience in the early 1950s. But it was summarily yanked off the air due to concerns that kids might kill themselves trying to replicate the wrestlers’ stunts.
 
After lucha libre was banned from TV, Levi says the live events went from being widely appreciated to mainly a pastime of the disenfranchised, as the middle class began moving out of the center of Mexico City into new suburbs to the south and northwest. Wrestlers continued to star in popular films, but from the late 1950s on, live wrestling in Mexico had the reputation of, say, monster- truck rallies in America: mindless, low class, tacky.
 
But lucha libre gave the working class something to believe in. In a world that was brutally unequal and difficult, the luchadores—the tecnicos, at least—lived by a code of honor. And the audience could watch lucha libre and forget some of its burdens. As the Mexican poet Salvador Novo wrote, “Each rheumatic and bald owner of a two-peso ticket at ringside loses the kilos and years neces- sary to transform himself, during a quarter of an hour, into Jimmy el Apolo, and with equal ease, find in El Hombre Montaña or in Alberto Corral his enemies scattered about the world—the landlord, the section chief, his own father- in-law—and contributes from his seat to exterminate them, to kick them, to throw them out of the ring.”
 
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The night I experience lucha libre for myself, I realize that much of Novo’s insight still stands. There are rows and rows of 15-year-old cars in the parking lot; one man asks how much for a hot dog, cooked unevenly on a shabby electric griddle, only to beg off when he hears it’s $3. Save for a smattering of blacks and whites, this audience is composed of working-class Mexican-American families. But now, it seems, in addition to using lucha libre as a proxy for venting at fathers-in-law, they’re using it to rail against more serious enemies: American conservatives who want to see them expunged.
 
RJ Brewer is only too happy to serve as a beer-can target for rooms full of pissed-off Mexicans. As Lucha Libre USA’s top rudo, the 32-year-old seems to have found the role of a lifetime. It wasn’t a course he seemed destined for. Brewer’s real name is John Stagikas (though he wouldn’t admit that to me during our interview), and he’s from Framingham, Massachusetts. Once a college football player at Worcester’s Assumption College, Brewer dreamed of making it in professional wrestling. After graduating, he toiled in grappling obscurity for a few years on the “indie circuit” until he found himself working for Ring of Honor, a midlevel wrestling company based in Pennsylvania. (You might have heard it referenced in the ultrableak 2008 Mickey Rourke film The Wrestler.) Wrestling as Hurricane John Walters, Brewer started to make a name for himself. Rumor had it he was going to be tapped to become a contract wrestler for WWE. Alas, that contract never came.
 
He decided to make moves of his own. He’d heard about Lucha Libre USA, and approached them with a story line he had in mind: an anti-immigrant zealot who taunts the Latino fans. The company had been thinking along similar lines. “They had the name and the general idea,” he says, “but I fine-tuned it until it made me comfortable. They kinda had RJ as like a party boy, frat boy thing at first. But that’s not me, so I started making it more political.”
 
Now Brewer’s job is simple: to give crowds someone to detest by saying the kinds of things American Republicans regularly say about Latino immigrants on Fox News. The difference, of course, is that Brewer has the guts to say it while looking thousands of brown people right in the eyes. To add to the impact, Brewer says he likes to make his gibes “fact based.” “If you get up there and say, ‘I hate illegal immigration,’ people will obviously boo you,” he says, “but if you get up there and give valid reasons immigration is bad, they’ll hate you even more.”
 
At the event that I attend, Jon Rekon, a 6-foot, 309-pound steel column of a man who claims to have once been Jan Brewer’s bodyguard, wrestles Lizmark Jr., a heavily tattooed masked wrestler from Acapulco. Rekon starts the anti-Mexican derision early, telling Lizmark loudly that his wrestling style is “a disgrace to real American wrestling.” The crowd boos when Rekon gets a shot in, and screams in elation when Lizmark counter-attacks. When Lizmark wiggles out of a hold and leaps onto the ropes shouting, “Arriba, Acapulco!” I hear a young boy shout back, “Viva, México!” There are ups and downs, with each man coming within a one-count of victory before his opponent snaps his legs and quickly raises his shoulder blades to avoid being pinned. It’s an old wrestling trope, but the crowd doesn’t mind. They move in unison with Lizmark—when he’s up, they’re up, chests out; when he’s down, they slump a bit and beg him to fight back. When Lizmark wins the match, men, women, and children howl. I howl. Arriba, Acapulco! To hell with Jon Rekon!
 
 
Not all matches rely on the American vs. Mexican theme. Some of them don’t even incorporate the rudo-tecnico aspects. In one, a massive Puerto Rican man relentlessly pummels Nuevo Macho, a Dr. Pepper-sponsored wrestler. But then Nuevo Macho flees the ring to guzzle a Dr. Pepper 10, a new low-calorie beverage marketed to men. The soda reinvigorates Nuevo Macho, who promptly returns to the ring and wins. The crowd chants, “Doc-tor Pep-per, Doc-tor Pep-per,” as Nuevo Macho dances around his sulking opponent. It’s a surreal moment, and one that signifies the eagerness and shamelessness with which American companies—like Lucha Libre USA itself—are trying to tap into the Latino market.
 
The RJ Brewer match is last. He’s facing Blue Demon Jr., who claims to be the adopted son of one of the most successful original luchadores, Blue Demon. It’s the moment the crowd has been waiting for, and when Brewer struts out, people boo and sing in unison, “Méx-i-co!” Brewer revels in it, staring at the crowd with a mixture of contempt and amusement. The lights glisten off his oiled body; his hair is machine-worker short. In our interview, Brewer told me that he only believes in “bits and pieces” of the things his character says in the ring, which means he is an excellent actor. When he tells people that his hardline, anti-immigrant “mom” is doing great things in Arizona, he is the embodiment of every bully you’ve ever met.
 
Naturally, like rudos do, Brewer cheats during his match, pulling out brass knuckles when the ref isn’t looking and beating Blue Demon Jr. senseless with them. The match is called for Brewer, much to the consternation of the audience. But then the ref catches a glimpse of the brass knuckles. The argument that ensues between the ref and Brewer takes enough time for Blue Demon Jr. to pick up the brass knuckles for himself, at which point he proceeds to beat the hell out of Brewer until the American rogue can no longer stand. When Blue Demon Jr. is pronounced winner, the cheers are deafening.
 
When I go to leave the venue, I realize that I’m electrified.
 
Outside I bump into a Latino man who looks to be in his 20s, and I ask him if he was watching the wrestling. He says he was. “What did you think?” I ask.
 
“I dunno,” he says, and pauses. “It’s cool to see the Mexicans win.”