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Lucha libre (Spanish for “free wrestling” or free fighting) is a term used in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking areas referring to a form of professional wrestling involving varied techniques and moves. Outside of these areas, the term is synonymous with the professional wrestling performers in Mexico and other Latin American countries.
Mexican wrestling is characterized by rapid sequences of holds and moves, as well as High-Flying Moves, some of which have been adopted in the United States, and colorful masks. Lucha libre performers are known as luchadores (singular luchador).
The rules of lucha libre are similar to American 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 pre-determined count (generally 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, move (such as the piledriver, which is an illegal move in lucha libre and grounds for immediate disqualification, though some variations are legal in certain promotions), or weapon, 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), which had been abandoned for title bouts in North America and Japan in the 1970s.
In the early 1900s, professional wrestling was mostly a regional phenomenon in Mexico until Salvador Lutteroth founded the Empresa Mexicana de Lucha Libre (Mexican Wrestling Enterprise) in 1933, giving the sport a national foothold for the first time. The promotion company flourished and quickly became the premier spot for wrestlers. As television surfaced as a viable entertainment medium during the 1950s, Lutteroth was then able to broadcast his wrestling across the nation, subsequently yielding a popularity explosion for the sport. Moreover, it was the emergence of television that allowed Lutteroth to promote lucha libre’s first breakout superstar into a national pop-culture phenomenon.
In 1942, lucha libre would be forever changed when a silver-masked wrestler, known simply as El Santo (The Saint), first stepped into the ring. He made his debut in Mexico City by winning an 8-man battle royal. The public became enamored by the mystique and secrecy of Santo’s personality and he quickly became the most popular luchador in Mexico. His wrestling career spanned nearly five decades, during which he became a folk hero and a symbol of justice for the common man through his appearances in comic books and movies, while the sport of Lucha Libre received an unparalleled degree of mainstream attention.
Other legendary luchadores who helped popularize the sport include; Gory Guerrero who is credited with developing moves and holds which are now commonplace in professional wrestling; Blue Demon, a contemporary of Santo and possibly his greatest rival; and Mil Máscaras (Man of A Thousand Masks) who is credited with introducing the high flying moves of lucha libre to audiences around the world. He achieved international fame as one of the first high-flyers, something he was not considered in Mexico where he fell under the mat-power category.
Luchadores are traditionally more agile and perform more aerial maneuvers than professional wrestlers in the U.S. who, more often, rely on power moves and strikes to subdue their opponents. The difference in styles is due to the independent evolution of the sport in Mexico beginning in the 1930s and the fact that luchadores in the cruiserweight division (peso semicompleto) are often the most popular wrestlers in Mexican lucha libre. Luchadores execute high flying moves characteristic of lucha libre by utilizing the wrestling ring’s ropes to catapult themselves towards their opponents, using intricate combinations in rapid-fire succession, and applying complex submission holds. Lucha libre has several different weight classes, many catered to smaller agile fighters, who often make their debuts in their mid-teens. This system enables dynamic high-flying luchadores such as Rey Mysterio, Jr., Juventud Guerrera, Super Crazy and Místico, to develop years of experience by their mid-twenties. A number of prominent Japanese wrestlers also started their careers training in Mexican lucha libre before becoming stars in Japan. These include Gran Hamada, Satoru Sayama, Jushin Liger, and Último Dragón. With so many weight classes, Mexico has the largest number of professional wrestlers in the world.
Lucha libre is also known for its tag team wrestling matches. The teams are often made up of three members, instead of two as is common in the U.S. These three man teams participate in what are called trios matches, for tag team championship belts. Of these three members, one member is designated the captain. A successful fall in a trios match can be achieved by either pinning the captain of the opposing team or by pinning both of the other members. A referee can also stop the match because of “excess punishment”. He can then award the match to the aggressors. Falls often occur simultaneously, which adds to the extremely stylized nature of the action. In addition, a wrestler can opt to roll out of the ring in lieu of tagging a partner or simply be knocked out of the ring, at which point one of his partners may enter. As a result, the tag team formula that U.S. tag matches tend to follow doesn’t apply to lucha libre because the race to tag isn’t a priority. There are also two-man tag matches (parejas) as well as “four on four” matches (atomicos).
Masks (mascaras) have been used dating back to the beginnings of lucha libre and have a historical significance to Mexico dating to the days of the Aztecs. 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 number 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 opponent’s mask during a match is grounds for disqualification.
During their careers, masked luchadores will often be seen in public wearing their masks and keeping up the kayfabe of Lucha Libre while other masked wrestlers will interact with the public and press normally. However, they will still go to great lengths to conceal their true identities; in effect, the mask is synonymous with the luchador. El Santo continued wearing his mask after retirement, revealed his face briefly only in old age, and was buried wearing his silver mask.
More recently, the masks that luchadores wear have become iconic symbols of Mexican culture. Contemporary artists like Francisco Delgado and Xavier Garza incorporate wrestler masks in their paintings.