El Santo: I only do what I can, to wipe out injustice and crime
June 28, 2010 1:41 PM   Subscribe

The history of lucha libre in Mexico is hard to pin down, some citing the French invasion of 1863 as a origin of modern wrestling in Mexico, with two Italian business men making it commercial in the 1930s, while others take it back to the ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures and credit the modern rebirth with a retired revolutionary army colonel from the United States. But no matter who gets credit as the father of the Mexican sport, El Santo was it's hero for decades, in the ring, in comics, in the movies, and in life.

Lucha libre, literally "free fight" in Spanish, may have started as fairly unregulated brawls operating on a regional scale in Mexico, but the sport as it is known today started to take shape in 1933 with the formation of Empresa Mexicana de la Lucha Libre. The EMLL (translated as Mexican Wrestling Enterprise) was a promotion company that put together fights, bringing localized wrestling to a national level, complete with arenas and dramatic battles between rival fighters, like Tarzán López versus Hercules del Ring.

The iconic masks were not part of lucha libre from the beginning, but became part of the culture early on. The first modern masked wrestler was the Masked Marvel, who mystified spectators at a wrestling tournament at the Manhattan Opera house in 1915. But the mask style that is most commonly associated with lucha libre wasn't perfected until 1933. An Irish fighter known as Cyclone McKey wanted a mask that covered his face that was also difficult for his opponents to take off, and with it's creation, the distinct wrestling mask style was created.

But what of this "El Santo," you ask? Born on September 23, 1917, Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta was the fifth of seven children. He was interested in sports, initially baseball and American football, then Ju-Jitsu and wrestling. Three of his brothers (Miguel "Black" Guzmán, Jesús "Pantera Negra" Guzmán, and Javier "Jimmy" Guzmán) took up wrestling before he got in the ring. Rodolfo spent his first years wrestling as a "rudo," or a villain, under various names. At one point, he tried to gain some recognition from another luchador's name, going by El Murciélago Enmascarado II (The Masked Bat II). The original El Murciélago Enmascarado did not approve, and complained to the Comisión de Box y Lucha Libre, forcing Rodolfo to look for a new persona. The then-merciless Rodolfo settled on El Santo, getting an inexpensive silver mask and tights. El Santo was born in the ring on July 26, 1942, in an eight-man Battle Royal with Bobby Bonales, Lobo Negro, Gorila Macías II, Bobby Rood, Murciélago Velázquez, Pavilivsky and Ciclón Veloz. In the end, it was down to Santo and Veloz, the former giving the latter such a beating that the referee Jesús Lomelí tried to stop it, but then Santo attacked him too and got himself DQ'd. As a rudo, Santo won a collection of national titles, including the first NWA World Welterweight Championship on March 15, 1946. Global in name only, the NWA World Welterweight Title was the pinnacle of Mexico-based wrestling.

It wasn't until 1962 that Santo would become a "técnico," one of the good guys - after all, he was way too loved to be hated (plain text archive). But in some ways he was already playing the hero, as Santo grew beyond his performances in the ring when he became the first luchador to cross over into comics in 1952. That same year, movies staring luchadores launched onto the silver screen. Initially, Santo was asked to play a silver-masked villian, but he thought the movie would do poorly and declined (though the current Wiki page on Santo states Santo was to be the star, but upon declining the role, a silver-masked villain was thrown into the script).

With the success of his comic book, Santo reconsidered appearing in movies. The filming for his first movie started in 1958 in Cuba, a flick titled "Cerebro del Mal", or The Evil Brain, with a second film shot at the same time, featuring some of the same footage. In neither film is Santo called by that name, instead he is referred to as "El Enmascarado" (though these films were later re-branded, adding Santo to the title and the poster, as the luchador gained a reputation as an actor). It was his third film that showed him as El Santo, wrestling hero, though still without much screen time. To add insult to injury, three of his early films were considered lost, leading to publicly available summaries that were partially or completely false. El Santo Contra Las Mujeres Vampiros was the start of Santo being the star of the movie, but his character wasn't as complete as in later films. In later films, Santo fights spandex-wearing Martians, teams up with Capulina (a well-known Mexican slapstick comedian), and he was a crime-fighting detective a few times, including in a dense film featuring one murder, two wrestling scenes, and five songs in the first 20 minutes, and a fantastic poster. In total, Santo appeared in 54 films, and he continued his reign in the ring. Santo was a superhero like Superman, Batman or Spiderman - but with the difference that Santo was real and you could go to watch him wrestle every week.

Though Santo was the best known of wrestler/actors, he shared the ring and screen with two other notables: Mil Máscaras, or A Thousand Masks, the mysterious man who never wore the same mask twice (see: best moves reel) and Blue Demon. Blue Demon and Santo had a rivalry, going back to the 1950 tag match of Santo and Salvador "Gory" Guerrero Quesada as "La Pareja Atómica" (the atomic pair) against Los Hermanos Shadow (Black Shadow and Blue Demon). La Pareja Atómica trounced the up-and-coming Los Hermanos Shadow, and Black Shadow swore he'd get revenge. The resulting match was scheduled as a Lucha de Apuesta, or Match with Wager, in which Santo won and unmasked Black Shadow on November 7, 1952. The masked persona was part of who the wrestler was, and such unmasking losses were often the end of of a wrestler's career, or at least the end of that masked persona. (Anecdote: When a film crew traveled to Miami for a shoot, Santo flew on a different plane so nobody on the production would see his face when he removed his mask for customs.) Blue Demon got his revenge, beating Santo in a number of bouts in 1952, and taking the NWA Welterweight title from Santo (who had reclaimed the title in beating Bobby Bonales, real name Roberto Aceves).

On April 19, 1963, their feud was (partially) laid to rest as Blue Demon and Santo teamed up in matches all over Mexico. The next year, Blue Demon would become a movie star, too, with guest appearances by Santo (even if they are cut from earlier films where Santo is the star and Blue is the guest), and eventually as a proper duo, though pairing two masked heros against the world ends up with Blue Demon becoming slave of some otherworldly force that would cause him to turn against his pal Santo, so the audience can see fights between Santo and "evil" Blue Demon. (Oh, and an unmasked Black Shadow fought Santo on screen [translation of this page] in 1961 in Santo contra los Zombis, which featured a number of well-known wrestlers as ... wrestlers).

In 50 years, Santo had participated in more than 10,000 bouts (according to the Google auto-translation of this page). He is credited with a number of moves, including some aerial techniques, many of which are now commonplace in modern pro wrestling. As he got on in age, Santo fought team matches instead of one-on-one bouts, though in 1978 the 61 year old Santo beat the rookie Bobby Lee not once but twice, first unmasking and exposing Lee as Carlos Alvarado González, then claiming Lee's hair. (Confused? See: history of the hair match). In 1982, Santo had a three match retirement tour. In the final match of his career, held on September 12 at the Toreo de Cuatro Caminos, he teamed with his old friend Gory Guerrero (who was already retired but returned for this one-time deal).

In retirement, Santo passed the torch to one of his sons (original page), who may not have the renown of his father, but has played a key role in bringing Lucha Libre to Europe, and has become a champion for the protection of sea turtles.

On January 26, 1984, a lucha-special of the talk program "Contrapunto" was broadcast, in which Santo (senior) unmasked himself for a moment, which was the only official time Santo appeared without his mask. Two weeks later, he felt a tremendous pain in the chest, and was rushed to the hospital, but nothing could be done for him. At 66, Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta was dead. The following day this was the biggest piece of news all over the country. Santo was tough and technical but, above all, he was seen as an honest fighter who did not have to resort to tricks and scandals to enhance his well-deserved fame (Google translation of this Spanish bio). 10,000 people came to the funeral (original), while Huracan Ramirez, Mil Mascaras, Blue Demon and Black Shadow carried the coffin. Not since the death of the great singer and movie star Pedro Infante had a celebrity's funeral attracted such crowds.

But El Santo's career did not end with Rodolfo Guzmán's funeral.
Artists and film-makers adapted the masked wresterler's image to their own purposes, often returning El Santo to his origins as a manual laborer (and not always a victorious one). In a variety of art films and comic strips produced in the 1990s, El Santo is cast either as a benevolent but detached apparition or as an ordinary man, one who takes the metro, farts, and has trouble with women.
Sometimes, he just drives his special edition Mazda 929.

The memory of Santo is strong in Mexico, with a statue erected in the town where he was born. In 2009, the 25 year anniversary was a large-scale event including a mass that was held in his honor in the Metropolitan Cathedral, there was an exhibit of some of Santo's personal items, and art made in tribute (original), and some of his films were screened (original).

Random bits:
* (Santo vs) El Cerebro del mal YT playlist (1961)
* Santo contra los zombies (YT in 9 parts: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) (1962)
* Samson vs the Vampire Women (dubbed as "Sampson" instead of Santo) (1962), and the MST3K-ified version (MST3k wikia)
* Samson in the Wax Museum (another Santo dub) (1963)
* how to make a lucha libre mask (out of a t-shirt or other fabric)
posted by filthy light thief (21 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
Heckuva post there pardner.

Of course, everyone knows the world's greatest luchador is El Gorgo! (by Mefi's own).
posted by marxchivist at 1:48 PM on June 28, 2010

Flagged as showing off.
posted by Joe Beese at 1:51 PM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Well this is gonna take a day or two to get through. Massive props.
posted by pyrex at 2:00 PM on June 28, 2010

I have an awesome El Santo mask, thanks to AskMetafilter.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:04 PM on June 28, 2010

posted by mwhybark at 2:11 PM on June 28, 2010

Initially, this was my effort to set right the unbalance of past posts on Santo and lucha libre in general. I started reading - "Wow, this Santo guy sure wrestled for a long time. Wait, he was wrestling until he was in his 60s? And was still winning? And he was in a boatload of (cheesy) movies?"

In reading about this, I found a US-based writer likening El Santo to Hulk Hogan, which seemed like a lazy comparison based on a lack of research or understanding. I started writing, and reading, and writing more, and looking for sites to back up what I first read, and then ... I got carried away. Brevity? Others can have it.

Short on time? Here are what I consider to be the highlights:
* Extensive history of El Santo's wrestling career, though the site is offline and Archive.org can be weird, so I posted a plain-text copy as an easy-access archive.
* The Films of El Santo - the page design may be stuck in the mid-1990s, but the content is fantastic. Click on each film for a great break-down of the circumstances surrounding the films, the plots, and more.
* Though in Spanish, this recording of a news report for the 25th anniversary of El Santo's death is an interesting look at the world of support and love/adoration still surrounding El Santo and lucha libre in general. Seeing masked luchadores in full suits sitting (what I assume is) a mass startled me, in the sense that it's real in a way I wasn't expecting. They're sitting in the audience, quietly giving their respect to someone who died 25 years ago.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:23 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Carajo güey. I guess I know what I'll be doing for the rest of the day.
posted by birdherder at 2:24 PM on June 28, 2010

goodness gracias muchas gracious
posted by Hammond Rye at 2:26 PM on June 28, 2010

Also of note: lucha libre uses aerial techniques than their wrestling neighbors to the north. I can't imagine many WWE guys spinning their opponents like this.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:30 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Haven't we had about enough Mexican wrestling posts recently?
posted by yhbc at 2:38 PM on June 28, 2010

filthy light thief: that highspots.com/laarena site is now located at luchawiki.com in a much expanded format. Thanks for putting this together!

As for differences between Hogan and Santo, one of them made a bunch of fun movies and inspired a nation as the closest to a real-life superhero we'll probably ever see, and the other one was on Bubba the Love Sponge a lot.

also el Hijo del Santo > Nasty Nick Hogan, I mean come on now
posted by jtron at 2:50 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Two things: the Toreo de Cuatro Caminos where Santo fought his last fight no longer exists. Valga como curiosidad; you forgot "El Santos (vs. la Tetona Mendoza)" comic by Jis & Trino in the 90's. Not much to do with El Santo himself as a man, but a lot as a character.

Thanks for the post.
posted by omegar at 3:00 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is a ridiculously well-researched post. Good work flt!
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:02 PM on June 28, 2010

Great post flt. I still think the best thing that WCW ever did was introduce American wrestling fans to lucha libre and great luchadores like Rey Mysterio, Jr., La Parka, and Psicosis.

In other news, Mexican lucha libre promotion AAA is coming out with a video game later this year, Lucha Libre AAA: Héroes del Ring. Trailer here.
posted by joedan at 3:05 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm sure this is a ridiculously well-researched post, because I had to scroll down past a bunch of screens before making sure nobody else had said:
The history of lucha libre in Mexico is hard to pin down
I see what you did there.
posted by persona at 3:07 PM on June 28, 2010

Here it is: El Santo profile at luchawiki

and if you're an Anglophone lucha fan, get thee hie to The Cubs Fan's Lucha Blog

One of my favorite Santo stories: so he's making an appearance at an arena in some rarely-visited corner of Mexico... and the crowd almost lynches him because he can't fly, which they'd expected from reading the Santo comics.

Also, I've heard that at least on his latter films, he would just recite "1, 2, 3, 4, 5" etc for his dialogue; the real dialogue would be dubbed in later by an actor. This wasn't because of poor vocal delivery but rather because he didn't want people hearing his real voice, which they might be able to associate with his unmasked identity (which allegedly happened one day at the studio commissary, when a crewmember's son heard a nondescript man ordering chilaquiles in el Santo's voice)
posted by jtron at 3:09 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh, did someone ever just do some story research for me. Thanks, flt!
posted by kittens for breakfast at 3:53 PM on June 28, 2010

Well, this is super handy, because I'm assembling my El Santo Halloween costume right now, based on the classic Santo y Blue Demon vs Dracula y el Hombre Lobo -- you know, where he's wearing a tweed jacket and playing chess ... while still wearing the mask.
posted by Amanojaku at 5:47 PM on June 29, 2010

Amanojaku - those are not mere men wearing masks, but wrestlers born of cloth and flesh. Without the mask, they are mere mortals. As such, it's obvious that they live their lives with the mask in place, as it is part of who they are. When playing chess, speaking at a press conference or attending a funeral, one must dress accordingly.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:28 AM on June 30, 2010

WOW. filthy light thief, you're awesome. I had mostly ignored wrestling until I was dragged to see the When Worlds Collide PPV, which featured Eddy Guerrero and El Hijo de Santo. I love lucha so much.
posted by catlet at 12:35 PM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

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