Social complexity is at the very foundation of lucha libre, wherein partners and rivals, enemies and friends, are often one in the same. The fact that rudos and technicos may not actually hate each other is not revelatory. However the relationships between luchadors both in and out of the ring are significantly more complicated than many realize: the kinetic energy that ignites between two clashing luchadors is not only a mutual desire to create an exemplary show, but is also an overflow of tension from by the friendship/competition dynamic that is an innate quality of the sport.
Give & Take
Luchadores share a unique bond, one that is distinctly different from that of other sports or performance arts. This is in part perhaps because while lucha libre—like all pro wrestling—is in fact largely cooperative whilst simultaneously being extremely competitive. This puts lucha libre uniquely at odds with most other athletic endeavors in that a luchador’s opponent is simultaneous his or her partner. The cooperative elements are somewhat obvious even to the layman: although initiated by the flyer, acrobatic moves can only be executed with the assistance of the base, lest one or both performers be injured (1). That is not to say that lucha libre is by any means easy, but it is to say that there is a certain amount of assistance that occurs within most of the lifts, slams, and acrobatic moves (2) and such assistance requires a concerted, coordinated cooperative effort between performers.
Argument & Counter-Argument
The competitive element is one that is not immediately obvious within the performance (3): it is a dance, an exchange, a physical transaction—at times even a debate—that discreetly takes place right in front of the audience (4), but its subtleties are so nuanced that they are usually only visible to experienced performers (5). Performers increase the intensity in the interest of not only raising the stakes interpersonally, but also for the sake of the show itself—for the voyeurs, the audience who witnesses the climax of this relationship. Think of it like a dare, like bluffing in a poker game: by increasing the intensity of the match, one performer is daring the other to escalate the very spirit of the match, or—at the very least—meet his or her gusto. But because the two performers also have a personal relationship, such escalation is simultaneously a professional and a personal challenge.
A good performer is keenly aware that he or she is simultaneously watching and being watched: she is always already her own worst critic (6). In this respect the desire to escalate is simultaneously a narcissistic and selfless desire; it is both for the sake of the show and pleasure of the audience, but also in the interest of pursuing the glory of immortality within the audience’s collective memory—even if only for a short period of time as is often the case with smaller independent companies. This escalation for the sake of the show can occur in several ways, which I cannot and will not enumerate here, but if the voyeur can isolate the moment of escalation (7) he or she will have insight into these discussions that occur within the ring. Even beyond transgressive performances, there are significantly more layers than meet the eye in any given match.
This is the most succinct, unambiguous response I can construct to those who question the “realness” of lucha libre.
This is dedicated to my good friend El Mensajero, who was simultaneously a good friend, my tag team partner, and one of my fiercest rivals, despite the fact that we never met as opponents in the ring. He recently decided to return to Mexico. Despite our mutual desire to work a match together, we were never given the opportunity to do so. I plan to visit him in Mexico this summer, whereupon we will finally be able to wrestle.
1: The base is a common designation in partner acrobatics, but is used in both lucha libre and American pro wrestling to designate the individual who is providing the physical foundation for a dynamic, 2-person movement. An example for a body slam, would be the performer who is doing the lifting. The flyer refers to the person who is—perhaps obviously—leaving the ground. A very basic example can be found here: the person jumping from the turnbuckle is the flyer, and the individual being “thrown” is the base.
3: Within the training/school environment these tensions might be more obvious. In some traditional lucha libre schools, teachers encourage students to address interpersonal conflict within the confines of the training facility, perhaps in hopes of preventing an outbreak of “real” violence during a show.
4: It should be noted that the word “audience” is used interchangeably within this post to both refer to the “immediate audience,” those who are present for the single event, match, or what have you that is presently being discussed, and the “collective, historical audience,” those who serve as curators, aficionados, and general consumers of shows after the fact.
5: This is not to say that marks won’t speculate, because they will, based upon the latest tabloid exploits of interpersonal dramas, rivalries, and so on, but this misses the more interesting subtleties that occur within the ring—some of which may or may not be related to the latest locker room gossip. It may be the case that interpersonal conflicts will manifest in interesting ways within the performance, but the outward manifestation (i.e., when the “controlled” violence of the sport spills over into “real violence”) is rooted in pettiness, and is often deemed unprofessional behavior.
6: A sound performer would not say that he will “try his best” to execute something during a live event: in an actual show he simply will not commit to something that he is incapable of completing or at least ought to have enough respect for the sport that he will not subject the audience to his audaciousness.
7: Not the kayfabe or narrative-based, scripted “turning point” of the match, but that moment which marks the interpersonal transgression of scriptedness, but yet still fits within the parameters of the sport. Simple examples include increasing in the strength with which kicks, slaps, and slams are performed, and ergo the pain involved therein. This of course, invites the other performer to respond in-kind, which can dramatically alter the trajectory and general energy of the match.