When the CMLL/NJPW FantasticaMania lineups came out, there were a lot of reactions. This was one of them:
Pardon my ignorance but who or what is Virus?
— Warren Taylor (@WarrenETaylor) January 6, 2016
I’m using this not to criticize, but because it’s a real good question. If you’re someone who doesn’t follow lucha libre regularly, if the only exposure you get to Mexican wrestlers is when they cross over into other promotions or main event a major CMLL show, you might not have heard the name Virus. Virus has never main evented a CMLL major show, he’s main evented barely any shows. He’s only wrestled in the US on tiny lucha libre shows. He’s doesn’t have a big name in Japan, and he’s spent most of his Mexico career wrestling in the early matches. Virus is cracking the top half of the Observer and he’d be a bad topic to use for click bait. (Sorry, VOW editors. Ed. Note: It’s cool, we forgive you.)
At the same time, the reactions to Virus’ matches on the tour from people who watch more lucha libre were more like this:
It has been 14 hours since Liger/Virus was announced and I am still sweating profusely
— Tanner (@Tanner1495) January 6, 2016
Virus is an insider’s favorite luchador for reasons which aren’t immediately obvious. He doesn’t look impressive, he isn’t booked impressive, he’s doesn’t even do many flips! (1) Maybe I could do my part to explain why for Warren – and for the many others who might be seeing him for the first time this week.
Virus has one of the best career stories in lucha libre
Virus (pronounced as VEEroos in Spanish) debuted at eighteen years old as Bird Boy I (2). He was small even by lucha libre standards and wrestling mostly small Mexico City area indie shows affiliated with the promotion best known as the UWA, eventually winning their featherweight (139 pound/63 kg) championship. It was a nice achievement, but it was in a division no one else promoted and in a company that was falling to pieces. Bird Boy needed a break if he was going to have a real career.
The chaos of early 90s lucha gave him that break. Antonio Peña started off both the modern minis division in CMLL and the AAA promotion itself. Most of the minis went with Peña to AAA, loyal to him for making their careers. A few stayed behind, and CMLL decided to recruit a bunch of new wrestlers to restock the division. Veteran luchador Pirata Morgan invited him to become his mini, even though he was a little taller than the average mini, and the new Piratita Morgan started in CMLL in 1992. Morgan himself jumped to AAA a year later and the future Virus switched his name to Damiancito el Guerrero, named after a forgettable CMLL midcarder.
Damiancito excelled as a part of the CMLL minis division, establishing himself as one of the best. He held CMLL’s minis championship for three years, April 1996 to 1999. He had a breakout defense in January 1997 against Cicloncito Ramirez. Damiancito seemed like he might be one of the most talented guys in CMLL, but the minis designation that allowed him to join the promotion also limited his ceiling: CMLL minis aren’t allowed to wrestle in matches with regular division wrestlers, are usually scheduled in the first few matches (never the main event) and rarely made CMLL’s television show. Being a CMLL mini means regular work, but second class booking status and probably a desire for something a little better.
CMLL gave Damiancito something a little better. On December 30, 1997, CMLL held a ten mini elimination match, where the winner would get a trial run as part of the normal size division. Damiancito won his way into the main roster and passed the trial without a problem, as everyone expected when they came up with the concept. Damiancito was already so good that CMLL had to break their own rules to accommodate him. (3) It changed his career; no longer was he limited to being the smaller version of someone else, but the small but dangerous Virus capable of facing anyone.
Virus is one of CMLL’s trainers
CMLL’s thought so highly of Virus’ abilities that they’ve had him training their young luchadors for nearly a decade. He’s one of a group of official trainers. (4) It’s often tough to determine which trainers are most responsible for which luchadors, but Virus has a hand in helping many of those who’ve debuted in the last few years. He’s specifically cited as training fellow NJPW debutant The Panther, and others – like his title match opponent Dragon Lee – have cited Virus’ influence as helping them grow as luchadors.
Virus also operates at an in-ring coach, not much different than Fit Finlay has worked for WWE in the past. He’s the leader of a veteran trio Los Cancerberos del Infierno, “The Gatekeepers of Hell”. They operate as literal gatekeepers, working frequently against young tecnicos to see if they’re worthy of moving into the top half of the card. Not everyone makes it past that level, but those who do are usually better off for the experience.
CMLL turned Virus’ role as a trainer into onscreen element in recent years. The promotion holds an annual En Busca de un Idolo tournament, a strange hybrid of The Ultimate Fighter (two teams of hopefuls training with a big name and fighting to determine the best) and Dancing With The Stars (judges giving points using criteria no one can figure out, easily manipulative fan polling). Virus has been one of the two trainers in recent years. It’s a high profile role, even while it’s unclear how much they actually have the trainers working with the hopefuls. Bobby Z was Virus’ top trainee in last year’s competition, and won the competition to earn this trip to Japan. Hechicero, also making his NJPW debut, was Virus’ top trainee of 2014 and the runner up in that year’s tournament. (5)
Virus is coming off a great title run (or Big Important Virus Matches Are A Treat)
Even thought CMLL though highly enough of Virus to pull him out of the minis division, and even though they thought highly enough of eventually make him a trainer, they still booked him as the smallest guy on their roster. Virus would get feuds every so often – the Mexican lightweight championship was dusted off so he and pre-NOAH Ricky Marvin could feud over it (6), he became a tecnico in 2002 due to a post-WCW Juventud Guerrera being annoying, he got his first major hair match win over Tony Rivera in 2007 – but there are large portions of his career where he’s just drifting from one trios match to the next. He was not a mini, but he was now the smallest guy CMLL did appear to know they had something in Virus, but they didn’t have any particular idea how to use him.
CMLL had other objects that didn’t have any solid plan. In 1999, CMLL was promoting it’s own tours in Japan, a precursor to the current FantasticaMania shows. They created a couple of CMLL Japan championships for the sole purpose of being able to have title changes in Japan, and one of those was the Super Lightweight championship. Virus was used on these shows and won the championship twice, but the belt was almost never used in Japan and stopped being mentioned when those tours stopped. They brought the belt back in 2004, as the centerpiece of a feud between CMLL young tecnicos (including future top tecnico Volador Jr.) and youngsters from NJPW’s LA Dojo (including Rocky Romero, a not yet TJP and Ricky Reyes (7). Virus won the belt again in the feud, but it ended up with Romero – and then CMLL stopped using both Romero and the belt for many years. Romero was brought back in 2008 for a run that didn’t go well for anyone, but at least CMLL got it’s belt back. CMLL relaunched the belt for the third time in 2009 with Mascara Dorada winning to establish himself as a future star, but he also dropped it without losing it when he also won the CMLL World Welterweight. The championship had been around for about eleven years, been unused for half that time, and had never found stable footing in three different chances. It would’ve made sense not to try making it work for a fourth time. CMLL instead went back to it’s default plan: give the lightweight belt to Virus until they figure something else out.
It kind of worked! CMLL didn’t still have big plans for the championship, but were now obligated to have Virus defend it occasionally. Title matches worked perfectly to Virus’ strenghts: he’s seen as a mat technician and a good base for flyers, but his best skills are at putting together creative and dramatic big matches, and the title defenses allowed him to go full out on epic matches. It was part of a great confluence of events: CMLL gave Virus the freedom and time to have the matches he wanted, he faced a lot of younger wrestlers looking to break themselves out of the pack, and CMLL’s greatly expanded TV package meant these matches were now being broadcast (8), instead of being mostly unseen like during his minis title run.
Virus’ great run started with the title tournament win over Guerrero Maya Jr. on June 23, 2011
He had his first defense a couple months later against Stuka Jr.
A year later, he’d defend it against Fuego in October of 2012.
And one year more later, he’d give Guerrero Maya Jr. a rematch. Maya had improved in the two years in between, and they smartly played off the last finish, but Virus was able to hold on again.
I’m not skipping over a lot of lesser matches in putting together this list. CMLL was only having Virus defend the championship about once a year, but Virus’ title matches were match of the year quality every time they made TV. They sort of became a lucha libre nerd holiday whenever they happened: it was about once a year, you celebrated when it was actually coming and had a great time when it was finally here.
CMLL finally noticed what was happening in 2014, and started running out the title matches more often. They also started making Virus a bigger part of the annual competitions – he’d usually eliminated early (based on the logic that he was the smallest guy), but CMLL allowed him to farther, even teasing him winning as the long time hardworking underdog who might finally get his moment to shine. Virus didn’t get that win, and failed to move but more frequent title matches and bigger spots on the card added up to Virus’ best year of his career.
The run came to an end in 2015. Dragon Lee challenged for the lightweight championship for a second time. Virus had defeated him in 2014, but the younger brother of Rush & the current Mistico was a shooting star coming off a big mask match. Lee wasn’t going to fail again, and ended the title run on April 5th. Dragon Lee would go on to great matches with the championship and the emergence of Mexico super indie promotions meant Virus would still have great big matches, but the days of the Virus championship match holidays seem to have come to an end.
The FantasticaMania tours have a habit of bringing back what was great in Mexico in the previous year and repeating them one more time for the Japanese fans. This year, that means we get one more Virus title holiday. He gets the title rematch against Dragon Lee in Korakuen Hall he never got in Arena Mexico. The tour also gives Virus a dream match against Jushin Lyger, another man who transcended the limitations of his size (albeit a lot more dramatically.) Virus probably won’t win either, as that’s never his role. He’ll probably lose both, because that’s his role. He’ll probably be great in both, because that’s also his role. The important is he’ll get some much deserved attention for a career that’s been mostly spent out of spotlight.
(3) I’m only doing this footnotes bit to cut off people reminding me Demus 3:16 later got this same win. It’s too long of a digression, but still worth noting that Demus found the going in the main division so tough that he asked to go back to being a mini. Virus stuck it out and eventually was better of for it.
(4) Ultimo Guerrero, also on this tour, is another one of the trainers. Active wrestler Arkangel and the retired Hijo del Gladiador . CMLL’s training system is confusing and I would write something on it if I had some grasp of it.