Ray Mendoza wanted nothing more than for his children to become doctors and lawyers. With no formal education of his own, Ray used the only tools at his disposal: his fists and his physique.
With a promising boxer career derailed by injury, a chance opportunity saw him train and thrive as a professional wrestler, a luchador, in Mexico’s oldest and largest wrestling company.
While his natural talents and aptitude saw him reach tremendous heights and put food on the table for his eight children, he felt old before his time. He decided that the greatest gift he could afford his children was an opportunity that he was not given: The chance to work at a desk, to exercise the mind more than the back. A chance for his sons to play with children of their own without feeling the rigors of a life spent slowly killing themselves, one body slam at a time.
One can imagine Mendoza’s heartbreak when he found out that his three oldest sons had been sneaking out of the house: not to ride in cars with girls and split six packs of beer, but to wrestle and train behind their father’s back.
Thinking back, Mendoza probably realized it was inevitable. A wrestler works tirelessly to allow his sons to do something, anything else, and because of his efforts, they want nothing more than to follow in his footsteps, to reach the dizzying heights of the father they idolize.
At that moment, time must have stopped for Ray Mendoza, as the future stretched out before him and he saw the pain that he had gone to such great lengths to hide being passed down, being his inevitable legacy. Ray was presented with the soul crushing knowledge that his efforts had been for naught. At that moment, watching the gawky masked figures of his teenaged sons flounder their way through meaningless matches, half trained and wide eyed, Mendoza must have made a choice: A choice to train them himself. Faced with the knowledge that he can’t prevent events already in motion, perhaps instead he can guide them, groom them. It’s a father’s greatest wish to help their sons to success and prominence.
If his boys had become white collar professionals, Mendoza’s help would have been passive, financial. He would have sat back, content, and listened to them discuss things he didn’t understand, complain about people and things he could not grasp. Here, inside three ropes, in smoke filled gyms and on dirt floors, on long car rides and in sold out arenas, Mendoza could give knowledge. He could guide them, push them forward, help them avoid the things he himself fell prey to. He waited for his sons in the locker room, and he embraced them. Their training would begin in earnest. As their father, he wouldn’t let them fail.
The three boys grew and became an attraction in their own right, all taking the ring name “Villano”. They wrestled as Villano I, II, and III, simply sorted by age. Later, their younger siblings would also take the name, as IV and V.
In 1975, Mendoza joined with a few business partners and split from EMLL, the largest and oldest wrestling promotion in Mexico, in order to form his own company. This company, the UWA, would serve as EMLL’s first true competition in years. The reason for the split was simple: after years of service, Mendoza felt that the company was not giving his sons the opportunities they needed.
He would create those opportunities himself.
Those opportunities were deserved for all of them, but especially for Villano III, who had separated himself from his older brothers as a shiny star. He was breathtakingly talented, and shortly after the formation of the UWA, became its Welterweight Champion, and later on claimed the Light Heavyweight title that his father had worn around his waist for so many years. It was a moment that must have been special for both men, but was not an end point.
For the next twenty years, Villano III was the focal point of the UWA, and in some way, all of Mexico. Wrestlers from all over the world were brought in to feud with him, to cut their teeth against him. Iron sharpens iron, and so one person sharpens another. Villano III was sought after and was in demand. He lifted those around him, including his brothers, who took the Villano name to WCW and America. For his part, Villano III stayed in Mexico, content to better himself, content to surpass the work of his father. Instead of seeking commercial success like his siblings, he wrestled for pride, for personal honor. In Mexico, that means wrestling in apuestas matches.
Simply put, an apuestas match is a bet. Both participants wager something personally and professionally important, usually their mask, or if already unmasked, their hair. While this may seem silly or superficial from an outsider’s perspective, in the world of lucha libre, a world built upon macho oneupsmanship, losing a match like this is akin to losing part of yourself, losing something that defines the wrestler as a person and a performer.
Unlike the American product of professional wrestling, a high stakes television drama with matches only there to simply advance the dramatic storylines, lucha libre is a much more elegant product. One wrestler will think he is superior to another, and they will have a match. Depending on the outcome, they may have a few more. If it’s a particularly competitive feud, one that deserves some sense of finality, the luchadors will stake themselves and their reputations for the right to call themselves the true victor. This personal pride is more important for wrestlers than any title win. Belts and trophies are cherished but ultimately fleeting, won with the knowledge that they will eventually be lost. They are inevitably shared with those who came before and those who come after. Only one wrestler can ever claim to have taken another’s mask.
In the year 1999, twenty five years after his initial success in UWA, Villano III had undertaken the challenge of an apuestas match 58 times. He had never lost.
Older and wiser, Villano III was the undefeated but aging gunslinger, still a physical force, but his skills now buoyed by guile, with technique and wisdom and romance only achievable by experience. He had recently won another light heavyweight title from a long-time rival, a man named Atlantis.
Ten years Villano III’s junior, Atlantis was reaching the prime age for a wrestler, the sweet spot of athleticism intertwining with knowledge. They traded falls in tag matches and trios, fighting in arenas all over Mexico. By March of 2000, it was clear that both men needed an end. Both wagered their masks. For both, there was much more at stake than a small piece of cloth.
Matches of significance often start slow. The first few minutes are mere skirmishes, probes for weakness, movements done by rote to establish a sort of physical continuity, a familiarity. In the opening moments of this match, the crowd chants for Villano and he acknowledges them, a smile on his face. It is either a look of extreme confidence. It is a look of a man accepting a fate that only he knows.
Despite the stereotype that all lucha libre matches are high flying and fast paced affairs, most wrestling in Mexico is very much a mat based exercise compared to the strike heavy variants found in America and Japan. This match begins in that typical way, with Atlantis picking a leg, and Villano quickly finding a counter and getting back to his feet. Lucha Libre, at its heart, is less a facsimile of competition and a more a symbolic battle for pride and masculine superiority, and the game of “anything you can do I can do better” begins in earnest. Both men take turns fighting on top, finding little incremental advantages, wrenching holds down tighter and tighter. Villano fights out of things with a practiced stoicism, with an ease only gained by thousands of hours of practice with his brothers. It seems like he could perform some of these intricate maneuvers in his sleep. Atlantis serves as a nice contrast; each hold he finds himself in he reacts with minor histrionics, the frustration of a master learning in the moment, like a champion tennis player glowering at their racquet after a poor shot.
The first moment of tension comes when Villano refuses to break a hold even though Atlantis was under the ropes. Whether or not this was an intentional bit of gamesmanship is unclear, but in Atlantis’ eyes, intent is irrelevant. From that moment on, all semblance of sportsmanship is gone. Atlantis admonishes the referee like a veteran athlete lobbying for favor later in the match, and shoves Villano hard, two hands directly in to the chest. No longer grapplers, the two men simply have a fist fight. They slap, they gouge, and at the first opportunity Villano rips apart the mask of Atlantis. The pretense of respect is gone. I can take this any time, he says. I will do it permanently.
A clothesline over the ropes takes Atlantis to the outside, and Villano throws himself through the ropes in hot pursuit. Their heads collide, and Atlantis is cut, blood pouring down and staining the remnants of the blue and white mask hanging off his face. A doctor comes to look at the damage, to ask if he can continue. It’s a question not worth asking, and Atlantis lets his pride carry him back in the ring. Villano has not made it there himself, for the aptly named suicide dive is a double edged sword, and a growing portion of the bright pink mask he wears has a decidedly darker hue.
Between the ropes they fight. Knees and headbutts, back and forth. The occasional wrestling move is thrown in for good measure, but no longer is this two men trying to outdo one another. Instead, it’s two men trying to end one another. They exchange nearfalls and the frustration mounts. Atlantis slams his hands on the mat, the cool veneer cracking slightly. Villano applauds himself, desperate for the audience to join him, needing the comfort of a shared experience, a partner in crime.
The crisp matwork of the opening few minutes is gone now, even as both men trade submission attempts. In its place is the sloppy work of tired, hurt men. They worry over their cuts and wipe blood away with wrist tape. Villano interchangeably palms and pulls at his mask, hoping something will dull the pain, or at least change it in some way. Villano slips out of a bow and arrow and lands on Atlantis for a pin attempt. He poses, trying to regain the power and swagger that he had in those hopeful early moments. It seems to have worked, for Villano grabs some momentum, working one painful submission after another. Atlantis looks more distraught with each new position. As if to accent to his pain, each hold comes complete with a different camera shot of worried women in the crowd, hiding their faces, biting their nails, rubbing their temples.
Atlantis stems the tide, and gone is the well-manicured and polished technician from earlier. In his place is a beast, a ball of sinew and muscle in enough pain to not care how much anymore. He shows utter disdain for Villano III, throwing him in to simple but painful holds when his convoluted attempts fall through. He leans back with force, putting more pressure on his opponent, and each spasm is a plea, a prayer to a higher power. Blood falls of his face and forms little pools on Villano III’s back. It runs over the peaks and valleys of his musculature, transforming in to red rivers and crimson falls, finally soaking in to the mat below.
Most wrestling matches have a narrative of some sort, a way to follow along: it is one of the inherent benefits of combat with a planned outcome. A common example is one wrestler focusing his offense on a particular body part of the other. Will he be able to overcome, or will it prove to be too much? That sort of thing. This match is different. There is no game plan from either combatant, other than to maim, to hurt, to win. A little more than fifteen minutes in, dizzy from the loss of blood and reeling from the constant barrage of violence, both men have no choice but to simply try and end the match any way they can think of to do so. To set something up, to implement a strategy, would be insulting. Both of these luchadors transcend rational thought. It would be like a tornado planning to defeat a hurricane, Godzilla working a wristlock against King Kong. To do something, anything, that couldn’t potentially win the match outright would be folly. In some ways, it would be insulting. The result is move followed by devastating move, submission followed by painful submission, pin attempt followed by desperate pin attempt. It is two heavyweight fighters, each convinced they are down on points, throwing nothing but haymakers.
Minutes later, a reeling Villano retreats to the outside, and Atlantis is able to gain some semblance of revenge for his bloodied face and torn mask. Negligent of the referees’ protests and against all rational thought and good judgment, Atlantis climbs to the top turnbuckle and flies, landing hard upon an unprepared Villano. For Atlantis, some order has been restored. After another flurry from both men, they retreat to their corners. They stand and turn only to find themselves once again facing one another, on equal footing, roughly twenty feet apart.
Spent, destroyed, with nothing left to give, Villano charges. The last act of a desperate man, the well of thought has finally run dry. Gone is the knowledge of those countless nights spent with his father and brothers, gone are the intricate maneuvers that let him easily outclass lesser men. Gone is the effortless violent creativity, the ego necessary to fight back, to reach the next moment, to react and not think. In its place is the wrestling equivalent of Pickett’s Charge, a doomed act dressed in the trappings of glory. Caught, inevitably and simply, Villano ends flipped easily on to the shoulders of his opponent. His back is stretched, collapsing slowly against the muscular figure of Atlantis. The pain is too much and Villano III succumbs with a flourish, gesticulating wildly: no mas. His arms cross and uncross over and over, like an umpire calling someone safe at home. The referee calls the match, leaving his feet, his body exalting the finality of the moment. He lands and falls prostrate on the mat, as worn as the other two participants. The crowd erupts and wrestlers, friends, and family members all descend upon the ring. As the referee explains his decision, Villano rests on his knees, his head in his hands. He is a man lost for a moment, and the camera cuts to a jubilant Atlantis, celebrating on the second rope. Instantly, Villano is under him, hoisting him on his shoulders, carrying Atlantis around. Villano reaches his arms up and they grasp hands for support, a final moment of togetherness for two men that history will forever intertwine.
When the camera next finds Villano, he is standing in front of Ray Mendoza, who is untying his mask with shaking hands. Villano is holding his own young son. In this moment, with the crowd chanting the name he had been given twenty five years prior, he must have been conflicted. He had lost his mask, the simple pink hood that defined him and made him a superstar. And yet he probably also felt joy at being in the ring one more time with his father, and for the first time with his son. Perhaps in the rush of emotions he surely felt, he remembered the times when he swelled with pride at his own father’s victories, a conquering hero for a young boy too innocent to know the truth of the business he would later make his own. Perhaps his son felt comfort and relief in those strange moments, resting in the arms of his father, surrounded by thousands. Less than a minute later, the mask is off, and a legend is replaced by a simple statement: My name is Arturo Mendoza. I am forty five years old.
There is something poetic not just about the act of removing a mask, but in the face underneath as well. While the face is one never before seen, it carries the scars and bruises of the battles hard fought in that very same ring. Despite being never again allowed to wear his signature mask, there is no way for Arturo Mendoza to ever be separated from the life he chose as a teen, when he snuck off against his fathers’ wishes. Each bloody battle is a divot on his chin, each of the 58 apuestas matches before this a line or a mount on his forehead, telling any wrestling fan of matches gone by.
When a wrestler loses their mask, they lose a bit of themselves. They lose the mythic quality that holds these heroes and villains at a distance from the rest of society, but they also gain. They gain a link to the audience a masked wrestler can never experience, one of humanity and empathy, for each spectator now is confronted with the toll taken from these glorious moments. They see a proud family, supportive in defeat, and the small moments that steel the resolve of loved ones that make a wife and a child stand steadfast. They see a neighbor and a husband, a father and a son. They see themselves. Perhaps they do not share his scars, their own life ahead of them. Perhaps they nod knowingly, uncomfortable with their intimate understanding of his pain. They see Villano III, a myth made flesh. They see Arturo Mendoza, a man they’ve seen all their lives. They see everyone.