One of the most wondrous things about modern indie wrestling is just how normal everyone is. You can have a conversation with Drew Gulak and Chuck Taylor, you can ask Chris Hero questions about rap music and basketball. They are real people who you can relate to, because on some level you know that you have something in common with them: you love professional wrestling. You grew up watching it, or found it later in life, but when you did, it seemed like a part of you that was missing was complete. It innately made sense, and you have a common language because of it. If they weren’t wrestlers, they would be less of a person in some way, less passionate, less fulfilled, but they would be a person nonetheless, working at a desk or a factory, making ends meet as best they could.
One of the most wondrous things about wrestling from the 80s and prior is how otherworldly people seem. Not just people like Hulk Hogan, larger than life characters with the muscles of a Greek statue and the charisma of a televised preacher, but others too: people like Chris Colt and Terry Gordy, people who seemingly could only function within the bizarre world of professional wrestling. It’s fascinating to watch them for they seem so alien. Everything they do makes sense in the confines of a ring and a match, but seeing them at a grocery store would be a shocking experience, like when you’re a little kid and you thought all your teachers lived at the school. When you watch them, some part of you thinks how lucky they were to find wrestling, for if they hadn’t, they would surely be destitute or close to it, living on the outskirts of life, walking the margins instead of filling an arena.
Manuel “Mocho Cota” Soto died yesterday, and he was a performer that epitomized the latter category. Watching him work and move was like watching some malevolent creature out of a fairy tale, a goblin or an orc, put on this earth to sow discord and violence. Even his movements were stilted and foreign, like someone trying very hard to appear human after watching them from afar for years and years. Every action was despicable and cruel and purposeful, as though he knew no other way to be. He wrestled as though he wasn’t trying to be entertaining or make you cheer for the good guy. Instead he was just a bully and a prick, to his opponents, to the referees, to his own partners. He was a pure force of nature in some way, as though his countenance was beyond his control at all times. He couldn’t be good, or work well with others. He could only delight in pain and frustration.
Even before seeing him wrestle, just looking at Cota would give you a clear idea of his character and person. Missing fingers from unknown but assuredly nefarious reasons, his name “Mocho” is slang for amputee. His face is gloriously grotesque, like the lucha libre equivalent of a Sherwood Anderson character. His chin just out and his features are all different sizes and asymmetrical, beady evil eyes leading to a broken and flattened nose and a wide, permanent sneer of a mouth. His arms are comically long, but instantly dangerous. He moves in a way that should be funny because it is so odd, but instead it is off putting in how unnatural it all seems.
Cota rose to prominence in the early 80s, at first in a trio with La Fiera and Sangre Chicana (as a de facto face, somehow, pitted against MS-1 and Satanico, among others) but truly found his stride with a series of tremendous title matches against Americo Rocca. I will not detail the matches here, but they are a clear high point of the available footage of the 1980s in Mexico, with Cota working doggedly and viciously to win the welterweight title.
A moment stands out in the match from January of 1984, where Cota has Rocca in a submission, and Cota’s corner are actively pushing Rocca’s feet away from the ropes, and the first few rows rain trash and beer down on them. Through it all, Cota looks unconcerned. Not just with the trash, but with the idea of winning in general, perhaps. He only wants to find new ways to hinder and harm.
As Cota should be hitting his prime in the late 80s, there is a total lack of footage, as he spent over four years in prison. While it’s hard to separate anecdote from fact, the luchadores who found time to visit him in there all said he was living comfortably, completely enamored with his surroundings. In an environment with violent and deranged men, Cota seemingly rose to the top, won respect where he could and waited out his sentence in relatively safety and luxury. When he got out in 1993, he immediately went back to CMLL.
While the quality of his work was less consistent upon his release, he was still able to deliver some exemplary performances, most notably a hair match against Negro Casas.
Coming out, Cota has grown out his hair in to some sort of unearthly bleached afro which he is unabashedly proud of, stroking and quaffing as he comes to the ring. Casas comes out and Cota doesn’t even allow him to get in the ring, kicking him in the gut and repeatedly throwing him in to the ring post. There is an unoccupied chair in the front row and Cota bashes Casas’ head in to his over and over. It feels like he could do it forever and the only thing that stops him is boredom, or a short attention span. By the time Casas in in the ring, he is already bleeding, and Cota is biting and scratching at the cut like a mad man. Casas barely has the wherewithal to take off his jacket.
Casas is as sympathetic a face as there has ever been in this early portion, as his face contorts from bravery to pain and everything in between. Cota drags him around by his hair, pulling and kicking like a mad man without a plan, simply a will to hurt. Occasionally he will try an actual wrestling move, but gives up halfway through to haphazardly throw Casas in to something hard.
The crowd grows more and more tense as it seems even fate is against Negro Casas, who finally mounts some offense and dodges an oncoming Cota with a beautiful moonsault, but tweaks his ankle on the landing. Cota looks completely unaware that he was ever in any danger and charges in with the same reckless abandon, cruelly kicking a man while he is down, stomping the injury. The ref, showing some compassion in the midst of impartiality, pulls Cota off as he screams why with incredulity. The rawness goes beyond competition. Empathy and compassion are seemingly completely foreign.
The referee can’t keep him away forever and move after move sees Cota yank and pull on the ankle. To Casas, it must feel like there are a hundred Mocho Cotas, and that he is surrounded, each one picking his spots and doing just enough to keep Casas grounded, a cat playing with a broken winged bird; not for enjoyment but due to its own nature.
The blood has already started to cake and dry on the face of Casas and he looks on the verge of tears. He escapes to the outside and removes his boot to help his ankle but simply gives Cota more of a target to pick at. Cota starts to work submissions, simple and blunt instruments, wrenched in as painfully as possible. The control for Cota goes on, and verges on uncomfortable. Casas’ hope spots are cut off swiftly, and even by the standards of professional wrestling, the punishment dealt out seems severe and excessive. A lone bright spot occurs late, as Casas finds the ref out of position and kicks Mocho low. He flashes the crowd a knowing smile and waves his finger: “it’s not over yet” he’s saying, but in that moment Cota grabs again at the ankle, pulling him down like some unkillable horror movie villain.
Casas’ flurries of offense become more pronounced and Cota finally makes a mistake, missing a flipping senton from the top rope. The atmosphere immediately changes, and the audience is pleading with Casas to finally take advantage. He goes for a cover but it is never that easy. Cota comes back and tries for another kick to the gut, the same move that started the match so well for him. This time, Casas grabs the ankle, stopping it. He turns Cota around and finds the requisite pain tolerance and strength to hit a huge back suplex. Just barely, it gets him the victory.
After this match, Cota’s output become more and more sporadic, until he retired altogether. Yesterday he passed away, either from a brain aneurysm or from a fall that caused head trauma of some variety. While it is important to mourn his passing and cherish the wonderful contributions he made to this art we all love, in some respects his death represents the death of something much larger, for in some ways it is the death of the wrestler from outside society, the wrestler as true threat to the boundaries and graces that we cherish. There are better wrestlers than Mocho Cota who have passed. There are more memorable careers and people of more import. There is no one who has died who was as uniquely linked to what professional wrestling was as Mocho Cota, for Cota could only live in a place of violence and blood feuds. Mocho Cota could only live in the world of professional wrestling.