Lucha libre is heating up as the summer comes to an end.
The Mexican wrestling calendar always tends to get busier this time of year, but CMLL is loading up more than usual. They’ll run (at least) three major shows over a seven week span, including holding their biggest show of the year on Mexican Independence Day, September 16th. AAA’s own biggest show of the year, TripleMania, will take place on one of the yet to be occupied weeks, August 26th. Neither promotion is getting the day to themselves, both lucha libre mega shows will go up against gigantic boxing matches (held elsewhere, but with great interest in Mexico.) There’s a UFC event in Mexico City to throw into the combat sports mix too. It’s an overloaded two months of fight related activities, and it kicks off with the unexpected feud between a forty year Mexican vet against a foreigner who’s been around for barely a year, all based around a feud from twenty five years ago.
Tonight’s CMLL show at Arena México features lucha libre legend Blue Panther defending both his hair and his nation against American Sam Adonis in the main event.
The rest of the card is better than a usual Friday night, and there’s another special attraction in the show (the return of the micros), but the apuesta match is the singular draw for the show. CMLL’s headline act is featuring two guys who haven’t been headlining much for them. Panther last main evented a show like this five years ago and this will be the first time Adonis has ever had a singles main event in the promotion. It’s big risk, and it’s a bet on a feud where a lot of dominoes had to fall in place just to get to this point.
Sam Adonis was once Buddy Stretcher, Florida Championship Wrestling trainee pre-NXT. (He’s also the brother of WWE announcer Corey Graves.) It didn’t work out in WWE, but he follows the usual advice—”go wrestle around the world and get better”—and ended up in England for a few years. Mexico was the next stop on the world tour in 2016 , with Adonis finding his way into Arena Mexico’s training school. That didn’t promise to mean much. An incalculable number of hopefuls get into a CMLL class, happily learn from the maestros for a while, and then disappear without ever making it into an official match. There’s always dozens of people training, and minuscule amount of spots that open up. Many people just move onto something or somewhere else. Foreigners are usually even quicker out the door, since somewhere else might be back home. CMLL is an especially tough place for a foreigner to get a break, and few have been used it in recent years outside of those who belong to NJPW or ROH.
For Adonis, it worked the opposite: being a foreigner gave him an opportunity.
ELITE, a sometimes friendly but eventually rival promotion of CMLL, decided an international tournament would be just the thing to finally boost their disappointing crowds. ELITE started looking around for people to representing different countries, needed someone to fill a US spot and knew Adonis was training with CMLL.
CMLL found this out, and had started to sour on ELITE, so they suddenly found a spot on their roster for Adonis (and New Zealander Johnny Idol) to keep him around. CMLL also suddenly came up with the totally unique idea of running an international competition. EELITE ended up bringing Lio Rush as the US rep instead; Rush did well but ELITE’s tournament bombed and the foreigners all were never brought back. If Adonis had been one of them, he probably would’ve gotten more ELITE bookings just because he was Mexico based. He also would’ve joined the rest of that roster out on the street and scrounging for work when the promotion finally collapsed at the end of 2016.
Just getting booked in CMLL doesn’t guarantee you’ll get to do anything all that interesting; he seemed to impress the announce crew but not connect strongly with the fans when he doing a “the rudo all your girlfriends love” character.. The key to his success came a couple days after Christmas, where Adonis went from “pretty boy” to “Mexico’s biggest fan of Donald Trump.”
Adonis’ trademark airbrushed pants now sported a caricature of then soon to be president, and Adonis started waving a USA flag with a Trump face stitched in the center. The Ugly American character is not unique or original in the history of Mexican wrestling. Wrestlers have been doing versions of it at least back to the late 80s, and Brian Cage had been sporting a Trump shirt in the leading up to the election in AAA. The difference was AAA used Cage sparingly and on tour around Mexico, while Adonis was in the media center of Mexico City every week. Adonis also took up the character with full gusto. He had some luck with his timing and his audience well. CMLL’s audience has shifted to being more casual than ever. Characters with easy to understand gimmicks get over the best in front of the tourist laden crowds, and a tall blond American waving a Trump flag in 2017 is about as easy as it gets.
Adonis got over well now with the fans who came to the shows, but maybe even stronger with the international media who found out about him.
By spring, it appeared like there was a different media outlet following him around to do their own story about the crazy American who was supporting Donald Trump in country that wasn’t much a fan. Most of the journalists didn’t seem to understand lucha libre or even wrestling in general all that well, but they understood an irresistible oddity story that’d easily capture reader clicks. The interesting commonality of these many stories turned out to be similar reactions of the Mexican fans. Reporters would come to shows expecting Adonis to be in mortal danger and fans reacting in violence, and usually found the fans who were screaming the loudest at Adonis would be the same ones taking photos with him after the show. They were never out to kill him for his act, but to boo him because he’s an easy real life cartoon stand-in for those they’d like to be able to scream at. Even among the people who just drop in to see Sam Adonis once, there’s an understanding he’s really a guy playing a role. That’s enough for them.
Many Mexican writers have explained their popularity of their version of wrestling as a catharsis, a way to get out the emotions of the day in a place where it’s totally okay to scream and lose yourself in the moment. In the moment, Donald Trump was what was stressing out many of these fans, and a skewed representing in a wrestling ring is an easy and safe way to get some of that stress out.
And yet, that still might be even be where the story ends—there’s plenty of over acts that don’t get anything to do in CMLL for years at a time. (See: Fuego’s last half decade.) CMLL’s press department loved it’s new media darling, but the programming committee didn’t seem all that interested in changing their plans to accommodate Sam Adonis’ new fame. There are reasons to be skeptical of this notoriety actually turning into money – Lucha Libre USA’s RJ Brewer got the exact same crazy media attention last decade when he played a very Ugly American at the height of the US immigration debate, only it meant so little to viewership that LLUSA swiftly faded into oblivion. I don’t think CMLL was taking their cues from failed MTV2 shows, but for a while they seemed content to let Adonis just be an overachieving underutilized mid-card act. The one thing CMLL’s matchmakers do seem to like are old ideas revisited, and one of those finally got them to take action.
If you traded wrestling tapes in the 90s or early 00s, the one and maybe only lucha libre tape you had was a copy of AAA’s When World’s Collide. It’s probably not AAA’s best show, but it’s the one with the epic match and English commentary, a combination Mexican promotions have been struggling to put together again for twenty years since. That epic match sees Mexican Blue Panther interference to cost American rival Love Machine (and partner Eddy Guerrero) his hair and save the masks of Octagon & Hijo del Santo.
The rare accessibility of that show, and the availability of the other big matches in the Blue Panther vs Love Machine feud, has seemed to make that rivalry into a much bigger deal in the US than in Mexico. It’s remembered in Mexico, but it’s something closer to legendary in the US. So, it’s only natural that a US wrestling fan might want to find a way to revisit it again.
Blue Panther and Sam Adonis wrestled occasionally after Adonis rediscovered himself as a patriot. Panther was better playing off it than most, maybe remembering those days of the Gringo Locos, or from his decades of experience. It wasn’t until May where things took a sharper turn, with Adonis starting to use his flagpole not just to wave Trump’s face in the faces of the Mexicans, but to smack Blue Panther around before and during matches as things became more serious. Adonis soon ‘revealed’ he’d always been a big fan of Love Machine; he was too young to have seen his mask loss to Blue Panther in 1992 when it happened, but watched it and the other matches many times growing up and wanted to avenge his fallen hero against the man who had defeated him. Blue Panther fought back, and explained he wanted to defend the honor of his country from the loud mouth American who’d been disrespecting it. The two continued for a while with no particular focus from CMLL, as if the two had conspired to run the feud on their own and see if it got so hot that CMLL would have to do something with it. It did, it did get that over, and unexpectedly CMLL bought in. It became clear this past month that this hair versus hair match was a thing being wished for, but something on CMLL’s plans for the immediate future. CMLL hit the pause button on a couple other rivalries, and set this one for the big match tonight.
It seems clear what’s going to happen in the hair match tonight, especially in style. We got a preview singles match a couple weeks ago, which was entertaining if not exactly technical sound match. Blue Panther was one the a rudo technical wizard, but has lately become more a sort of end of career Terry Funk, relying on mostly brawling and wildness and crowd manipulation and a dive here or there (though he’s more multiple tope guys than moonsaults.) Adonis still is a bit of an odd fit in the ring as a CMLL luchador, one that might fit in a little better in AJPW (his next stop), and there’s a significant size difference between the two that makes it awkward at times. It’s not going to be a bad match and both have reasons to want to make this memorable, but it’s a match that’ll be carried mostly be emotions.
The result also seems pretty clear. The crowd interest in Adonis has gotten up as this rivalry has gone on, and there’s no obvious reason to cut it off now. Blue Panther is a great opponent for historical reasons, but he’s not the right opponent to get the win. He’s 57, and has lost his hair in his last two apuesta matches as normal for someone winding down a career. Blue Panther’s two sons, The Panther and Blue Panther Jr., have been tangentially involved in the feud and would be good choices to avenge their father down the line. And, if this works at all tonight, there definitely should be another match down the line. There’s even a really even finish if they want to keep playing off history: Love Machine lost his mask because he didn’t know piledrivers were illegal in Mexico. Perhaps an enraged and patriotic Blue Panther might make the same mistake.
— CMLL Lucha Libre (@CMLL_OFICIAL) July 26, 2017
That’s one of the big questions for tonight: will the Mexican fans booing Sam Adonis pay to see him potentially lose his hair, or is he just a guy they enjoy seeing if they’re already in Arena Mexico but won’t go out of their way to see?
The turnout for Friday night shows leading up to this show has gone up, but now it’s all on an unproven main eventer. The other question is about the outcome, but not the result: do these same fans still see Adonis as cartoon villain in a show after if he defeats their legend, or does the heat Sam Adonis receive become more serious and dangerous if the Ugly American walks out of Arena Mexico with Blue Panther’s hair? The cartoon foils Adonis is playing is meant to get thwarted in the end; if CMLL doesn’t make it clear tonight is not actually the end, they might thwarted themselves.