We cannot outrun the goals our parents set for us. They shape our lives, for better or worse, and influence everything we do and everything they do on levels we cannot comprehend. We rebel and we ascend. We embark on lifelong quests to disappoint. At some point, in rare moments of introspection, we realize that the dance classes and little league games that seemingly amounted to nothing in fact shifted and eroded and hardened and created. They made parts of us whole.
There are different ways to be anointed in life, and for parents who envision greatness for their children, the methodology is perhaps even more important than the belief.
El Santo, perhaps the most culturally important wrestler of all time, had ten children. Only one followed the same career path.
El Hijo Del Santo
Like many luchadores, El Hijo Del Santo started wrestling in secret. His father had forbidden it, wanting his children to find their way. In some way, his stance must have come from a place of selflessness. Knowing the price of his career, the price of fame in general, and the potentially insurmountable expectations that would be thrust upon whomever followed him, he attempted to remove the allure. He failed. When he discovered his son’s training, he resigned himself and simply made a deal: his son could finish his training upon completion of a college degree. When he did so, they began again in earnest.
To be given a name like El Hijo Del Santo, to be given the same mask and the same signature maneuvers would have been an albatross in the hands of a lesser performer. He was not necessarily a second generation wrestler, but instead a second generation icon. He rose above it all with grace. While it is dangerous and perhaps disingenuous to equate ability inside the ring to traits outside of it, watching El Hijo Del Santo dive is to watch someone solve problems. He floats and hangs and you are drawn to him with a magnetism that must in some way be genetic. He hangs in the air forever and then he collides with the force of a super hero and for a brief moment everything in the entire world makes sense. He makes it seem as though good conquers evil through sheer force of will. For one brief moment, he makes you believe all those lines in his father’s movies about having super human blood.
Of course, not everyone is the son of an icon.
Jose Casas grew up the son of a journeyman, nevertheless idolizing his father. He would sit front row for his father’s local matches with his brothers and they would cry and scream at all the right moments to help their dad get sympathy and reactions. He trained with his brothers during the long stretches when his father was on the road, travelling between Mexico and Texas before coming home again.
Perhaps by the age of nineteen, some apprehension about his father’s career had set into the mind of the younger Casas, for he had to be tricked in to his professional debut. Before a show at a local arena, awaiting the arrival of his father, Casas was approached by the promoter and told that his father had no showed the booking, and that if Jose didn’t fill in, the promoter would blackball the family. When the match was over, he was greeted by the promoter and his father together, who had simply wanted to see how his son’s progress was. Despite the trick, Casas’ career was decided. He took the name Negro.
While their paths couldn’t have been more different, Casas and Santo became tied together almost immediately. Casas had been active for a few years already when El Hijo Del Santo was declared the rookie of the year in 1983. As if in response, Casas would win his first title, the Light Heavyweight Championship, on January 1, 1984. He held it for over three hundred days before losing it to Santo. From there the rivalry would intensify, leading to an apuestas match in 1987 in which Casas would lose his hair for the first time.
Lucha Libre matches often revolve around the idea of proving superiority until one person falls short. Casas and Santo spent their entire careers doing this to one another, with Casas more often than not coming out on the losing end. In some ways, their relationship was an extension of the familial roles that drove them to wrestling. Driven in different ways by their fathers, Santo was the golden child, groomed to excel and draped in literal iconography. Casas was the perennial little brother, perhaps equally talented but in some ways cast aside, successful except in comparison. Even their names ring out. The son of the saint, silver and haloed. He inevitably casts a shadow, a place inhabited more often than not by Negro Casas.
It is this relationship that made their match in September of 1997 all the more powerful, for upon Santito’s return to CMLL, he saw the respect and adulation that Casas had earned and for the first time in his life, felt something akin to professional and personal jealousy. He lashed out, teaming with rudos and attacking Casas viciously at every opportunity. Perhaps he wasn’t even sure why he was doing it, only that a rage bubbled inside him when Arena Mexico chanted for his adversary, someone that had scorned him and cheated him tore at his mask and made him bleed. For Santito, fighting Negro Casas was the natural order of things. In some ways, it didn’t matter who was righteous, only that there was contact, a connection of some sort, an attempt to set the universe back to a point where people saw him and loved him more than the person who had been nipping at his heels, the person who had been cast in to darkness time and time again by the sheen of his silver as he flew in the lights.
Even before the bell rings, the crowd chants for Casas and he stomps and shimmies and tries to hide his smile. Santito is draped in the Mexican flag and still he is booed mercilessly. He paces, defiant. He is a man who is sure of his place in the world and there is the faintest hint of a smirk behind his mask. As they circle each other in these early moments, they trade holds and escapes. Casas blocks a takedown but falls victim to an arm drag. He struggles and maintains his composure and when he recovers, he breaks a hold with a light slap on the face, the kind you would give to someone you knew, someone you admired.
One of the barriers that prevents many from enjoying lucha is the feeling that it can be overly symbolic, which often manifests as perceived cooperation. There is none of that here. The match is a struggle. Santo throws Casas almost carelessly, with the scorn and disinterest one might have for a particularly heavy sack of laundry. Holds are grasped and clawed out of, faces are pressed into the mat. They both pull back with everything they have, they sit down and they rip and they tug and at the moment when the audience would expect rest or build there is instead a sudden breath of violence, an attack so quick it is almost blinding, like watching dogs fight. The rope breaks are all limbs and kicks and punches and hurt feelings and the referee feels like window dressing.
There is a single shot, still early in the match, when the camera is focused on Casas’ face after they break a hold and are once again standing. Gone is his impish smile from earlier, his playfulness. He is in a vacuum, surrounded by nothing but ropes and his past and his psyche, and just when that seems as though it could paralyze him or slow him down in some way, he drops out of the frame, attacking again, never stopping. Santito is left clutching his knee, frustrated and prone.
Casas works the knee without introspection or mercy. He kicks wildly at Santo’s hand, grasping for the bottom rope and both men tumble and grab at each other, coming up with handfuls of hair and fabric and when they are separated again, Santo can only lash out, punching Casas viciously.
There is something immensely powerful in the strike that do not connect, the negative space of the control segment. Each time Casas finds himself on top, for the briefest of moments, his training and his preparation deserts him and he is nothing more than a man in close quarters with a man who has bullied him and caused him pain and taken his titles and cut off his hair and the world goes red and he kicks and punches and chops and whether or not they land is completely secondary to the fact that he’s throwing them as fast and as hard as he can. There is not plan. The plan is to be unceasing. Santito can do nothing but retreat and Casas is left to stand tall, his chest heaving.
Of course Santo is able to fight back, returning from the outside with newfound energy, attacking with knees and strikes and running off the ropes with the dazzling speed that made him so breathtaking during better days. With Casas down, he puts on an arm bar. For Santo, he must break Casas like a wild horse, rubbing him out of energy and until he tacitly accept the power dynamics that some part of him knew were there all along.
Santo attacks the shoulder with a singular focus, clutching at it, slamming it into the apron, tying it in the ropes. It is the antithesis of a tecnico’s inherent resiliency: what normally manifests as the ability to keep fighting after suffering inhuman amounts of punishment is channeled here in to a near psychopathic obsession. Even in moments when Casas is standing above him, attacking indiscriminately, Santo is grabbing and searching and trying desperately to simply grab hold of something. It is a marked contrast as they battle again on the ropes. Casas is again wildly swinging, releasing the energy and aggression of years of feeling inferior. Santo is on his back, and his need to once again hurt Negro Casas’ shoulder is preventing him from covering up, accepting strike after strike wherever they land.
Casas goes for La Casita, the move of his father. It fails. He attempts a drop kick in the corner and finds himself outside the ring again and with a truly breathtaking quickness Santo is on the top rope and then above it, jumping out of the frame and falling back in to it, his shimmering light once again forcing Casas in to the darkness. As they struggle back in the ring, they abandon holds and simply headbutt each other. Santo reaches his feet first, and after a powerbomb, tries desperately for La de a Caballo, the hold that won his father so many matches. It fails. As they find themselves entwined yet again, both men abandoned by the ghosts of their fathers, Santo slaps Casas in the face, full of malice and disrespect and contempt and none of the joyous humanity and implied love that Casas used when he did the same thing.
They fight again. They dive again. They headbutt each other again. In the center of the ring, his face in a grimace, Negro Casas gives up again.
In the moments after the match, Casas gets on the microphone and claims that the repeated arm bars were a sign that Santo had found out about his injured shoulder, and that the victory was tainted. He shaves his head in defiance, saying it was not out of respect for his opponent, but out of admiration for the fans who continued to support him. Just like that, in some small way, the roles had been reversed again. Even as Casas spoke as a tecnico, there was an edge and a feeling of sweeping bitterness that cast itself over him, in the ring, his hair gone once again.
Santo, of course, would return to his former fan favorite ways soon after, and was accepted again with open arms. He remained that way until he fully embraced his path and left wrestling almost entirely to live as the icon his father must have at some point envisioned. He appeared on television, he became a spokesperson for environmental issues, he got a cartoon series.
Negro Casas simply kept wrestling. Twenty years after his fight with Santito, he will fight again at another Aniversario show. They have become stars in their own right, recognized the world over. They are still in the shadows of their fathers. They continue on.