When you think of the quintessential babyface, you think of someone with certain redeemable qualities; someone who is humble, charismatic, energetic, and naturally cool. What makes for an even better babyface is someone who wins, despite all odds. You’ll always have your protein-fueled, deadlifting, scarily-vascular heavyweights who elicit a reaction, but it is the underdog who can rally a movement, and ignite a spark in crowds of all sizes.
Guys like Daniel Bryan, NJPW’s Hirai Kawato, and most recently Marko Stunt, can all point to one man who revolutionized the little man/big man dynamic. This man is Rey Mysterio.
Mysterio wasn’t the first David in a world full of Goliaths, but since debuting as Colibrí, at the tender age of 14, he has blazed a path in professional wrestling that many “Davids” would follow.
Since he began his tutelage under his uncle, Rey Misterio Sr., Mysterio has been critiqued for his size. His debut moniker was Spanish for “hummingbird”, and he was indeed a hummingbird amid much larger birds of prey. What some saw as a flaw, however, Mysterio saw as a key to success. If you can’t be larger than your opponents, be faster. Be smarter. Be more resilient. He may not win tests of strength, but he will use his and his opponent’s’ momentum to his benefit. He won’t succumb to submission holds and finishing moves without putting up a hell of a fight. Being a small, young man in an industry of giants forced Mysterio to adapt.
Granted, the Lucha Libre style is all about fluidity and rolling with the punches. Mysterio exemplifies this adaptive philosophy in and out of the ring. If you scroll through the timeline of his career, you will see that Mysterio has been in and out of most major promotions throughout the world. In 1992, Rey Misterio Jr., officially granted the mask and name by his uncle, appeared in AAA.
It was in these early years that Mysterio found Juventud Guerrera; a rival that would follow him to many promotions, and produce many outstanding matches. Per Cagematch, these two have been involved in 146 matches together. Juventud was the first of many heated rivalries Mysterio would have. Psicosis, a fellow Rey Mysterio Sr. pupil and AAA mainstay, is the opponent and feud that would get Mysterio to step foot in Japan, in the WAR promotion. Juventud and Psicosis would both battle Mysterio in Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), as well.
After bringing this exciting style of Lucha Libre to the United States, Mysterio was picked up by World Championship Wrestling (WCW). Getting contracted by a nationally televised company was a great thing, but it was also an important chapter in this tale of Mysterio persevering to become the legend that he is today. He had giants to face in the ring and back stage. In a company where cruiserweights were seen as light years away from being as important as the main event heavyweights, Mysterio kept afloat. He put on match of the year caliber performances and innovated the junior heavyweight style in a way that few others were able to do.
Despite his stellar in-ring performances, Mysterio couldn’t escape the doldrums of WCW booking. In a move that we all try to forget, Mysterio lost his mask in a match against Kevin Nash. Gone was the mask inspired by his trainer and uncle. What did Mysterio do? He continued to perform and overcome odds. He wrestled more than 200 matches without a mask in WCW.
A few years later a masked Rey Mysterio emerged in WWE, and the previous three years were like they never happened. It was in WWE where Mysterio exploded with popularity. He was their Latin-market poster boy for well over a decade. He won nearly every title possible. His mask was plastered everywhere. When I was a kid I printed off the lyrics to his theme song so I could jump around the house and sing it. He was a small guy, but a big deal.
He may have been able to leave his dreadful, mask-less entity in the past, but something else happened towards the end of his WCW career that would follow and haunt him.
In 1998, Mysterio had to take time off to have his first of multiple knee surgeries. It doesn’t take complex science or logic to figure out that Mysterio’s high impact, reckless style of wrestling would greatly increase the likelihood of damage to his body. Injuries would plague Mysterio throughout the next two decades of his career.
Think of a pro wrestling match where a limb is worked over and the person won’t tap. Dusty Rhodes fights through the pain of Ric Flair’s Figure Four to flip it over. Hiroshi Tanahashi would rather pass out than submit to Minoru Suzuki’s deadly submissions. John Cena… well he just NEVER GIVES UP GODDAMNIT. What happens within the confines of a match is exactly what happens time and time again in Rey Mysterio’s career.
When Mysterio entered WWE, the safest professional wrestling company in the world (sarcasm fully applied), he saw a few things happen. One, as aforementioned, he got his mask back. Two, he was given larger pushes than he had previously encountered. Three, he put on many pounds of muscle. Four, he was getting sidelined with injury every couple of years.
Mysterio has almost always been a babyface. Guys twice his size could beat him to a pulp, but he would kick out and fight for the ropes. If he was knocked down, he would springboard up and Hurricanrana his way back into the match. It was the classic story that he had been telling since 1989, but now it was televised for millions of households to see.
It was more than a match structure, though. Rey Mysterio has been rebounding from setback after setback his entire career. Mysterio loses his mask, depriving him of his identity and marketability. Mysterio regains his mask, damaging his reputation in Mexico, as Luchadores customarily swore off their mask once it was lost. Mysterio faces injuries and surgeries, many pertaining to his knees. In 2005, Mysterio loses one of his oldest and closest friends in Eddie Guerrero. Blow after blow, Mysterio kept wrestling. Mysterio kept innovating. Rey kept being Rey.
As the injuries continued piling on, Mysterio made the decision to step away from WWE. It turns out travelling and wrestling five days a week is quite taxing on your body. What did Mysterio do when he left? He could have easily done what many other wrestlers have done before him and rest on his earnings. He could have relied on convention appearances, merch sales, and acting, among other things. He could have given up wrestling, allowing his beaten up joints to heal in peace. Rey Mysterio was a megastar, after all. He may not have been a Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but he was far from a Danny Basham.
But alas, Mysterio did not 619 into the sunset. He kept working all around the world. He took fewer bookings, which his body surely thanked him for. He dropped the unnecessary muscle and focused on his fitness and health, all the while becoming somewhat of a journeyman. Once again, Mysterio persevered.
Lucha Underground, The Crash, Defiant/WhatCulture Pro Wrestling, AAA, and New Japan would all be fortunate to have Mysterio play a role in their companies. When Mysterio appeared at WWE’s The Greatest Royal Rumble, it was amazing to see how lean he looked, and how smooth his in-ring performance was. Not only did he refuse to hang up his boots after leaving WWE, he was arguably putting on his best performances since WCW. For every move he retired, another move took its place. He kept evolving.
He may have nice cars, diamond timepieces, and Louis Vuitton gear, but Mysterio acts far from Million Dollar Man. He is as humble and hardworking as ever. With a return to WWE right on the horizon, Mysterio didn’t need to compete at ALL IN. Yet there he was, in a magnificent Wolverine outfit, doing Asai moonsaults and frog splashes, to the raucous applause of 10,000+ wrestling fans.
At the end of the day, his story remains the same. Rey Mysterio is a larger-than-life guy doing out-of-this-world moves. He will usually be the one who takes a beating, and he will usually be the one who overcomes his obstacles to find success. From a hummingbird to a legend, Rey Mysterio is forever resilient.