There are a million reasons why you should head down to Bethnal Green for The Greatest Spectacle of Lucha Libre, from Thursday July 9th to Saturday July 11th. Here are three of them…

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Dr Wagner Jr

For someone who lives over five thousand miles away from Mexico, I’ve done a pretty sweet job of seeing the modern legends of lucha libre over the years. I saw el Hijo del Santo and Blue Panther in a student union bar in Colchester, Satanico and Ultimo Guerrero in an art gallery in London, Blue Demon Jr and Solar in a venue made famous by Pink Floyd’s psychedelic happenings, and Juventud Guerrera in a railway arch in Bethnal Green.

Two names have escaped me thus far, but I’ll get to tick off one of those – again in Bethnal Green, but this time at a much bigger venue – on Saturday when I finally see Dr Wagner Jr at the York Hall. And that will just leave Shocker.

If I had to choose, Dr Wagner Jr would probably be my favourite luchador of all time. Hell, I have his face tattooed on my arm, so he’d better be. It’s not hard to see what made Dr Wagner Jr so legendary. From his cool-ass gimmick, the evil medic strangely prevalent in Mexico and inherited from his father, through his workrate as one of the foremost junior heavyweight in NJPW in the late-1990s, when Jushin Liger, Koji Kanemoto, Shinjiro Ohtani, and el Samurai torn down houses all over Japan, to his lengthy stints in all three of the major promotions in Mexico, Dr Wagner Jr is one of those luchadores that embodies the sport.

Dr Wagner Jr (detail from Lucha Libre AAA: Heroes Del Ring)
Dr Wagner Jr (detail from Lucha Libre AAA: Heroes Del Ring)

He wasn’t one of those that made it to the USA, mostly because he was always working for the wrong promotion when associations were made with the various Mexican groups and WWF, WCW, and ECW, but that worked in his favour, allowing him to maintain a full schedule south of the border and enjoy lengthy tours of Japan, not only for NJPW but also BJPW, AJPW, and Toryumon.

Most of all, though, Dr Wagner Jr is cool. He has a cool mask, he has a cool singlet, he has cool entrance music – “Bad Medicine” by Bon Jovi, get it? – and has this cool pose, arms crossed and chest out, all business and no pleasure.

Don’t get me wrong, el Hijo del Santo is a genuine living legend but, for me, the main attraction at the York Hall will be a médico mal. Is there a Doctor in the house? Yeah, but you might not want to call him…

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The Fighting Cholitas

When you’ve watched professional wrestling – in all its forms – for a few decades you get to see pretty much everything it can offer. I’ve seen the top American, Japanese, Mexican, and British wrestlers, and I’ve seen them work in front of crowds ranging from tens of thousands to a dozen. Not dozen thousand, just a dozen. I’ve seen wrestling bananas and Egyptian mummies, aliens and superheroes, and I’ve seen Freddie Mercury fight a voodoo witch doctor. Twice.

But I’ve never seen the fighting cholitas of Bolivia, and that’s something I’ll put right at the York Hall next weekend.

The cholitas are women of indigenous Aymara and Quechua background, who wear the traditional dress of puffed skirts and bowler hats. This uniform was forced upon the local people by the Spanish conquistadors, eager to force the native Bolivians to live a more acceptable, European lifestyle. Since that time, it has been adopted as a badge of belonging to and by that culture, even though to wear it would see the women discriminated against in a Bolivia of not-so-long-ago.

Now, though, the cholitas walk proud and without fear, though the indigenous people still make up the majority of Bolivian cities’ poorest and most downtrodden citizens.

Cholitas came to wrestling during the early part of this century, when Titanes en el Ring promoter Juan Mamami introduced them to his travelling spectacle. They proved a popular attraction, so much so that they formed their own union in 2011, out of fears they were being exploited. I guess nothing less should have been expected of ladies from such a fierce and proud tradition.

The Fighting Cholitas (photo by Eduardo Leal)
The Fighting Cholitas (photo by Eduardo Leal)

The cholitas have garnered mainstream attention in the US and Europe, with National Geographic, The New York Times, and The Washington Post all splashing big on the group, and the documentary maker Mariam Jobrani featured them in a short film which won an Honorable Mention at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007.

There’s a suspension of disbelief that’s necessary to enjoy professional wrestling, and especially lucha libre. With all I know about the fighting cholitas, that won’t be so paramount. Lucha libre is often used to represent the downtrodden in society, with Super Barrio a tireless campaigner for peasants’ rights in Mexico. This time, the downtrodden have fought back themselves.

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The Unique Exótico

Although feminine wrestlers have occasionally appeared in the very masculine professional wrestling scene in the US (and the UK), there have been very few examples of fighters going all the way. Gorgeous George was one of the first to walk the line, although he was very much a man’s man – just one who wasn’t afraid to take care of himself, in and out of the ring. Welshman Adrian Street was outrageous without being out, and Goldust, with rumours of breast implants being considered, probably went as far as any in the traditional wrestling world.

But only in Mexico do you find men who embrace that absolute femininity, and use it as a weapon against their opponents, to the delight (and sometimes disgust) of the crowd.

The exótico, as they are known, first came into lucha libre in the 1940s, and were almost entirely heterosexual men who dressed provocatively to get a reaction from the crowd. One of the earliest, Gardenia Davis, used to throw his trademark flowers into the crowd. By the 1980s, some exóticos started to embrace their sexuality, emboldened by the changing social climate in Mexico, although the transition wasn’t an easy process.

Thankfully, now, the sexual preferences of the exóticos are neither here nor there, no more relevant to their work than for any other luchador. That’s not to say that the exótico hasn’t been a positive force for change – many young, gay lucha libre fans claim they have felt more confident in their sexuality as a result of witnessing obviously gay men hold their own with their straight(er) counterparts in the squared circle.

At the York Hall next weekend, one of the top exóticos in the business will be appearing. This isn’t Cassandro’s first visit to the UK – I saw him a decade ago alongside el Hijo del Santo and Blue Demon Jr at the Roundhouse and he impressed me then – and he’s become a regular visitor since, enjoying “guest legend” status with the UK’s own lucha libre promotion, Lucha Britannia.

Cassandro (photo by Katie Orlansky)
Cassandro (photo by Katie Orlansky)

Born Saúl Armendáriz, in El Paso, Texas, Cassandro spent much of his youth in Juarez, across the border in Mexico, and left school at fifteen to become a luchador. He made his debut at eighteen, as the masked Mr Romano, but was soon encouraged to embrace his natural flair as an exótico by the legendary Baby Sharon, one of the foremost exóticos of the time.

Cassandro – the name came from a brothel keeper in Tijuana – formed a formidable tag-team with Pimpinela Escarlata, lately seen in Lucha Underground, in the UWA promotion and the two would later feud in AAA. They would reunite, along with May Flowers & Pasión Kristal, to form Los Exóticos, a stable that would enjoy a lengthy feud with Los Night Queens, another exótico group.

Since then, Cassandro has toured the world, delighting audiences in Mexico, the US, the UK, and the rest of Europe, and is – even at (whisper it) forty-five years old – one of, if not the best exóticos in the sport. It’s rare to see an exótico in the UK (although I have high hopes from Lucha Britannia’s Cassius), let alone one at the top of their game, so it’ll be a delight to see Cassandro at the York Hall. Why not lose your inhibitions and join me?

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The Greatest Spectacle of Lucha Libre takes place at the York Hall, Bethnal Green, on July 9th-12th. There’s a special matinee show on the 12th which will enable you to make a day of it if you’re already planning to go to the Albert Hall that night. Details are available here.