Peter DiCampo for Al Jazeera America

Lucha libre sport or art? Lawmakers may decide

Mexican-style wrestling group aims to escape costly combative-sports designation in favor of entertainment label


RENTON, Wash. — “Huah!” Boom. “Huah!” Boom.

One by one, the wrestlers charge across a ring toward a broad man in a silver mask wearing a gray shirt tucked into gray track pants. Just as he’s about to get bowled over, he leaps over each oncoming attacker in a single bound, his legs kicking swiftly to each side (imagine Chuck Norris in a movie adaptation of the arcade hit “Frogger”). With each rapid-fire jump, he bellows, then lands with an impressive boom that makes the whole ring quake.

“Huah!” Boom. “Huah!” Boom.

It’s just another evening practice at Lucha Libre Volcánica, the Pacific Northwest’s only Mexican-style wrestling school, where acrobatic moves, colorful masks, spandex pants and names such as El Fénix and El Sonico are ordinario.

In Seattle, Mexico’s second-most-popular sport (behind fútbol) is rumbling its way from underground obscurity and into the spotlight. This is happening not in the ring, but at the Washington state Capitol. “Nacho Libre,” meet “House of Cards.”

Twice in the past month, luchadores have stormed the rotunda in Olympia (actually, they carpooled wearing dress shirts and ties, but hyperbole is an important element in wrestling culture). Once inside, they removed their masks — a big deal, as masked mystique is a big part of lucha libre — and asked state legislators to remove their sport from a regulatory headlock.

Washington’s Department of Licensing (DOL) regulates “entertainment wrestling” identically to more combative cousins such as mixed martial arts (MMA), boxing and kickboxing. The wrestlers say requiring more theatrical styles such as lucha libre to follow MMA-grade safety precautions for events — including expensive licenses, metal barricades around the ring, a required ambulance and EMTs for each event — has thrown a wet towel on the fledgling sport.

This is theater. Performance. Spectacle. The regulations should fit that.

Zack Hudgins

Washington state representative

This is why state Rep. Zack Hudgins, whose district includes Seattle’s Latino-rich South Park neighborhood, introduced House Bill 2573 asking the DOL to meet with wrestlers and promoters to brainstorm ways to “right-size” the regulations.

Hudgins said the South Park neighborhood’s annual lucha libre event almost didn’t happen last year because of the expenses involved in licensing it. After speaking to community members, he decided to sponsor a bill to help find a way to keep wrestlers safe, but also loosen the chokehold a bit and help wrestling flourish.

“I boxed in college. Boxing is adversarial. To me, that’s fundamentally different than lucha libre,” said Hudgins, who once got his nose broken in a charity boxing match at Notre Dame. “This is theater. Performance. Spectacle. The regulations should fit that. I think there’s some middle ground.”

Hudgins’ bill passed the House favorably, as well as a vote by the state Senate’s Commerce and Labor Committee. In committee testimony on Feb. 25, Susan Colard, a representative from the DOL’s combative-sports program, said there is a prevailing need to regulate safety, but agreed that a study would be reasonable.

The bill is now parked in the Senate Rules Committee, which must move it to the Senate floor for a vote by 5 p.m. Friday or “the bill will be down for the count this year,” Hudgins said.

Slideshow: Inside Lucha Libre Volcánica

The sport is theatrical, but to be clear, it’s also highly physical and injuries do happen, said Jake “the Professor” Stratton, a longtime wrestling enthusiast and pinstripe-suit-wearing ringside announcer for local matches. In all his years of announcing and attending, Stratton said, entertainment-wrestling injuries have mostly been of the jammed-finger and bruised-shoulder variety.

“Well, we’re not trying to hurt each other. We’re trying to put on a show for the fine folks — a physical magic act,” he said. “As somebody put it to me recently, a fan at a lucha libre wrestling show would be disappointed if somebody got hurt and had to go to the hospital, whereas a fan watching MMA might be disappointed if someone didn’t.”

In the ring, luchadores call upon precision training in wrestling, acrobatics and falling, mixing a choreography of stunts with bright costumes, dramatic gestures and exaggerated sounds to help make the action feel far more brutal and intense than it is, Stratton said.

“At one point pro wrestling promoters thought, ‘We’re tricking these rubes into thinking we’re putting on a real contest when we’re not.’ Well, that secret’s been revealed. The curtain’s pulled back and everybody knows it’s not a real thing. It’s like an action scene at the movies. You don’t jump up and yell, ‘That explosion is fake!’ If you spend too much time thinking about how it’s done, are you really enjoying the trick? It’s a willing suspension of disbelief.”

Lucha Libre Volcánica founder and "profesor" José Luis Gómez coaches La Avispa on an acrobatic wrestling move.
Peter DiCampo for Al Jazeera America

Lucha Libre Volcánica, the wrestling school 12 miles south of Seattle, is actually just a room. Heavy bags of all sizes and shapes hang like sides of meat in the garage-like space, which smells of mildew and salty tube socks. A few minutes into one of the school’s five weekly practices, it was clear the smell of sweat in the room is come by honestly.

Founder and “profesor” José Luis Gómez wore a black T-shirt with the school’s logo, which looks like a lucha libre Transformer. He spoke to his students — nearly a dozen wrestlers — predominantly in Spanish as he ran drills, gave instructions and offered feedback and praise.

“The American guys come in with not much Spanish,” Gómez said, chuckling. “Now they can answer me real good.”

He is a man of few words who, for much of his life, has let his body slams do the talking. Gómez made his lucha libre debut in Mexico in 1982 and went on to wrestle for more than 25 years. He opened the school in Seattle in 2010, and after a slow start it has grown steadily for the last three years.

“It has grown and grown and grown,” he said. “We’re here to make strong luchadores.”

Gómez watched and smiled as, mid-practice, the wrestlers gathered in the middle of the ring, hands around each other’s shoulders.

“Dear lord,” one masked wrestler said from within the circle, “thank you so much for this wonderful family I never thought I’d have.”

The prayer giver continued, giving thanks for the lack of injuries, the coach and the sport, and ending with “and please bless friends, family, and the troops overseas. Woo!” The other wrestlers cheered an “Amen.”

La Avispa, or "The Wasp," poses for a photo.
Peter DiCampo for Al Jazeera America

Luchadores come in all sizes, shapes and skills. There’s La Avispa, the school’s only female wrestler, a petite college senior majoring in exercise science who often wrestles against men at least twice her size.

“It’s the best workout I’ve ever encountered,” she said.

Then there’s the tall, heavily muscled El Fénix, who is wearing a red and black mask and black, midcalf patent-leather wrestling boots. He’s sparring with El Héroe, 5 inches shorter and built, comparatively, like a spark plug.

The two roll, flip, dive, fly and twist around, Roman-Greco style. Each has an impressive plancha, the name for a Superman-like dive off the ropes at an opponent, though they can do it only from the second rope — jumping from the third brings them a little too close to the gym’s 12-foot ceiling. The two move with the speed and coordination of expert swing dancers, pausing only for a few pants between moves before starting into the next sequence.

“It’s like in basketball, the way you’d learn to dribble, or plant, or shoot a three-pointer, and then later we put it all together,” said El Héroe, still breathing heavily after tapping out.

By day he is Francisco Gamino, Gómez’s brother. He grew up traveling around Mexico watching his older brother wrestle. Later he attended the University of Washington, and he is now a software engineer at Microsoft.

He used to do capoeira, but finds his two weekly lucha libre practices a great way to relieve stress and get a good workout.

“You have to be present,” he said. “You can’t be thinking about coding software, or you’re gonna get hit. You have to focus.”

El Fénix at the Lucha Libre Volcánica gym.
Peter DiCampo for Al Jazeera America

El Fénix, who has become a spokesman for the school, prefers not to reveal his real name, as is luchador tradition. He grew up in Vancouver, Wash., and found his way to Gómez’s school three years ago. After playing most of the ball sports, practicing martial arts and trying acrobatics, he was delighted to find a sport that celebrated both his theater and athletic backgrounds. When he started, he enlisted a costume designer friend to make him an outfit.

“It looked good,” he said. “The problem was, he didn’t know a damn thing about how Lycra works. It only lasted for two shows. It was an abysmal failure.”

His one-piece suit was red and white, but as soon as he started to sweat, the white started turning pink. During his second match, he tied a shoelace around his waist and peeled the top down so people wouldn’t worry that he was bleeding.

“It was pretty fabulous,” El Fénix said. Now he typically wrestles sans shirt, and the rest of his gear — masks, pants, even boots — is handmade by a man in Mexico City.

He trains at Lucha Libre Volcánica three times a week, and does three days of strength training on his own as well.

“Muscles sell,” he said. “You need to believe that what we’re doing is real. The way I look can make it easier for you to suspend that disbelief. If I’m horribly out of shape, you’re probably not going to buy it.”

He is fascinated by lucha libre’s “weird balance” of hyper-machismo and “the more sparkles the better,” he said. There’s a master’s thesis in there somewhere (and someday he plans to write it).

“We’re trying to be larger than life, but we’re also wearing glitter and holograms. I shoot for as sparkly as possible — we all do,” El Fénix said. “It’s an interesting blend of things, somewhere between metrosexual and ‘Jersey Shore.’”

El Fénix said he dreams of a day when he and his fellow luchadores can perform more often, and thinks the school will get a boost from revised state regulations. But as he waits for more shows to come, his dedication remains constant.

“You kind of have to love it itself, otherwise you won’t stick around,” he said. “We’re on the cusp of so many things — regular shows and sponsors …”

He unlaced one wrestling boot and pulled it off.

“We’ll make it or we won’t,” he said, “but in the meantime, it’s fun to be here.”