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A night at Arena Mexico: Where old school meets new

CMLL Arena Mexico

By Dave Doyle for F4WOnline.com | Twitter Facebook
Main image courtesy of El Popular -- Other images courtesy of Dave Doyle

The figure behind the tinted ticket window at Arena Mexico is all but invisible.

“No hablo mucho Español, amigo,” I say to the shadow on the other side. “Uno, ringside.” 

“Trescientos ochenta pesos,” the ticket agent says back. 

I shove 400 pesos through the window slot and am handed back my 380-peso ticket, a lineup sheet, and no change. 

I’m not about to argue over the remaining 20 pesos -- about a dollar U.S. -- in a language I don’t speak. But with Arena Mexico as much a tourist magnet as a local institution these days, I figure if they make a regular habit of skimming change from vacationers over three shows a week that run 52 weeks a year, it must all add up to a nice bonus for someone.

And yet, this exchange is somehow part of the charm. I’ve traveled to Mexico’s capital from Los Angeles to experience one of pro wrestling’s last remaining great old-school traditions, so why shouldn’t a carny at the gate be part of the package?

Arena Mexico
The main entrance to Arena Mexico

The Arena Mexico experience starts well before you reach the walkup window. The streets surrounding the arena are a lively street festival on fight night. Vendors hawk everything from masks to t-shirts to paintings in makeshift stalls. Items reflect the scope of lucha libre’s rich history from El Santo to Blue Demon to Mil Mascaras to current stars like Rush, Volador Jr., and Ultimo Guerrero.

Add in food vendors selling everything from tacos to sweet corn to horchata, and live traditional music emanating from a nearby bar, and you’ve got about as rich an authentic Mexican experience as someone who just arrived in the country and plunked down his bags at the hotel before heading over to the arena could ask to experience.


Street vendors outside Arena Mexico

Ticket secured, I make my way through the gates and into a lobby unlike any arena in which I’ve ever set foot, something more akin to what you’d expect to see in an aging theatre. A plaque commemorates Salvador Lutteroth, who founded the then-EMLL in 1933 and had the arena built in the 1950s. Arena Mexico hosted the boxing competition during the 1968 Olympics, and another monument lists every Mexican fighter who has medaled in the history of the Games. In one corner of the lobby, luchador Angel de Oro stands in a miniature ring, taking pictures with fans. 


Salvador Lutteroth plaque

Allow me to pause a minute and introduce myself. If you recognize my byline, it’s probably through my work as an MMA writer. I’ve worked with Dave Meltzer at both Yahoo Sports and in my current gig at MMAFighting.com and consider him both a colleague and a friend. 

I’ve been a wrestling fan nearly my entire life. I can still easily recall the first time I watched wrestling on TV, at age 8. I stumbled on WWF Championship Wrestling on a Saturday morning and was outraged to see Mr. Fuji throw salt in the eyes of Rick Martel as he came off the top rope, enabling partner Mr. Saito to pin him and win the WWF tag team titles from Martel and Tony Garea. I was instantly hooked. I went down the path of most fans my age, from the territories through national expansion and the cable TV era, progressing along the way from the Apter mags to pen pals to the Observer.  

I’ve been to an interesting array of events over the years, including a half-dozen or so trips to the ECW Arena in Philadelphia and three WrestleManias (10, 11, and 19). I happened to be live in Revere, MA, on the infamous night New Jack carved up Mass Transit with an Xacto knife. I was in attendance for Observer Worst Matches of the Year in 1992, 1993, and 2003 (look ‘em up) and one Best Match (the legendary Shawn Michaels-Razor Ramon ladder match in 1994).

Like many of my generation, I become a more-or-less lapsed fan somewhere over the past 10-15 years. I don’t any promotion on a week-to-week basis. I still have all the respect in the world for the performers’ talents, and when a match on the indie scene or from Japan goes viral, I’ll watch. But, at least as pertains to WWE, all the scripted lines, skits, and endless monologues just ring too false to me. 

CMLL, though, is a little different. You almost can’t avoid CMLL in Los Angeles, where I live, even if you try, with a two-hour broadcast from Arena Mexico every week on the Spanish version of the LA Dodgers’ cable network; an hour every Saturday on Azteca America (which seems to swing without warning from CMLL to Lucha Libre Elite on any given week); and another hour on LATV, a smaller station. 

Once a month or so, on a slow night, I’ll pop open a beer or two and binge watch the CMLL programming that has built up on my DVR. I can’t pretend I follow the storylines closely, particularly since I don’t speak the language. But, I’ve got a base knowledge of the stars and their histories.

And that’s enough to build the sense of anticipation as an usher leads me onto the arena floor and out to my fourth-row ringside seat.

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As I look around, my brain flashes back to the first wrestling show I ever attended as a child: March 6, 1982, at the old Boston Garden. I was convinced that the leather-clad Adrian Adonis, managed by Freddie Blassie, was going to defeat Bob Backlund for the WWF title, and I hounded my dad about it until he agreed to take me (for the record, Adonis did win that night, but via countout, enabling Backlund to escape with the belt).

My personal memory was of Boston, but you could substitute any historic wrestling barn: the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, the Sportatorium in Dallas, the Olympic Auditorium in LA, or Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. Go down the list. If you ever attended shows at any of those or a number of other facilities, you’ll relive that feeling the moment you go through the runway into Arena Mexico, evoking hazy memories of all the cliches of a dark, smoke-filled arena packed with fervent, beer-soaked fans, subtracting the smoke and adding the trappings of a modern television broadcast. 

The building is still mostly empty by the time the opening match hits the ring. The bout, featuring Sensei and Magnus vs. Akuma and Espiritu Negro, has the pacing and feel of an old-school opener, sort of like watching "The Unpredictable" Johnny Rodz and SD Jones square off for the millionth time. The match features more mat wrestling than you’d expect to see in a lucha show. With the exception of two wrestlers taking one quick tumble over the ropes, it stays entirely in the ring. 

The match serves as a backdrop to the hum of fans who are now rapidly filing in, and the bustle of vendors hustling everything from masks to t-shirts to tortas to cups of soup. I call over a beer vendor who empties two bottles of Victoria into a larger cup for about $3.50 US. 

Here’s what the guys in the opener didn’t do: Try to upstage the rest of the card. They weren’t looking to outdo the main eventers or get themselves noticed on Twitter. They delivered just enough action to whet the crowd’s appetite before Sensei and Magnus emerged victorious in three falls. 

The second match, a six-woman tag, had a degree more action than the first, and the first real forays outside of the ring, but nothing spectacular. The captain of the rudos team, Dallys, was quite over with the crowd. Half seemed to love her, half seemed to hate her, and she had a knack for eliciting reactions from both factions. Dallys’ team dropped the opening fall, then second fall heated up, but came to an unsatisfying conclusion when the rudos ripped off the mask of tecnico captain Princess Sugehit for a disqualification.


Dragon Rojo firing his rifle

The crowd, a healthy turnout of about 6,000 or so, had settled in by the time the third match came on. Then, business picked up. Stuka Jr., Drone, and Guerrero Maya Jr. fought Dragon Rojo Jr. (who nearly blew his own head off firing a gimmicked rifle from the middle rope during his intro), Sagrado, and Polvora. And business picked up, indeed. This was the lucha you expect to see: Lightning-fast pacing, complex spots, and crisp dives from the ring that hit the mark. It was the sort of story that a WCW road agent in 1997 would have insisted made no sense, but completely made sense in context, as the two trios tore the house down to the roaring approval of the crowd.

Right up until Polvora hit Stuka was a low blow and tore off his mask, that is, ending the third fall for a second straight cheap DQ, a deflating ending to what had been a superb match. The groan in the crowd would have sounded familiar to anyone who sat through a run-in finish in Crockett Promotions circa 1987. 

CMLL did not go straight into another spot-fest from here. Next up was Cavernerio Barbario and Titan in a one-fall, 10-minute time limit “Match Relampago” (lightning match), which was exactly the change of pace the crowd needed. A cool down period in the opening few minutes saw the pace pickup midway and build smartly in a back-and-forth manner to a big finish with Titan winning via armbar with under a minute remaining. 

The crowd certainly appreciated what they saw. Within seconds of the match’s completion, the ring was pelted with an avalanche of coins and a smattering of paper bills, one of lucha’s oldest traditions. The duo and the referee hurried to gather up their bonus before the next match came out to the ring.


Dragon Rojo putting the boots to Angel do Oro; Stuka Jr. unmasked in the ring

The evening’s semifinal bout featured the legendary Atlantis, teaming with Valiente and Angel de Oro, to take on the team of Ultimo Guerrero, Gran Guerrero, and Niebla Roja.

(This is as good a spot as any to note that I wasn’t aware at the time of the news sweeping the lucha world in which Maximo Sexy, La Mascara, and Bobby Villa were ultimately fired by CMLL for trashing Ultimo Guerrero’s sports car that morning in Arena Mexico’s parking lot in a dispute over the wrestlers’ union. And that, in hindsight, Guerrero, a consummate pro, never let on in front of the fans that anything was amiss). 

While I don’t keep close tabs on the storylines, it soon became obvious that there was simmering tension between Niebla and Ultimo Guerrero which boiled over as Niebla refused to help out his partners. The crowd response to the ongoing drama was vehement, in the old-school, willful suspension of disbelief way, not the “this is awesome” smirking hipster way. At one point, I got partially soaked with a thrown beer that missed Niebla’s head by inches as he continued to refuse fighting. 

The rudos ultimately dropped both falls since they were more or less competing three-on-two. It ended with Ultimo and Gran Guerrero viciously putting the boots to Niebla right in front of where I was sitting. It made for an odd dynamic because Ultimo Guerrero is technically a heel, but he has a status roughly similar to how longtime fans took to Arn Anderson in his later days -- the no-nonsense heel who the crowd comes to appreciate after years and years of delivering solid work. Guerrero came off as the aggrieved party: He fought, his teammate didn’t, and the crowd responded accordingly. 

Guerrero asked for the house mic and got it. I don’t speak Spanish, but have watched enough lucha to know the phrase “mascara contra cabellera,” a challenge which elicited a thunderous roar from the crowd. 

Guerrero MayaGuerrero Maya Jr.

To this day, when I go home to Boston and see childhood friends, we talk wrestling from our youth, and invariably discuss the time Ray Stevens gave a bloodied Jimmy Snuka two piledrivers on the concrete floor, cementing Snuka’s face turn after a weeks-long buildup. That was 35 years ago. People still remember minute details of the angle today. Will kids watching Raw in 2017 remember anything from last Monday’s three hours when they’re in middle age? The Guerrero-Niebla angle was the only angle on the card, and it paid off with a hotter, organic crowd reaction than anything I’ve seen north of the border in years.

Likewise, this was the only time during the evening that a wrestler took the mic. Would Guerrero have gotten the reaction he did if every wrestler on the card had their own droning, rehearsed soliloquoy? Guerrero got right to the point without 20 minutes of jibber-jabber and left the crowd eager for the next chapter. 

In the short break between the semi-main and the main event -- there was no formal intermission on the night -- I overheard a conversation a row in front of me prompted by a guy in a Harley Davidson hat who had been offering his own excited commentary in Spanish all night. He turned to a couple tourists sitting to his right. I’m paraphrasing a bit here, as I was well into my second double Victoria at Mexico City’s 7,500-foot altitude after traveling all day, but the essence of what he said, in perfect English, was: “This is what it’s like every week. Last week, I was in California and I went to a WWE show, and out of two hours, it had at least an hour of talk. Just talk, talk, talk. There was hardly any wrestling. You come here to Arena Mexico and it is all wrestling, all action.”

With that, we were on to the main event, a six-man tag team match that was scheduled to be Caristico, Mistico, and Maximo Sexy against Negro Casas, Mephisto, and Ephesto. Without any explanation from the promotion or reference to the car incident, Marco Corleone came out as a replacement for Maximo. Fans scrambled to find their lineup sheets and double-check the wrestlers listed on the bill. 

The match was wrestled in a main event style.The moves were a bit faster, the hits harder, the spots more complex. Caristico, the original Mistico, didn’t do himself many favors by teaming with the current Mistico. The current Mistico moved around like the 2005 Mistico, while the original Mistico looked like an out-of-shape caricature. 

But that was the only minor blemish on a superb match. The teams split the first two falls. The third fall centered around a story with Casas, who moves as well as any 50-something wrestler I’ve ever seen, hinting at the upset over the in-his-prime Corleone, the former Mark Jindrak, who has become a huge star in Mexico. The crowd reaction reached a fever pitch with women and children going bonkers over Corleone and male adult fans pulling for Casas. Casas appeared on the verge of victory when Corleone got a rollup and a three count right in the middle of the ring. The legend took the clean loss in the middle to finish the night, atoning for the earlier DQ finishes and making the evening seem complete.


Ultimo Guerrero’s intro

There’s a festive, happy buzz in the crowd as it files back out into the streets. It’s similar to the vibe after a rock concert or when the home team wins a big game. I haven’t felt this energy coming out of a wrestling show in a long time. I browse the t-shirt setups outside and pick one commemorating the 1989 Blue Demon vs. Rayo de Jalisco mask vs. mask match. I take a minute to savor the scene before I head back to my hotel. I don’t know if the shows at Arena Mexico are this good every Friday, but for one night, at least, I tapped back into that feeling that made me a wrestling fan in the first place, and that alone was worth the trip. 

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Postscript: While it wasn’t my original plan, I went back to Arena Mexico for their 5 p.m. Sunday show. Scaled down from Friday with five matches and more laid-back and differently paced than the TV tapings, the crowd was about half the size of Friday's event. My fourth-row seat Friday cost about $20 US; my third-row seat Sunday about $12. I didn’t take notes on this one, but one performer deserves note: Sam Adonis, the brother of Corey Graves, who plays a Donald Trump-loving American. It was like watching 1985 Nikolai Volkoff in reverse as Adonis waved a flag emblazoned with Trump’s head.

The crowd whistled in derision at his entrance, howled in delight when his opponents stole the flag and played matador with Adonis, then serenaded him with a “culero” chant when his team barely escaped with a victory. It was solid heel work from a guy who deserves a break back home. 

If you go: Mexico City, by and large, is safer than most Americans assume based on headlines. But, Arena Mexico does sit on the outer edge of a rough neighborhood, Doctores. I walked the mile or so from my hotel in the Centro Historico district and back, solo, without any trouble. Simply use some basic common sense -- stick to well-lit main streets, don’t wear expensive clothing or jewelry, and don’t walk around with piles of merch. Basically, don’t look like an easy mark and you should be fine. Uber is safe in Mexico, or your hotel can arrange for an officially licensed taxi who will also pick you up afterwards (don’t hail a random cab, which could be unlicensed and potentially trouble, on the streets). And if you do arrange a ride, be sure to specify Arena Mexico, the wrestling arena, and not Arena Ciudad de Mexico, the modern, new arena, which is on the other side of the city. At the arena, everything from tickets to concessions are cash only.