Not only can you slip and break a bone, but if you perform this move incorrectly you can injure your neck for life. According to Bridle and Argenis, several wrestlers have died after falling badly. You can end up unconscious with fractures and pulled muscles, or, more commonly, cracking your head open on the floor, or on the chairs that are thrown at you.
The lighting manager at Mexico’s Arena Naucalpan, an indoor sports venue to the north-west of the capital, reckons he’s seen just about everything the technicolour world of Mexican wrestling – also known as lucha libre – can throw at a man.
“You see and hear all kinds of things,” grins Rey. This includes everything from butter-wouldn’t-melt Mexican families bellowing the foulest obscenities at fighters, to droplets of wrestlers’ blood falling onto the spectators, to flying fighters who crash into the crowd when they’re hurled out of the ring. “We have hundreds of damaged chairs, whole rows that have been crushed, and mangled tables back there,” says the man also known as El Virus.
“I’ve even had to shave someone’s head while they were unconscious,” he adds, without batting an eyelid. “In matches, a masked wrestler fights an unmasked one. If the unmasked one loses and he has long hair… it’s goodbye to those locks.”
Getting an unexpected haircut is nothing, though, compared with a fighter being unmasked – a huge humiliation in a sport defined by the often extravagant mystery surrounding those taking part. “People go crazy,” explains the fighter known as Argenis, “because they take everything away from [the unmasked fighter]. According to the rules, wrestlers who unmask their opponents are automatically disqualified. But the real loser is the unmasked fighter, because the mask represents his honour.”
For this reason, Argenis has never allowed himself to be photographed without his mask. However, not all wrestlers are like this. Adam Bridle is one such fighter. But then, there’s plenty about Bridle that sets him apart from the steady stream of local fighters losing their hair and their teeth in a sport that, while designed to deliver maximum melodrama, can be every bit as physically demanding and traumatic as a bloody and bitter mixed martial arts match-up.
First, he’s not exactly a local. In fact, the 29-year old hails from Walkerville, 30 minutes south of Johannesburg. Second, unlike most luchadores, Bridle has no qualms about fighting unmasked. Third, Bridle is a well-known figure at Arena Naucalpan, has a lot of followers, and, after eight years of hard work under the ring name of Angélico, is getting results.
The South African belongs to the wrestling organisation Lucha Libre AAA, which, alongside the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL) – or World Wrestling Council – has kept the sport alive in Mexico. In 1992, the late Antonio Peña, one of the most important bookers from the CMLL, founded Lucha Libre AAA with the aim of promoting the sport even further. Thanks to this initiative, wrestlers like Bridle and Argenis – his rival for our photoshoot – have been able to capture the attention of filmmakers such as Robert Rodríguez, who invited them to take part in the TV series Lucha Underground, aired by the El Rey Network in the US.
But why would a South African leave his own country to learn to wrestle? Bridle explains that in the beginning he lived with a group of Japanese wrestlers who had a dojo above Arena Naucalpan. “It was the only place I knew in Mexico,” he says. “My Japanese housemates were very strict and would go to bed at 11pm.” Gradually, he built a level of trust with the best fighters, who saw how the sport intrigued him and how determined he was to take part. Over time, he set his sights on the high-risk fighting style and learned as much as he could.
THE RED BULLETIN: How did you first get a taste for wrestling?
ADAM BRIDLE: When I was about six, my grandmother took me to a WWE wrestling show at Sun City. I can just remember something being awoken within me that day, and that feeling hasn’t left me.
You travelled to Japan, the US and Mexico to learn to wrestle. How did you end up staying in the latter? You’ve been here eight years…
I think it was because of the style – I like the wrestling in Mexico best. It’s not as slow, and it focuses less on body mass, unlike in the US. It has always appealed to me more.
Which aspects in particular?
What I like most are the aerial moves, which are riskier. This practice is typically associated with lucha libre. In other parts of the world, they use aerial manoeuvres like front or backward rolls, and all these moves came from Mexico. When I watched wrestling as a child, I was drawn to that style the most, largely because it was high-risk.
Is there an artistic element to the Mexican style of fighting?
Of course there is. In fact, all four wrestling styles have it: European, American, Japanese and Mexican. I consider all four to be a unique art form. Each has a defined format, a way of telling a story, and its own way of interacting with people.
What story does lucha libre tell?
If you compare it to American wrestling, which tells the most simple story of good guys versus bad guys, lucha libre focuses more on a high-risk narrative: the more risks you take, the greater your chances of winning over the audience. It’s about which fighter makes the most dangerous moves to gain the fans’ respect. People like that, because you have to expose your body to win.
Are Mexican mentors different from those in other countries?
Of course. One hundred per cent. The way you’re taught to fight, and even to think about wrestling, is unique. In America, it’s all about the psychology of telling a story in a way that people will understand. In Mexico, they never teach you how to tell a story; what they care about is having wrestlers who dare to do somersaults and turns, who dodge their opponent, and who know how to move in general. It’s all about being as agile and as entertaining as possible.
So the audiences don’t care as much about the battle between ‘good and evil’. Would you say that lucha libre flows more smoothly?
In my opinion, lucha libre is like a circus version of professional wrestling. When you go to a match, you see the masks, the moves that you won’t have seen anywhere else before, exotic people, female wrestlers and even midget wrestlers, all in one show.
What’s the attitude of wrestlers in America?
It’s harder. People are used to trampling all over one another in order to get to the top.
So it’s more individualistic?
A lot more. Here in Mexico, they’re much more interested in helping you to go beyond your limits.
And if you compare it to Japan? What story do they tell there?
The main story focuses on strength and your level of bravery. The audience wants to see how much of a battering you can take before you give up. The training over there is the hardest and strictest of all; the Japanese are unrivalled in terms of discipline. It’s very difficult to become a professional wrestler in Japan.
So if Japanese wrestling is the most difficult, why did you decide to stay in Mexico?
When I started here, my trainer, Negro Navarro – one of the world’s best-known trainers of wrestling holds – taught me an infinite number of holds; he had a book with about 400-500 different types. This was like an encyclopaedia of wrestling for me, which you can’t access anywhere else in the world. That’s one of the special things about lucha libre.
So you realised that these guys had something special?
Yes, I had a feeling. I had trained in Europe and South Africa before that, but when I got to Mexico I felt there was a lot more history behind the sport. The trainers and masters have a different mentality when it comes to fighting; there’s more information and freedom. I was lucky because I didn’t choose them, they chose me.
Really? And why do you think they chose you?
Perhaps because I wanted it more. When I showed them how keen I was, it was clear I was desperate to open as many doors as I could into lucha libre. My mind was completely open to learning. I would stay on for hours after the class had finished. I was always the last to leave, and I would spend the whole time asking questions. When they saw how determined I was, they became eager to train me.
It’s like they had a lot to share, but they weren’t willing to teach just anyone…
Yes, that’s how I feel, because the first three months of my training were very different from the months following that period. It was almost as if I was on probation, and once they saw that I had goals, they liked that and they opened themselves up to me fully. They didn’t hold anything back; they constantly gave me more and more information.
But how did you persuade them to share their wisdom, especially with you being a foreigner?
If you show someone the respect they deserve – basically, they had been doing this for 23 years, while I had only been doing it for one – and if you’re humble and you come with an open mind and a willingness to learn, people see that. But it’s not just about that. I also learned a lot from them as people; I learned about their life experiences. They told me stories about how they had managed family life, fame, money… The relationship has to become very personal, and that only happened because they could see I wasn’t arrogant at all. I found a more shared way of thinking, and I liked that about Mexico.