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Last Updated: Monday, 17 September 2007, 10:39 GMT 11:39 UK
Mexican youngsters wrestle with fame
By Deborah Bonello
Mexico City

Mexican wrestler Lizmark Jr. participates of a wrestling at the Arena Mexico in Mexico City, 04 August 2007
The stars of Mexico's lucha libre compete at Arena Mexico

Deep in the belly of Arena Mexico, the enormous venue known as the "cathedral of lucha libre" in central Mexico City, there is heavy pounding as bodies slam against the canvas-covered floor of a wrestling ring.

But the noise is being made by teenagers and young men, not the theatrical wrestlers famous for their ostentatious masks and flamboyant moves.

There has been lucha libre - freestyle pro-wrestling - in Mexico for more than 70 years, and it is one of the most popular spectator sports after football.

Live wrestling takes place in Mexico City and across the country. The two main television networks broadcast bouts, showcasing the sport's stars as they perform traditional holds, spectacular moves and flying jumps around - and out of - the ring.

Lucha libre also has fanatical followings in other countries, including the US and Japan.

Classic clutches

Ringo Mendoza
The younger the [students] the better. They learn all the moves so they can be someone in the future, they could be like me
Ringo Mendoza, wrestling trainer
In a bare-walled gym, two floors down from the 16,000-seat arena that has been home to Mexican lucha libre legends such as El Santo (The Saint), Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras (One Thousand Masks), some 30 boys and young men meet every day at 1700.

For two hours, they learn the art of lucha libre - many like their fathers before them - as they aspire to be the next generation of famous luchadores, or fighters.

The classes, which have been running since 2000, start with a warm-up run around the arena's concrete walkway.

Then the boys descend cold, grey stairs into the gym below where their teacher, Ringo Mendoza, takes them through some of the classic clutches luchadores have been using for decades.

Mr Mendoza has 39 years of professional fighting behind him and, aged over 60, is still competing.

"There are youngsters who are only 14 or 15 to those aged about 25. The younger the better. They learn all of the moves so they can be someone in the future, they could be like me," he says.

In the blood

Jose Yair Velasquez Martinez is just 15. His father and godfather are famous lucha libre fighters and he is following in their footsteps.

"It's something that I have in my blood," he says.

Youngsters at the school model their masks
Youngsters at the school have their own masks tailor-made

The boys form a line around the ring and take it in turns to perform somersaults, jumps and rolls across the ring.

"The learning process is slow," Mr Mendoza explains.

"Many of the boys here want to fight after a year but they have to wait until they do the jumps out of the ring, the falls - they have to learn really well how to avoid injuring themselves."

As he speaks, the pupils progress to doing higher dives and falling onto their backs from handstands.

Eventually, they will learn classic moves such as la quebradora (the backbreaker), in which the fighter drops his opponent back first onto his own knee, as though to snap his back in half, or las patadas voladoras (drop kicks), in which a fighter jumps up and raises both feet to smack his opponent in the chest, neck or face.

It takes at least three years of training this hard every day before the boys can start fighting professionally.

Glamour and girls

Some of the older students, like Victor Manuel Garcia Lopez, 22, have been coming for several years and are already competing in the smaller arenas across Mexico.

The boys are attracted to the sport for the glamour, the girls and the fame.

Referee stands over two luchadores in the ring
Lucha libre offers good earnings for those who make it
And in a country where more than 40% live in poverty, the potential earnings offered by lucha libre, although not on a par with professional footballers, are also a huge draw.

"Any Mexican man wants to be a lucha libre fighter, because it promises us the kind of money that you'll never earn in other professions," says Victor, who is also studying electronics.

Jesus Calixto Becerra, 28, who polishes floors and washes carpets during the day, competes in small, state-level contests under the name El Legionario (The Legionnaire) .

"Here in Mexico, lucha libre is so popular because it's so spectacular, " he says.


It is only when they start fighting in official contests that the boys get their own signature masks for which the lucha libre is most famous.

Victor Lopez and other youngsters at the lucha libre school
Victor Lopez and the other students dream of making it big
Although some luchadores fight without them, the majority use their own unique designs to stand out.

In the stalls outside the arena, vendors make thousands of pesos (hundreds of dollars) each night selling masks mimicking those of past legends such as El Santo.

The students in the school design their own masks and have them tailor-made, which is expensive.

Each one costs around 1,000 pesos ($90) to produce and those boys already fighting do not want to wear them out during training sessions. All of them hope to use their masks in the arena some day.

"I hope that in two and a half more years, I'll be ready for what is the biggest stage in my country," says Victor.

"The Arena Mexico."

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