Mexican Standoff: Valley Lucha Libre Wrestlers Are Wildly Popular, but Local Stars Dream of Grappling for the WWE

"El Mariachi" Sergio Vega is in a world of hurt.

The young professional wrestler is getting a mule-size whupping outside the ring, courtesy of three masked men. After subjecting his 5-foot-8, 160-pound frame to the furious punches and kicks, it's time for the real fun to begin.

The ringleader of this three-on-one beat-down is Psycho, a deadly looking masked miscreant who's considered one of Vega's most hated enemies. Both men are combatants in bouts put on by local Mexican-style wrestling organization Piraña Promotions, and both battle every weekend to the delight of hundreds of fans.

The dreaded Psycho appears to be issuing major payback on Vega. Ordering his two henchmen to hold down their victim, Psycho whips Vega's bare back with his championship belt. Audible cracks of leather against skin result in overacted screams of pain.

Then, all hell breaks loose. Piraña's entire roster of wrestlers bursts out of the dressing area to dish out beat-downs on Psycho and his cohorts, triggering a massive melee between technicos (good guys) and rudos (bad guys).

Fans thrill at the chaos, cheering and blowing plastic horns. Some have to scramble, though, clearing seats when the fracas comes crashing their way.

Such is the staged drama every Sunday afternoon at El Gran Mercado in South Phoenix, where Piraña packs 'em in for its weekly showcase of lucha libre ("freestyle fighting").

The Valley's long been a hotbed of pro wrestling, which is probably a big reason World Wrestling Entertainment's presenting WrestleMania 26, its biggest pay-per-view event of the year, at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale on Sunday, March 28, with four days of events beforehand (see "Mania of WrestleMania" on this page).

Seven independent wrestling promotions operate in the Valley, satisfying fans' seemingly insatiable lust for grappling. Nearly half are dedicated to lucha libre, the Mexican-born, high-flying, faster-paced variant of American-style wrestling.

While the WWE and its ilk may be considered trashy escapism in Anglo America, lucha libre is deeply revered in Mexican culture. Dominated by masked combatants and cartoonish characters, its stars are idolized as almost superheroes by lucha aficionados.

There's more lucha libre action in the Valley than ever before. There once were about a dozen events held at local bars, cantinas, and other venues every year. Now, there are three competing promotions offering action-packed events each weekend.

Piraña was the first organization in recent years to offer weekly lucha shows at the same venue, drawing predominantly Latino crowds of 1,000 or more to the Mercado. Two rival promotions have eaten away at Piraña's business over the past year, however, and both are run by former Piraña wrestlers disgruntled with owner Martin Martinez.

Despite the increased competition and dip in attendance, Martinez is confident he'll maintain a loyal following among Latinos, particularly children and teens who come week after week to see Vega and his fellow luchadores.

And though the handsome 21-year-old enjoys his fame as one of Piraña's stars, he wants more. Like most indie wrestlers, he's hoping to someday practice his craft for the WWE. This week, he might take a step in that direction.

Besides pumping what the WWE estimates will be more than $30 million to $50 million into the Valley economy, WrestleMania 26 could prove a boon for a handful of locals. A few of the more talented grapplers will participate in the events (and the pay-per-view show itself), albeit in a limited capacity. Vega claims he might be tapped for such a role, and he hopes it will be the first step toward the superstardom he craves.

Obviously, he'd like nothing more than to go from making $25 a show to becoming a rich WWE superstar (like John Cena, rumored to make $1.7 million annually).

"Everyone's going to try to get a job [during the WrestleMania events]," he says of Phoenix-area grapplers. "What I'm going to do is make myself stand out from every other dude."

El Gran Mercado comes alive every weekend. The sprawling outdoor swap meet, near 35th Avenue and Buckeye Road, pulsates with color and energy as hundreds of Hispanic families stroll down its aisles. A vibrant variety of more than 300 vendor stalls contain a cornucopia of goods, including clothing, comestibles, computers, and even pets. The pungent aroma of flame-roasted carnitas wafts through the marketplace.

At the Mercado's pavilion, children stage a toy-gun battle between packed concrete picnic tables while a well-dressed gentleman croons his way through a karaoke version of "Volare."

The speakers booming the Domenico Modugno standard are at full volume, but they only partially drown out the cacophonous crashes and cheering that is coming from Piraña's Sunday afternoon lucha showcase in the adjacent arena. Inside, the masked Aguilita Guerrera unleashes thrilling aerial maneuvers against his opponent in the white ring.

Bounding upon the middle rope, Aguilita slingshots himself into a mid-air somersault called a quebrada and crashes into the other wrestler. He follows up with a hurricanrana, leaping up feet first and wrapping his legs around the poor guy's neck, flipping them both to the mat.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.