"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.
The ring announcer, who also provides match commentary en español over the house mic, leads the crowd in a chant of "Otra! Otra!" to encourage the luchadores to bust out more eye-popping moves.
Lucha libre has been a cherished staple of Mexican cultura dating back to the 1930s, when Salvador Lutteroth Gonzales imported it to Mexico from the United States. It took on a life of its own under his Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre promotion and became a colorful diversion for generations of working-class Mexican families on both sides of the border.
For those who don't know the difference between lucha libre and U.S. mainstream professional wrestling, the Mexican-born style resembles its American cousin in many respects. Costumed athlete-performers engage in faux fighting, slamming and tossing each other around in matches with pre-determined winners.
In other words, both forms are more show than sport.
But lucha libre is faster and more spectacular. It features higher-flying dives, dangerous stunts, and acrobatic theatrics in classic good guy/bad guy battles.
Then there are the masks.
Colorful disguises are the defining aspect of lucha libre, and the masks add luster to the luchadores. The most famous luchador was the late El Santo, worshipped by Latinos as a folk hero and avenger of justice. From the 1940s, he starred in dozens of comic books and in 50-plus Mexican B-movies, fighting dastardly Nazis, the undead, and other villains.
Local Chicano artist El Moisés grew up watching movies like Santo vs. The Zombies on Phoenix's Spanish-language stations.
"He was like the Superman of Mexico," says Moisés, who sometimes wrestles as a luchador. "My favorite ones were when he played a detective, 'cause he looked really slick in a turtleneck and suit."
And El Santo wore his mask on all the time. Lucha libre wrestlers consider their masks sacred objects and take great pains to conceal their identities from the public.
Local luchador Payaso Asesino keeps his mask in place even before he enters a venue and removes it only on the trip home. (All masked wrestlers stayed in character during interviews with New Times.)
"Our masks are important because it's our entire image. It's represents our character," he says. "It's part of the magic. Without the mask, I'm just another wrestler."
Payaso Asesino's malevolent mask emphasizes his bad-boy rudo character: a killer clown with jet-black and yellow features, a bulbous red nose, and a gleaming shark-tooth grin.
Conversely, Aguilita Guerrera's mask boasts soaring eagle wings on each side, personifying his heroic status as a high-flying technico.
Masked wrestlers are popular with children, which is a big reason why lucha events are filled with so many families, says Piraña's Martin Martinez.
Armed with handmade posters and noisemakers, kids at the events munch on huge ears of elote or on coconut pieces covered in hot sauce.
"It's an opportunity to hang out with the whole family, like you were going to a movie or a soccer game," Martinez says. "It's where people come to have good time, to get rid of their stress."
One stress-reducer is booing the dastardly rudos, who live for taunting the audience. It's the maniacal M.O. of Pistolero, a 6-foot-2 wall of muscle who wears ivory-colored contact lenses and a black mask emblazoned with six shooters.
"If they boo me, that's better. They don't like me, but guess what? I don't like them. I don't need them to love me, 'cause I really hate them," Pistolero declares, in wrestling braggadocio.
His bad behavior isn't limited to the ring. One afternoon, Pistolero went into the stands to tongue-lash and thrust his crotch at a middle-aged woman in the crowd.
As much trash talk as gets shoveled its way, the crowd spews it right back. And then some.
When they aren't heckling rudos or covering them with silly string, incensed lucha fanatics — ranging from 8-year-old schoolchildren to 80-something grandmothers — are known to flip the bird or utter profanity-laden insults that would make Carlos Mencia blush.
Some fans occasionally get physical, too. Jose Luis Guzman, a 27-year-old rudo who wrestles for Piraña rival AA Lucha Libre, was punched in the face after antagonizing a largely Latino crowd with a handmade sign stating, "English Only."
He says, "I go out to the ring trying to make myself the most hated person in Arizona wrestling right now."
Sounds like its works.
Racial strife has been a staple in Phoenix wrestling since the '50s and '60s, when visiting lucha legends — like the late Gory Guerrero — would come to the bygone Madison Square Garden on Seventh Avenue (demolished in 2005) to battle white opponents. Dale Pierce's 2008 book The Garden Will Not Die describes how Guerrero became a "bizarre Mexican avenger" and hero for the largely Hispanic crowds "against repressive gringos."
So does history repeat itself whenever Anglo wrestler Miracle Mike James, a pierced and Mohawked malcontent, compete against Latino luchas?
The 27-year-old rudo says race has nothing to do with it, as far as he's concerned. James merely considers himself a classic bad guy — no matter the ethnicity of his opponent. He says he loves participating in Piraña because Mercado crowds are "nuts."
He adds, "They're part of the show. You can tell they just really, really get into it. It makes it all worth the while. If you've ever performed in front of a crowd that just sits on their hands, it's frustrating."
Father-son relationships are common in lucha libre.
Piraña promoter and El Paso native Martin Martinez talks about how his father used to take him across the Rio Grande to Ciudad Juárez in Chihuahua to watch the legendary Guerrero clan run its shows. And masked rudo Payaso Asesino describes how his luchador dad trained him for the ring starting at age 8.
Valley native Sergio Vega (born Sergio Gomez) has no such poignant stories to tell. He says his father, Ramon, took a dim view of his early love of professional wrestling.
"We got into a lot of arguments," Vega says. "I remember him telling me, 'You're not focusing on sports. You're just in your room all the time watching stupid wrestling.'"
As a teenager, Vega felt pressure to excel in traditional sports, like the rest of the family. His dad went to Grand Canyon University on a full soccer scholarship. His brother, Marcos, was a high-school standout in baseball and nabbed West Valley Team All-Region honors.
"All our kids were active in sports," Ramon Gomez says. "Not so much to follow in my footsteps, [but] to keep busy athletically outside of school." Gomez says he was happy as long as his kids "participated in some sport. [Sergio] wrestled; he dived."
Vega says he used skills from traditional sports to hone the pro-wrestling skills he would need later.
Diving became practice time for acrobatics and aerial moves ("It's kinda like coming off the top rope"), and amateur wrestling helped him with conditioning and endurance.
After attending classes at ASU, where he's studying for a degree in film and media production, Vega explains how he'd known since age 13 that professional wrestling was his calling. He grew up watching the stars of WWE's "Attitude Era," like The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin in the late '90s and dreamed of making it to the big leagues.
But it was the aerial antics of smaller, more agile wrestler Rey Mysterio — a luchador in Mexico before becoming a WWE star — that led Vega to believe he could someday make it to the top.
Half the size of many behemoths who dominate televised wrestling, the 5-foot-6 Mysterio thrilled the future local star by flying around rings battling heavyweights.
"That was really cool for me, watching somebody that small beating 300-pound guys," Vega says. "Rey was the one that I latched onto the most."
Vega and his friends began videotaping themselves flipping and flying around his parents' living room during impromptu matches, occasionally wrecking the house. ("One time my feet went through the wall and left a big hole," he says.)
At 17, he began training with the Valley's Impact Zone Wrestling in secret after forging his father's signature on a contract and waiver. He'd asked for permission but got shot down because his parents thought pro wrestling was too dangerous.
"It's a violent sport in a sense; our concern was the risk of injury," his father, Ramon, says. "I know it's rehearsed, but you still get kicked, still get hit."
Vega kept his wrestling from his parents for two years as IZW instructors such as Lawrence "XXX" Tyler and Steve "Navajo Warrior" punished him with brutal ring training. His teachers weren't impressed with the home videos of his high-flying high jinks. They stressed the hard-hitting power moves of American-style wrestling. As a result, Vega occasionally lied to his parents when he came home with bruises, black eyes, or cuts.
"I'd make up excuses that I'd been elbowed in the eye playing basketball or any dumb thing I could think of," he says.
His parents eventually discovered their oldest son's double identity. It led to some tense conversations (including one in which Vega thought he'd be kicked out of the house), but his mother, Diana Gomez, says they eventually accepted his vocation.
"It's really neat," she says now of what her son does for a living. "We're proud of him and that he can juggle working and going to school and still doing this."
Vega lost more matches than he won during his debut IZW run in 2007 as the masked Mucha Reigns, partnered with similar-sounding wrestler Lucha Reigns. ("They told me we looked like brothers," he jokes. "Probably because we were both skinny and Mexican.") He wrestled mostly tag-team matches with the other Reigns or got squashed against bigger opponents as a solo act. He felt his talent was being wasted.
It got so bad that he considered quitting IZW and giving up on his pro-wrestling dream. In search of a new direction for his character, Vega agreed to lose his disguise in a "mask vs. mask" match against his partner. (A luchador's losing his mask is a major deal, in that once he loses it, he must perform bare-faced for the rest of his career.)
Enter Martin Martinez.
Vega participated in a few matches after Piraña launched its Sunday-afternoon gigs at the Gran Mercado in February 2008. Even though he'd lost his mask, the rookie's good looks, natural charm, and burgeoning ring talents impressed Martin Martinez.
"He was this skinny, nerdy kid," Martinez says. "But I told my wife that there's something about that kid that shines."
Vega played a Padawan to Martinez's Obi-Wan Kenobi, getting drilled in the hyperactive world of lucha.
Martinez also gave him a tryout in hugely popular trios matches, a hallmark of lucha libre. In such matches, two teams of three wrestlers go at it. The contests feature multiple pinfalls (traditional American matches typically have one) and insane amounts of chaos.
The promoter, who also wrestles both with and without a mask, gave Vega plenty of in-ring training, too — providing both pain and praise.
"There was this [trios] match where I'm getting my ass handed to me by Martin, and the fans were cheering, 'No, don't hurt him!' And he's slamming me around and going, 'You're doing good, mijo,'" Vega says. "It was a big moment for me being in the main event with a thousand fans around."
His gimmick, costume, and entrance were reworked into his new shtick as "El Mariachi" Sergio Vega, based on Antonio Banderas' guitar-strumming assassin in Robert Rodriguez's film series of the same name. Martinez regularly brings in lucha superstars from Mexico for guest appearances, and each has given Vega advice.
"I got to tag-team with pretty big wrestler named Big Fish, and he gave me a couple pointers about walking with confidence in the ring," Vega says. "His advice was, 'You might be small, but . . . show people that you mean something.' Things blew up from there."
Vega quickly became a crowd favorite and a heartthrob for teenage lucha fans (probably because they can see his face). His theme song (Los Lobos' sultry guitar ballad "Canción del Mariachi" from the Desperado soundtrack) results in high-pitched screams from girls in the packed Mercado arena.
His skills in the ring may not be as flashy as those of some on Piraña's roster, who've been training since they were teenagers. But the fans don't seem to care. He has a Ziploc bag filled with love letters, scribbled notes, drawings, and even handmade bracelets from female fans. One girl requested that he serve as the chambelan (guest of honor) at her quinceañera.
The positive reaction at Piraña's events has encouraged Vega to wrestle as much as possible with other local groups, such as IZW and Rising Phoenix — making for a tight schedule (considering his ASU studies, a relationship, and a job waiting tables at Glendale's Saddle Ranch.)
Vega's not the only wrestler working multiple promotions. There is also John Williams, a 30-year-old powerhouse known as the "Hawaiian Lion" when wrestling for IZW and the masked "Black Dragon" when performing in a Piraña ring.
"There are a lot of promotions and a lot of talent," Williams says.
Ultimately, his goal is the same as Vega's.
"You get a bigger talent pool, you get more challenges, and everyone gets better. And obviously, people like [the] WWE [will take] notice of Arizona wrestling and will start recruiting outta here."
It's just after sundown on a Friday night, and Gladiadores Unidos' weekly lucha libre throwdown is in full swing. A squat warehouse tucked behind a used-car lot near Van Buren and 17th streets is filled with a red-and-blue wrestling ring and more than 250 fans.
They're watching rudo El Pakal, dressed as a golden-masked Aztec warrior covered in painted-on Mayan symbols, pound unmercifully on the chubby El Gato Blanco, dressed in a feline-like white outfit and mask.
Local attorney Jeff Miller stands toward the back of the venue holding his 8-year-old daughter. Until a few minutes ago, father and daughter were sitting on folding chairs amid other fans until a particularly large luchador came crashing into the seating area and forced them to scramble.
Unlike in the WWE, there's no railing to separate fans from the ring, so close contact with the wrestlers is common.
Miller reminisces about how tonight's event reminds him of how his father used to bring him to the old Madison Square Garden with his brothers back in the mid-'60s to watch wrestlers like Tito Montez, one of the biggest draws at the venue.
"We used to come down just like the families are doing here. It wasn't huge like it is with the [WWE]. It was like this. It was visual, it was up close, and it felt real," he says. "Tito Montez was my hero; he was probably the first Hispanic hero that I had, because he was a huge good guy. There wasn't a big division between Hispanics and Caucasians then; everybody was there to watch the good guys versus the bad guys."
Miller and his family are among a handful of gringos at the event, having been invited by El Moisés. The artist has parlayed his long-running passion for lucha libre into both his art and his life. The 36-year-old is so taken that he wears a wrestling mask whenever he's in public ("except for the grocery store and bank," he jokes).
Barrio Café chef Silvana Salcido Esparza (a lucha aficionado) commissioned two of El Moisés's murals of masked Mexican wrestlers for her restaurant. And two of his eight-foot paintings of Gladiadores Unidos' various rudos and technicos adorn the promotion company's warehouse.
Moisés is helping run Gladiadores Unidos and hopes to increase its prominence among both Hispanics and gringos, whose only familiarity with Mexican wrestling may be from the 2006 Jack Black comedy Nacho Libre.
The artist feels lucha libre has a certain cool underground appeal. Plans are in the works for a countercultural fiesta combining lucha libre, his artwork, Latino rockabilly acts, and lowriders in an event similar to L.A.'s long-running Lucha VaVOOM spectacle.
Moisés latched onto Gladiadores Unidos because he feels it offers "more authentic" Mexican-style wrestling than Piraña.
Because this is a story about wrestling, it's only natural that competing promotions are feuding with each other.
There are sordid details, but the story boils down to former partners and associates of Piraña's forming their own companies. The result? Both Gladiadores Unidos, and a third organization, AA Lucha Libre in Mesa, are competing for the attention of fans.
And each has been successful in its own right.
Gladiadores Unidos started almost 18 months ago and has built a steady turnout of more than 300 at its Friday shows. Meanwhile, AA Lucha Libre averages 150-plus people on Sunday nights outside the Del Sol Reception Hall in Mesa. AA promoter Chris Vargas' events have the celebratory atmosphere of a backyard party, with DJs blasting music between matches.
And Piraña and the other two groups charge only from $2 to $5 per person, far below the blockbuster ticket prices charged by the WWE for WrestleMania.
Predicting that fans won't be able to get enough wrestling this weekend, Vargas plans a show Sunday night at the same time as the pay-per-view spectacular.
Not many of his fans can afford the big WWE event, and "it's not the same thing watching wrestling as home as it is watching it in real life," he says. "We should have a full house."
He may be missing a few local wrestlers, however.
When the WWE rolls into Phoenix, it sometimes taps local talent to be extras on its telecasts or to wrestle in non-televised matches. It's one way that WWE officials evaluate prospects for their training system.
Every year, the WWE signs a few up-and-coming indie wrestlers to developmental contracts for their farm promotion, Florida Championship Wrestling. The recruits receive additional training and could eventually become WWE wrestlers.
For instance, the WWE's Mike Knox worked for Impact Zone Wrestling for years before laboring through the WWE's developmental system and eventually becoming a featured performer on its national TV show Friday Night Smackdown (seen locally on My45).
In addition, national wrestling promotions Ring of Honor and Dragons Gate USA — seen as potential stepping stones between local indie promotions and the WWE — are holding events in the Valley this weekend.
Derrick Neikirk and GQ Gallo, two competitors from newly launched American-style promotion Elite Xtreme Wrestling in the Valley (who participate at AA Lucha Libre shows) will perform in Dragons Gate's events at the Celebrity Theatre this weekend.
Sergio Vega and John Williams claim they'll be backstage at the WWE's Raw event at US Airways Center on Monday in case they're needed. (WWE declined to confirm the claim.) The sports-entertainment giant generally uses wrestlers like them as extras in its multimillion-dollar spectacle. For instance, supernatural WWE superstar The Undertaker usually enters the ring with a cadre of anonymous robed druids.
There's also a small possibility that the two locals could wrestle in "dark matches" (unaired contests featuring indie talent and evaluated by WWE talent scouts).
Getting tapped as an extra hardly guarantees a contract, and a number of wrestlers go through the developmental system every year without making it to the big time.
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Regardless, Williams says, he plans on making the most of the opportunity.
"You've literally got just a few hours to get in people's faces and make an impression," he says. "You want to stand out, talk to everybody you can. You've got a shot, and you want to make the best of it."
Vega's even more confident about the WrestleMania events than Williams. If the diminutive-by wrestling-standards Rey Mysterio got noticed in his day, he believes he can get the WWE's attention, too.
"This is obviously a big opportunity," he says. "And everything that's happened before this, has made it possible for me."