LIANE HANSEN, host:
Lucha libre, or Mexican wrestling, is becoming ever more popular in the United States. There's a cartoon on a major cable network, a recent Hollywood movie, and sellout shows in big American cities all devoted to the Mexican sport in which masked wrestlers fight each other for campy effect. The cross border exchange is not a new thing. Lucha libre, loosely translated as free style wrestling, was originally inspired by U.S. professional wrestling in the 1930s. And as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports Americans, Canadians, Europeans, and even Japanese, are luchadores in Mexico too.
(Soundbite of wrestling match)
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's six foot six. His muscles are ripping. He's wearing tiny red shorts, and they're latex. Even without the American flag and bald eagle painted on his chest, you'd know this guy isn't Mexican. His name is Mark Jindrak. He fights by the name of Marco Corleone. Towering over his stockier counterparts, Jindrak plays a mean, brash, tough gringo.
But at times he pretends to get beaten up by the portly, aging but well-loved Mexican luchadores, and it's a crowd-pleasure.
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. MARK JINDRAK (Wrestler): I'm the big, bad guy, you know, but I carry like an aura of confidence.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The 29-year-old New York native has only been fighting for three months in Mexico, but he has American-style ambitions.
Mr. JINDRAK: I want to become the number one wrestler in Mexico, and that's what I've come to do and I'm going to do it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jindrak is following an increasingly well-worn path. Mexican fighters have been heading to the U.S. in recent years because of an explosion in popularity of lucha libre north of the border. But Americans and other foreigners have been coming down here too, to fight for avid fans.
(Soundbite of wrestling match)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's time for the women to face off at the Arena Mexico, the biggest and best lucha libre stadium in Mexico City. Dark Angel comes bouncing down the runway into the ring. She's wearing skin-tight, white, sparkly pants and a crop-top. Emblazoned on her outfit: a Canadian maple leaf.
She's muscular and trim and very, very tough. In a vicious dive off the ropes, she jumps on top of her opponent. In another move, she kicks a female luchador in the face. Thousands of fans wearing masks and tooting horns cheer them on. After the match, which she won, Dark Angel comes out to talk.
Ms. SARAH STOCK (Wrestler): When I first came down here, I used to - I wore a mask when I came down, and I had a pair of wings and all-dark outfits. And one of the promoters suggested that name, and I ran with it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Now she wears her Canadian heritage proudly after she fought in one of the great traditions in Mexican lucha libre, a mask-versus-mask fight that results in the loser having to give up their disguise and reveal their true identity.
Ms. STOCK: The mask is really an important symbol here. It's very sacred to the wrestlers, not so much for me because I'm from Canada, you know, I'm not part of this whole culture. But I know people who have been wrestling over 20 years with the same mask and they tell me that sometimes they think that's the only thing of value that they have.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Since she lost her mask, she can now own up to her real name: Sarah Stock. She's 27, from Winnipeg, and has a chemistry degree. After starting her career in Canada, she came here in 2003, and she says she loves it.
Ms. STOCK: It's a huge part of the culture. The fans are so enthusiastic about it, and it's - you know, everyone from every social class comes to these kind of events. You know, it's a really popular sport. Mexico's, you know, generally known as one of the best places in the world to wrestle, so I'm trying to learn my craft a little more here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Stock says that wrestlers in Mexico are heroes and are actually paid well.
Ms. STOCK: It was always a goal to wrestle full-time, and this is one of the only places in the world I can do that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And she says women's wrestling here is not a gimmick or meant to be salacious.
Ms. STOCK: All wrestling is respected here, so whether you're a midget or a woman or a man...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Or a foreigner. There are also luchadores from Russian, Japan and Europe at the arena. Still, the people here are loyal to their Mexican heroes. Rafal Ordunez is a life-long follower of the sport. He's wearing a mask and jumps up excitedly as he watches.
Mr. RAFAL ORDUNEZ (Wrestling Fan): (Through translator) They don't invest the emotion that the Mexican luchadores do. They need to do more spectacular leaps. The foreigners use more brutality. We like to see them, but we don't love them like we do the Mexicans.
(Soundbite of siren)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the Mexican wrestlers do bleed for their fans. On this night, Volavor, Jr.(ph) was wheeled away in an ambulance after a fall went wrong.
(Soundbite of crowd cheering)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The crowd cheered his name but then turned back to the ring for more. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Mexico City.
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