In the Ring with the Women of Lucha Libre —

Fit, fierce, flamboyant.

Catching Mexico’s masked female superheroes live is both spectacle and sport. Lucha libre is the oldest wrestling federation in the world, second only to soccer in popularity and its ability to spark exuberant displays of patriotic pride. Photographers Brett Gundlock and Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock went behind the scenes, beyond the flamboyant costumes and astonishing feats of athleticism, to document how the luchadoras are changing the face of wrestling and inspiring a movement in – and out of – the ring.

As the sun sets on the Arena Coliseo in Mexico City, locals and tourists alike make their way to the home of professional lucha libre. The crowd blows horns, drinks beer from paper cups and tries to flag down the popcorn vendor. The stadium is cool, but there’s a rising warmth generated by too many bodies in one space.

It’s Saturday fight night featuring the luchadoras: powerful masked female fighters competing for a place in an old-school boys’ club. Lights flash, spectators whistle and an anthem blares over the speakers. “Sanely,” a 37-year-old third-generation fighter (with a degree in psychology) strides down the catwalk in knee-high patent-leather boots, a black trench with shiny scales on the arms, blue and black shorts and matching sports bra. Her mask is a combination of the “S” from her name and a tribute to her father, wrestling legend “Mano Negra.” A ripple of excitement passes through the crowd as she climbs into the ring.

March 25, 2020
The Gym Konkreto has blue and white walls and portraits of luchadors
Gym Konkreto, a luchador gym in the Centro Histórico of Mexico City.
A portrait of luchadora “Sanely” wearing a black and blue mask in dedication to her father
Gym Konkreto, a luchador gym in the Centro Histórico of Mexico City.
“Sanely” is a third-generation luchadora and her mask is part tribute to her father, a lucha libre legend.

Lucha libre is considered the most popular sport in the country after soccer. The matches are defined by elaborate masks steeped in lore and family tradition, flamboyant stage personas with soap-opera storylines, crazy aerial flips and no shortage of Spandex – and attending them is a way to experience Mexican culture that can’t be found in a museum or historic church. Lucha libre is believed to have originated over 100 years ago at the beginning of Mexico’s social revolution as a public distraction from political unrest. Women competed professionally until the 1950s, but then were barred from fighting in the country’s capital. Seen as immoral outliers of Mexico’s cultural expectation of femininity, female fighters were forced to travel to provincial towns or outside of the country if they wanted to compete (the ban was lifted in 1986).

It’s the third fight of the night in the Arena Coliseo and Sanely motions to the crowd to cheer. Though she was born into a family of luchadores, her father refused to train her because of the challenges and physical risks he knew she’d face. “My father was the biggest obstacle,” she says. “So, I studied like every obedient daughter, handed him my degree and said: ‘Now I can do what I want.’” Her job as a psychologist gave her the opportunity to train until she made her debut four years ago. Today, Sanely shatters barriers every time she steps into the ring, and her combination of strength and femininity goes beyond entertainment: It’s become a movement.

Black and white photo of Sanely holding a baby in the air
Sanely takes some time to play with a colleague’s baby before a match at Arena Coliseo.

The referee makes a show of checking her boots for hidden weapons, but Sanely is a técnica (meaning she follows the rules) and her style of fighting is based on technique, not cheating. Some of the luchadoras are rudas (fighters who break the rules) and are trickier and more aggressive in their tactics. It sounds like the age-old struggle between good and evil, but it’s more nuanced and stylized than that. The audience, taunting the rudas and cheering on the técnicas, shouts unsolicited advice from the front row. “Walking down the catwalk is something you can’t imagine,” Sanely says. “The lights, the people. It’s addictive.”

The pink luchadora champion belt

The next round is about to begin. “Dalys la Caribeña” enters the ring in a flood of spotlights, waving to a young fan who is shouting her name. The grandmother of five, and current Universal Amazons Champion, is wrestling royalty: She’s the daughter of a Panamanian wrestling promoter, the wife and sister of professional wrestlers and the mother of two daughters who are in Olympic-style wrestling training. “I’m not a normal grandma,” she says. Luchadoras like Dalys are inspiring more and more young women to pursue their dreams of making a living in the ring, and they need all the support they can get. Female fighters are rarely ever accepted as arena headliners, and work twice as hard to be seen as more than eye candy in a macho environment where it’s not uncommon to be told to go back to the kitchen. Dalys, and others like her, are agents of change, battling for justice as role models. “When you become a luchadora, you have to choose a godmother to baptize you,” she says. “I have a new generation of fighters who are all my goddaughters, and I’m happy to inspire them. They know what it cost me to get to where I am.”

Dalys la Caribeña leaping to tackle an opponent
“Dalys la Caribeña” leaps from the ropes to tackle an opponent mid-match.
Photo of Black Fury in costume
Twenty-four-year-old “Black Fury” says her wrestling persona reflects her strong personality.
The illuminated outdoor signage that hangs from the side of the Arena México
Twenty-four-year-old “Black Fury” says her wrestling persona reflects her strong personality.
Outside Arena México, the “cathedral of lucha libre.”

As the army of professional luchadoras grows in Mexico City, so does a wave of feminist activism. Informally, women have been organizing and speaking out for years, but the movement is becoming more visible, from the streets and the workplace to the wrestling arena. Wrestling’s machismo backstage politics are still alive, but not to the extent they once were. Although women still face criticism for pursuing a “masculine” sport, they aren’t sabotaged the way they were previously by their male peers (who sometimes glued their boots to the floor before a match). “There used to be more barriers for women, and it was difficult to earn the respect of many male colleagues. My dressing room was a bathroom,” recalls “Lady Apache,” a 49-year-old recurring champion. But to be a true luchadora is to fight in every aspect of life. “As someone who dares to do things differently, I know I will always shine,” she says.

Lady Apache fought her first amateur fight before the ban was lifted. She wasn’t paid – she was just excited for the opportunity to fight. Her early years were filled with matches that took place in quiet neighbourhoods, markets and churches as she struggled to be recognized on the same level as men. Her long and successful career as a luchadora has allowed her to travel the world, but the contact sport has taken a toll on her personal life. When you’re a fighter, you have to give 100 percent, whether you’re injured or a family member has just died – the public doesn’t know (or care) if you are sick or suffering. “Wrestling is something that really takes away many things. As much as it gives, it also takes away,” she says.

Dalys la Caribeña gets the crowd going from the ropes during a match at Arena Coliseo
Dalys la Caribeña gets the crowd going from the ropes during a match at Arena Coliseo.

“As someone who dares to do things differently, I know I will always shine.”

“Krazy Star,” a 26-year-old luchadora, travels two hours to the city to train at a well-known luchador gym. “After my mother said no, it took me about a year to convince her.” Her wrestling persona channels “la Reina de Los Muertos” (the Queen of the Dead), a fighter who went against the tide, against her family, against her male colleagues – against everything – to become a luchadora. Five years ago, Krazy Star was coming home from a fighting event on the outskirts of Mexico City and found herself in a situation where she had to defend herself. Being a luchadora may have saved her life. “I don’t try to talk like Krazy Star. We are the same. It’s my fear, my courage, my strength and my weakness. I learn from these two parts of me.”

An arena packed with fans

The Saturday-night crowd chants loudly as luchadoras are tossed from the ring, fly over ropes and launch themselves face-first into a series of swift kicks. Their elaborate, mysterious masks are the most valuable things they possess: The masks are more than a way to identify each fighter, they are the essence of the wrestler’s identity. Luchadores are never seen without their masks, and even wear them when exiting the arena after a fight. “Black Fury,” a 24-year-old luchadora, explains that her personality is her wrestling persona; the menacing combination of black-on-black leather represents the tenacious, forceful person behind the mask. “I have a very strong personality. And sometimes, I’m a little aggressive,” she says. “It doesn’t matter that the world says we are the weaker sex. We can achieve anything we set out to do. I want to be an inspiration so that at some point in my career, women may want to be like me.”

Three women battle it out in the arena

Noisemakers and the smell of fried snacks fill the air. Sanely scans the crowd: Hundreds of fans are wearing their favourite fighters’ masks, illuminated by the flashing lights. She soaks up the last moments of the love-hate relationship with the audience. Her one goal in life is to fight in the “cathedral of lucha libre.” “If you haven’t fought in the Arena México, they say you were never really a fighter,” she says. As she exits the ring, Arena Coliseo fills with music signalling the next fight – a male luchador headliner – and a final roar from Sanely’s ecstatic young fans: the next generation of female fighters.
 

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