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Lucha Libre

Boston Herald Review

Who was that masked man? Mexico’s ‘lucha libre’ wrestling pioneer hailed from Hub

Jack Black may bring the world of lucha libre to a mainstream audience unfamiliar with Mexican wrestling in ‘‘Nacho Libre,” opening Friday, but one of the sport’s early pioneers hailed from Boston. And he was Irish.

Nacho Libre!:
Not much information exists about John ‘‘Cyclone” MacKey, according to lucha libre scholars. Some accounts give his name as John Sullivan, others bill his last name as ‘‘MacKey,” ‘‘McKey” or similar incarnations, according to Davison Koenig, a designer and co-curator of the ‘‘Masks of Mexico” exhibit at the Arizona State Museum. (The Herald has chosen to use the name ‘‘MacKey,” in keeping with the Arizona exhibit.)

MacKey was part of a troupe of American wrestlers brought to Mexico City in 1934. Salvador Lutteroth, a Mexican businessman, had seen a professional wrestling match in Texas and wanted to bring the sport across the border. In one wrestling match, MacKey wore a crude leather mask. It was likely no more than a black hood with holes for his eyes and small slits for his nose and mouth, according to Xavier Garza, author of ‘‘Lucha Libre: The Man in the Silver Mask.”

At the time, masked icons had found their way into the cultural mainstream. The masked master swordsman ‘‘Zorro” had defended the people of California from the corrupt Spanish governor since 1919. Alexandre Dumas’ ‘‘The Man in the Iron Mask” also was well-known at the time, according to Koenig. But MacKey’s mask unexpectedly resonated with his Mexican audience. The Aztecs, Mayans and other ancient Mexican civilizations used masks in birth, death and marriage ceremonies. Aztec warriors were said to have disguised themselves as eagles and jaguars as they fought conquistadors.

‘‘(MacKey’s mask) was just a gimmick, a publicity thing,” Koenig said. ‘‘I don’t think he was drawing on a tradition going back thousands of years.”

After MacKey’s debut in the mask, other wrestlers donned masks in the ring, and lucha libre was born. The sport became ‘‘a poor man’s theater,” according to Garza. The masked fighters, known as ‘‘luchadores,” are classified as either ‘‘tecnicos” (working-class heroes who play by the rules) or ‘‘rudos” (bad guys who use dirty tactics to get ahead). It’s the classic struggle between good and evil.

‘‘Somehow, in the nick of time, the good guy will triumph,” Garza said. ‘‘And if he doesn’t, it’s to set up a bigger match down the road.” Once a loser is determined, he’s unmasked, revealing his true identity.

Today, lucha libre is Mexico’s second most popular sport, behind soccer. Luchadores are often well-known and respected in their neighborhoods and are more than symbolic figures. Many champion for social change and campaign for presidential candidates.

"Nacho Libre” is based on the life of Rev. Sergio Gutierrez Benitez, a Roman Catholic cleric who - unbeknownst to his parishioners - wrestled in lucha libre matches for 23 years to raise money for his orphanage.
- June 13, 2006 

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