Inside the railway arches at Bethnal Green, as trains rattle and roar overhead, a baton, of sorts, is being passed from one generation to the next. "Come on, champion, twist!" yells Cassandro, the world-famous Mexican wrestler. His young British protégé, Cassius, grabs his training-partner’s wrist and slams him to the floor. "No, like this!" Cassandro says, grinning as he takes over, and eliciting a squeal from the grounded man.
A 45-years-old, with two heart attacks and innumerable operations under his belt, the diminutive Cassandro – 5ft 5in in his shoes – is looking for someone to tend the flame he has kept burning inside him for the last 27 years. And, unlikely though it may seem, London is one of the torchbearers of the high-flying style of Mexican wrestling known as lucha libre.
On the surface, lucha libre – which translates as “free wrestling” – seems like a game conceived and carried out by idiots. Masked men and women in shiny underwear jump off the ropes and slam each other’s heads into the floor, with no apparent rhyme or reason. Referees end up being thrown to the deck themselves, and the outcome of bouts is rigged in advance.
Not so different from the World Wrestling Federation, then, or the old Saturday-afternoon matches on ITV – except that sometimes, losers have their heads publicly shaved; and sometimes they die. But to aficionados, it’s in a different league from the usual carnival.
“I teach wrestling as performance art,” says Garry Vanderhorne, a former professional wrestler and founder of Lucha Britannia and the London School of Lucha Libre. “It’s like a highly physical, stunt version of performance art using martial arts and gymnastics and every available fighting methodology to create the best possible visual spectacle of fighting and storytelling.”
“You have to be very smart,” says fellow founder and pro-wrestler Greg “The Cockney Crusader” Burridge. “You have to be able to think on your feet, decode language just by using your eyes and understand what moves might be coming next – while in a mask, sweating your nuts off in front of 1,500 people and pretending to be a character.”
Lucha seems more like circus tumbling than competitive tussling; but with clowns who use fists, not foam pies: “The guy who’s in the ring with you is your partner in crime,” says Burridge. “You’re both there to put a show on and manipulate the crowd and make them feel whatever emotions you want them to feel. The ring is your instrument. You have to play that instrument well, and that instrument can be used to make people fucking scream and want to beat you up, cheer, cry, laugh...”
Garry and Greg’s east London school, now five years old, is, they boast, the largest lucha libre school in Europe. It’s certainly one of the only lucha libre schools in Europe. But even so, in London at least, the masked Mexican art seems to be growing stronger by the day.
Lucha Britannia’s raucous club nights – which combine the theatrical violence of wrestling with cabaret, burlesque, fire-breathing and “hot girls in latex” – are consistently packed out, and this weekend, the Brits will go into battle with their legendary Mexican cousins at York Hall, a venue usually reserved for championship boxing bouts.
“People have got a lot of problems,” says Burridge, explaining the success of Lucha Britannia. “It’s very hard now to go out and have a good night that’s cheap and entertaining and different, and we deliver all those things. People want to escape from reality, and I think we give that to them on a lovely basis.”
“Lovely”? Well, although Lucha Britannia is apparently set in a future-present dystopia called the “RetroFutureVerse”, its all-inclusive philosophy does make room for gender-bending characters such as Transexico, and storylines that see the weak triumphing over the strong. And according to Vanderhorne, that means it’s about much more than bonkers escapism.
“I believe in the power of entertainment to both educate and illuminate and make a difference in people’s lives,” he says. “If you get hit over the head with political views all the time, you can become a bit numb to it. But if you can entertain people, you can tell little micro-stories and parables. You can slip your anarchic political statements in. Satire on a mass scale can undermine a government and make change.”
Burridge warms to the theme: “We provide a voice for the people who don’t have a voice. We welcome people from all walks of life. That’s our resistance. We go against what people tell us we should be. We’re not just a wrestling company. We’re a statement!”
Watching Cassandro – dubbed the “Liberace of Lucha Libre” for his extravagant make up, outfits and homosexuality – train Cassius, the recently crowned 21-year-old British champion known as the “Neon Explosion” for his love of pink and glitter, the power of lucha to change the world hits you in the face.
Lucha Britannia will be at ‘The Greatest Spectacle of Lucha Libre’, at York Hall, London E2, tomorrow until SaturdayReuse content