October 13, 2005

Mexican Fighters Aim to Make it Big in US

MEXICO CITY -- Mistico, a diminutive fighter who stands only 5-1/2 feet tall and weighs 180 pounds, could be the next big thing in a booming American wrestling industry dominated by giants.

Mistico is the epitome of Mexican wrestling, a natural underdog whose impressive flips and acrobatic jumps have made him a celebrity in his native country where "lucha libre" is very much part of the national folklore.

Now, wrestling scouts from the United States are turning their attention to Mistico and other talented Mexican fighters to attract bigger Latino audiences back home and expand the sport's international appeal.

"The dream of every Mexican fighter is to be known around the world," said Mistico, who left home as a teen-ager and learned his trade from a Catholic priest known as "Friar Storm."

"I would love to represent my country in the United States," the soft-spoken 23-year-old added.

By far the most aggressive recruiter of Mexican talent is World Wrestling Entertainment Inc , a publicly traded company that runs the sport's "big leagues" with popular television shows such as "Wrestlemania" and "Smackdown!"

With some 40 million Hispanics living in the United States, locking in a Latin audience makes business sense. The Latino population is growing rapidly in size and purchasing power.

"It does help us in the Latino market to have wrestlers that the crowd know," John Laurinaitis, the WWE vice president of talent recruitment, told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Laurinaitis said he reviewed videotapes of Mexican fighters, took recommendations from established Mexican names and traveled to Mexico to personally check on prospects.

"Some of these Mexican wrestlers are some of the most gifted and agile athletes in the world," he said.


After 72 years of official lucha libre in Mexico, the weekly fights still draw thousands of snarling fans into dimly lighted arenas.

Mexican wrestlers are known for their daring and acrobatic flips in and outside the ring.

At one recent fight, Mistico was tossed around like a rag doll but came back to win after stepping up on top of the ropes and flying some three yards to land on top of a rival outside the ring.

The crowd stood up and roared "Mistico, Mistico" inside the 16,500-capacity Arena Mexico, known as the "cathedral of lucha libre."

In another fight, a crowd of mostly mothers and children packed the decaying Arena Coliseo near one of Mexico City's roughest neighborhoods to watch wrestlers clad in spandex hammer each other.

Children wearing fighters' masks cursed at wrestlers and mothers blew kisses to their favorites.

"Mexican lucha libre is the best in the world," said Juan Manuel Mar, a promoter with El Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL), the oldest wrestling company in Mexico. "That's why Americans come here to recruit fighters."

The CMLL has three nights of wrestling every week and more than 120 fighters on its roster. Crowd favorites range from the 310-pound "Super Porky" to the 4-foot-4 inch "Mascarita Sagrada," or "Sacred Little Mask."

The recruitment drive in Mexico is part of a broader trend of American companies trying to woo untapped Latino consumers.

"The Latino demographic is an audience that is growing in terms of populations and disposable income," said Robert Routh, an entertainment industry analyst with Jefferies & Co. in New York.


The Connecticut-based WWE had revenues of $366.4 million and $39.1 million in profits in the 2005 fiscal year.

In April, the WWE cut a deal with NBC Universal to broadcast its weekly shows on the Spanish-language giant Telemundo .

The appeal of Mexican fighters in the United States has also spread to non-Latino fans.

Rey Mysterio Junior, a masked wrestler who started fighting at 15 in the gritty border city of Tijuana, is now a celebrity at the WWE.

"When I was a kid I was a big fan of American wrestling, but I never imagined I would actually make it to the United States," the 30-year-old wrestler said in a telephone interview. "If you stay in Mexico you get stuck."

He debuted in the WWE three years ago and says many others could follow his path to money and fame. "Mexicans have more than enough competition to bring to the Americans."

Young fighters back in Mexico want to do just that.

Danger, a muscular 17-year-old fighter with a baby face, dreams of fame and fortune in the United States.

"I want to achieve all that Rey Mysterio has achieved in the United States," said Danger during a break from a three-hour training session at the Arena Mexico. "In the world of wrestling, it is either everything or nothing."