Mexican wrestling’s trademark mask a flop at first

MÉXICO CITY — The mask in Mexican wrestling started out as a complete flop because the first one didn'’t fit the fighter it was made for, but thanks to the perseverance of its creator it became the trademark of a spectacle halfway between sport and showbiz.

Víctor Martínez, son of the inventor of the first mask, said its origin came about by chance and stemmed from a request by an American, not a Mexican.

His father, Antonio H. Martínez, a native of León in the central state of Guanajuato, had sought “fame and fortune” by investing in a workshop making sports footwear.

“In 1933, wrestling became popular in México and my dad liked it so much he became an avid fan,” Martínez said, recalling that at the time most wrestlers were from the United States.

Among them was Cyclone McKey, who came in and ordered “a hood, something that would fit over his head like a shoe, so as not to lose his identity,” Martínez recalled.

His father fashioned a two-piece mask after first making a mold, which was the way he made shoes.

“It was a complete flop because the head can never be like a lcast for making shoes. He wasn’t able to make it fit,” the second-generation mask-maker said.

The mask didn’t fit McKey who stormed out in a temper, while its maker decided rather hastily that this business was not going to prosper.Nonetheless, six months later Cyclone McKey returned to Martínez Sports and asked for six masks, offering more money so as not to repeat past mistakes.

“My father invented the 17 measurements that he passed on to me,” which are patented to prevent piracy, he said.

The new masks fit so well that McKey came to be known as the ‘Masked Marvel,’ and soon other wrestlers started wearing them.

Today the loss of a mask in the ring spells dishonor that can only be redeemed in hand-to-hand combat.

The first Mexican to use one was Murcielago (Bat) Velázquez, followed by El Solitario (The Loner), Blue Demon, Tiniebla (Darkness), ‘Huracán’ (Hurricane) Ramírez,’ Mistico (Mystic) and El Santo (The Saint), who, with their success in the ring and in the movies, made the wrestler’s mask legendary.

Wrestler Sangre Azteca (Aztec Blood), who displays an Aztec calendar on his mask, said the accessory “is the seal of Mexican wrestling” because “it identifies you as a wrestler, it creates your character.”

According to the Official Council of Mexican Wrestling, there are currently 250 wrestlers, mostly Mexicans, although there are also two Japanese, a Russian and an Italo-American.

The México Arena that holds 16,400 spectators is the biggest site built for wrestling in the country.

A national survey released at the end of last year placed wrestling as the fourth most popular sport in México after soccer, basketball and baseball, with 6 percent of all fans.

The mask has evolved considerably in the 77 years that the Martínez store has been doing business in the Mexican capital.

Now it is made of four pieces to adapt it better to the curve of the head and, while it was formerly made of leather and goatskins — which made many wrestlers go bald — now finer skins, satin and synthetic materials are used.

The price of a mask ranges from $55 to $140.

“The first mask had to be invented in México because the Aztecs were masked when they fought,” Martínez said.

The product is currently exported to Ireland, Spain, Germany, France, Italy, Australia, Japan, the United States, Ecuador, Colombia and other Latin American countries, thanks to the success of Hollywood productions like ‘Nacho Libre.’

“If the mask didn’t exist there would be no morbid fascination for wrestling — good and evil would disappear,” the artisan said.“Without a mask the wrestler is nobody,” he said. “The mask will always exist.”