Jose Ruiz was starting to come to while lying on the ground, blood leaking out of his right arm, the one with a tattoo portrait of his deceased mother and father. He had gashed it when he crashed to the concrete and rolled into a wooden pallet. He’d misjudged his launch from the wrestling ring. His head was pounding furiously, and underneath his mask the skin on his forehead was chafed down to the white meat.
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It wasn’t the first time the hulking lucha libre wrestler known as Big Crab had missed his mark. The topé suicida, a lucha libre move in which a wrestler sails through the middle ropes to tackle an opponent below the ring, was off target. His opponent for the match, King Kata, moved to the side just a little too far.
Read our story on deaths in the ring
Two years later in north Houston, Ruiz is bloody again. It’s a Sunday, and ironically kids have come out to celebrate Children’s Day, the Latin American holiday that honors the importance of kids in our lives, but they’re watching a couple of guys make bloody messes of themselves. Ruiz, working as Penguin to another luchador’s Batman, is on his hands and knees, dizzy after taking a chair to his head. Blood gushes from a small cut on his forehead, an occupational hazard of being a luchador.
“The edge of the seat opened my head; I didn’t realize I was bleeding. The hit from a seat is an authentic thing. You can’t fake that,” he says.
Lucha libre, a form of wrestling that has spread to the United States from Mexico, where it started in the 1930s, both borrows from and has influenced the more standard professional wrestling seen on American TV.
In its extreme form, as Ruiz practices it, there’s even more blood and (at least perceived) danger than in regular wrestling. Injuries are fairly common, according to wrestlers and promoters. Many lucha libre wrestlers who’ve recently arrived from Mexico — Jose Ruiz included — don’t have medical insurance and have to pay out of pocket when they hurt themselves during matches.
While it might seem at first as if this form of bloodletting is illegal (especially when minors are involved), technically, at least as far as the State of Texas is concerned, this violent form of sports entertainment isn’t breaking any laws.
The Texas Department of Compliance and Regulation, which keeps track of and licenses combat sports such as boxing and mixed martial arts, doesn’t even bother with wrestling. For anyone competing in the former, sports promoters need to make sure $60 is paid for application fees that certify a competitor has passed comprehensive medical examinations by a certified doctor and obtained a federal ID to fight.
“In other states, if you’re not up to date with your health commission application or whatnot, they won’t let you wrestle,” Paul London says. London is a one-time WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) competitor and current wrestler with , an hourlong English-language lucha libre drama program Lucha Underground which is completing its third season on cable television year.
“They don’t care that you’re there and you’re the main event, that people are there to see you,” London says. “They don’t give a crap about any of that stuff if you don’t fork over the money, or get tested right there.” London, who is from Austin, has wrestled all over the world, with his formative years being spent on the local circuits in Texas, and confirmed that Texas is among those states that don’t heavily regulate professional wrestling.
At a Cinco de Mayo lucha libre event at the Houston restaurant Cuchara, one of the luchadores appeared to suffer a neck injury and complained of not being able to move. He had jumped off the top rope and, when he landed, lay on the canvas. Was it all an act? The audience gasped, and a lot of people stood up, concerned.
Several wrestlers rushed to the ring. A towel was wrapped around the wrestler’s neck and he was carried out. The shock in the crowd was palpable. Later the same wrestler was on his feet.
But that’s not always how it plays out. Two years ago, well known lucha libre wrestler “El Doberman” was fatally injured after competing in a three-man tag team event in Houston. Taken to Ben Taub Hospital, El Doberman, whose real name was Jaime David Sims Juarez, died there.
The cause, according to the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office, was a blow to the chest that forced an irregularity in his heartbeat. The Houston Police Department conducted a homicide investigation and didn’t find any wrongdoing. “In events such as boxing, MMA and wrestling, when someone dies as a result of being hit by someone else, it’s usually considered an accident,” an HPD spokesman says.
Originally from the border city of Piedras Negras in Coahuila, Mexico, El Doberman was also into extreme wrestling. Promotional photos of him soaked in blood, staring down opponents, are still on Facebook.
The blood, the chair wallops, and things like staples and broken fluorescent lightbulbs aren’t anything new to wrestling or lucha libre. But the extreme-wrestling angle is one Ruiz hopes will continue to bring in crowds — despite the fact that lucha libre as a venture tends to be low-paying.
He and Jose Ponce, a wrestler and trainer from the same state in Mexico, have gone into a partnership to form a company called BCX. Ponce, 37, is a huge man, surprisingly agile for his girth, and performs with a mask as Blackstar. The wrestling company’s initials stand for (B)lackstar (C)rab (X)treme.
Ponce has been in the business a long time, about 17 years as a luchador, a lucha libre trainer and a wrestling programmer. He was also, as it turns out, in the ring competing against El Doberman on the night he lost his life.
“I don’t like to talk about it because it’s an incident that no one was prepared for. It’s a circumstance that could happen during any lucha libre match, not just that one,” Ponce says.
Ruiz is ready to make a switch himself.
“I’ve played the role of luchador; now I want to play the role of promoter, so that I can pay people more. So they don’t have to wait to get paid. If a wrestler is making $40 per match, I want to make sure he gets $80,” Ruiz says.
Both wrestlers admit that the venture is more about having something of their own, so they can continue to do lucha libre on their terms. Ponce adds that there’s always a chance to turn a profit in the long run. “It’s a good business if you do it well, just like any other business,” he says.
It’s their version of the American dream and one Ruiz hopes to pass on to his teenage sons, both of whom have been wrestling since they were young.
Ruiz’s father was a luchador known as Jaibo Ruiz (jaibo translates to crab). Ruiz took that and Americanized his name when he came to Texas, and became Big Crab; his son Junior, 17, goes by Aero Crab, and his 13-year-old son, Daniel, is Silver Crab. The word “crab” is a symbolic connection to his coastal home.
Even though his wife, Yadira Ruiz, is worried about the dangers, she also believes heavily in this idea of a lucha libre bloodline. “I’m not in complete agreement that they wrestle, because of the possible risks. But as much as I’d like to talk my kids out of wrestling, and tell them not to do it, I know it’s something in their blood.”
Luche libre exists in urban centers of the United States wherever there is a robust Mexican population. Today that means cities from coast to coast, north and south.
Its rules differ from those of standard American wrestling; most matches are for three falls, meaning an opponent must be pinned two out of three times. It’s a quicker form of wrestling that doesn’t model itself on the economy of movement used in U.S. wrestling, in which physique is often more important than technique.
Another way lucha libre distinguishes itself from the kind of wrestling seen on television is with high-flying moves from the top rope, something that American wrestlers adopted over time.
Lucha libre in Houston has had its ups and downs in the past 20 years, according to promoter Carlos Gonzalez, a marketing and sales veteran who has worked in radio and television and helped organize several lucha libre events in Channelview, Pasadena and Houston in the past couple of years.
His first lucha libre event was the one where El Doberman died. “That’s not something I’m proud of,” he says. “If I had a way to stop it, I would.” He says he was interviewed countless times by the authorities about the incident. Still, the tragedy didn’t slow down his focus on promoting lucha libre to bigger audiences.
Gonzalez had dreams of becoming a lucha libre wrestler when he was growing up in Monterrey. He says the Houston lucha libre scene relies on passion, and the reason for the ups and downs is that it takes a lot of work to put on a wrestling event. “People in charge get tired of carrying all the burden. If you do it too often, it gets to be too much like a job, and if you don’t do it often enough, it’s hard to build a following.”
Gonzalez, who collaborates with other promoters through his company, The Party Kings, frequently helps bring in high-caliber wrestlers from Mexico, which is part of the draw for people willing to pay between $15 and $20 to see these matches in dance halls and sometimes on restaurant patios. His shows so far are fairly modest, drawing crowds of about 300 and up. But a top local wrestling promotion, with known wrestlers and a large venue, can gross upwards of $40,000 per event in ticket sales alone.
In the late 1990s, Gonzalez says, a venue called El Colonial near Wayside Drive in Houston held regular lucha libre events, bringing in wrestlers from border towns in Mexico, as well as a few stars from farther south in Mexico City. Now there are about five promoters trying to bring lucha libre to Houston-area audiences, some of them offshoots of the El Colonial days.
At a recent event at the PlazAmericas mall in Sharpstown, Gonzalez dealt with logistics as hundreds of people looked on at lucha libre matches. Gonzalez brought in Mexican stars Laredo Kid and El Tigre, toned athletes who whip and flip around the ring with dynamic precision. They were part of the main event for a card that featured about a half dozen bouts, all for free.
Sponsorships came in from television networks Telemundo and Univisión and a mattress company in the mall. After the match, members of the audience threw dollars into the ring. Small children came to the ring to hand the wrestlers money their parents gave them — a time-honored lucha libre tradition Gonzalez has seen before. “It started in Mexico City; most wrestlers don’t get paid a lot,” he says. “From the middle down to the beginners, they get very little money.” Gonzalez admits to paying some local luchadores as little as $30.
So the pot builds up in the middle of the ring; maybe it’s $100, maybe less. The winner of a battle-royal-style wrestle-off gets to take the cash. About a dozen wrestlers go at it. All of them have appeared in individual matches throughout the Sunday event, and one by one they get tossed from the ring.
Jose Ruiz and his sons were tossed early from the ring that day. According to Ruiz, they don’t wrestle for the money. They might get $50 or $40 to wrestle, to risk their health to put on a show. It’s the show that’s most important.
Jose Ruiz had been back and forth to Texas over the years. His eldest son was born in Brownsville. When Ruiz decided to become a lucha libre wrestler, he was already into his thirties and what many would consider over the hill.
In a small space in his modest home in north Houston, he has scrawled the phrase “Crab Dynasty” on a wall. This is the area of his home dedicated to wrestling achievements that stretch back to the era of the original Ruiz luchador, his father.
Framed newspaper clippings hang on a wall. Some are old and frayed, showing an image of the elder Ruiz with no mask on. He’s a sincere-looking man in briefs, with a modest mustache.
Then there are the clippings of the child wrestlers, the youngest tangling with another kid inside a ring. Both look elementary school age.
The Ruizes take their masked identities seriously, and it took some coaxing to get them to reveal their real names. The masked wrestler makes a commitment to being a mystery. “If you use a mask, you never show your face. It’s part of the pact you make with lucha libre. The only time you show your face is because you wagered your mask and lost it during a match,” Ruiz explains.
Relocating to Houston a year ago, Ruiz both trains his sons and makes business plans for the future, readying himself for the time he has to step out of the ring. That’ll come sooner rather than later.
In fact, his father hadn’t wanted him to take up lucha libre at all. “He would say that lucha libre was just a sport, and that I should dedicate myself to something else, like my studies, make something of myself and start a family,” Ruiz says.
Like his father, he makes his real living outside lucha libre. Ruiz works as a cabinetmaker for a local company.
Both Junior and his little brother, Daniel, attend public school just south of Houston. When the family arrived in the Houston area with visas, they first settled in a small three-bedroom apartment in Pasadena while Jose networked and looked for work as well as opportunities for his sons to continue their wrestling training.
Each teen has racked up his own achievements in lucha libre. Daniel is a middle-schooler who started to learn lucha libre techniques when he was just eight years old. He was competing in matches by the time he was ten, and now wrestles as a bad guy, or rudo. He has ten matches under his belt.
He’s got a chiseled baby face from the three-times-a-week workouts he does along with his dad and his older brother. Daniel is at the point where he has started to perfect his aerial moves.
During one training session at a wrestling ring set up in an outdoor-event space a few miles from the family’s home, Daniel jumped off the top rope, landing his legs on his brother’s shoulders and twisting his body around him, both boys landing on the canvas. Another move he’s working on, called the tornillo, or screw, involves running against the ropes and jumping backwards, twisting his body as he lands on an opponent who is on the mat.
“I like lucha libre, I’m passionate about it and it’s a great sport. I have a lot of fun, you know? Like when you climb into the ring and people are screaming my name. I feel happy,” he says.
“I do this because of my grandfather, because I know he was a luchador and after my dad became a luchador, and then my brother,” Daniel explains while playing with one of those trendy spinner toys, a distraction his father will yell at him for later. “I’m following my dad, my grandfather and my brother.”
Junior, as the family refers to him, started out as a break-dancer and then one day told his parents that he wanted to wrestle.
“I just thought, why don’t I combine my break-dancing skills with lucha libre? It started as a joke,” Junior says, standing in his family’s home beneath a trophy he won, a blood-stained mask he ripped from another wrestler’s face hanging over it. “But once I got into lucha libre, I couldn’t stop.”
He’s even learned to deal with the pain. “Unfortunately, during one of my first lucha libre bouts, I got hit hard and was unconscious for a few minutes. I don’t remember how I got hit, but I woke up and I was like, ‘What happened?’” he says. A knee injury he sustained during a later match still affects him to this day. It bothered him recently during drills for Junior ROTC at his high school.
“You have to know how to endure the pain so you can keep doing lucha libre. I’m a warrior. Like my dad tells me, ‘When you go into the ring, it’s to get hit, not to pet each other and not to dance,’” Junior says, half-smiling. He says his father has always made clear to him there’s a possibility of entering the ring on one’s feet, but leaving it on a stretcher. That’s why the young luchador will say a prayer and kiss the wrestling mat before a bout.
A sense of family and culture drives lucha libre to have a home in the United States as well as across the border.
“What’s beautiful is that it almost feels like it’s a phenomenon that is representative of an immigrant community in a sense that it’s almost like cultural comfort food,” Carlos Ávila, the director of Tales of Masked Men says. His 2012 PBS documentary, which recently got picked up by Netflix, is one of the definitive works on lucha libre’s history.
While the movie deals with lucha libre’s origins in Mexico, Ávila couldn’t help but notice how the “theatrical sport,” as he calls it, transitioned to the United States. “I was shocked when I was first researching the documentary that there is lucha libre in Atlanta, Georgia, because there’s Latinos working there now,” he says. “It’s one of the things that reminds them of home and allows them to experience something that’s familiar. And so some promoters get in their head, ‘Hey, let’s do some lucha libre shows in some place like Atlanta, Georgia.’”
“Promoters here in Houston have done a lot of damage to lucha libre. There’s a lot of talent and no one gets paid,” Ponce says. He says there are anywhere from 25 to 30 lucha libre performers living in Houston.
With two young daughters and a wife, Ponce doesn’t come from a family legacy of lucha libre, but got involved in it as a hobby in Mexico. He said a friend needed help organizing a match. Ponce, who also works in home construction and design, came to Houston on a visa four years ago to escape violence in Reynosa, one of the deadliest places in Mexico, due to drug gangs.
“We formed our own company to give the people of Houston the real lucha libre from Mexico,” he says proudly.
It’s that type of confidence that lucha libre conglomerates are counting on. Dorian Roldán Peña is part of lucha libre royalty. He’s the executive producer of Luche Libre Underground, a tent-pole show on the El Rey network, the cable channel created by Austin filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. Peña is also the general manager of Lucha Libre AAA Worldwide, one of the two main lucha libre outfits in Mexico, the other being CMLL (Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre).
He says his company is angling for a heavier presence in the United States and that getting into live events is the chief aim. While the Lucha Underground show does do traveling showcases, it’s more a fantasy television program. Peña says market research shows that Texas, New York and California are gold mines for lucha libre.
“One of the things we are trying to do as a company is find out how to use all this heritage we have with lucha libre and create a real business in the United States,” he says. It’s the nostalgia factor the company is banking on. Triple A, as the lucha libre promotion is better known, doesn’t see the multibillion-dollar WWE wrestling company in the United States as its competition, but rather people who spend dollars on other forms of live entertainment, like regional Mexican music concerts.
Smaller promoters such as BCX are only helping the momentum, Peña says.
“We’re looking at the big picture of the wrestling business in the U.S.,” he says. “We are working really hard to find out what makes sense to enter into [at] another stage, and my opinion of all these indie promoters is that they are opening the market to our company to make something bigger.”
All that should bode well for Ruiz. With his ankles almost shot and his body not recovering the way it used to, he’s ready to accept that he can’t keep working as a luchador forever. “I can’t stay away from it,” he says in his home museum to lucha libre, with its rusty nails sticking out of the walls and white-painted wooden paneling in need of repair.
“Right now I’m starting to feel my age, but I want to hear the people yelling when I step into the ring,” he shares.
The idea behind BCX, really, is to bring a different spin to the lucha libre scene in Houston. The bloodier version of lucha libre isn’t something Yadira approves of, but she says she has to support her husband.
Lucha libre is all about coming off as a larger-than-life superhero. But while the countenances and the names might be fake, one thing isn’t: the pain.
“The hits you take in the ring, they hurt, they aren’t false. The hits hurt when you fall onto the ring floor, when you lean against the ropes; you always finish with black-and-blues,” Daniel says.
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“You have to learn how to take the falls and you have to learn how to control the pain,” Junior adds.
Still, the younger Ruiz brother says it’s a beautiful art, lucha libre. When he’s in the heat of the moment, the pain doesn’t bother him and the hits don’t hurt quite as much. But it’s a different story once the match is over.
Meanwhile, mother Yadira sits at all the matches.
“It’s their passion that drives them, but at this point, I don’t ever want to miss a lucha libre match in case there’s an accident,” she says. “I want to be there.”