Behind the mask of Lucha Libre

There is a bone-jarring crash as a latex-clad hulk of a man slams his opponent to the floor.

Eyes and mouths wide open, the audience breaks into cheers that drown out the groans of the loser, whose pained features can be made out only as a vague outline through his mask.

Welcome to the world of Lucha Libre wrestling – the World Wrestling Entertainment’s (WWE) flamboyant Mexican brother.

In a quiet back alley in Bethnal Green, Lucha is attracting more and more followers under the tutelage of Garry Vanderhorne and Greg Burridge, co-founders of the UK’s only and the EU’s biggest Mexican free style wrestling school.

“This particular type of wrestling is much more gymnastic and dynamic than the North American one,” explains Vanderhorne. It involves more flying through the air and somersaults and a much faster pace.”

Garry Vanderhorne at the London School of Lucha Libre (LSLL). Pic: Jennifer Hahn.

Garry Vanderhorne at the London School of Lucha (LSoL). Pic: Jennifer Hahn.

In the UK, it is still relatively unknown, but in Mexico, it has a huge following. According to Vanderhorne, it is the second biggest recreational sport, next to football, which is number one. “It’s as big as rugby in England, which is massive.”

This lack of popularity in the UK could be attributed perhaps to a misunderstanding of the sport, which is generally perceived to be for children, a low-level form of “real” fighting. Educating the wider public about Lucha’s complexities and artistic value was part of what motivated Vanderhorne and Burridge to set up the school.

“It’s actually high performance art,” says Vanderhorne. “Like Cirque de Soleil with muscles meets Monty Python. If you go to the Chinese State Circus you don’t go: ‘This isn’t real.’ No, you go and appreciate what they’re doing and the skill that’s involved and it’s the same with professional wrestling.

“You’re sparring with someone while keeping it looking as real as possible, while keeping character, conveying the story and eliciting emotions from the audience. So there is not just a basic mechanics of wrestling and fitness involved, but you also need the charisma to connect with an audience.”

Students practicing at the LSoL. Pic: Jennifer Hahn.

Students practicing at the LSoL. Pic: Jennifer Hahn.

A big component of the performance, and perhaps the most recognisable thing about Luchadors and Luchadoras, are their masks. Wearing them gives the wrestlers the freedom to become somebody different and to embody a character without limits. The audience, too, can only see eyes and teeth and maybe a rogue tongue, which enables them to project their fears and desires onto the fighter, increasing their emotional engagement.

Students at the London School of Lucha Libre, are taught not only how to work with their own and other people’s bodies, but also with their minds.

“When you’re under anaerobic pressure – when you’re really out of breath because you’re physically exerting yourself – it’s harder to think, so your brain gets trained to work under extreme circumstances,” explains Vanderhorne.

“The wrestlers who are at the top of their game doing it are actually really clever because their brain has to retain so much information to work under that level of pressure.”

Students practicing at the LSoL. Pic: Jennifer Hahn.

Students practicing at the LSoL. Pic: Jennifer Hahn.

On top of that, creating spectacular fight performances within the ring, gives wrestlers a certain confidence outside of it, as they develop more trust in their bodies and abilities.

“It’s like you’re walking a few inches above everyone else,” Vanderhorne grins. “It gives you a little extra something that normal people don’t have – like being a real life super hero.”

Although some students train to be professional wrestlers (the school just signed someone to the WWE), most stay for the love of the sport and the tight-knit community the school has built around itself.

“It’s really about family,” says Vanderhorne. “We have people here of all kinds of backgrounds, genders and sexualities, forming relationships, long lasting friendships and even marriages with babies and all that.”

Vanderhorne and students at the LSoL. Pic: Jennifer Hahn.

Vanderhorne and students at the LSoL. Pic: Jennifer Hahn.

If you are intimidated by the prospect of trying to wrestle a six foot tall bundle of testosterone, you should at least see it for yourself at a Lucha Britannia show, another of Vanderhorne’s ventures, which is a hybrid of circus, cabaret, theatre and wrestling.

Training sessions (£10 per session)

Beginners – every Monday: 7.30pm-10.30pm
Intermediate – Every Tuesday: 7.30pm-10.30pm
Intermediate/Professionals – Every Wednesday:7.30pm-10.30pm

at the Resistance Gallery, 265 Poyser Street, Bethnal Green E29RF

Leave a Reply