The History of Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (1940-1949)
Yesterday, we began our trek through the history of Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL) at the very beginning, from Enrique Ugartechea inventing lucha libre in the 1860s to Salvador Lutteroth’s founding of CMLL (then EMLL) in the 1930s. Today the journey continues into the 1940s, the decade where CMLL would break ground on one of their most famous arenas, develop arguably their greatest match stipulation, and discover the man who would become one of the biggest stars, not just in lucha libre, but in wrestling history. And with that, let’s jump right back in.
You can read up on 1933-1939 here.
Chapter 3: The Apuesta
As the 1940s began, things were looking rosy for EMLL and their architect Salvador Lutteroth. The promotion was continuing to draw sold out crowds for almost every show, Lutteroth had brokered deals to send his talent across the country to build EMLL’s stock and some of his talent was even cultural phenomenons thanks to their masked appearances. It didn’t hurt that the talent base was growing by the minute, with Lutteroth continuing to find talent across America and Mexico, from the polished Black Guzman to the a young man from Ray, Arizona named Gory Guerrero (more on him shortly). It wasn’t perfect however. With Arena Nacional long gone following its destruction in 1937, Arena Modelo became EMLL’s lone base of operations in Arena Mexico. In theory that was fine; the building continued to sell out every week. But even with all Lutteroth had done to renovate and modernize the building, it was quickly becoming clear that Modelo was too old and too small to accommodate the type of audience Lutteroth was hoping to draw. Even more pressing was the lack of stakes in his matches. For the first seven years of its existence EMLL had been able to draw fans and grow based on the freshness of lucha libre. By this point it had worn off and fans were looking for more than just good matches; they wanted to see something where things mattered. In fairness, Lutteroth had been promoting championship matches ever since EMLL was founded, using several championships sanctioned by the Mexico City Boxing and Wrestling Commission. But Lutteroth knew those matches would only draw for a certain period of time before fans got bored with that. So once more, Lutteroth went outside of the box and came up with yet another idea that would forever alter the trajectory of lucha libre.
After Ciclón Mackey pioneered the masked luchador in Mexico by becoming La Maravilla Enmascarada, Lutteroth began searching for more talent to put under masks. Only two Mexican performers bit; El Enmascarado and Jesús Velázquez. A policeman in his spare time, Velázquez became an instant superstar for EMLL when he debuted as El Murciélago Enmascarado (The Masked Bat) in 1938 thanks to a brutal match with Merced Gomez. The legend is that Velázquez kicked Gomez so hard in the head that he wound up dislodging Gomez’ eyeball, drawing audible gasps from the Arena Modelo crowd. Naturally it was all an act; Gomez had lost his eye years before and was using a glass eye in order to make fans believe what Velázquez did was real. It worked; El Murciélago Enmascarado quickly became Lutteroth’s most hated villain following the event and he didn’t slow down from there. Not only did Velázquez continue to be as ruthless a rudo he could be in the ring, but he became one of the first luchadors to use theatrics before, during and after the match. In particular Velázquez’ entrance as El Murciélago Enmascarado became the stuff of legend; he would walk down dressed in all black, clad in a black leather, hooded vest. That was cool enough by itself, so naturally it got even cooler when Velázquez would occasionally hide bats under his vest, releasing them as he made his entrance. If Ciclón Mackey’s La Maravilla Enmascarada was lucha libre’s first true superhero, then Velázquez’ El Murciélago Enmascarado was its first super villain.
As with every good story, every villain needs a hero and in 1940 Lutteroth found the perfect hero to go against Velázquez. As true a grappler as there was during this era, Guanajuato native Octavio Gaona had quietly been EMLL’s premiere workers in its Middleweight division since he joined full time in 1937. How valuable was he? By 1940 he had already won the Mexican National Middleweight Championship twice and had unified the National Wrestling Association and the World Middleweight Championship after defeating Gus Kallio. Gaona was the real deal and his straight laced, mat based style/persona made him the perfect opposite for a ruthless brawler like Velázquez. As such the two began what many consider to be the first great rivalry in lucha libre history, taking part in several violent encounters where Gaona’s mat based style was thrown to the wolves after Velázquez forced the technico to play by his rules. It seemed the heated feud peaked when Velázquez scored a major victory over Gaona in a violent super libre match, a one fall match fought under street fight rules. But Gaona wasn’t done; he had come to loathe the despicable Velázquez so much that he issued one last challenge for a match. But not just any match; Gaona wanted a match where if he beat Velázquez, the rudo would be forced to unmask and show his face to the world. Ultimately Velázquez agreed, on the condition that if Gaona lost then Velázquez would be allowed to shave the technico’s head. And just like that, the concept of the Lucha de Apuesta match, or bet match, was born.
Well, I guess not technically. There had been instances of unmaskings in the United States prior to the Velázquez-Gaona feud, most famously when Jim Londos unmasked Ray Steele in 1926. But nothing of this sort had happened in Mexico since Lutteroth had introduced the masks several years earlier. Fans immediately became excited for the match; either they would get to see who was the face behind El Murciélago Enmascarado, or they’d see their beloved Gaona get cut down to size and have his head shaved. It was can’t miss, and a match worthy of being the first ever Lucha de Apuesta match in lucha libre history. Naturally it didn’t wind up being the first. In a risky move, Lutteroth decided to build towards the mask match by having Velázquez defend his mask against four of his old rivals first in Lucha de Apuesta matches. Given that the Apuesta bouts were a new concept suddenly being used first on buildup matches as opposed to a major one, it would’ve been easy for this to have blown up in Lutteroth’s face. But like everything else the man touched it worked, with Velázquez shaving the heads of Merced Gomez, Bobby Bonales, Dientes Hernandez and Ciclón Veloz over four consecutive weeks and looking like a monster each time. In essence Velázquez’ domination going into the big fight (and the fact that he showed he could win four Apuesta matches) made him a massive favorite and gave Gaona huge sympathy as the underdog technico. It made the match an even bigger event, leading to yet another sold out Arena Modelo house when Velázquez and Gaona collided on July 18th, 1940.
As with every other encounter between these two, the fans did not leave disappointed. Velázquez and Gaona brawled throughout the night, until finally Gaona slayed his dragon and defeated Velázquez to win his mask. In the end the match worked out for everyone. The fans went home happy, their money well spent. Lutteroth now had the big drawing match he could use over and over again. Gaona had his big win. Even Jesús Velázquez prospered, despite losing his mask and his El Murciélago Enmascarado identity. It turns out that not only was Velázquez the first showman of lucha libre but he was also so big that he was able to survive his unmasking unscathed, thanks to a simple name change to Murciélago Velázquez and his rugged appearance unmasked, which still served his rudo persona well. All in all Murciélago Velázquez was going to be fine, even as an old annoyance from his past lurked in his shadow.
Chapter 4: Santo and Arena Coliseo
The Gaona-Velázquez match proved not only to be a huge success but it wound up giving EMLL and Lutteroth everything they could possibly want. Lutteroth had the business growing everywhere, he had complete monopoly of wrestling in Mexico, he had the talent and now he had the big, be all, end all match to end his biggest programs with. Even the one thing Lutteroth didn’t have, a modern arena to fit a larger audience, was on the verge of being scratched off the list after he broke new ground on an Arena in the Cuauhtémoc of Mexico City. Salvador Lutteroth was indeed on the verge of having everything he ever wanted…and somehow he was about to get even more by having the most legendary luchador in history fall into his lap. And this is where you can say, for all his greatness, Lutteroth did get really lucky. EMLL would’ve been successful regardless, but it’s hard to believe they would’ve ever reached the heights they ultimately did if not for the arrival of El Santo.
If you’re a wrestling fan, you know who El Santo is. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never watched a lucha libre match in your life; the legend of El Santo across several different mediums is so vast that it’s impossible to not have an awareness of him. What you don’t know is that the biggest star in CMLL history had actually flown right under Salvador Lutteroth’s nose just several years prior to his big break. The fifth of seven children, Tulancingo’s most famous son had actually be working in lucha libre for almost ten years, having been trained by his brother Black Guzman becoming interested in wrestling through Ju-Jitsu and Greco-Roman wrestling. Both brothers were eventually discovered by Jack O’Brien and brought to work for EMLL, with Santo using his real name, Rudy Guzman, as his first persona. But while Black Guzman took off and became a solid star for EMLL (he’s credited for innovating the headscissors), Santo did not, flaming out as Rudy Guzman, then as Hombre Rojo, El Demonio Negro and El Enmascarado (it hasn’t been confirmed if Santo was the first or second Enmascarado). It got so bad that Santo was forced to work several jobs in addition to wrestling and eventually left EMLL to work local circuits. Things didn’t get better from there. Having no success with his previous gimmicks, Santo tried a new one; El Murciélago Enmascarado II. Yes, he was using the same gimmick Jesús Velázquez was using for EMLL! Velázquez caught wind and complained to the Mexico City Boxing and Wrestling Commission, who forced Santo to drop the gimmick. Just like that Santo was a man without a gimmick, with a promotion…in all honesty he was pretty much without hope. It was such a dire situation that it wouldn’t have shocked me if he had called it a career.
Perhaps he would’ve if not for the one close friend he had made during his wrestling career. When he first arrived in EMLL, Santo had befriended referee and talent scout Jesús Lomeli. They were so close that, when Lomeli left EMLL shortly after Santo did, he helped book the budding talent onto shows he promoted out of Fronton Mexico. They were still close in 1942 when Santo, recently married, was clinging to his career. In a last gasp move, Lomeli approached Santo with an offer; he was putting together a rudo stable of three masked luchadors and wanted Santo to be a part of it. The catch was that the luchadors would all be clad in silver and would have to pick between three names; El Diablo, El Ángel and, you guessed it, El Santo. Because the gimmick was to be one of merciless rudo, Santo chose…well Santo, liking the contrast between his evil gimmick and the saintly name. No sooner did he have his new gimmick did Santo find himself getting booked in Arena Modelo once again in an eight man battle royal featuring Bobby Bonales, Ciclón Veloz and Murciélago Velázquez among others. It was such a quick turnaround that Santo actually had to rush to get his gear made with the help of mask maker Antonio Martinez. Due to that (and the lack of money Santo had at the time), his first mask was considerably cheaper than the ones he’d wear throughout his career.
The battle royal took place on July 26th, 1942 and as soon as Santo walked out everyone knew he was going to be something special. He impressed mightily in the match, making it all the way to the final two before losing to Ciclón Veloz. But the loss didn’t hurt Santo; in fact it helped him considering it was a DQ loss following him attacking both Veloz and Lomeli (who was refereeing the match) in a fit of rage. Lutteroth immediately booked a rematch between Veloz and Santo for next week’s show and, in a huge surprise, put Santo over. Even today you don’t see many instances of an up and comer being put over a top star like Santo was over Veloz. And this is where Lutteroth deserves credit once more. Despite not being involved in Santo’s gimmick and despite him overlooking Santo years previously, Lutteroth was smart enough to see right away that there was something there that screamed superstar. And so Santo’s push began and quite frankly never let up; in no time he was one of EMLL’s top draws and easily their top rudo. That’s the other thing many don’t remember about Santo; for all of the talk about his status as a legendary Mexican hero, Santo actually worked the bulk of his early career as one of the most loathed rudos in Mexico. How about that?
At first Santo was not put into any major rivalries, instead fighting anyone and everyone. His most notable matches at the first was a competitive loss to Bobby Bonales, a win over Lobo Negro in a Super Libre match and an unforgettable DQ loss against Dientes Hernandez where he low blowed Hernandez eight consecutive times. That is eight consecutive hits in the most painful place possible! That event gave Santo unreal heat heading into 1943 and he used it to earn him his first championship, defeating old nemesis Ciclón Veloz on February 21st for the Mexican National Welterweight Championship. It was here Lutteroth decided to give Santo his first real feud and oh my goodness as it fitting. As it turns out, Santo’s first big rival, if you exclude Veloz, was none other than Murciélago Velázquez. You know, the same guy who just a few years earlier had nearly ended Santo’s career when he forced him to give up the Murciélago Enmascarado name. How the roles had changed since. The two would end up wrestling twice, with Santo taking Velázquez’ Mexican National Middleweight Championship on March 19th and later taking Velazquez’ hair in Santo’s first big Apuesta match. You know what they say about revenge being a dish best served cold. Despite their issues around this time, Santo and Velázquez would eventually become friendly and even starred in several movies together. I’d imagine Velázquez was smart enough to realize, whatever differences they may have had, that Santo was on his way up and Velázquez, despite still being popular, wasn’t. As such differences were put aside and Santo was put over strongly going into the next big thing Lutteroth had planned; the opening of Arena Coliseo.
Still standing and used for shows to this very day, Arena Coliseo was the state of the art, modern arena Lutteroth was looking for. Designed by architect Francisco Bullman, Arena Coliseo was like nothing ever seen in Mexico before, being able to fit 8,500 fans (over 10,000 if you included standing room) and being the first Arena in Mexico to have air conditioning. Even its shape was unique, with the seats forming the shape of a funnel around the dead centered ring, thus earning Arena Coliseo the nickname “the Lagunilla Funnel.” As such, Arena Coliseo became the new home base for EMLL starting on April 2nd, 1943. The full card for the show has since been lost, but the one match known to have happened was the most important; a main event match between Santo and Tarzan Lopez. Much like Santo’s match with Bobby Bonales from last year, Lutteroth had Santo valiantly fall to Lopez, still one of EMLL’s top technicos. Amazingly Santo would never get revenge on Lopez by taking his hair, making Lopez (along with a certain luchador who’d wear a blue mask) one of the few luchadors to get one over Santo on his career.
It didn’t seem to bother Santo that much as he immediately transitioned into a feud with Bonales, still not over his loss to him a year ago. Initially Bonales got the better of Santo, taking his Middleweight Championship from him on June 11th. But Santo would get another chance for revenge in a mask vs. hair match at EMLL’s 10th Anniversario on September 24th. Without question, this show became the new “biggest show” EMLL had ever put on. Not only was it their ten year anniversary, not only did it feature two of their biggest stars going at it, but it was also the first Anniversario to take place in Arena Coliseo. Ultimately the event turned out to be even bigger than Lutteroth’s wildest dreams; 10,000 filled Arena Coliseo to watch Santo, a day after his 26th birthday, defeat Bonales and take his hair for the first of two times. Amidst all the success was the discovery of a formula Lutteroth would use with Santo going forward. The top star would initially lose several singles matches to a potential Apuesta opponent to cast doubt on the result, only for Santo to rally and take his opponent’s hair/mask when it really counted. The scenario was played out again just a year later, when Jack O’Brien took the Mexican National Welterweight Championship from Santo, only to lose his hair to “The Saint” soon after.
As such, the rest of EMLL in the 1940’s, save for a brief period in early 1944 when Santo was injured in a car accident, was built around the man in the silver mask. Santo became Lutteroth’s most dependable star, his biggest rudo and in time even EMLL’s most popular star. The reason was threefold. First, Santo was very good at what he did and possessed enormous amounts of charisma. Second, Lutteroth was careful never to make Santo too dominant. While he almost always came out on top, Santo lost his fair share of matches in feuds and at certain times was even used to put over incoming talent the same way Veloz was used to put over Santo. Finally, Lutteroth and Santo worked together to preserve the mystique of Santo as much as possible. At Lutteroth’s request, Santo never took off the mask in public and carried on doing that long after Lutteroth had retired. It didn’t matter where he was; talk show appearance, court appearance, even boarding an airplane Santo would have the mask on, unmasking only behind closed doors to show airport security that he was who he said he was. He wouldn’t even eat without the mask, having a special one designed so he could eat and protect his identity. All of this may seem over the top, but by protecting his identity Santo allowed the mystery surrounding him with the public to grow, thus creating more intrigue and interest. Those three aspects combined to make Santo the biggest star lucha libre had ever seen, amazingly just the tip of the iceberg considering the popularity Santo would eventually achieve.
But as big a star as Santo was, he wasn’t the only reason Arena Coliseo filled up during that time. Lopez, Bonales, O’Brien and Velázquez, among others, remained just as valuable to EMLL as they were a decade earlier. And Lutteroth remained as active at finding and pushing new talent as ever. Remember Gory Guerrero? Both Santo and Lutteroth found the young luchador to be an exceptionally gifted technical wrestler, and soon Guerrero and Santo were teaming together full time as La Pareja Atómica (The Atomic Pair), where Guerrero displayed some of the most innovative offense ever seen in wrestling. Then there was Cavernario Galindo. Discovered by Lutteroth, Galindo was a rough looking individual who Lutteroth thought resembled a caveman. Thus the gimmick was born and Galindo quickly got over as an unhinged rudo, known for his brawling, his submission move La Cavernaria (which he innovated) and his commitment to character. He was so committed to the role that some wild rumors persist to this day of his antics, including an incident where he supposedly tore a snake to shreds in the middle of the ring. Together, Guerrero and Cavernario added to an already impressive core of talent that seemed destined to carry EMLL well into the 50’s. Little did anyone know that they would go even further, thanks to the arrival of two luchadors who had been working in Monterrey. It was with these two workers that Santo would find his two greatest rivals, lucha libre would find its biggest match and Lutteroth would realize that business was so good that even that state of the art Arena Coliseo couldn’t keep up. But that’s for the next column…