Lucha Tribute: El Canek
This right here is a Lucha Tribute to one of the biggest lucha libre stars ever. And I’m not kidding. This guy is a Wrestling Observer Hall of Famer (part of the inaugural class), one of the biggest draws in the history of lucha libre and a man who was the top star of the first promotion to look CMLL in the eye and go “we can beat you.” I know what you’re thinking; this is about Mil Mascaras. NOT SO FAST, MY FRIEND! This is, in fact, the story of Frontera, Tabasco’s favorite son, former CMLL, IWRG, AAA and UWA star and lucha libre legend, “The Mayan Prince” El Canek.
What You Already Know
If you’re a hardcore lucha fan, most of what you know about Canek will appear in the next section. If you aren’t however, then you’ll likely only recognize Canek for one reason and one reason alone; his appearance at the 1997 Royal Rumble pay per view. Coming in as part of the hilariously bad AAA/WWE talent exchange, Canek teamed with lucha legend Perro Aguayo Sr. and future legend Hector Garza to take on Fuerza Guerrera (father of Juvy), Jerry Estrada and Heavy Metal.
Chances are you American wrestling fans will remember this for two reasons; a) it was actually a decent match all things considered and b) it’s the closest anyone will get to experiencing 60K strangers being completely silent in one place at the same time. It was so quiet I think I could hear a conversation I was having with my mother all the way in Rhode Island at the time. Needless to say, that’s Canek’s legacy in the states to the casual American wrestling fan. And they wonder why us lucha fans are so worried about Andrade Almas and Gran Metalik’s respective futures.
What You Didn’t Know
Now for the real meat of the column. The man known as El Canek was born Felipe Estrada on June 19, 1952, in Frontera, Tabasco, Mexico, oddly enough just before lucha libre became a national phenomenon thanks to the Black Shadow-El Santo feud. It's here we get our first twist; unlike most luchadors, Canek isn’t a second-generation star! I know; those dudes are rarer than a Mew without cheat codes. As it turns out, Canek is the first of his family to become a luchador, though he has been followed by his brothers Príncipe Maya and El Danes, his nephew Rey Maya and his son, former CMLL luchador El Hijo del Canek.
Little is known about Canek’s early life and what drove him to become a luchador, but by the age of 18, he had already begun his training in nearby Villahermosa, Tabasco, where he also trained in Olympic wrestling and competed in bodybuilding competitions. At 6’0 and over 200 lbs, the well built Canek was all but destined for some sort of role in lucha libre, but he was still not a complete project when he debuted in 1972 in Arena Jardin.
The story goes that Canek was a last minute replacement for El Matematico, who no-showed his scheduled tag match with Ángel Azul against El Profeta and El Chilango Garcia. As such, Canek began his career as El Universitario (“The Academic”), reflecting on his lack of experience.
It didn’t take long for Canek to shed the Universitario name in favor of Príncipe Azul, changing to that name after his partner Ángel Azul sold him his gear. This is where we reach our second twist of the story. Very often famous luchadors will begin their careers under different names and struggle for a long time before they finally find the gimmick that works. Look no further than LA Park and El Santo, who went from journeymen luchadors into household names. As it turns out, Canek’s run as Príncipe Azul was nothing like that; on the contrary, Canek would go onto become a pretty big star in the Villahermosa area as Azul, winning three Apuesta matches (including two against the luchador Ultratumba) and being named the best wrestler of his region.
I can’t say for certain he would’ve had the same success under that name, but it’s clear that Canek’s ability, look and charisma would’ve been enough to make him a star, regardless of what name he went under. In any event, by 1973 Canek decided he didn’t want his persona based in one used by his former partner, and thus became known as El Canek. Why that name? Evidently a fan of history, Canek was inspired to use the name by Jacinto Canek, an 18th Century Mayan revolutionary who unsuccessfully tried to lead a Mayan revolt against New Spain in 1761 (it’s likely Jacinto Canek adopted the Canek name himself from early day Mayan kings, who were known as the Kan Ek’). As such, Canek’s persona and mask reflected that of a Mayan warrior, and he would eventually gain the nickname El Príncipe Maya (The Mayan Prince) as his career continued.
Canek would debut his new persona on March 24, 1973, at the Toreo de Quatro Caminos bullring in Naucalpan, a place that Canek would totally not become familiar with as his career went on (spoiler; he totally would). It was at this point that Canek’s fast rise would suddenly slow down, which can largely be attributed (if you can believe it) to EMLL bringing him in just a few months later. At the time EMLL was not just the top promotion in Mexico; it was the only major promotion in Mexico, the gold standard of lucha libre.
Unfortunately for Canek, there was little to no room to stand out thanks to a crowded main event field that featured mostly established stars like Mil Mascaras, Ray Mendoza, El Solitario, Dr. Wagner Sr. and countless others. As such, Canek’s two years with EMLL were uneventful, with young luchador spending most of his time in the Northern part of Mexico working for former star turned promoter René Guajardo, while refining his skills under Sugi Sito and Fantasma de la Quebrada. While he was successful, it wasn’t enough for Canek to get noticed by the EMLL front office and evidence strongly suggests that he was hardly, if ever, used in Arena Mexico. Considering what would end up happening soon after this, you have to wonder if EMLL’s handling of Canek ranks somewhere between Grady keeping Pedro in for the 8th and Warner Brothers hiring Zack Snyder to head the DC Expanded Universe on the list of worst decisions ever made.
Things changed forever for the 23-year-old on January 29, 1975, when the Universal Wrestling Association was formed by Francisco Flores, Ray Mendoza and Benjamin Mora Jr. The move, made in response to Salvador Lutteroth handing over EMLL to his son Chavo, suddenly gave luchadors who felt they were being misused by EMLL another option, and Canek was one of the many luchadors to jump, appearing in the semi-main event of UWA’s debut show. It was clear from the beginning that Canek, along with the Villanos and several other young luchadors, would receive far more opportunities than they did in EMLL, though they still seemed to be stuck behind stars like Anibal, El Solitario, Mil Mascaras and others.
And then something funny happened. Mascaras, who appeared to be UWA’s meal ticket, started taking more and more bookings with All Japan and the then WWWF, suddenly leaving the UWA without an ace. So UWA bookers decided to go with a two-man system; Mascaras’ brother Dos Caras would become the promotion’s top technico, while Canek would become the top rudo. It worked beautifully, as both Canek and Caras proved to be wildly popular in Mascaras’ absence, developing a long-running rivalry that would span almost all of UWA’s existence. Of course, UWA never capitalized by putting the two together for a mask match, but hey; no one’s perfect right?
Eventually, however, Canek would separate himself from Caras as the UWA’s top star when he was put against, are you ready for this, Lou Thesz. Yes, THAT Lou Thesz. Despite being in his 60’s, the wrestling pioneer was the only one UWA could trust to make their inaugural Heavyweight champion in 1977, partially because his eventual loss would make whoever beat him. Canek was that man, defeating Thesz in Mexico City on August 27th, 1978 to become UWA Heavyweight Champion. Not only was it a monumental moment but, by sheer dumb luck, it was also perfect timing for Canek.
At the time, UWA had pulled together talent exchange deals with New Japan Pro Wrestling and the WWF, allowing them access to several big names from Japan and the States. After the success of the Canek-Thesz match, UWA bookers realized they could strike gold by bringing in a foreign rudo, put him against Canek and eventually have Canek slay the dragon in a high drawing, heavy stakes climax at Toreo de Quatro Caminos, which by this point had become UWA’s Arena Mexico. Just like that, Canek became the face of the UWA and for the next decade would defend the honor of Mexico against some of the biggest stars in wrestling history. We’re talking the likes of Tiger Jeet Singh (who Canek chased for over a year before finally beating), Tatsumi Fujinami, Riki Choshu, Antonio Inoki, Stan Hansen, Gran Hamada, Vader, Konnan, Bad News Allen, King Haku, Yokozuna and, are you ready for this, Hulk Hogan. That’s right; the biggest star in US wrestling history even made it down to Mexico to face (and team with) Canek on a few occasions, and at one point Hogan and Canek would even wrestle for the WWF Championship at the very beginning of Hogan’s huge run.
As Aldo Raine would say, business was booming, as Canek’s big matches drew massive sellouts, making him one of the biggest draws in wrestling history. It also helped him get bookings outside of Mexico, as Canek would go onto have several successful tours of Japan, a brief run in the revised Stampede Wrestling in Calgary in 1986 and even worked for WWF on occasion.
But for all the good things going on at the time, nothing Canek did (or has done since) topped his feud with Andre the Giant. Yup, Andre wrestled down in Mexico too sports fans, and though he and Canek had worked together several times before (including many matches in Japan), their rivalry became the focal point of UWA during the build to their 9th Anniversary Show on January 29, 1984. In what would become the most famous match of his career, Canek not only defeated Andre but actually body slammed him in front of 25,000 approving fans in Toreo de Naucalpan. Canek was not the first to slam Andre (Strong Kobayashi, Butcher Vachon, Harley Race, Hulk Hogan, Stan Hansen, Kamala and Antonio Inoki all preceded him) and his two slams are nowhere near as famous as Hogan’s Wrestlemania 3 moment.
Even still, Canek’s body slam of Andre remains one of the most legendary moments in lucha libre history and arguably was a more impressive feat than the other slams considering Canek, at only 6’0 and 240 lbs according to Wikipedia, was the smallest man to ever lift Andre up and slam him down. Without question, it's one of the three biggest moments in the history of the UWA, right there with the Solitario-Dr. Wagner mask match that took place a year later and El Santo’s final match.
Unfortunately, as we all learn the hard way, nothing lasts forever, and neither did Canek and UWA drawing huge cards with their simple “Canek vs. The World” formula. The straw that broke the camel’s back appears to the 18th Anniversary Show on January 31, 1993, where Canek lost the UWA Heavyweight Championship to Rob Viper’s favorite luchador ever, Vampiro.
On paper, it made sense, as Vampiro was arguably the biggest star in all of Mexico and one of CMLL’s (they changed the name!) premiere draws. For whatever reason, UWA fans didn’t take to Vampiro and business suffered to the point that things didn’t recover when Canek won the title back a little less than a year later. You can argue that there were other factors involved, such as UWA’s early 90’s financial woes and the fact that they had already conceded inferiority to CMLL when they agreed to work together in the ’80s. But the Vampiro match and Canek’s subsequent chase proved that there was no longer a huge audience for Canek trying to overcome the foreign rudo, and thus, no longer an audience for UWA.
Two years later the promotion would close for good, with Canek serving as the last Heavyweight Champion in history. He would continue to defend the title anyway for the next decade, winning it two more times before losing it to Dr. Wagner Jr., who has now held the title for over a decade himself. All in all, Canek won the UWA Heavyweight Championship 15 times, twelve more reigns than the man with the second most (Dos Caras at 3).
Even before UWA closed its doors, Canek had returned to working for CMLL back in the 80s (thanks to the working agreement between the two), and by the early was firmly cemented as one of Paco Alonso’s most dependable veterans. To say things were different though would be an understatement; whereas Canek was the face of UWA, he was merely just another cog in the CMLL machine and wasn’t pushed anywhere close to how he was in the 70s and 80s. In fact, the only notable things to happen during Canek’s first true CMLL stint were a) him and Dr. Wagner Jr. becoming the first ever CMLL World Tag Team Champions and b) an in-ring incident where a petty Canek tried to attack King Haku for being more popular than him, only for it to not work because Haku is the most diabolical hater since the so-called Beautiful.
Ultimately, Canek didn’t last long as full-time CMLL employee, leaving the promotion in 1994 after an elbow injury. He’d make sporadic appearances for both CMLL and AAA in the interim before joining AAA full time in 1997. This was arguably the closest Canek ever came to regaining his former UWA glory as AAA, then hurting themselves following Promo Azteca’s raid of their roster, pushed the legend to the top in no time. Not only did Canek get a spot on the 1997 Royal Rumble card, but he headlined both Triplemania shows in 1997, which were used to set up a several-year-long feud between him and budding star Cibernetico.
Eventually, however, that push died too, and aside from his battles with Cibernetico and winning the 2002 Rey de Reyes tournament, Canek’s AAA run was yet another shadow of Canek’s glory days. It was so bleak that the brightest moment for Canek during that time took place outside of lucha libre, when he briefly crossed over into MMA and defeated Osamu Kawahara in December of 2001. While he was able to compete with his mask on, he never the less revealed his name publicly for the first time, a sort of taboo in lucha libre.
Things haven’t much changed for Canek since his AAA departure. He would latch on to both CMLL and IWRG in the early 2000s and for a brief moment, he was a top both cards, headlining the 71st Aniversario for CMLL (where he unmasked Universo 2000) and winning IWRG’s top title, the IWRG Intercontinental Heavyweight Championship. Once again though, things eventually died down. Part of it was the failure of Canek to secure a mask match with Dr. Wagner Jr., a rivalry based off Canek’s abrupt departure from CMLL in the 90s. More damning were injuries to both of Canek’s knees, the result of wear and tear over the course of a then 30-plus-year career. He would eventually receive reconstructive knee surgery on both knees, which sidelined him for up to two years and effectively ended his career as a quality in-ring luchador.
Nevertheless, Canek has continued on, now relying on his charisma and legacy to still get booked. He would eventually return to IWRG for a few years before having a brief final run in AAA, where he and Dr. Wagner finally settled their score to a degree. His most recent big matches have been appearances in the AAA Lucha Libre World Cup in 2016, and a main event spot in last year’s CMLL Leyendas show, where he, Rayo de Jalisco Jr. and old rival Dos Caras took on Los Hermanos Dinamitas in a match that made everyone wish all six men had retired. Alas, it was a big draw, which explains why Canek will be back in Arena Mexico 24 hours from now, this time teaming with two of Los Hermanos Dinamitas (Cien Caras and Máscara Año 2000) to take on Jalisco, Caras and Villano IV.
As he was more known for his drawing power and charisma than great matches, it’s hard to find a place that can point you in the direction of great Canek matches. Luckily I did my research and, while these may not be the best matches of Canek’s career, they’re certainly the ones I found most interesting. The first match is one he had with the original Tiger Mask (Satoru Sayama) in New Japan back in December of 1981. It’s no Tiger Mask-Dynamite Kid, but it’s a well-paced, highly entertaining match where both men’s styles complement each other very well. Plus, it’s always great to see Sayama going at full speed in a time where there was no one else quite like him.
Finally, the last match is one from the UWA, although it’s against a guy who would not be considered one of Canek’s best opponents. Who is it? None other than Owen Hart. Yes, before he became famous, Owen Hart himself worked down in Mexico under the Blue Blazer gimmick, and would, in fact, put his mask on the line against Canek back in the early ’90s. The match isn’t shown in full, unfortunately, but the action is very good while it lasts and once again shows how well Canek worked with smaller guys.
Note: There is footage of the Andre the Giant match on YouTube, but the quality is so poor that I felt it was a disservice to include it. It can easily be found if you want to look for it.
Along with contemporary Mil Mascaras, El Canek is proof of what happens when someone of any profession stays around too long. While it’s admirable and understandable why Canek continues to wrestle at 65 years old, it’s hard to deny it’s a little sad to see someone harming a once great legacy because they can’t let go. And make no mistake; Canek’s legacy isn’t just great, it’s all-time great. Sure, he was never the man for either CMLL or AAA, but that almost makes Canek’s accomplishments even greater.
For over a decade, he was the top draw of the first promotion to dare compete with CMLL/EMLL and proved to be just as good as packing fans into the building as Konnan, Vampiro, Mistico and other modern-day draws would become. More than that, El Canek WAS the Universal Wrestling Association. He wasn’t alone in carrying the promotion, but he was their guy, their draw, their representative who proved himself worthy both in his numerous tours over in Japan, Canada, Europe and the US and in his many battles with some of the biggest names in wrestling history. Perhaps Canek wasn’t the best worker in his peak, but he was more than capable of holding his own, and his unmatched charisma and unique look were more than enough to draw thousands of fans every time he stepped into the ring.
It’s a shame that all he’s remembered for these days are staying around well past his prime and that silent movie of a match at the 1997 Royal Rumble. But then, all of that combines to make El Canek one of the most fascinating characters in wrestling history. He is simultaneously the man who stuck around too long and the man who once carried a promotion on his back and made them compete with the gold standard of lucha libre. And that’s just scratching the surface. Whatever happens tomorrow or afterwards for El Canek, he can at least take solace in the fact that he was once on a tier few luchadors can say they reached and is, by my estimation, the most underrated megastar in lucha libre history. Now if only someone would tell him that so he can finally hang them up and enjoy himself.
That’s game, sports fans. I’ll be back soon with some sort of review of the CMLL Leyendas show, featuring El Canek. Till then, a picture of Stan Hansen telling Canek to talk to the hand.
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© 2017 Eric Mutter