In a cramped Renton boxing ring, a group of masked men and two women are bouncing off ropes, body slamming each other and occasionally groaning in pain. All of them seem to be having the time of their lives.
It’s the twice-weekly training session for the roughly 20 members of Lucha Libre Volcanica, an amateur league of Mexican-style wrestlers. Lucha libre (free wrestling) began in Mexico in the 1930s but really took off when television came to the country in the 1950s.
Jose Gomez, 50, created Volcanica and coaches the wrestlers. Known as El Profesor (The Teacher), he also wrestles. On this warm March evening, just across the street from a tarmac full of Boeing 737 jets, he’s getting his group ready for a show, Lucha de Sound, at The University of Puget Sound on Saturday.
Lucha libre is immensely popular in Mexico, says Gomez, who is a native of Mexico City. “Any town you go to, they have an arena for Lucha libre,” he says. Gomez has been teaching wrestling for about 25 years. He started wrestling at age 16 after he was injured playing soccer.
“I wanted something to do,” Gomez says. A friend took him to a lucha libre show and he was hooked.
Compared with American-style professional wrestling, lucha libre has less smack talking, more acrobatics and an overall faster speed, Gomez says. But there is one other characteristic that sets the Mexican sport apart: All of the wrestlers hide their identities behind masks.
The masks themselves are works of art, custom made in Mexico according to the individual wrestler’s design.
“I basically gave them a list of adjectives I liked,” says Volcanica luchador (wrestler) Michael Leveton. “I do know red, fast and sexy were on there.”
“I sent them a drawing,” says La Avispa (The Wasp), a 21-year-old student at the University of Puget Sound. Her black mask displays an “A” on her forehead and two stylized antennae.
One Volcanica luchador, Cromo, wears a mask made of shiny chrome-like material. It’s one of several he owns. “Little by little we are with the mask,” he says and then apologizes for not being fluent in English.
Leveton, 31, and Gomez were the only two luchadores who agreed to be named in this story. The wrestlers are fiercely protective of their identities. The ultimate degrading moment for any luchador is to be publicly unmasked, which is why they’ll playfully try to do it to each other during practice. But the laughing stops when a newspaper photographer points a camera in their direction.
Gomez started the league after he took his teenage son to the boxing gym in 2010. “When I saw the ring, I had memories of lucha libre,” he says. Inspired, he put fliers up in Mexican food stores and soon luchadores came calling. The league held its first show in 2011. Gomez’s 18-year-old son is now a luchador as well.
Today, about 60 percent of the Volcanica wrestlers are Mexican-born and the rest are American-born. Leveton was born in the U.S. and acts as the group’s English-speaking spokesman and marketing manager. The Vancouver, Wash., native is a 2012 graduate of the University of Puget Sound.
Before Leveton became a luchador, he had trained with American professional wrestling groups. In 2011, he visited Gomez’s gym to check out lucha libre.
“That was it. I never went back to American wrestling,” Leveton says.
On this night, the practice session begins with the wrestlers all performing handstands and headstands. Gomez counts off the seconds, “Uno, dos, tres ” During the evening, Spanish, English and Spanglish fill the gym, depending on who’s doing the talking and who’s doing the listening.
The wrestlers lay in a circle inside the ring and take turns jumping up and hopping over each other.
Then the matches begin.
That’s when it becomes apparent that it’s not just the jets next door that can go airborne. A diminutive wrestler who goes by the name of El Mensajero (The Messenger) enters the ring. With bulging muscles and a blue-and-gold mask, he bounces off the ropes and flies across the ring, landing with a loud thud. Then he does it again. And again.
For El Mensajero, lucha libre is a little bit of home transplanted to el Norte. He’s been wrestling since he was 17 in Mexico City. The now-30-year-old Burien construction worker chose his name because he’s studying to be a preacher in his bilingual Pentecostal church.
La Avispa, one of the two female wrestlers working out this night, follows El Mensajero’s display with one of her own and with the same athleticism.
La Avispa, another Vancouver native, has been wrestling with Volcanica for two years. When Leveton took her to a Volcanica workout, she was instantly hooked.
“Going to practice was mesmerizing. Crazy things I never thought anyone outside of gymnastics or professional circuses would be doing. And here it was in front of my face,” she recalls.
La Avispa debuted at the 2013 Lucha de Sound as the troupe’s first female luchador.
Volcanica is the only lucha libre company north of the San Francisco Bay Area and west of Chicago, Leveton says. Saturday’s annual show will be the third at UPS. For the event, the group is bringing up two luchadores from San Jose to perform. There’s also an annual summer show in South Park.
One of the most enthusiastic Volcanica wrestlers is 16-year-old El Sonico, who moves around the ring at a speed befitting his name. The Seattle teen, fond of wearing spooky white contact lenses when performing, is a natural and knows how to work the crowd, Leveton and La Avispa say.
El Sonico says he’s spent about $500 on his masks and costumes. It’s the most expensive part of the sport, he says, “besides medical bills.” He’s injured his back and sprained an ankle and wrist.
But injuries are rare, the wrestlers say. La Avispa’s most serious one has been a sore neck.
“The moves hurt, but you’re not intentionally trying to hurt someone,” she says.
The goal of the wrestlers is to put on a good show, not take each other out of the action. “When there’s a strike or blow, it has to be believable,” Leveton says. “We’re making contact on every kick and punch. You want the sound and you want that person to feel the impact. But nobody stands to benefit if I knock them out.”
After El Sonico soundly defeats a fellow wrestler during this practice, he circles the ring. “Who’s next, punks?” he yells at his teammates. El Roughian enters the ring to take him on. After a few moments of scrapping, a misjudgment sends El Roughian onto the ropes with a direct hit to his groin. The luchador slowly rolls off the mat, groaning with pain.
Soon El Mesenjero enters the ring to take on Ave Rex, a much taller luchador. The two have clearly done this before. Mesenjero flies at Ave Rex like a pit bull immune to gravity. The two yell as they repeatedly throw each other onto the mat.
“As much as it’s cooperative, it’s competitive. We push each other to do better,” Ave Rex says.
Keeping a keen eye on the practice, Gomez occasionally yells out commands: “Plancha! (cross body block)” “Tres cuartos!” (three-quarter roll) and “Tackle!”
The group has a good time, but they take their sport seriously. When one wrestler makes a mistake, he is heckled by his compatriots.
Despite the fierceness of the bouts, the practice ends in hugs.
Three of Volcanica’s members are from the same Auburn family. Brothers Acero (Steel) and El Roughian and Acero’s wife, La Capitana, have been with the group for a year. The family, longtime wrestling fans, checked out the group on a lark.
“After the first day, I was hooked,” El Roughian, 33, says. “We’re just a bunch of big kids playing around. It’s the coolest workout you can do. I’m stronger now than I was in my 20s.”
The Mexican wrestlers are now like family to them, El Roughian says. “These guys totally embraced us.”
LUCHA DE SOUND
Who: Lucha Libre Volcanica
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: University of Puget Sound, Memorial Fieldhouse, 1500 N. Warner St., Tacoma
Admission: $5 suggested donation (benefits a Latino scholarship fund at UPS)
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541