It was a beautiful fall day, and I was sitting in the living room with my roommates in Mexico City in 2008, where I was studying abroad. The TV was blaring and we were discussing lucha libre, or Mexican wrestling.
I lived in a private dorm near the hospital district and had roommates from several Mexican states: Veracruz, Oaxaca and Puebla. I was the only one from the United States, and am Salvadoran-American. There was only one real foreigner there, a French exchange student named Nico who hailed from Nantes. He listened to us and then, in an amused voice, he flatly explained that Mexican lucha libre is from France.
We protested his claims. How dare he imply that lucha libre comes from France?! It was probably a relic of the pre-Colombian era! It was a Mexican version of wrestling! No way was lucha libre from the same culture that brought us romance and croissants! Baffled, we teased him quite a bit and started to Google lucha libre. The common room where we hung out got quiet.
Our annoying roommate was right.
Lucha libre arrived to Mexico via the French, but the sport has Greco-Roman roots and has existed since around 3000 BCE, according to historians. Like anything else, the sport evolved quite a bit, but it wouldn’t have existed without Napoleon III and his failed mission to take over Mexico.
In the 1860s, Mexico was going through a period of unrest and instability. The country owed money to bigwigs such as Spain, England, France and United States. Napoleon III tried to meddle in Mexico’s affairs using these unpaid debts as an excuse to invade the country and expand French influence in the region. The French also took advantage of the fact that the US was busy with its Civil War and unable to enforce Manifest Destiny, empowering Europe to meddle in the Americas after a period of staying away.
Some Mexican elites supported the French invasion. There was just one problem: the French overestimated their military prowess, and they lost several important battles.
The French were able to gain some momentum in 1863 and they occupied Mexico City. Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian was named the Emperor of Mexico in 1864, but his “reign” didn’t last long. In 1867, French troops had to leave because their government could no longer sustain their stay. Americans were united once more and were willing to invade Mexico to get rid of the European presence that could threaten their domination. So the Archduke was executed that year, ending the French invasion and collapsing Napoleon III’s empire completely.
However, Archduke Maximilian’s execution didn’t erase French contributions to Mexican culture. Historians say that lucha libre, or Mexican wrestling, had its genesis during this failed French intervention.
First things first: the French style of wrestling was Greco-Roman in its roots and only allowed competitors to use their hands and arms during sparring. Enrique Ugartechea, considered the first Mexican wrestler, decided to modify the sport. He invented a more freestyle version of the sport that paved the way for lucha libre as we know it today.
Lucha libre continued to become popular and Mexicans really did transform this new pastime into something that’s totally their own. The country eventually fell into a dictatorship under commander Porfirio Díaz. Mexican wrestling thrived during this era, in part because there was a public desire to find amusement during the dictatorship. Two Italians, Antonio Fournier and Giovanni Reselevich, began promoting matches to the masses.
In 1929, lucha libre became a Mexican phenomenon. Mexican native Salvador Lutteroth González was living and working in the United States when he saw a wrestling match in El Paso, Texas. He was captivated by the sport and decided to introduce this format to his home country. Four years later he created the Empresa Mexican de Lucha Libre (EMLL, or Mexican Wrestling Company), now known as Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL, or Worldwide Mexican Wrestling Council).
Mexican wrestling reached its apex under Lutteroth, who got his start by presenting his first matches in Estadio Modelo, a 5,000-person venue that was meant to be demolished. Lutteroth eventually had to find larger venues. Television also allowed people to watch matches in the comfort of their home.
Masks and secret identities became an important part of the Mexican iteration of wrestling in 1942, when Santo (The Saint) became the most popular wrestler of his era. He’s still considered the best Mexican wrestler of all time and always donned a silver mask during matches.
Today, Mexican wrestling remains popular because of its distinct style. Wrestlers in Mexico focus on moves with flair, often choosing acrobatic or high-flying moves meant to get their audience’s attention. The theatricality of Mexican wrestling stands in contrast to Olympic wrestling, which remains similar in style to its original iteration. Mexican wrestlers also tend to be smaller and thinner than their US-based colleagues in the WWE — and more acrobatic.
Things always come full circle though. Sports Illustrated reports that lucha libre, or Mexican wrestling, has become increasingly popular in the United States.
As for the French? It is said that the French also contributed to the evolution of mariachi music, and even resulted in the creation of new pastries. Their influence was short-lived and subtle, but it’s still part of the rich tapestry of Mexican culture.