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War, Voyages, Adventure

Jeff Shreve lives in New York City, where he works as an assistant editor for W.W. Norton.

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El Espejo, The Legend of
Lucha Libre

I try my utmost to remain mysterious at Sunday Mass. If you were to observe me during service, you would conclude that I was a devout Catholic, perhaps one with a checkered past who had stumbled upon salvation after a wildly sinful, undoubtedly tantalizing coming of age. Seated in the back pew, a faraway gaze and half-smile upon my face, this is a perfectly reasonable conclusion to come to, and I do my best to encourage it. After all, the truth never exceeds the imagination. You see, whenever I hear Jesus mentioned during service, I always think of El Espejo, the legendary Mexican luchador. This is not a fact I usually share with strangers, as it doesn’t exactly create the most favorable impression of my character and religious upbringing. Nevertheless, it’s true, and for good reason: I trained El Espejo for eight years, from 1946-1954. In 1955, El Espejo became the National Heavyweight Champion of Mexico in a near-mythical match against El Asesino and promptly disappeared, title belt and all. Many wondered how great he could have become, what he could have been capable of.

I retired in 1954. I know what no one else does. I know El Espejo’s identity. I know precisely how much he was capable of. I also know, having read mistake after biographical mistake, that perhaps it’s best to start at the beginning.

I sat behind a card table in the back room of Arena Torreón, bored out of my mind. It was a Friday in 1946. Fridays were open audition days, an endless parade of unoriginal characters with almost laughable wrestling skills. I thought the first Friday was hilarious. The second was amusing. The third was torturous. From there it went downhill. This one was no different: oh look, here’s The Angel. And here’s The White Angel. And here’s The Devil, and The Demon, and The Black Demon and The Black Devil, and so on. Half of them I was able to dismiss without even seeing them compete, simply by saying, “So you’re El Diablo, huh? Well son, I think the real El Diablo is going to have a problem with that. Sorry!”

And then El Espejo strode smack into the middle of it all. I was immediately captivated. Standing across from me was a wrestler wearing my face, if my face were twisted into an ugly mix of despair and sheer terror. Let me be clear here: I’m not trying to say that El Espejo looked like me or that he wore a mask similar to my own. I’m saying that he took my exact likeness and fashioned a mask from it. Needless to say, I was attentive.

“Well, that’s interesting. And what is your name, son?”

“I am El Espejo,” he replied, staring straight ahead. I was amused. This was a welcome change to my day.

“Shall we discuss the mask now or later, Espejo?”

He lowered his eyes to meet mine. “I am a pure fighter, a strong fighter. I have no need for my opponent’s fear. I reflect it back to him, for him to deal with as he chooses.”

I stood up, smiling, and took off my jacket. “That might be the first worthwhile statement I’ve heard all month, Espejo. Let’s see how it holds up, shall we?”

As anyone even remotely familiar with El Espejo will surely know, that statement held up admirably, through that first test match, through his first professional match (a victory), and all the way through his entire career. For those unfamiliar, allow me to explain. “El Espejo” translates to “The Mirror.” For every match, Espejo would fashion a new mask, always a cruel parody of his opponent’s mask, altered to reflect the fear that Espejo believed was within his opponent. In nearly every case, he was quite accurate.

Nearly every case.

By 1952, Espejo had amassed an impressive resume, unmasking eight of his fellow wrestlers (effectively ending their careers, for those still unfamiliar with lucha libre), while also collecting regional titles effortlessly. As his reputation grew, his mask scare tactic became even more effective, especially when coupled with his lightning-quick reflexes and crippling knee-twist submission holds. His masks became more elaborate as well, depicting opponents as not only fearful, but in many cases also wounded or disfigured in some way. El Espejo rolled on, unbeaten and fearless. And, as I would soon discover, untested as well.


In November of ‘52, El Espejo faced La Plaga (The Plague) for the first time. At the time, neither fighter knew that the match would spark a furious rivalry that would ultimately end in a lucha de apuesta, a fight in which both wrestlers would wager their masks upon the outcome. At the time, each fighter walked into the ring supremely confident. In fact, the two fighters looked nearly identical in every way. La Plaga was a truly unique luchador; his mask did not exude strength or invincibility. Black, with silver outlines around the down turned eyes, nose and gaping mouth, La Plaga’s mask made him look like some sort of tortured phantom in its last, painful death throes. Unable to create a mask that reflected any additional terror, Espejo simply duplicated his opponent’s visage. This method proved unsuccessful.

In that first frenzied, brutal match, La Plaga not only looked like a phantom, he fought like one. As the match started, Espejo closed the distance between them, hands up, and waited for Plaga. Plaga leaned in to grapple, and Espejo darted left in an instant, swinging his left arm toward Plaga’s exposed head…and hit nothing but air. A two-fisted hammer to Espejo’s stomach bent him over, and an elbow drop to the head laid him out in the center of the ring. Struggling to clear his vision, Espejo got up on one elbow, trying to get a bead on Plaga’s location. The crowd roared in anticipation, then suddenly grew hushed. Too late, Espejo realized what had happened. Plaga’s full weight, seemingly dropping from the sky (in reality dropping from the top rope of one of the ring’s corners), knocked not only his wind, but his entire will to fight, out of him. From this point on, Espejo remembers nothing. I, however, am able to recall the resulting pin and count to three which awarded the first round to La Plaga. I am also able to recall, with shame, forfeiting the second round, and hence the match, to La Plaga, amidst much booing and derision.


Please forgive me for recounting the next series of events rather briefly. Truth be told, that debilitating loss did not change El Espejo as much as I thought it would. Espejo’s next couple of opponents expected a humbled fighter, a tentative fighter suddenly aware of his own mortality. They were sorely disappointed, in every sense of the phrase. To Espejo, the loss only served to remind him of how mundane, how full of fear, every other luchador was that he faced. One particularly unlucky fellow, a fighter by the name of El Chacal, was actually thrown clear of the ring and into the first row of the audience. Chacal refused to reenter the ring, and after 20 seconds a disgusted Espejo was declared the victor. In February of ‘53, just three months after their first bout, Espejo demanded a rematch with La Plaga. La Plaga again defeated him, although this time around Espejo managed to stay conscious through the two rounds he lost.

The third matchup between Espejo and Plaga, however, was much more competitive. Plaga again took the first round, pinning a dazed Espejo after a devastating flying clothesline. As my young wrestler stumbled back to his corner, arms resting on the ropes, I gathered him into his seat and leaned over his right shoulder.

“Aren’t you getting sick of this yet, son?”

Espejo dropped his chin down to his chest, closing his eyes. With his right hand, he twirled the leather ties at the back of his mask. For close to a minute, neither of us made a sound. Finally, he raised his head and glanced over at me, still silent. The large brass fight bell suddenly rang twice sharply, signaling the start of the next round.

“That’s funny,” he delivered in perfect monotone. “I was about to ask sweet Plagita over there the same thing.”

Espejo stood up, strode directly into the center of the ring. Plaga met him there, bringing his massive arms together toward Espejo’s head like a musician with a huge pair of cymbals. Espejo darted under and to his left easily, readying a counter blow. Plaga, having seen this move before, quickly rolled back and to his right, coming up right behind the slower Espejo.

But Espejo wasn’t there. Unbelievably, instead of swinging at Plaga after sidestepping him, he had simply dropped to the mat, belly-up. As Plaga stood there, towering over him, Espejo reverse-somersaulted, locking his legs around Plaga’s knee while wrapping his arms around the ankle. With a sharp turn of the legs, Plaga plunged to the ground. With a sharp turn of the arms, Plaga screamed out in pain, slapping the mat with his hands. Espejo released his hold and stood up.

He was greeted with stunned silence.

The bell boy came to his senses first, suddenly grabbing his mallet and ringing the bell, over and over and over. The crowd responded with a roar, a fist-slapping, foot-stomping, heart-quaking roar. Espejo did a slow turn, taking in every corner of the arena, and then walked back to me, unable to hide a small grin.

“Well look at that! I guess he was sick of it after all. And here all I had to do was ask.”

The date of the fourth match was set before either wrestler left the arena that night. La Plaga was incensed, believing he had been robbed of victory by a dirty trick. El Espejo, on the other hand, was a new man, heartened by his rebound against this thorny foe. Immediately prior to the opening bell of that fourth match, La Plaga publicly vowed to spill Espejo’s blood in every corner of the ring. He made good on that promise, relentlessly driving shoulders, elbows and fists into Espejo’s face and dragging him from corner to corner like a limp rag doll. Unfortunately, Plaga’s narrow-sighted determination distracted him from Espejo’s systematic punishment of his right knee. Throughout the vicious blows from Plaga, Espejo concentrated on conserving his energy while aiming occasional kicks and jabs at Plaga’s right knee and forcing Plaga to lean on the knee repeatedly by shifting his body weight slightly. In the 15th minute, Espejo stepped aside as Plaga lunged in, and sure enough, that knee gave out. Plaga tumbled to the mat with a surprised yelp, and Espejo pinned him to take the first round. He took the second round easily as well, forcing Plaga to limp around the ring until he was too weak to fight back.

And so it was that on May 23rd, 1954, with 18 months and four matches of enmity between them, El Espejo and La Plaga agreed to settle their bitter dispute once and for all. It was to be a máscara contra máscara match, mask against mask. The loser would offer up their mask as well as their real identity.

(continued on page 2)


El Espejo, The Legend of Lucha Libre by Jeff Shreve - 1 2
originally published December 1, 2008

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