Professional Wrestling and the Hidden Harmony of Battle (Photos)Culture Lifestyle
An Unexpected Reunion
Much of my childhood in Mexico was spent watching professional wrestling, or lucha libre, on television. The popularity of the sport meant that wherever kids got together they would play at being wrestlers. But sadly there came a period in which wrestling all but disappeared from television due to a media furore that came following a spate of injuries to children who had attempted to copy the moves of their favorite masked professionals. It was at this time that I too drifted away from the sport.
Little did I know that a renewed involvement with wrestling was on the cards for me years later. When I moved to Japan in 2008 my first job was at a Mexican restaurant in Tokyo’s Ebisu district. I was astonished to learn that one of our regular customers was Último Dragón, a Japanese pro wrestler who had spent years training in Mexico and whom I had often watched as a boy. Gradually, we got to know each other and one day he told me he was bringing a Mexican wrestler to Japan to appear in an event he had organized. As a photojournalist I thought it would be interesting to attend and write an article about it. I asked if I could come take pictures and he agreed.
I got in touch with an old friend who was working for the Mexican wrestling magazine Luchas 2000 and pitched her my idea. It was my first experience photographing a wrestling match and I spent a lot of time in the run-up to the event looking into technical aspects and other elements of shooting such an event. It became painfully obvious that my skills at capturing moving subjects could use a lot of brushing up.
In professional wrestling, bouts play out at a fast pace, something that seems even more pronounced at ringside. In order to photograph such frenetic action I needed to familiarize myself with the mechanics of the sport and learn to read the athletes’ movements to determine what positions to take up. A misjudgement of timing or angle could lead to a shot of only a wrestler’s legs, or I might miss the particular tension in a fighter’s face, arms, or neck muscles.
The Travails of the Outsider
Once this first experience as a wrestling photographer was over the editor of Luchas 2000 requested my cooperation on another job. In 2009, New Japan Pro Wrestling had begun negotiating with the Mexican promotion Consejo Mundail de Lucha Libre to stage contests in Japan and Mexico. As part of this deal the huge Mexican wrestling star Místico (who later appeared in America’s World Wrestling Entertainment under the name Sin Cara and is currently back in Mexico competing as Myzteziz) had agreed to appear in Japan under the NJPW banner. Although I initially lacked the necessary connections to gain access to the event, I was rescued by Okumura Shigeo, a wrestler who had spent six years living in Mexico.
But having cleared that first hurdle, I came up against another barrier in the form of the Japan National Press Club. There is no equivalent body in Mexico. Press club rules heavily restrict access of nonmembers and the NJPW informed me that not only was I not allowed to take pictures from ringside, but I wasn't able to shoot in the auditorium at all. My only option was to photograph Místico and other wrestlers backstage. I managed to skirt regulations by moving away from the ring. I remained optimistic and spent another two years working for Luchas 2000 in this manner. The lone event the NJPW allowed me to shoot was Fantastica Mania 2013, a job I did for the photo agency Aflo.
Getting Acquainted with the Wide World of Puroresu
I quickly learned Japan has an abundance of wrestling promotions and began frequenting other events as well. Restaurateur Edgar Cortéz, who enjoys a close relationship with Japanese professional wrestling, or puroresu, through his establishment Tequila, was a big help to me in this regard. He introduced me to Umemoto Kazutaka, a wrestler known for his ring personas Mister Cacao and Macho Pump as well as for organizing the event Fukumen Mania (Mask Mania).
In a setup very similar to Mexico, wrestlers at Fukumen Mania all wear masks. It was at these events that I finally got the chance to take pictures ringside.
Around the same time, I became acquainted in the corridors of the NJPW with Arai Hiroshi, a presenter from the combat sports channel Samurai TV who also writes for the weekly publication Shukan Puroresu. Arai helped me gain access to women’s wrestling events organized by the promotion Ice Ribbon. Not long after that Okumura introduced me to the chairman of Reina, another women’s promotion. This gave me the opportunity to photograph heated contests between female wrestlers from both Mexico and Japan. It was a great experience as wrestlers from both countries are very expressive and frequently interact with fans.
In some ways it could be said that I was fortunate to find my path blocked early on by the press club regulations. It forced me to learn about other promotions and different types of events in the broad world of Japanese puroresu. It has also allowed me to relive my childhood by meeting wrestlers that I remembered from my youth, such as Blue Demon Jr., Máscara Dorada (Golden Mask), and Espectrito (Little Ghost).
Wrestling as Therapy
In Mexico, professional wrestling has transcended mere sport, becoming part of the nation’s very culture. This is reflected in the masks and color schemes, the backstories that give meaning to the wrestlers’ performances, and the symbolic details of the costumes. The athletes work at building a close relationship with fans to draw them into the world of lucha libre.
There the sport has become an effective way to relieve stress. In contrast to Japanese audiences, who are more reserved, Mexican spectators attend events to let off steam. They scream and yell, then at the end of a show return home relaxed. This special atmosphere has meant that many Japanese athletes who have wrestled in Mexico come back to find matches here somewhat lacking in intensity.
During a shoot I like to think carefully about the type of photographs I want to take. When spending hours peering through the viewfinder you must consider composition and what essential elements to include while striving to keep superfluous details out of the frame. I like to capture the wrestlers’ facial expressions at the exact moment of surrender when caught in submission holds such as the Boston crab. With time and experience, you learn to anticipate the actions of the wrestlers and take up position to capture their expressions, thereby portraying the harmony hidden within the combat.
I am a member of the arts organization “This is Lucha Libre.” We place great importance on this Mexican term, which signifies something distinct from both American wrestling and Japanese puroresu. Through my work with this group I hope to spread the culture of lucha libre here in Japan.
(Originally written in Spanish and published on December 12, 2014. Photographs by Rodrigo Reyes Marín.)