By Mike Mooneyham

June 4, 2006

There once was a time when masked wrestlers sold out arenas from New York City to Tokyo. It was a time in the profession when everything was either black or white, long before anti-heroes such as Stone Cold Steve Austin blurred the line.

Most masked men from that bygone era were heels, with the mask representing something mysterious and often sinister. Among that special group were such aptly named performers as The Destroyer, The Assassins, The Red Demons and The Infernos.

But some, especially those south of the border, carried an iconic status within their culture. And few held a loftier position than Mil Mascaras.

With an amazing physique and a seemingly endless supply of colorful hoods, Mil Mascaras (The Man of a Thousand Masks) became a star in the ring and on Mexico’s big screen. He was a larger-than-life figure, a masked luchador who was flamboyant, colorful and acrobatic.

Mils Mascaras

Mils Mascaras

Born Aaron Rodriguez in 1942 (some sources list the year as 1938) in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Mascaras maintained a strict separation between his personal and professional life throughout his career. The fact that he does to this very day underscores the significance of the mask in his culture.

“I try to keep my privacy as much as possible. This is just part of me.”

Masked wrestlers have been a unique cultural phenomenon since the 1930s in Mexico, and Mascaras followed in the footsteps of legendary luchadores such as El Santo (Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta) and Blue Demon (Alexander Munoz Moreno). In Mexico the mask is a mystical symbol and a projection of the soul.

Mascaras has never worked without his mask – “it’s part of the life” – and has no plans to take it off. He’s worked many hair vs. mask matches over the years, but it’s been him taking his opponent’s scalp in the end.

“The mask means everything,” says Mascaras, who sports one of his trademark hoods everywhere he goes. “It’s a very important part of our culture. At that time in Mexico, it was only El Santo, Blue Demon and me wearing masks. And now everyone has masks.”

Mascaras, who will be honored at next weekend’s Cauliflower Alley Club banquet in Las Vegas, also was starring in lucha libre-themed movies long before Jack Black took a role as a priest who secretly moonlights as a Mexican wrestler in “Nacho Libre,” a new comedy that spoofs the lucha culture, scheduled to be released June 16.

Mascaras broke into the acting business about the same time he began wrestling professionally more than 40 years ago. A well-conditioned athlete who was training for a spot on the Mexican Olympics team in judo, Mascaras passed on the opportunity when Mexican magazine mogul Valente Perez convinced him that he could make big waves, but in a different direction.

Mexican movie producer Enrique Vergara, looking for a new character to star in his wrestling/horror movies, saw Mascaras as a natural and gave him the starring role in a 1965 flick titled simply “Mil Mascaras.”

Although production values were cheap and the campy films resembled B-movies made in the United States, the genre had become the rage the rage of Mexican cinema, combining elements of Gothic horror, science fiction, sex and comedy, with some wrestling matches thrown in for good measure.

Mascaras and fellow luchadores battled dastardly sorts that included everything from evil scientists to monsters to robots. His film with El Santo and Blue Demon, “The Mummies of Guanajuato,” was one of the biggest grossing domestic films of all time in Mexico and throughout Latin and South America.

El Santo, nearly 25 years Mascaras’s senior, enjoyed a career that spanned nearly five decades, during which he became a folk hero and a symbol of justice for the common man through his appearances in comic books and more than 50 movies. Affectionately known as “El Enmascarado de Plata” (The Man in the Silver Mask), El Santo stood up for the rights of the oppressed. His funeral was attended by tens of thousands of people in Mexico City in 1984, and he was buried in his silver hood.

Just how important the mask is in Mexican culture was demonstrated during the screening for “Nacho Libre.”

A number of real-life wrestlers showed up wearing colorful masks at the audition. When the director asked them to remove their disguises, they all refused.

“The lucha mask is a symbol of strength and empowerment in the Mexican and Chicano culture,” Michelle Martinez of the Department of Chicano Studies at Arizona State University recently told The New York Times. “The mask goes back to Aztec and Mayan times, and also brought the luchador to the superhero level. It gave them this larger-than-human appeal.”

An innovator

With the 5-11, 230-pound Mascaras’s barrel-chested physique, colorful attire and flamboyant personality, he became an instant hit in the ring as well as on the silver screen. Trained by Diablo Velasco, Mascaras sold out arenas throughout Mexico and did the same in Central America before making his U.S. debut in 1968.

Like Santo, perhaps the most famous and iconic of all Mexican luchadores, Mascaras became in a major star in his homeland. Unlike Santo, however, Mascaras would travel abroad extensively and became the biggest export name his country ever produced. He became an international superstar years ahead of his time who helped revolutionize the sport and inspired a countless number of future stars ranging from Jimmy Snuka to Rey Mysterio.

“If it weren’t for Mil Mascaras, there would be no Jushin Liger, no Ultimo Dragon or the Great Sasake today,” Satoru Sayama once said about Mascaras. Sayama, who as the original Tiger Mask inspired the likes of Liger, Dragon and Sasake to become pro wrestlers, was himself inspired as a youth by the high-flying Mexican superstar.

Mascaras was one of the biggest drawing cards in the United States, particularly in southern California and Texas, during the late ’60s and ’70, and became this country’s biggest name masked wrestler along with The Destroyer (Dick Beyer).

The refined and patrician Mascaras, who rarely resorted to rule-breaking and used his repertoire of moves and counter-moves, was an innovator and trend-setter inside the ring who introduced aerial maneuvers such as planchas, topes and suicide dives to new audiences. His visage routinely graced the covers of the era’s top wrestling magazines.

“I made something completely different,” Mascaras said in an interview last week. “The masks were different, I had beautiful, elegant clothes, and a different style with different combinations of moves. I changed the wrestling in the United States, I changed the wrestling in Europe, I changed the wrestling in Japan, I changed the wrestling all over. I was different from anyone else. The guys who started doing flying body presses and such were copying me.”

Now in his mid-60s, Mascaras still wrestles occasionally and still makes films. One of Mexico’s all-time biggest box-office attractions, he has made more than 20 movies during his motion picture career and has two more on the way that were filmed at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

He stays busy and likes to write and paint, but more than anything, he maintains a solid physique through a strict daily training regimen.

“When you love the profession, you take care of yourself. I stay active and I stay in great condition. Today I’ll run five kilometers and I’ll lift weights for about an hour. I eat good food and get good sleep. I don’t take any drugs, I don’t smoke and only drink an occasional glass of wine or a beer or two. The body is like a clock or a good car. You have to take it to the mechanic and keep it in tune.”

He scoffs at the notion of performance-enhancing drugs. Noted for being one of the best-conditioned wrestlers in the sport, he’s been around a lot of gyms and arenas, and has seen the damage chemicals can do.

“I don’t need it. I have good muscles. I know it’s hormones, and hormones are no good for your body. It’s very dangerous. When it’s not natural, it’s not good for your body. You take care of yourself. People use steroids today for anything. A lot of younger people are going to have problems in the future.” The wrestling business has taken Mascaras from Pakistan to Japan to Nigeria, where he claims a record for a crowd of 93,000 in a football and soccer stadium, and has allowed him to travel the world many times over.

“I got the chance to go to the best museums in the world, to see other cultures, to visit homes of many friends. I’ve had a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful life in this profession.”