At the center of the small, darkened arena, in a circular well of light, a gestulating wrestler stood on the third wrung of the ring’s corner post, invoking the crowds’ cheers. She and her teammates equally excited and reviled the crowd: some parrying insults with challenges to audience members and others spreading their arms to receive the cheers of their fans. These female wrestlers were only part of the spectacle of Lucha Libre or Mexican free wrestling, which included a line of curvy and scantily clad women, masked men posing like Greek god’s on to much wine, a crowd flinging insults and finally a wrestling match that more resembles a choreographed macho version of modern dance than anything like actual fighting. I don’t know why, but I had been expecting real wrestling not the Latin version of Hulk Hogan.libre

Tim and I bought tickets for the match at Mexico City’s smaller and central arena, not far from the zocalo. The vendors of wrestling paraphernalia occupied the street fronting the arena: dolls, masks, posters and even videos filled the make- shift stands.

Inside we took our seats on hard concrete bleachers and bought beers and looked down on the ring with excitement. The crowd beside us was mostly families with their young children. More little girls and boys muscled their way past us then beer-bellied bruisers.

In the pit-like arena’s center, a line of almost naked women flanked each wrestler on their way to the ring. Each made his own way on to the ring, some flying over the ropes, others hurdling underneath. Once on the drum of canvas they began a series of postulations that lasted a good five minutes. As their opponents entered the arena, two or three wrestlers stood atop the ropes and raised their arms or pointed their arms diagonally into the air as if they were lightning bolts.

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When the fight did begin it was a confusing cycle of events. There were rounds, it seemed, and even moments of triumph and loss when the referee pounded the mat with three pats to indicant that there had been a pin. But the confusion of the fight, with three or more wrestlers on each team, some flying through the air or throwing their opponents against the ropes, made any attempts to make sense of the match futile. Trying to figure what team was the winner was equally difficult as the match spilled into the audience or saw simultaneous pins.

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It was the good guys, usually better looking and dressed in lighter colored costumes, who won out in the end. The bad team - long hair, dark costumes - in ever match, began by claiming the first victory. But the match would end with their loss and long moments of melodramatic anger over this unfair and one-sided victory.

Some matches were better acted, with more of a flare for theatrics, while others were clumsy in their slow moves and uninspiring acting. But others were both subtle and spectacular in their gravity defying acts of mock violence and their enthusiastic playing of their parts.

It was the last match, which topped the night. The match began in the regular process of posing wrestlers that we had come to expect with entry of Ivan “the Russia” flinging the sweat from his chest onto the crowd. But soon this match degenerated into a chaotic circus of flying bodies and body blows after a midget dressed as a blue monkey entered the scene. Soon the midget was in the arms of a giant wrestler who began smashing his face on the corner post of the ring. On the other side of the ring, two wrestlers careened into the crowd, but softly. Soon this last match was a montage of bodies flying through air, above the ring, two wrestlers wide, as they slammed each other down on to the bending floor.

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This round of fighting was almost practiced enough to seem real: the wrestler with his knees clamped to his opponent’s head, spinning in an arch, was just this side of violence. You could almost believe that the wrestler on the floor holding his head in pain was really in pain. But soon that thought returned from where it had come. Another choreographed bounce against the ropes revealed the match’s falsity as the wrestler to-easily moved himself into his next position. He was almost dancing with his opponent as if they were both actually in some other competition spinning in pairs across the floor, dancing.

Although American wrestling fans will tell you that they know lucha libre, the fact is that its exposure here has been quite limited. The masked wrestler who is currently its best known star in America -- WWE's Rey Mysterio -- in fact once allowed himself to be unmasked on an American TV wrestling show (in the now defunct WCW). As this DVD shows, this would be unthinkable in Mexican wrestling because the wrestler's honor would have been sacrificed.

As we discover quickly in Lucha Libre: Life Behind The Mask, Mexican wrestling is, in fact, all about the honor. In this film, the stories of several luchadors are followed both behind the scenes, and in the ring. None of the luchadors profiled here break character once the whole time we are allowed this rare behind the scenes access.

When the masked tag team Los Chivos practice their moves in a gym (that really looks more like a basement), they never remove their masks in front of the cameras, and during private moments with their families their faces are always blurred "to protect the image."

Lucha Libre is all about the honor.

When Los Chivos wrestle their match, they do so as "Rudos" (the lucha libre equivalent of American wrestling "heels"). In a storyline turnabout (at least to American fans), they come to a Mexican ring waving American flags and shouting "USA" from the ring, drawing boos from the Mexican fans. One of the Chivos is earlier shown in his day job, teaching English in Mexico. When his students see him come to class with bruises on his face, maintaining his secret wrestling identity "becomes problematic," he explains.

In another story, we meet Dinamic, an aging wrestler about to face his final match. Dinamic, who wrestles without a mask, does so because as a youngster he made the mistake of once coming to the ring forgetting to put it on, and he was never able to wear it again as a result of that youthful error. He had dishonored the mystery of the mask.

Here, Dinamic -- who works as a barber by day and who also promotes lucha libre shows himself -- is about to put his hair on the line in a "hair vs mask" match. Although most American fans would figure (and correctly so) that the outcome has already been pre-determined, Dinamic never lets that on for the filmmakers, professing his nervousness about the "bet" right up until the ring bell sounds.

Dinamic's honor and love for the "sport" are never in question, even after he loses his match and his face is a bloody mess. He even maintains his "embarrassment" and desire for revenge during a family gathering afterwards.

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In the parlance of American pro-wrestling this sort of sense of honor and devotion to keeping the secrets of the sport is something the wrestlers themselves refer to as "kayfabe." As American professional wrestling became a victim of its own success during the eighties and nineties, a lot of those secrets have become lost. Likewise, as those good vs. evil storylines have become increasingly more blurred, the fans are no longer sure who to root for or against.

Yet in Mexico's Lucha Libre, where the mystique and the honor remain entrenched as tradition, the fans continue to come to the matches.