I am a huge pro wrestling fan, most notably of the Mexican lucha libre variety.
The fun times came to an end for Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre in the 1970s, when a stale product and mindset led to much of its talent bolting for the newly formed Universal Wrestling Association. But as Salvador “Chavo” Lutteroth Jr. quietly stepped away and UWA revealed it didn’t have the money to compete with CMLL in the long term, the lucha libre giant regained its status as the king of lucha libre. But a failure to learn from mistakes, coupled with the rise of one the most creative men in lucha libre history, would ultimately lead to CMLL falling down again, never to be quite the same once they got back up. But before they could get knocked down, CMLL (still EMLL) needed to learn to get back up the first time, which is where our story continues.
Chapter 12: Paco replaces Chavo, Recovery, and Atlantis
The need to change had always been a constant for EMLL at the turn of the decade. But never like it was when 1979 turned into 1980. The UWA had proven to be a worthy competitor, and to this point EMLL had been unable to replace any of the big stars they lost with luchadors of the same caliber. Most glaring was the leadership of Salvador “Chavo” Lutteroth Jr. It had now been five years since he had taken over for his father, the legendary Salvador Lutteroth, and it was clear to everyone that he neither had the chops nor the passion to run EMLL the way his dad had. Luckily for everyone involved, Chavo realized it as well, and in 1980 stepped down as owner and promoter of EMLL after only five years on the job. It was a move met with cautious optimism; many were happy to see Chavo gone, but wary of whom would replace him and whether or not his replacement would choose to do things differently than both Chavo and his father. Many of those folks surely groaned when it came out that Chavo’s replacement was another member of the Lutteroth family; his nephew Francisco Alonso Lutteroth, although he was mostly referred to by his nickname, Paco Alonso. As it turns out, the then 26 year old Alonso would be a cross between his uncle and his grandfather. Unlike his uncle Paco seemed to enjoy the lucha libre business and the fact that he was a major player in it. He was not, however, skilled at the ability to both promote and book the way his grandfather had been during EMLL’s golden years. So Paco became what many describe today as a “hands off” boss; he would promote shows and everything, but for the most part left talent and booking decisions to his staff, primarily made up of former luchadors and promoters from past eras. In short; not a whole lot changed, and EMLL continued to follow the same formula as it had during its first five decades.
Paco’s first year as EMLL boss was a rocky one due to UWA’s momentum and the lack of major drawing stars within EMLL. Things began to pick up again around the 47th Anniversario however, where 17,000 showed up to witness a very well booked card. In addition to late 70’s holdovers like El Cobarde, Alfonso Dantes and Sangre Chicana, the 47th Anniversario saw the big show debuts of future stars Cien Caras, Máscara Año 2000 and El Fantasma. Caras and Año 2000 in particular would play a big part in EMLL’s future, both as singles stars and as part of the trios Los Hermanos Dinamitas with their brother Universo 2000. The main event was a hair match between Mocho Cota and El Satánico. Only a year into the business, Cota had risen up the ranks fast as a promising young talent. But he was vastly overshadowed by his opponent Satánico. Debuting in 1973 in his hometown of Guadalajara, the then 31 year old was already a legend in the making, known for his unparalleled mat work, huge personality and exceptional character work. His victory over Cota that night solidified another successful Anniversario for EMLL and the first success of the Paco Alonso era. Things were starting to look up, and not just because the Anniversario proved to be the massive draw it always is.
To this point, the UWA (Universal Wrestling Association for those who forgot) had proven itself to be a worthy opponent for EMLL, with radical ideas, younger talent and strong working relationships with companies like New Japan Pro Wrestling. There was just one problem; money. Though not as dire as the issues they would face in the early 90’s, UWA was already coming to realize they couldn’t offer luchadors the same sort of financial opportunities that came with an EMLL contract. Thus, in a move that shocked many, UWA reached out to EMLL in 1982 about the possibility of the two sides working together. It was not uncommon for promotions in the same area to have talent exchanges with each other but this was different; UWA wasn’t just EMLL’s competitor, it was formed off the back of a mass talent/front office exodus from EMLL to UWA. There was no reason for EMLL to help them out, especially since all they had to do was wait for UWA to wither away.
Instead Alonso, in what would turn out to be a rare instance of him picking good business over pride, agreed to a working arrangement. Just like that EMLL once again had access to some of the stars they lost nearly ten years ago (and vice versa by UWA), best showcased by the 49th Anniversario. The show was originally supposed to be co-headlined by a champion vs. champion match between Mexican National Heavyweight Champion Halcón Ortiz and the NWA World Heavyweight Champion, some guy named “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair. After visa issues prevented Flair from working the show, EMLL decided to stick EMLL defector turned UWA star Dr. Wagner instead, with the good doctor losing to Ortiz in his first Anniversario appearance in many years. He wasn’t the only UWA star to show; Fishman, one of the many rising stars EMLL lost in the exodus, successfully defended his UWA World Light Heavyweight Championship against Ringo Mendoza, while Perro Aguayo returned for the first time in years to shave the head of Tony Salazar. All in all the 49th Anniversario actually didn’t do as good of business as other Anniversario’s, drawing just short of a sellout at 16,000 fans. But it was a victory for EMLL none the less. UWA would continue on for the next twelve years and managed to have their fair share of big shows and memorable moments. But the moment they got into bed with EMLL essentially turned their fierce competition into a situation where EMLL had all the leverage. From that point forward, they never had to be worried about being overtaken by UWA again.
With the UWA no longer a major concern, EMLL’s main focus diverted back into filling up Arena Mexico at every opportunity. They did just that on what many would argue was their biggest show of all time, the 50th Anniversario on September 23rd, 1983. As expected EMLL put a little more effort into this show than usual, bringing in WCCW star Kevin Von Erich to team with Halcón Ortiz and Máscara Año 2000 in the undercard, as well as Villano III, the most talented son of Ray Mendoza who would go on to have some of the greatest matches in EMLL history down the line. The headlining match however was a hair match between Sangre Chicana and MS-1. Chicana had been a star for EMLL for awhile by this point and had developed a heated rivalry with MS-1, who had gotten over as one third of the Los Infernales trio consisting of himself, El Satánico and up and comer Pirata Morgan. In a throwback to many of EMLL’s old school rivalries such as Gory Guerrero-Cavernario Galindo, the two went back and forth for months in a series of heated brawls before finally deciding to settle their differences in the ultimate match. As per usual with EMLL, good prevailed over evil as Chicana defeated MS-1 to win the match and his nemesis’ hair.
Despite that humiliation, all was not lost for MS-1 as he still has his Los Infernales trio to fall back on. Starting just a little before MS-1 and Satánico formed their group with original member Espectro Jr., trios teams had started to become the rage in Mexico thanks to the UWA trio Los Misioneros de Muerte (The Missionaries of Death). Like everything else with lucha libre, trios teams weren’t new; the Espantos, Los Rebeldes, La Ola Blanca and many alliances between El Santo and various technicos had all been wildly popular during the 60’s and 70’s for EMLL. But the Misioneros (consisting of Negro Navarro, El Signo and El Texano for those interested), coupled with UWA’s promotion of the division, suddenly made the trios match a staple at shows across Mexico. EMLL picked up the practice as well, building a trios division around Los Infernales and Los Brazos, a trio of three brothers named El Brazo, Brazo de Oro and Brazo de Plata. By 1985 the teams were feuding full time over the newly created Mexican National Trios Championships, trading them back and forth over a series of heated matches. Since then the trios match has become a CMLL staple, and the most common match to be found on any given show from Arena Mexico, Arena Puebla or Arena Coliseo.
As all of this was going on, EMLL continued to gather new, young talent. The aforementioned Pirata Morgan, Fuerza Guerrero and Negro Casas, son of long time luchador Pepe Casas, all got booked by EMLL at various points during the early 80’s. But the one youngster who stuck out the most during that time was a then 22 year old luchador from Los Altos, Jalisco named Atlantis. Trained, like many, by the renowned Diablo Velazco, Atlantis was an early breed of what lucha libre would look like a decade from then. He had it all; an excellent mat game, revolutionary (at the time) high flying skills and an awesome back story, billing himself as a supposed lost warrior for the mythical city Atlantis (hence the name). All these qualities quickly got him notoriety when he debuted in June of 1983, as well as the unwanted attention of the luchador Talisman. Yet again EMLL borrowed from a past story of theirs to set up this feud, with Talisman targeting Atlantis to show the youngster what his proper place was in the EMLL hierarchy. Eventually the feud boiled hot enough that it was booked to headline the 51st Anniversario on September 21st, 1984. The 18,000 who packed Arena Mexico that day saw the first of what turned out to be many memorable mask matches featuring Atlantis, as the young technico overcame a 1-0 deficit (and Talisman cheating) to win the second and third fall. Though taking Talisman’s mask did not make Atlantis a world class draw overnight, it immediately established Atlantis as a star, a position he has yet to relinquish 33 years later.
Chapter 13: The Anniversary Show That Wasn’t, Antonio Peña, and Konnan
For the first time in awhile things were starting to look up for EMLL. The UWA threat had subsided, young talent was pouring in, Arena Mexico was selling out the biggest shows and best of all, Paco Alonso wasn’t screwing things up the way his uncle had been. It wasn’t like it was before, but for all intents and purposes EMLL had righted the ship. Naturally something had to come along to set EMLL back a bit and it came in the form of a tragic event. On September 19th, 1985, just a day before EMLL was to hold their 52nd Anniversario, Mexico City was hit with an 8.0 earthquake, one of the largest in the history of the country. Over 5,000 people lost their lives in the disaster and over 3,000 buildings were severely damaged, with over 400 collapsing. While neither Arena Mexico nor Arena Coliseo was damaged, the fear of structural damage to both, aftershocks and human decency led to EMLL postponing the Anniversario and later canceling it. To date, it is the only Anniversario to ever be canceled in CMLL’s 84 year history.
Upon returning after the earthquake, EMLL seemed to enter a bit of a coasting period. The 53rd Anniversario, the first since the earthquake, drew 3,000 less than the Atlantis-Talisman match, despite being built around two huge trios matches featuring Los Brazos, Atlantis, Ultraman, Rayo de Jalisco Jr. (son of the legendary luchador from the 60’s and 70’s), Americó Rocca, Tony Salazar, Ringo Mendoza and Los Misioneros de Muerte. Disappointed, EMLL went all out for the 54th Anniversario, building around honoring the legendary Gory Guerrero. Now 66 years old and retired for several years, Guerrero was made the center of attention for a show that featured all four of his sons. At the time more attention was given to Guerrero’s three oldest sons, Mando, Hector and international superstar Chavo Guerrero, who defeated Sangre Chicana, Gran Markus and Gran Markus Jr. in the semi-main event. But the more historically significant match involving a Guerrero took place earlier in the card, where Gory’s youngest son Eddy took on El Dandy and El Hijo del Gladiator (a repackaged Talisman) in a tag match. Eddy’s partner; El Hijo del Santo, the son of the most famous luchador of all time. Put together as a tribute to the tag team of Santo and Gory Guerrero during EMLL’s early years, the New Atomic Pair defeated Dandy and Gladiator, the first of many great matches to come for both. But despite the presence of the Guerrero’s, a great mask vs. mask main event between As Charo and Mogur, the Anniversario debut of El Santo’s son, a returning Ray Mendoza and several other young talents like Dandy and Blue Panther, EMLL was left disappointed again when the show failed to sell out for the second consecutive year.
To be clear, 15,000 people for a big show is nothing to sneeze at and the only thing significantly hurt from these two shows failing to sell out was EMLL’s pride. But even still, this was a tough blow for EMLL to swallow, considering they were used to almost always drawing a full house for Anniversario’s. It was clear that EMLL now had to change things up to a degree, and luckily they had the perfect guy to help lead that charge in their booking committee. Remember that luchador Espectro Jr. that was mentioned earlier? Under the mask was a man named Antonio Peña. A veteran of over ten years, Peña was known as a highly creative luchador who focused just as much on character work as he was in ring performance. But while Peña loved being a luchador, his greatest dream was to change lucha libre for the better; he believed that lucha libre’s future lay in complex characters, in ring psychology and exciting action, and was determined to be the man who put these qualities to use. After injuries forced him to retire in 1986, Peña took a job in EMLL’s front office and slowly worked his way up onto the creative staff. By 1988, Paco Alonso was so impressed with his ideas that Peña was made one of the two main bookers for EMLL, alongside Juan Herrera.
Upon his promotion, Peña quickly showed an eye for three things; discovering impressive young talent, creating creative characters and coming up with innovative ideas. Younger, smaller luchadors who normally would have to wait years to get a push were suddenly given more opportunities under Peña, as well as overhauls in their personas. The greatest examples of this would be luchadors La Amenaza Elegante (The Elegant Threat) and El Hombre sin Nombre (The Man with No Name). Both Elegante and Nombre had been little more than journeymen luchadors for most of their careers, despite still being in their 20’s. Seeing something in them, Peña took them under their wing and developed new characters for each. In short time La Amenaza Elegante became Octagón and El Hombre sin Nombre became Máscara Sagrada; before either new it both had become two of EMLL’s biggest stars, headlining shows and even making movies. In addition to his reinventions of luchadors, Peña also came up with the revolutionary idea for a Mini-Estrellas division. The concept of the Mini-Estrellas division worked in two ways; it gave luchadors too small to work with luchadors like Octagón, Sagrada or El Hijo del Santo a chance to show off their stuff and it allowed Peña to capitalize on the popularity of his main stars by giving the Estrellas clone gimmicks. The most famous example would be Mascarita Sagrada, the Mini-Estrella version of Máscara Sagrada and considered by many to be the greatest Mini-Estrella of all time. The 56th Anniversario became the first show to highlight most of Peña’s ideas, featuring young talent like Sagrada, Blue Panther, El Dandy, Lizmark, Pirata Morgan, the recently debuted Blue Demon Jr. and the first ever Mini-Estrellas match. The show, headlined by Atlantis and Satánico winning a mask vs. hair tag match, equaled the attendance for the 55th Anniversario at 17,000, proving Peña was on the right track.
Unfortunately for Peña, he wasn’t the only voice in the room as Herrera shared just as much booking power as him. This created tension between the two; while Peña preferred to modernize lucha libre, Herrera was very much an old school guy, preferring the classic lucha libre style that emphasized mat work, brawling and high drama. The tension remained just that heading into the 90’s, but there were clear signs that sooner or later, Paco Alonso would have to choose which booker he would side with. For now though, he would let it pay dividends, as contrasting ideas of Peña and Herrera created some compelling, highly watchable cards. Nothing highlighted this more than EMLL’s 57th Anniversario, where Peña was responsible for booking the undercard and Herrera the main events. The contrast worked; Herrera’s two big singles matches, Atlantis vs. Emilio Charles Jr. and Rayo de Jalisco vs. Cien Caras in a mask vs. mask match, where huge hits, with the latter going down as one of the best mask matches in the modern era. Meanwhile Peña’s undercard was sublime, featuring another stellar Mini-Estrellas match, the Brazos taking on the exciting technico trio of Volador, Super Astro and Ángel Azteca and a six man tag featuring El Hijo del Santo, Lizmark and Ringo Mendoza taking on Perro Aguayo, Fabuloso Blondie and Peña’s latest find, a 26 year old Cuban named Konnan.
Growing up between Boston and Miami, Konnan had been a wrestling fan as a kid before becoming interested in boxing, a passion he carried when he joined the US Navy at 18 years old. A few years after being honorably discharged and having his boxing career halted due to a soldier injury, Konnan found himself in Tijuana, where he met a man named John Roberts. Roberts claimed to Konnan that he could make him a big star in Tijuana, falsely presenting himself as a wrestling promoter. It wasn’t until Konnan’s first show that it was revealed to him that Roberts was a fraud and that Konnan had been led into the lion’s den. Still, at nearly 6 feet and 215 lbs, promoter Manuel de los Santos and Tijuana legend Rey Mysterio Sr. liked Konnan’s look and his attitude and convinced him to give lucha libre a go. He did, and the masked Konnan began his career as El Centurion under the UWA banner on January 6th, 1988. He picked up wrestling quick and soon became a headliner across Mexico, including a few big matches with El Canek for the UWA World Heavyweight Championship. It was around the time he changed his name to Konnan El Barbaro (Konnan the Barbarian) that he caught the eye of EMLL and Peña in particular, and was brought in.
With his bodybuilder look, off the charts charisma and a seemingly endless supply of energy, Konnan almost instantly became an overnight sensation. He immediately became embroiled in a long standing, promo spanning rivalry with Cien Caras and Perro Aguayo. The oldest of the three Dinamitas, Caras has bounced back splendidly from his mask lost to Rayo de Jalisco Jr. due to his good looks. Aguayo meanwhile was now a lucha libre legend thanks to his battles with Santo and a highly successful run in the UWA during the 80’s. Both luchadors served not only as Konnan’s major rivals but as experienced workers who could help Konnan improve his work; in particular Konnan and Aguayo developed a strong chemistry and bond between them. But before the feud could kick into high gear, EMLL had to do one thing first; unmask Konnan. That happened on the March 22nd, 1991 edition of Super Viernes, when Aguayo defeated Konnan in three falls after the aggressive youngster got DQ’d in the third fall. In one of the turning points of Konnan’s young career, after taking off his mask and discarding it, a young fan (said to be Konnan’s storyline brother) came to the ring and tearfully handed Konnan’s mask back. The emotional moment, the first of many Konnan would expertly handle, only served to give Konnan more support and arguably turn him into the biggest star in Mexico. He gained momentum back quickly, defeating Caras to become the first ever EMLL World Heavyweight Champion only a few weeks later, and then got his revenge on Aguayo later in the year when he and Caras outlasted Aguayo in a triple threat match at the 58th Anniversario, forcing Aguayo to have his head shaved. Those three moments, in addition to his growing talents, cemented Konnan as EMLL’s first bonafide, stand alone draw since arguably El Solitario. Little did he know he was about to be joined in that category.
Chapter 14: Becoming CMLL, Vampiro, and AAA
You may have asked yourself several times by now when exactly did EMLL become CMLL? Well, the change happened in 1992, though the origin of the name change went back as far as four years earlier in 1988. That was the year when EMLL and the NWA officially ended their partnership, one that spanned back thirty six years. Why did they do this? As many may know, the NWA was on borrowed time in 1988, thanks to the fall of its lead promotion Jim Crockett Promotions, a declining territory system and the rise of Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation. Combined with infighting and EMLL’s dwindling lack of access to NWA stars (in contrast to the UWA, who at the same time had great access to New Japan and even WWF stars) led to the partnership dissolving and EMLL breaking out on its own. As such, many within the promotion thought it was a good time to change the name in order to establish a new identity, one that also fit with the modern times. And that is how Empresa Mexicana de Lucha Libre became Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (The World Wrestling Council) in 1991.
Aside from the name change it was business as usual for CMLL, with Peña and Herrera splitting the booking duties and Konnan leading a pack of young, talented, hungry luchadors. Around this time EMLL was also starting to bring in foreign wrestlers, most of whom had worked with Konnan during his brief stint in WCW. English wrestler Norman Smiley arrived in 1991 and would eventually become the only English born wrestler to hold the CMLL World Heavyweight Championship. Troubled Portland, Oregon native Art Barr soon turned his career around thanks to a hot feud with Blue Panther. King Haku showed up to revitalize his career after his WWE run flamed out. Oddly enough though the country CMLL seemed to borrow the most talent from was Canada, notably future stars like Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho. The latter in fact had his first real run as a top level talent in CMLL, working under the name Corazon de Leon. But against all odds, there was one foreigner who came in and, despite having nearly zero wrestling chops by his own accord, became an overnight sensation that instantly rivaled Konnan.
It’s impossible to go into too much detail about Ian Hodgkinson’s origin story as I’m not entirely sure he knows anymore. What can be said is that the Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada native suddenly showed up in Mexico City in February of 1991, looking literally like a bat out of hell. Getting into contact with Paco Alonso and Antonio Peña, Hodgkinson was nearly laughed out of the room when he told the two he wanted to be a wrestler. But when the giggles died down, Peña decided to give the blue haired punk rocker a shot, christening him El Vampiro Canadiense after Hodgkinson informed Peña he liked vampires. What happened next was something neither Hodgkinson, Peña nor Alonso could’ve ever thought. Wrestling his first match on March 1st as a rudo, Hodgkinson was immediately swarmed by female fans, who actually fought off the technicos when they tried to attack the youngster in the crowd. The same thing happened on the next show and the show after that. Against all odds Vampiro had become both an overnight sex symbol and star for CMLL, despite being one of the more limited luchadors on the roster at the time. It didn’t matter; women flocked to see Vampiro wrestle and he quickly became the top star of the promotion alongside Konnan. Many, including Chris Jericho, have since said that Konnan and Vampiro together were the Mexican Steve Austin and Rock, drawing some of the biggest business CMLL had seen in a long time.
Things were so good that something surely had to go wrong, and boy did it ever. While Vampiro and Konnan were selling out show after show, the tension between Peña and Juan Herrera was starting to boil over into a power struggle. Both were now politicking to Alonso that their vision should be the one CMLL should go with, leading to factions of the locker room picking a side. Behind Peña were most of the young luchadors such as Konnan, Octagón and Máscara Sagrada, while Herrera was backed by Bestia Salvaje, Rayo de Jalisco Jr. and Fuerza Guerrera, guys attached to the older lucha libre style. It became such a hostile situation that it ended up affecting booking decisions, with Konnan legitimately getting screwed out of the CMLL World Heavyweight Championship because Herrera booked Konnan on shows he couldn’t make, causing it to appear like he no showed. Despite all the good business they were doing from a ticket sale and TV perspective, it was apparent that CMLL had become too big for both Peña and Herrera and that Paco Alonso would have to choose between the two of them. Much like his grandfather did 17 years earlier, Alonso made a huge mistake. Whether it was his unwillingness to bend from CMLL’s longtime formula or something else, he ultimately decided that Herrera’s vision was the way to go. In that moment, Antonio Peña realized that if he were to ever have a chance to bring his vision of lucha to life, it would have to be somewhere other than CMLL.
Luckily for Peña, he had both the connections, the financial backers and the talent behind him to move quickly. As he had worked out the deal between CMLL and TV conglomerate Televisa, Peña was able to secure a TV deal for his new promotion almost immediately, as well as financial backing by Televisa himself. All that was left for him to do at that point was approach the two luchadors he trusted the most; Konnan and Octagón. With their loyalty secure, Peña and Televisa announced the formation of AAA on May 15th, 1992, with no notice given to CMLL prior. In a scene almost identical to what UWA did to CMLL seventeen years earlier, AAA made off with almost all of CMLL’s biggest talent, from established stars like Konnan, Octagón, Máscara Sagrada, El Hijo del Santo, Perro Aguayo, Cien Caras, Máscara Año 2000, Universo 2000, Jerry Estrada and Blue Panther to young, promising luchadors such as Ángel Azteca, Winners, Super Calo, Canelo Casas (who’d go onto become a star as Heavy Metal), all the Mini-Estrellas and Peña’s soon to be superstar creation La Parka. Even members of the roster loyal to Herrera, like Fuerza Guerrera, bolted in favor of bigger paychecks. By the time the smoke cleared the only star luchadors still left in CMLL were Jalisco, Atlantis (who turned down an AAA contract out of loyalty to Alonso), El Satánico, El Dandy, Negro Casas and Vampiro, who stayed because Konnan’s departure left him in the clear to be the number one guy. By 1993, almost everyone else had gone over to AAA, who had the TV time and the money thanks to Televisa.
Make no mistake; the AAA exodus made the UWA one look like a minor incident. Back then CMLL at least still had a TV deal and enough top talent to still remain ahead by UWA, if only by a little. Not this time. Peña didn’t just form another competitor when he formed AAA; he stole CMLL’s TV deal and took with him the biggest stars in lucha libre at the time, including the most popular luchador of the past two decades in Konnan. For the first time ever, CMLL was not the number one promotion in Mexico, and wouldn’t be again for another four years as AAA went on one of the greatest runs in the history of wrestling. Within a year, Herrera was let go of his position as head booker, an acknowledgement by Alonso that he had indeed made the wrong call. It did little to curb his anger towards AAA, in particular Peña, Konnan and Octagón. In one of the first public signs of his legendary temper, Alonso made clear that Peña, Konnan and Octagón would never appear on a CMLL show ever again. For the most part he has been correct; Peña would never return to Arena Mexico before his death in 2006, while Konnan’s ban was so serious that he was at one point not even allowed to enter Arena Mexico to watch a show as a fan. Only Octagón has worked CMLL since, returning a few weeks ago for a show in Arena Puebla.
Chapter 15: The Pesos Crisis and the Comeback
As bad as CMLL’s fortunes turned after AAA was formed, those who say that the promotion was in any danger of being forgotten are greatly exaggerated. There was no question that AAA became the top promotion in Mexico (so much so that they turned UWA into a foot note, drying up business so much the promotion closed in 1994) and from a business standpoint dominated CMLL. But while clearly a distant number two, CMLL didn’t just disappear; they continued to do decent business, largely thanks to Alonso taking in all the profits made from Arena Mexico, Arena Coliseo and Arena Puebla shows due to the Lutteroth family owning the buildings. It didn’t hurt either that CMLL still had one of the two biggest stars in Mexico either. Say whatever you will about Vampiro and why he did stay, but his presence in CMLL was huge as he remained enormously popular while also improving in the ring to the point of respectability. Right there with him were Atlantis and Negro Casas. No one won more points with Alonso than Atlantis when he showed his loyalty and chose to stay with CMLL, and the still popular technico proved to be a stabilizing force, particularly at the 60th Anniversario when he defeated Mano Negra in a mask vs. mask match. Casas meanwhile was starting to show Mexico what they’d been missing throughout the 80’s, where he was widely considered to be one of the best in ring workers around. Together, these three formed a core alongside El Dandy, Rayo de Jalisco, Black Magic, El Satánico and others that, if not huge money makers, kept CMLL afloat during a trying time.
The seeds for CMLL retaking its thrown were planted in December of 1994, when the Mexican Economy hit a massive downturn after President Ernesto Zedillo announced the devaluing of the peso. Thus began the Mexican peso crisis, which saw the peso devalue up to 15% against the US dollar, leading to a huge recession across Mexico. Both AAA and CMLL were hit hard by this, but the blow was even harder for AAA. Because Peña and Televisa were renting out arenas for show, they had to split the cost with the owners of said buildings, whereas CMLL didn’t do to them all being in the Lutteroth name. Coupled with the fact that AAA could now no longer afford to pay some of the talent under their roster and suddenly the playing field seemed a lot more even. Then AAA began to have their own internal problems in 1996. As brilliant of a creative mind that he was, Peña was now starting to run low on ideas and had been revealed to be heavily disorganized, a trait that has carried onto AAA in the present years. Furthermore, Peña’s relationship with talent soured due to him and Televisa keeping money from the talent and (ironically enough) an unwillingness on Peña’s part to adapt the product. This led to Konnan and many of the young luchadors breaking off from AAA to form Promo Azteca in 1996, giving Mexico three promotions for the first time. More importantly though, it gave CMLL an opening to retake its crown. All it needed was a hot angle or a hot star.
One of the luchadors who returned to CMLL as a result of AAA’s money woes was El Hijo del Santo. Now nearly fifteen years into his career, the younger Santo had turned into something quite remarkable. Even though he was nowhere near the star his father had been, most critics agreed that Hijo del Santo was the superior worker to his dad and a very strong draw in his own right. His return to CMLL in August of 1995 was a huge coo for CMLL and they wasted no time facing him off with Negro Casas. It wasn’t a random choice; back when they were finding their footing in the Tijuana based World Wrestling Association promotion, Casas and Santo had many famous battles, most notably a mask vs. hair match held at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles back in 1987. The two luchadors had an outstanding chemistry together and, to top it off, had never had a major program in CMLL before. It only made sense to put them together, which is exactly what happened a week after the 62nd Anniversario when Casas squeaked out a rare win over Santo via DQ. The story had only just begun.
The two continued to feud for the rest of 1995, meeting once again in the finals of the NWA World Welterweight Championship tournament, where Casas emerged victorious again. Santo quickly evened the score in 1996, defeating Casas’ brother Felino to successfully defend the Mexican National Welterweight Championship and then defeating Casas in the first round of the 1996 Gran Prix (which Santo won after defeating The Great Sasuke). It all built to the 63rd Anniversario, where Casas and Santo co-headlined in a normal match. That’s right; no mask and no hair were on the line. That wasn’t the only interesting development; though Casas had always been popular as a rudo, he was getting even more cheers during this feud with Santo despite Santo’s status as a beloved technico. Whether that factored into the decision for the result or not, Casas stunned the Arena Mexico crowd with another DQ victory over Santo. Ashamed over the defeat, Santo disappeared for several months as Casas completed a technico turn. Many thought it was the end of the angle; in reality, it was just the first chapter, with a major development coming along that would rock lucha libre to its core.
With Santo gone, Casas began feuding with rudos Bestia Salvaje and Scorpio Jr., who kept promising Casas a surprise. The surprise came on November 23rd, 1996 when Casas, El Dandy and budding star Hector Garza took on Salvaje, Scorpio and what appeared to be Casas’ brother Felino. Oh how wrong everyone was. As the rudos attacked Casas, Felino stepped into the ring seemingly to make the save…only to take off his robe and mask to reveal that it was actually El Hijo del Santo. For the first time in his career, Santo turned rudo in an nWo Bash at the Beach style move, infuriating the Arena Mexico crowd and suddenly re-igniting the Casas-Santo issues. Not only that but it also pissed off El Dandy. Though he's now remembered for the infamous "Who are you to doubt El Dandy?!" line by Bret Hart in WCW, Dandy was at the time one of the most respected luchadors in the world, famous for a classic match with El Satánico early in the 90's. He wasn't going to take Santo's turn lying down, and both he and Casas issued challenges to Santo the next week. CMLL settled for a compromise the next week, where Santo, Dandy and Casas battled against each other in a triple threat mask vs. hair vs. hair match. In a bout still regarded as one of the best lucha libre matches in the modern ever (and the best triple threat in lucha libre history), Casas escaped with his hair early, leading to Santo defeating Dandy in a long, heated, bloody exchange. No one doubted El Dandy that night.
Not only did the result produce compelling theater, but it also kept the plans for a big Casas-Santo match at the Anniversario alive. The two continued to feud throughout 1997, with Felino once again getting involved and Santo and Casas even going to Japan to continue their way. Finally, the last battle between the two occurred at the 64th Anniversario on September 19th, 1997, with Santo’s mask and Casas’ hair on the line. The match, as expected, was a stone cold classic. Whereas their classic Apuesta back in the 80’s had been a mix of amazing heat and athleticism, this one was about the culmination of years of hatred between the two. They brawled, they brawled and they brawled, with Santo bleeding so badly by the end of the match that his silver mask had turned browned, stained with his own blood. But while his mask may have been deformed, it wasn’t taken off; Santo outlasted the spirited Casas in three falls to keep his mask and take Casas’ hair for the second time, ending the rivalry. And that’s actually not false; the two would not have another match again in 1997, and in fact a few years later became one of the most successful tag teams in CMLL, winning the tag belts three times. While the rivalry and Apuesta matches became the most memorable aspect of the Casas-Santo relationship, the tag partnership was the closest to their real life one, as Casas and Santo had been great friends for many years.
The Casas-Santo feud had been a godsend for CMLL, and even then things weren’t entirely the same. Gone were the days of major shows selling out Arena Mexico or Arena Coliseo; in fact, even at the height of the Santo-Casas feud, CMLL was lucky to get over 10,000 fans into the cathedral of lucha libre. Many factors were involved; the loss of the Televisa deal lost CMLL exposure, the rise of AAA had split the market and sapped CMLL of many of its top stars, and though they weren’t hit as hard as AAA was, the peso crisis did a number on CMLL’s business in its own way. It didn’t help either that Vampiro, their biggest box office draw during the early 90’s, eventually left himself, choosing to instead work Japan and the Mexican indies (including Promo Azteca) before signing with WCW in 1998. By the fall of 1999 however, things began to turn around a bit. For one night only, the 66th Anniversario made things seem like the CMLL of old, as 15,000 fans came to watch the charismatic Shocker lose his mask to Mr. Niebla. It was a sign of things to come; Shocker would soon be one of CMLL’s most dependable stars and Niebla would eventually wind up one its most entertaining. Perhaps that was the thing to take solace in as CMLL approached the new millennium. Perhaps they would never quite fill up the building consistently as they used to. As they would show in early 2000 however, CMLL was still more than capable of delivering the epic show on the biggest stage possible. But that’s for the next (and final) column…
Brian on September 20, 2017:
Who was the face of CMLL during this era?