[Note: this column has been updated to coincide with Negro Casas' 57th birthday. New video and text has been added to make this a more complete reading experience]
I’m not sure this is said enough; 1996 and 1997 were damn good years for wrestling. I know it’s not a stretch to say that everything wrestling related in the 90s was just better (then again, what about the 90s wasn’t better than any other time period?), but when most people say that, it seems they’re referring to the Attitude Era end of the spectrum. While those years were exciting, I’ll take 96 and 97 over them every day. Take a closer look and you’ll see those years ruled just a tad more than every other period. We had WCW vs. the nWo at its peak during that time, the rise of Austin 3:16, DX and the revived Hart Foundation, WCW Cruiserweights, Raven vs. Dreamer, Raven vs. Sandman, and the angle I’m going to tell you about today. Of course, the difference between this feud and all the things I listed above is that this one took place in Mexico, and you probably know more about the meaning behind Nirvana’s first album than you do this feud. This means you’re in luck, because I’m here to educate. The storyline in question, which took place in CMLL prominently during 96/97, is one of the best things you’ve never heard of, a lifelong rivalry where roles were reversed, blood flowed, and maybe just maybe, wrestling’s oldest promotion was saved from the jaws of competition and crippling financial crisis. Intriguing right? That’s just scratching the surface. Sit back, crack open a 7 Up, maybe have a snack, and get ready to learn about the most important feud in modern CMLL history. This is the story of El Hijo del Santo vs. Negro Casas.
Chapter One: The Hero Becomes the Villain
The story of El Hijo del Santo vs. Negro Casas begins all the way back in 1984, when both men were working for the Universal Wrestling Association (UWA). Think of the UWA as like AAA, without the success (though the company did last a solid twenty years as the number two promotion in Mexico). By this point, Casas, then UWA’s World Lightweight Champion, was a five year veteran who had already had a stint with CMLL (then still EMLL), while Santo had barely been wrestling year. Never the less, the son of the legendary El Santo proved to be quite capable in the ring, and he soon dethroned Casas for the title on October 28th. His victory of Casas would start a long (and according to Wikipedia, intense) three year feud between the two, with Casas as the ruthless rudo and Santo taking up the heroic technico role his father had long held. By the time Santo defeated Casas in a hair vs. mask match in July of 1987, both men had been established as the future of lucha libre and major box office attractions. The two would continue on and off for several years, before briefly going their separate ways. Casas would eventually wind up in CMLL full time, while Santo bounced between UWA and CMLL before finding a home in, where he would eventually find himself in one of the most famous tag team matches in wrestling history. Let’s just say octagons and love machines were involved.
Eventually, Santo and Casas found themselves both in CMLL by 1995, where they resumed their feud. In a smart move, CMLL decided Santo-Casas was the perfect match to co-headline one of the two shows CMLL was running for their 63rd Anniversary (yes, the 63rd Anniversary Show was split into two. Very AAA of them). That's not all CMLL had in mind though. Only two years earlier, the Mexican economy had collapsed after the government suddenly devalued the peso, Mexico’s form of currency. The downturn took a huge toll on the country in general, and especially on CMLL, which was already having issues on the business side due to the rise of AAA in 1992. How bad things were is something only the company can know, but in any event, they needed a spark in the worse way. What would that spark be? A revitalized Hijo del Santo-Negro Casas feud, only this time with a twist; Casas would be the technico, and Santo would be the rudo. Now you're probably thinking this isn't a big deal. Despite being a rudo throughout his career, Casas had long been one of the most popular luchadors across the country. Officially making him a villain would be no sweat. But Santo as the villain? This was a massive risk, especially since no one in El Santo lore had been a rudo since the 1950s. In a way, it was very much like what WCW did with Hulk Hogan only months earlier in taking one of the most famous legacies in wrestling history and flipping it to the dark side. And just like with WCW, it worked.
It greatly helped that the execution of the angle was pretty flawless. Casas would defeat Santo at the 63rd Anniversary Show (albeit by DQ0, his first big win over his long time rival and the start of his technico turn. Santo would then quietly disappear for a few months while Casas feuded with his former teammates, Scorpio Jr. and Bestia Salvaje. The storyline had Scorpio and Salvaje jealous of Casas' popularity, leading to them claiming they had a surprise for Casas. This surprise revealed itself at the beginning of a trios match between Casas, El Dandy and Hector Garza against Scorpio, Salvaje and Felino. This did appear to be big on the surface as Felino is Casas’ real life brother. As it turns out, it was a very clever ruse. Right before the match began, Scorpio and Salvaje would take out Casas’ teammates and then gang attack him, all while Felino watched from the ring apron. As the technicos started to rally and Felino did nothing, it appeared Casas' brother was refusing to attack his own flesh and blood. NOT SO FAST MY FRIEND! As soon as the technicos took full control Felino got into the ring, took off his mask and reveal that it wasn't actually Felino; it was Santo.
To the disbelief of the crowd, Santo joined in with Scorpio and Salvaje to pummel Casas, solidifying his turn. Though the crowd seems more subdued and shocked over the turn than anything else, reportedly some fans in Arena Mexico were so angry that fistfights ended up breaking out. Regardless, the turn was considered an unqualified success and surely Paco Alonso and the gang were reacting backstage the same way James Cameron reacts when he sees the box office tallies. Suddenly CMLL had the top technico, the top rudo and the top feud they so desperately needed.
Chapter Two: El Dandy? El Dandy
Now armed with all the ingredients for an epic 64th Anniversary Show main event, CMLL had only one thing left to do; stretch the damn thing out for over a year. As was custom back then (and still is today), CMLL preferred to drag their feuds out long term before settling them at a big show, usually with a huge stipulation attached. And well, who the hell wouldn’t want El Hijo del Santo vs. Negro Casas in a mask vs. hair match to close the 64th Anniversary Show (besides AAA of course)? Thus, the company sought to create a short term angle that could produce a big match involving Santo and Casas that didn’t involve a payoff, while also getting more heat on Santo.
Enter El Dandy. Now if you’re a fan of US wrestling exclusively, you may remember El Dandy from his run in WCW, where he was mainly used as a cruiserweight jobber who once almost got a WCW World Title shot at the 1999 Spring Break Nitro (don’t ask. You don’t want to know). Most of his notoreity however came from Bret Hart’s now famous “WHO ARE YOU TO DOUBT EL DANDY?!” promo, one that turned Dandy into a punchline. What fans missed while laughing at Dandy was that he was one of the most amazing technical workers lucha libre had produced in sometime. In fact, he was arguably the top technico in CMLL at this time alongside Casas, and had been one of Casas’ partners that was attacked during the Santo turn. Once again, the light bulb went off and CMLL found their solution. Only a week after Santo’s shocking turn, a rematch of the six man tag was booked. This time, the technico’s emerged victorious, and Casas immediately challenged del Santo to a hair vs. mask match after the bout. There was just one problem; an angry El Dandy also challenged Santo to the same stipulation. CONFLICT IN ARENA MEXICO! CMLL quickly reacted with a great compromise; next week Santo vs. Casas vs. El Dandy would happen in an elimination mask vs. hair vs. hair match. Whether CMLL officials then headed off to swim in money like Scrooge McDuck is unknown, though I'd set the odds really high.
To say that match wasn't an unqualified success would be the biggest lie since the last thing Donald Trump said. And that’s despite the fact that Casas was hardly involved, after he was able to pin both del Santo and El Dandy early in order to save his hair. What followed was twenty plus minutes of Santo and El Dandy doing the tame version of what Vampiro and Pentagon Jr. did to each other at Ultima Lucha. There was brawling. There was high flying. And my goodness, there was so much blood that Santo’s mask and tights turned from their iconic silver into a disgusting brownish red by the end of the match. There are horror films that don’t have this much blood in them! In the end Santo prevailed, locking in a pretty damn good camel clutch to pick up the victory and leave El Dandy sporting the Brian Cage look. And just like that CMLL had maintained their hot feud, gotten more heat on Santo for taking the hair of beloved technico Dandy AND got a classic match to boot. From there, only one thing was left for CMLL to do; Santo vs. Casas, mask vs. hair.
Chapter Three: The Grand Finale
With now even more fuel to the fire, all CMLL had to do was hold course for the next nine months and their Casas-Santo mega match could happen. In short, the company did just that. Aside from a one on one match between the two for a CMLL Japan show, Casas and Santo didn’t lock horns in a singles match for the rest of the year. Instead, they would be on opposite teams in numerous tag and trios matches, with Casas frequently teaming Felino and cult hero Ultimo Dragon (among others) while Santo joined forces with Scorpio, Salvaje and budding star Dr. Wagner Jr. It was a brilliant move by CMLL; not only did it keep the upcoming big match fresh, but it gave fans a chance to see some excellent multi man lucha bouts. Seriously, you’re gonna tell me you wouldn’t want to see guys like Casas, Santo, Wagner and Ultimo Dragon at their peak going at it? It’s no wonder that the longer time went on, the more CMLL’s profits surged.
Finally, the 64th Anniversary Show arrived on September 19th, 1997, with CMLL getting the main event they wanted; El Hijo del Santo vs. Negro Casas, two out of three falls mask vs. hair match. And just like everything else in the year long feud, the match delivered. As good as the triple threat match with Dandy may have been, it honestly doesn’t get any better than what these two did, and it was so simple. Unlike the Santo-El Dandy twenty minute sequence in December, there was no blood and gore. While Santo has some aerial moments, there’s very few spots as well. And yet, this match was a brutal, exciting affair, featuring two men who made you believe they absolutely hated each other and were doing everything to bring about ultimate humiliation to their enemy. In a way, it reminds me greatly of the Roman Reigns-Daniel Bryan match from 2015; there’s no huge spots, no blood, no endless amount of near falls, just two men who don’t like each other trying to prove their superiority. As per usual, sometimes the most effective way in wrestling is the simplest way.
Unlike in the WWE though, evil triumphed over good this time, with Santo taking the victory in a great end sequence that saw Casas fight off the camel clutch, only for Santo to put on a devastating arm bar instead. Poor Casas; he just never did get the better result of these bet matches with his rival huh? Though del Santo and Casas would continue to go against each other for a time, the feud slowly died down, giving way for Santo’s return to the technico side a little less than a year later. Eventually, Casas and Santo would actually form a tag team and go on to win the CMLL World Tag Team Championships three times before going their separate ways in the mid 2000's. How about that for burying the hatchet?!
I think it’s a pretty safe bet that this feud between Santo and Casas ended up working out for everyone involved. For Casas, it solidified his legacy as one of the true masters of lucha libre, something he's amazingly continued to do ever since. For Santo, it proved that he could be a more than capable rudo (in fact, dare I say he was exceptional at it?). And for CMLL, well, it pretty much saved the promotion. That may be a little drastic to say, but if you look at how both AAA and the decline of the Mexican economy had effected the promotion, it’s pretty clear things weren’t going well. Would they have gone out of business if the Santo-Casas feud isn’t reignited? It’s very possible; at least, CMLL as we know it now doesn’t exist. Instead, not only did the feud help the company recover, it led to a renewed popularity for CMLL and lucha libre as a whole. That’s amazing, and goes to show you just how successful this storyline was. The fact that it ended up being so compelling with such excellent matches (the mask vs. hair match at the Anniversary Show is simply sublime) is just a bonus. Bravo to CMLL, El Hijo del Santo and Negro Casas for their work. It just goes to show that sometimes a simple, well told blood feud with a few twists and turns can go a long way.
That’s it sports fans. Till we meet again, check out those matches with Santo and Dandy right below! You won't regret it.
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