411’s Wrestling Hall of Fame Class of 2007: El Santo
It’s hard to explain to an American wrestling fan exactly what El Santo means to the world of lucha libre. Some have tried to describe him as the Mexican version of Hulk Hogan. Others have tried to describe him as a Latino Antonio Inoki or Giant Baba. However, in reality, Santo was bigger than any of those three men. He may be bigger than all three combined. He transcended the label of “professional wrestler.” He transcended the label of “movie star.” He was a cultural institution south of the border, a man revered by numerous generations in a way no other person in this sport has been.
Born in 1917, Rodolfo Guzman Huerta would become a professional wrestler, much like three of his six siblings. When he began his career in the 1930s, it was under the name Rudy Guzman, teaming with older brother Miguel. After working independently for some time, the Guzman brothers were approached by EMLL, a young company that still operates today and holds the distinction of being the world’s oldest wrestling promotion. In large part, that company was built on the name and reputation of El Santo, but it took quite some time for Rudy Guzman to transform in to the legend that he would become. In fact, his first stint with the company was not successful at all, as older brother Miguel was the star and Rudy ultimately decided to leave the company, hoping to receive a larger push in another promotion.
Before leaving EMLL, he had attempted to adopt his own identity as “El Hombre Rojo” (The Red Man), though this gimmick was soon replaced by “El Murcielago Enmascarado II” (The Masked Bat II). However, his stint as the Bat was short-lived due to a complaint by the original Murcielago Enmascarado, whose permission Guzman did not receive before adopting the character. Guzman was forced by Mexico’s notoriously strict Boxing and Wrestling Commission to remove his mask. At this point, things were not looking good for the young man’s career. His attempts at breaking out from under the shadow of his older brother were failing, and work as a professional wrestler was not profitable enough to pay all of his bills.
Enter Jesus Lomeli, the promoter that Guzman had been working for during his Murcielago Enmascardo run. While attempting to create a new character for Guzman, Lomeli suggested “El Santo” (The Saint). The name was meant to be ironic, as Guzman was wrestling as a rudo (heel) prior to the gimmick change and planned on doing so afterwards as well. It was in July of 1942 that the Santo character debuted, winning a battle royale and then moving on to a singles match with wrestler Ciclon Veloz. Veloz was beaten badly, and Santo was disqualified for attacking the referee when the official attempted to stop the match. The feud with Veloz continued, but the brutal heel version of Santo would not stop there. He went on to feud with top stars Bobby Bonales and El Lobo Negro before ultimately returning to war with Veloz and beating him for the Mexican National Welterweight Championship. It would be El Santo’s first title, though certainly not his last. A little over a year later, he would meet Murcielago Enmascarado (then known as Murcielago Velazquez) in the ring, defeating him for the Mexican National Middleweight Title in what had to be a satisfying victory for Santo given the prior history between the two competitors.
The several months following that title victory were not kind to Santo, as he lost several key matches and was involved in a car accident that nearly proved fatal. At that point, a man by the name of Gory Guerrero (father of Eddy, grandfather of Chavo Jr.) entered Santo’s professional career. The two men formed La Pareja Atomico (The Atomic Pair), a highly successful heel tag team that dominated their competitors from the time of their formation in the fall of 1944. While still involved in the team, Santo captured his first world championship, making Bulgarian wrestler Pete Pancoff submit in the finals of a tournament to crown the new NWA Welterweight Champion. It was at this point that Santo first endeared himself to Mexican crowds, as a world title victory over a foreigner in Mexico was bound to make any man in to a hero. Yet, as soon as Santo gained this fame, it appeared that promoters wanted to make new stars off of his name as opposed to simply continuing to make money off of the Man in the Silver Mask. Several young up and comers gained clean pinfall victories over Santo en route to a matchup with his tag team partner Gory Guerrero.
The Guerrero match was part of a tournament to crown a new number one contender for the NWA Welterweight Championship. Guerrero scored the submission victory and went on to win the championship from Jack O’ Brien, though the real surprise came when Gory’s success did not break up the team. Rather, their bond seemed to become even stronger. With the Atomic Pair riding a new wave of popularity, the time was right for a new rivalry. That lead to a battle with Black Shadow and Blue Demon – Los Hermanos Shadow. In 1952, after years of feuding, Santo defeated Shadow in a mask versus mask match, effectively ending the run of the character. However, Blue Demon remained, and he sought revenge for his partner . . . revenge that would fuel perhaps lucha libre’s most famous feud. Demon, having become a technico after Shadow’s defeat, emerged victorious, besting Santo in two consecutive matches.
It was around this time that Santo began to become popular outside of the wrestling ring. Televisions had begun to appear in Mexico, and broadcasting of wrestling matches turned the Saint in to a major star. A 1952 comic book series featuring Santo as a masked crime fighter was a smash amongst children, ultimately being published for thirty-five straight years. In 1958, he transitioned in to film, making what would be the first of several successful motion pictures, Santo Contra el Cerebro del Mal. It is interesting to note that Santo was initially asked to star in a film but refused, thinking that it would be a financial disaster. However, when movies similar to the one that he rejected started seeing some success, he finally agreed to appear in Cerebro del Mal It would be the first of fifty similar films, none of which were cinematic masterpieces but the majority of which were rather successful, with four being dubbed in English and released in the United States. It has been reported that, in 1964, he was commanding upwards of $9,000 (US) per film, an excellent salary considering the time period and the films’ budgets.
Despite the popularity from television, movies, and merchandising, Santo was still not yet officially a technico (babyface). That change was not made until 1962, when he was turned on by partners Los Epsanto I and Los Espanto II in a tag team match. Less than a year later, he would team with former rival Blue Demon for the first time. Though not a regular team at any point, the few times that the two individuals did pair up were always highly successful. A more regular partner of Santo was Rayo de Jalisco, and the two men captured the Mexican National Tag Team Titles on two occasions. In six man action, Santo formed a popular unit with fellow lucha legends Mil Mascaras and El Solitario. It was in 1978 that the 61 year old Santo had his final feud, as an up and comer named Bobby Lee attempted to remove the legendary mask of Santo before his retirement. Lee’s plan proved unsuccessful, as he lost both his own mask and his hair to the veteran.
In 1982, Santo finally embarked on his retirement tour. He clashed with some other legendary names in those battles, including Solatario, Villano III, Villano V, Scorpio, and Perro Aguayo. His final match saw him once again teaming with Gory Guerrero, who came out of retirement for one night only in order to stand side by side with his former partner and reform the Atomic Pair. One month after his final match, Santo’s son debuted wearing his father’s trademark mask. After being accompanied by his father on his first tour, El Hijo del Santo went on to become one of the biggest stars in Mexican wrestling, a position that he still occupies to this day. Several of Santos grandsons have also taken up wrestling, one of whom wore the classic silver mask until legal action by El Hijo del Santo forced him to change his name to Axxel.
In January of 1984, Santo surprised all of Mexico by lifting his mask and revealing his face on a national television program. Though some saw it as a promotional stunt for his new career as an escape artist (similar to Harry Houdini), others felt that it was Santo’s way of saying goodbye to his fans, as he believed that he did not have much longer to live. If that was the case, he was correct. A mere two weeks later, Santo passed away at the age of 66, after suffering a massive heart attack, the culmination of cardiac problems that he had experienced since collapsing in a match in 1980. It was Santo’s wish that he be buried in his famous silver mask, and that is exactly what took place. His funeral was a massive spectacle, with an estimated 10,000 clogging the streets of Mexico and several delaying his casket’s entry in to its mausoleum.
Why El Santo was selected…
Santo claimed eleven different championships over his forty-eight year wrestling career and took an opponent’s hair or mask in the ring a whopping thirty-six times. However, his cultural impact is fair greater than any statistics from his wrestling career can fairly reflect . . . no matter how impressive those statistics may be. Over twenty years after his death, Santo remains an iconic figure in Mexico. His films live on through numerous DVD releases, his wrestling lives on through his son, and his image lives on through a nearly four meter high statute that has been erected outside of his grave. The anniversary of his death is celebrated annually as a minor holiday. Santo is not just history’s most popular luchadore. In many ways, he is lucha libre. WWF Attitude? Doesn’t match up. Hulkamania? Can’t compare. The true measuring stick for mainstream success in this business is the career of El Santo.