wrestling / Columns

The Wrestling Doctor 12.02.08: Behind the Mask

December 2, 2008 | Posted by W.S. Thomason


Over the last fifteen years the Lucha Libre mask has crossed over from the squared / hexagonal / octagonal circle and into main stream American culture. What are frequently referred to as “Mexican wrestling masks” have been featured in music videos (White Zombie), films (Nacho Libre, applications for social networking sites (such as My Space and Facebook), television shows, commercials, tee-shirts, hoodies, and bumper stickers. There is even a reality porn site where average Joes can wear a “Mexican wrestler mask” to hide their faces while they have sex with one of the company’s starlets.

Even the most casual wrestling fan understands that masks are iconic in Lucha Libre. The mask is far more than a gimmick in Mexico, with deep pop-culture roots reaching far back into the 20th century. The legendary El Santo is essentially a national folk hero, starring in movies, comic books, and other mainstream media from the 1940s through the early 1980s. His contemporaries The Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras achieved a similar status during the same period.

While El Santo ruled Mexico, wrestlers in the United States also donned masks to great effect. Mr. Wrestling II, who appeared with President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, may be the most famous masked American wrestler. Mister M (Bill Miller) and Dr. X (Dick Beyer) both achieved a rare feat for masked wrestlers by winning a World Title in the United States (in the AWA in 1962 and 1968 respectively). More important than his title win, Beyer achieved legendary status in Japan as The Destroyer, becoming the first American wrestler to make it big in the Land of the Rising Sun and opening the door for other American wrestlers in the East.

The 1940s through the 1980s saw other masked wrestlers excel to a variety of levels, such as The Great Mephisto; The Infernos; Masked Superstar; The Assassin; Sonada the Magic Dragon (one of my personal favorites); a variety of Super Destroyers, Executioners and (Texas) Hangmen; as well as a wealth of Super Ninjas and Invaders (and their more-powerful cousins, the Super Invaders). Some major future stars began their careers under masks – the most notable examples being Hulk Hogan as one of many territorial Super Destroyers and The Undertaker as The Master of Pain

Masked wrestlers in the United States tended to be heels (Mr. Wrestling II being the most notable exception) as fans in the kayfabe era were not eager (or encouraged) to embrace competitors outside of the straight-cut face persona. Masked wrestlers were a significant part of the United States wrestling scene in the 1960s and 1970s in particular. In an ultimate nod to kayfabe, these competitors would often don their masks miles outside of the towns in which they would perform so as to keep their identities secret. The mask was not just a simple gimmick.

By the mid-1980s masked wrestlers competing the US were largely jobbing or were used in marginal roles. Many of them were used as face comedy acts to pull the wool over the eyes of frustrated heels – such as The Machines and the (occasionally masked) Killer Bees – or as temporary characters who furthered an expulsion angle, as in the case of The Midnight Rider, The Yellow Dog, Charlie Brown, and Red River Jack. More recently, Super Eric, The Curry Man, Shark Boy, and The Hurricane have been used in comedic roles, but of those wrestlers have risen past the mid-level of their companies.

Masked wrestlers of the mid-1980s to mid-1990s who were booked seriously found little success. Owen Hart was given The Blue Blazer gimmick in his first WWF run as a means of separating him from older brother Bret, but he never caught on until he became himself. Hector Guerrero’s Lazor Tron had a cup of coffee served on the NWA Junior Title while in Jim Crockett Promotions. Doom were one of the most dominant tag teams of the early 90s, but only after they lost their masks. Del Wilkes enjoyed moderate success in WCW and the WWF as The Patriot. Max Moon was intended to be a serious character but quickly became a joke. The semi-masked characters of the Blood Runs Cold angle (Glacier and Wrath wore masks only to the ring, while Mortis was masked the entire time) never gained traction due to numerous delays, a lack of booking attention and, well, Glacier. Some wrestlers, such as The Grappler, enjoyed solid runs in smaller territories and promotions into the early 1990s, but the WWF and JCP / WCW largely avoided any serious investment in masked talent after 1985.

This era also saw the mask heavily used to allow jobbers to do double duty – and some of the most kayfabe jobber teams were born, such as the Thunderfoots, the Conquistadors, the Shadows, and the Gladiators. Anybody could be thrown under a mask and billed as from “parts unknown” – my personal favorite resident of that geographical oddity was Mr. Atlanta.

Masks were also employed to (poorly) conceal a wrestler’s ethnicity when necessary, such as the passing off of Kato (Paul Diamond) of the Orient Express and Jamie San (Jamie Knoble) of the Jung Dragons as Japanese. The Sultan was a Middle Eastern stopping point on Fatu’s road to Rikishi. Of course, an October 1996 episode of Nitro saw double duty jobbing and ethnic concealment come together in the perfect storm of awesome, as Billy Kidman gave us the legendary El Tecnico for one shimmering moment of pure spandex-covered brilliance.

The mid-90s saw the mask in United States wrestling disappear as luchadors were introduced into American promotions. These competitors had better costumes and, more importantly, heritage and story behind their masked characters. The move towards eliminating cartoon-like heels and faces during the Attitude Era also reduced the presence of the American mask.

There were some notable exceptions to this trend. Vader ruled WCW as a mastodon champion in 1992-1993 and remained a top heel until his 1995 firing. He also enjoyed a decent run in the WWF. Vader’s mask did not conceal his face as fully as older ones had, and he occasionally would remove it during matches. What Vader looked like without his mask was never a real issue in WCW, and only became a minor one when he lost the mask in the WWF in 1998.

The most effective masked character of the Attitude Era was Kane. Glen Jacobs portrayed a character who was mysterious and devastating, but setting The Undertaker on fire and blowing away jobbers will only take a gimmick so far. Kane was able to maintain his character because with his mask came a story as to why he wore it. Any character who lasts long term needs to be developed, but masked wrestlers need to have a full back story almost immediately to explain why they choose to conceal their appearance. Fans want to know Steve Austin’s motivations, but they do not readily inquire about how he decided upon a skull for his vest or why his head is bald. A wrestler like Kane dies not enjoy such a luxury – when he emerges from the curtain the first time, people want to know why he covers his face. His background becomes immediately important, and the WWF succeeded mightily by having a connection to The Undertaker fully established by the time Kane finally appeared. This back story helped Kane evolve his character once he lost his mask in 2003, and has served as the nucleus of all of his actions in his character’s 11 year run with the WWF / WWE.

Abyss is another masked American character who has developed a back-story explaining his hidden identity. While the story borrows heavily from that of the Kane-Undertaker saga, it still provides a focal point for his character that can be tweaked through a variety of storylines and concept changes.

However, these three notable examples occupy a span of nearly twenty years. Vader is no longer active in any significant sense, Kane has been unmasked for over five years, leaving only Abyss masked yet intermittently used.

Why are professional wrestling companies in the United States still avoiding masked wrestlers who are not luchadors? Both the WWE and TNA are in creative slumps, and wrestling writers have traditionally borrowed generously from the past. A major masked character in a serious role would be an exciting shake-up of the sports entertainment status quo. TNA seems to be going in this direction with the Suicide character, but it remains to be seen how seriously the former Kaz is treated. What we have seen appears to be a bit cartoonish. Will he receive a push as a top singles star or is the character more of a video game tie-in that has already been neutered by unfortunate circumstances and poor timing?

One detriment to masked wrestlers is that they often require managers, another genre that has gone out style. However, James Mitchell worked very well with Abyss in a very modern climate, and Armando Estrada helped to separate the Umaga character from where other monsters such as Snitsky have failed. Another factor is that the current crop of writers in both WWE and TNA struggle when attempting to substantially develop story lines with anything resembling depth.

A major masked wrestler with an existing back-story would be a welcome addition to the WWE or TNA rosters. It would connect the present with the rich wrestling past, while providing a character capable of story line flexibility and long-term development. It may also lead to merchandising opportunities, which is something that neither company can turn down right now.


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W.S. Thomason

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