Cassandro, a transvestite Mexican wrestler (or “exotico”, in the jargon) pulls back his bushy hair to show a wide, puckered scar running the length of his hairline.
“I’ve been paralysed, I’ve been hospitalised four times, I’ve broken my knee and my elbow,” he tells me with a certain amount of pride. “Don’t tell me this is fake.”
The exotico, who tells me he’s just as tough as any of the wrestlers (“I fight men, women, midgets…”) is one of 16 superstar luchadores who have flown across the world to showcase the spectacular sport of Lucha Libre (“free wrestling” in Spanish). Over four days the Roundhouse in Camden will be transformed into a Mexican-style Luchadrome, with margaritas, nachos, music, raked seating, and more jaw-dropping, high-flying action than you can shake a shiny mask at.
It’s not the first time Mexican wrestling has hit London: British group Lucha Britannia have been putting on shows in out-of-the-way east London clubs and galleries for the last two years, and all-star gang who’ll be at the Roundhouse made their debut here this summer. But the buzz about the quirky sport, which combines acrobatics, storytelling, technical skill and big personalities, is reaching fever pitch.
The 16 wrestlers who’ve flown over are Mexico’s finest: at the top of their game in a sport that rivals football for national popularity. Among their ranks are El Lobo “Troll”, a midget luchador whose signature moves include the “satellite octopus clutch”; Ruby Gardenia, another glam cross-dresser, and El Hijo Del Santo, possibly Lucha Libre’s biggest current star.
The son of one of Mexico’s original masked wrestlers, Santo has won dozens of championship matches, featured in comic books and films, and had his face plastered on postage stamps. When we catch up with the luchadores he’s knackered, cold and a bit grumpy, but he opens up when he starts talking (through a translator) about how Lucha Libre has changed his life.
“It’s given me everything I’ve ever had since I was born,” Santo says. “A dad who is an idol in Mexico, all the money I’ve ever had, and the satisfaction of being loved by kids. It’s an honour.” Cassandro tells me about the travel, cars, houses, shopping trips, and hoardes of fans that Lucha Libre has brought him – as one of the minority of luchadores who don’t wear masks, he’s mobbed when he leaves the house.
Santo and Mystyco do wear glitzy masks, and they stay firmly on throughout the interview, ensuring their true identity is kept secret. “It’s part of our culture,” Mystyco explains, “we’re like superheroes.” Cassandro has a different spin on it. “People only wear masks because they’re ugly,” he chips in. “My only mask is my make-up.”
With bulging muscles, shimmering Lycra and eye-watering smackdowns, there’s no sport that’s as macho and as camp at the same time. As Mystyco points out, “it’s not just violence; it’s about technique. But it’s also a huge party.”