The Red Panther stands on the green ropes in the corner of the ring with his right hand raised as if he were challenging the sun to a wrestling match. He wears black tights and, similar to the other luchadores, a mask, black with a red panther face.
On this hellish Sunday afternoon at the Denton Flea Market, the Red Panther and his partner Peligroso, who wears camouflage pants and a yellow mask, are considered the rudos, the rule breakers, the bad guys. They’re facing off against Bengali, whose mask resembles a Miller Lite can, and Talion, who wears a black-and-white tiger face mask.
Mr. Clean is the referee, but he isn’t the kind of ref you want calling a sporting event. He ignores most of the rudos’ questionable tactics and is easily distracted at pivotal moments in the match.
It’s the first Lucha Libre event at the Denton Flea Market on the outskirts of Denton. Parking is cheap and the wrestling free to attend. Some of the fans are wearing luchador masks, but not many of them are gathered around the ring to cheer. It’s set up in the middle of a grassy field with no protection from the midday sun.
“It’s too hot,” says Anna, whose family runs one of several food stands offering Mexican food at the flea market. “Out of all the hours they could have done it, they picked the hours when it is most hot.”
Anna is joined by her younger sister, Emma. This is their first time to watch wrestling. Anna’s mother told her that there was going to be a fight today and that her sister was watching it.
“I don’t even know boxing rules,” Anna says.
She isn’t alone. The last time I attended a wrestling match was in the late ’80s when Hulk Hogan dominated the ring at Reunion Arena in Dallas. I’d been a fan of Hogan’s since I was a child, and my buddy and I wore the Hulkster’s shredded red T-shirt underneath our button-up shirts. When Hogan showed up and entered the ring, we rushed the stage as if we were at a Slayer concert, ripping off our shirts like Hogan and roaring with the rest of the fans.
I quit watching wrestling once I realized it was fake but still recall some of the rules 30 years later.
The Red Panther and his cohorts don’t seem to be following any of them. And Mr. Clean doesn’t seem to care. He watches calmly as the Red Panther climbs into the ring to help his partner beat Bengalia. Whenever Talion tries to help his partner, Mr. Clean would go to the corner and argue with him in Spanish.
Anna says they’re dropping several curse words. I only recognize the word cabrón (mostly because I’ve been called it on several occasions).
For those unfamiliar with lucha libre, a quick Google search reveals that the Mexican wrestling dates back to the 19th century when Mexico was revolting against the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. It was a diversion to help distract the public from the horrors unfolding around them. The hand-to-hand fights were called “lucha libre” (free fights) and known for lack of regulations.
The luchadores wore masks from the very beginning, but they didn’t become popular until Santo, El Enmascarado de Plata (Saint, the Silver Masked Man) in 1942. He is considered the greatest luchador, followed by other popular luchadores such as the Blue Demon, Ray Mendoza and Silver King, a 51-year-old wrestler who played the villain in Jack Black’s Nacho Libre and died in early May when he collapsed from a heart attack in the ring in London.
“We have truly lost one of Lucha Libre’s greatest wrestlers,” Lucha Libre World, the show’s organizer, said in a statement to (San Jose) Mercury News.
Lucha libre made its way to North Texas in the mid-’80s when Arturo Agis introduced the sport to North Texans at The Sportatorium in Dallas, according to a Sept. 17, 2015, report in The Dallas Morning News.
“Usually the arena would get packed because there was no lucha anywhere else but in the Sportatorium,” Jose Dominguez, a former luchador known as “El Renegado,” told the Morning News. “As a Latino, it was very difficult to get a chance to fight there.”
Nowadays, you can find lucha libre events occurring around Dallas, including at Traders Village in Grand Prairie, the Mesquite Arena, the Irving Arena and Dallas Farmers Market. The events are often free, though sometimes you’ll have to pay for chairs or parking.
On Sunday afternoon at the Denton Flea Market event, four lucha libre matches are taking place with two to four luchadores wrestling. Alicia Gonzales and her partner, who is one of the wrestlers she wouldn’t name, are running the match today. She says they have 16 luchadores who wrestle for them at their matches. Six wrestlers are listed on the flyer for today’s event, including Aski, G. Chicano and Mascara Magica, none of whom I’m able to catch before the heat forces me and my family to seek shelter.
I stick around for the Red Panther’s inevitable first win. Granted, he cheats through most of the match and easily wins it with the help of Mr. Clean, who needs to go back to selling cleaning supplies.
When I turn to leave, Anna’s little sister sits in the shade underneath a tree and looks like a child discovering presents on Christmas morning. “Yeah, I got their autographs,” she says, proudly displaying a green note card somebody had discarded.
It’s hard to make out the signatures, but one reads “Red Panther.”
“What does it say?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she replies. “I don’t understand their handwriting.”
Christian McPhate is an award-winning journalist who specializes in investigative reporting. He covers crime, the environment, business, government and social justice. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the Miami Herald, San Antonio Express News and The Washington Times.