The Luchadors Of Bethnal Green
Passing the terrace in Paradise Row, Bethnal Green, with a blue plaque commemorating the former residence of the legendary eighteenth century prize-fighter, Daniel Mendoza, I took the next turning under the railway, and walked through a dark and narrow arch to enter an unmarked door between the panel-beating and the joinery workshops, where I discovered an empty wrestling ring beneath blazing lights, awaiting the contestants of the night.
I had arrived at the European centre of Lucha Libre – an evolved style of Mexican Wrestling characterised by the use of colourful masks and employment of rapid sequences of flamboyant moves, including high-flying aerial techniques. Contributing Photographer Simon Mooney was already poised at the ringside, ready to capture the spectacle of Lucha Britannia in close up.
Before I knew it, the space was crammed with an excited audience of aficionados and fans cheering in anticipation as Benjamin Louche, the be-sequinned MC, asked “Do you like the sound of breaking bones?” When the Luchadors emerged from the crowd amidst loud music, bursting into the ring and taunting the audience, I realised that this was sport counterpointed with an equal measure of pantomime. First came the robotic Metallico, then Freddie Mercurio crowd-surfed his way onto the platform, followed by the undead Necrosis and the African Prince Katunda in tiger skin pants.
I wondered what universe these ill-assorted spectres had been conjured from – whether a comic book Parnassus or murky Gothic netherworld. Yet all regions of the collective imagination were represented in this trashy posse of snarling and roaring grotesques, both male and female, who took turns in the ring during the evening. These were brash fantasy alteregos unleashed by the wearing of a mask and a skimpy costume – needy, petulant emotional characters finding primal expression in violent physicality.
The luchadors flew around the ring, chopping and punching, bouncing off the elasticated ropes, leaping off the corners, spinning and somersaulting, twisting arms and pulling each other around in swift acrobatic moves that sent their partners crashing onto the floor – as if they were as incapable of injury as cartoon characters, but leaving me wincing at the bruises thus inflicted. Innumerable times, wrestlers ended up in the crowd and came flying back into the ring. Underscored by a constant soundtrack, this was a night of unrelenting energy intensified by the confines of the cavernous arch and whipped up by an audience that grew increasingly intoxicated by the drama, and the heat, and Day of the Dead beer.
This collective excitement proved irresistible, delighting in chaos and excessive behaviour, yet coloured with pathos too. We all cheered for the working class Bakewell Boys to beat Sir Reginald Windsor and then booed when the posh nobs prevailed over the scruffy plebs. Similarly, when the five foot Lucha Britannia champion took on the seven foot Fug in the most exciting match of the evening, leaping around the ring with the grace and speed of a flying monkey, he won the fight only to be defeated in the final moment by Fug’s brutal pal appearing in the ring. These poignant losses won the hearts of the audience and undermined simple notions of victory in a sport which finds its expression in bravura theatrical technique as much as in physical domination of the opponent.
To one such as myself, only vaguely familiar with wrestling in any form, the presence of more than two fighters in the ring at once compounded the dramatic possibility exponentionally. Meanwhile at the ringside, Benjamin Louche and his colleague, Tony Twotops, kept a running commentary, showgirls, Maz & Viva, strutted around with signs announcing the acts, while referee, Gino Giovanni, struggled to keep the contest fair and Nurse Buckett, in a green rubber dress, tended the casualties.
As an audience, we were such willing co-conspirators in this charismatically surreal version of a wrestling match – so far beyond self-parody and satire yet enacted with a winning display of skill and panache – that when all the contestants invaded the ring at the finale and Benjamin Louche suggested, “Let’s not fight, let’s take a photograph,” we were more than willing to participate in this sublime moment, capturing the exhilarating emotional triumph of the night.
Photographs copyright © Simon Mooney
Lucha Britannia takes place monthly at 265 Poyser St, Bethnal Green, E2 9RF
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