There are certain wrestlers who can be successful enough that the majority of fans consider them “legends”. There are other wrestlers who can be successful enough they are considered symbols of the business of professional wrestling. Then there are those few who attain such a level of greatness that they are seen not only as symbols of the business but symbols of their country and culture. You are about to read the story of a man who epitomizes the honor and tradition of lucha libre, a man who continues to be honored posthumously by those who knew and loved him and the new generations who wish to be like him. A man who wore silver, but ushered in a golden age:
Rodolfo was born in Tulancingo, in the state of Hidalgo, which is now considered a holy land of lucha, on September 28, 1917. He was the fifth of seven children. During childhood he naturally showed a talent for sport, playing and excelling in baseball at the age of 9 and football at 12. When he was young, many sporting and social events took place at casinos, and he would frequent them from time to time. It was there that he discovered wrestling and first set eyes on a ring. He was not the first in his family to decide to lace up a mask, no, he actually had several elder brothers who had entered the sport first, including Miguel “Black” Guzmán, Jimmy Guzman, and Pantera Negra.
It was 1935 when he decided to enter the business himself, and Rodolfo made sure to build himself a better athletic base for it than baseball and football could provide, practicing both jujutsu and Greco-Roman wrestling. His brother Miguel had assisted him in his professional training, and only after a few months was he ready to start his career.
On June 28th, 1934, in the Arena Peralvillo Cozumel, the 17-year-old “Rudy Guzmán” made his debut, alongside Miguel. Not long after were they both sighted by EMLL (now CMLL) star Jack O’Brien, recommended to the higher-ups, and signed to contracts. Normally you would assume that both young wrestlers’ careers would have skyrocketed from that point. You’d be half right. “Black” Guzmán enjoyed a fair amount of success and popularity, winning various awards and accolades, one of them to be the 1939 rookie of the year award. Rodolfo was stuck under his shadow, shackled by simply being “Black Guzmán’s brother.” Rodolfo was not slow to move, though, as he soon attempted to establish his own identity.
He wrestled without a mask as El Hombre Rojo (“the red man”). This identity did not catch on despite him wrestling in important venues such as Arena Modelo (which is now the most important wrestling arena in Mexico, Arena Mexico). Rodolfo had to work menial odd jobs to support himself during this difficult time. Eventually Rodolfo left EMLL in 1936 due to not getting a decent enough push, in his opinion. Fortunately enough for him, the very same talent scout to whom Jack O’Brien had recommended him, Jesús Lomelí, had left as well, and had began his own promotion. When he needed young talent for his budding enterprise, he immediately thought of Rodolfo, and he had himself a job again.
Of course, in switching to a new federation, Rodolfo had an exceedingly difficult time in selecting a proper identity. Lomelí didn’t want him to be El Hombre Rojo, but when he gave him a new guise, El Murcielago Enmascarado (“the masked bat”) II, which had managed to actually get the young rudo some good heat for a little while, the original Murcielago Velazquez didn’t like the name, so that was dropped as well. Lomelí met with Rodolfo and they discussed different names, most of them being ironic images of good to be worn by an evil ruffian.
The one idea Rodolfo liked the most of them was El Santo (“the saint”), and thus on July 26, 1942, the legend began, dressed in a rather cheap all-silver costume and mask brought with the meager wages he had. The match was an eight-man elimination battle royal, and the last two were to wrestle under a regular 2/3 falls stipulation. The last two men were El Santo, and Ciclón Veloz. The first two falls were unmemorable, but in the third fall Santo displayed his unrelenting rudeza that would make him an immediate hit with fans. He poked Ciclón in the eyes, brawled without restraint, and when the referee, who happened to be Lomelí himself, tried to restrain this neophyte menace, he got attacked as well, so Ciclón got the DQ win. A week later, though, Santo had a one-on-one rematch with him and beat him, which certainly impressed and upset the fans at the same time. He was quickly escalated into important match scenarios, his first on August 16th of that same year. He faced established veteran Bobby Bonales in the main event. He lost, but in the process continued to show his plentiful talent (and deviousness) in the ring, and show to fans he was a star. Santo was a rudo through and through at that point, doing whatever it took to win, and sometimes just to be mean. In one match, he gave an opponent eight straight low blows. Eight. Just reading that makes you want to cross your legs, doesn’t it? Well, it sure got Santo’s face in the sports sections of all the newspapers and magazines.
Santo’s first title was won on February 21, 1943, defeating Ciclón Veloz to get the Mexican National Welterweight Title. From that point on, he was an established main event rudo, also defeating, of all people, Murcielago Velazquez to also win the National Middleweight title, becoming a double champion. His first major lucha de apuestas was a mask vs. hair match with Velazquez, against whom Santo was indeed victorious. Santo later also had the privilege of wrestling in the main event of the first ever card in the newly built Arena Coliseo against Tarzan Lopez.
As good as the previous year had been to him, 1944 didn’t quite start off in the best way, getting in an automobile accident that nearly killed him (hmmm…must be some correlation with near-fatal crashes and greatness…), but that happened to be the same year “La Pareja Atomica” was formed with Gory Guerrero. Their success was already mentioned in my last piece, so go check that out for more info. It was two years later that El Santo would find himself in one of the most pivotal moments of his career, winning both a world title and the hearts of fans. EMLL held a tournament to determine who would hold the recently vacated NWA Welterweight title. The other participants are not important and have faded into obscurity, but the final match was El Santo vs. The Bulgarian Pete Pancoff. Santo made him submit to a Boston crab, and just then, something odd happened. As Santo celebrated his victory, the crowd was cheering. Cheering for him. In defeating the foreign threat, Santo had gotten the crowd on his side, and he was now the good guy.
It was a bittersweet turn though, as the next couple of years did not go as well as he would have liked, losing both of his national titles. A lot of youngsters were making their debut around that time, and Santo had started taking a lot of clean losses to put these rookies over. His decline stopped, luckily, when he was put in another big-profile main event, against his friend and ally Gory Guerrero in 1949. They found themselves on opposite sides of the bracket for a tournament to determine the number one contender for the NWA welterweight title. Santo and Gory sold out Arena Coliseo with the final match, a friend vs. friend encounter, that given the technical skill of these two was of course nothing short of phenomenal, with the Guerrero patriarch coming out on top.
This did not end La Pareja Atomica for good, oh no, in fact, the alliance was even stronger, and set the stage for an encounter that would set the stage for one of Santo’s greater feuds. Santo and Gory faced the up and coming team of Blue Demon and Black Shadow (christened “Los Hermanos Shadow”), where the veterans came out on top. But Black Shadow swore revenge and set about an epic rivalry with Santo that culminated in Santo taking his mask in 1952. To avenge this, Blue Demon took Santo’s NWA welterweight title the following year. This was a very key loss and helped elevate Demon to later on in his career become a legend many consider on par with Santo himself.
Santo and Blue Demon were in the right place at the right time, though, as just around this time lucha libre in Mexico began getting major television coverage. Santo was an easily marketable image, with his silver mask being printed on such things as comic books…
…And all sorts of goods. At the time, Mexican nationality was on the rise, so in a very similar parallel to American wrestling and Bob Backlund being the all-American boy, Santo became the defender of Mexican pride and ideals, fending off the threats of evil foreign wrestlers (Like Sugi Sito. Even back then there was always a lot of prejudice against Asians).
Now turned tecnico and given the medium of television to exhibit his expertise, he displayed greater knowledge of high-flying, giving birth to one of his trademark moves, the Tope Cristo.
His new moves and ring style gained him devotion and worship from the fans, and it was only as matter of time before he branched out to other forms of entertainment. Santo began a very long and illustrious movie career, churning out many mind-numbingly stupid, yet awesomely cheesy low-budget movies (such as him teaming up with Blue Demon, who by that time was a regular ally in the ring, in the cinematic masterpiece “Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dracula and The Wolfman”).
However, despite the lack of challenging plotlines and computer effects, Santo became an instant hit, in retrospect considered one of the most successful actors in Mexican cinema. The funny thing is, his success was not limited to Mexico, but all over Latin America, and even Lebanon where they actually erected a statue of Santo in front of a movie theater. To those who hope for The Rock’s success in Hollywood, you never know, he may just become a deity in Guam.
Santo, with a career lasting more than 20 years at this point, of course, began the battle with age. His popularity didn’t wane at all by any means, no, but he relegated himself to six-man tags, forming a quite popular trio with the immensely popular Solitario and Mil Mascaras. In 1980 he fell unconscious in the middle of a match, and was later diagnosed with a corollary problem. This led to him having his wrestling license revoked, and then having a heart operation in secret to fix it.
Santo saw the writing on the wall, though. His last major lucha de apuestas was mask vs. mask against Bobby Lee, the UWA welterweight champion. Santo came out on top as his last hurrah. In 1982 he retired after a three-match tour, and in his last match ever he teamed with Gory Guerrero, Huracán Ramirez and El Solitario to win against Signo, Negro Navarro, El Texano, and Perro Aguayo.
After his retirement Santo was able to see one of his sons carry on his name, debuting as Hijo del Santo under the same mask and outfit, and with an identical move set. Perhaps this was all Rodolfo needed to know that his work on this world was done, as two years later, on February 5th 1984, after complaining of chest pains, then passing out, El Santo died in the Mosel Hospital. To prove how much the image of El Santo meant to his country and people, Rodolfo was buried with his mask on. More than 10,000 people, wrestlers and civilians, crowded about at his funeral to say their final goodbyes to their national hero. But even though his body was no longer living, Santo never died. His son carries on the name of this day, most of the time the “Hijo del” is dropped and he is pretty much just today’s El Santo. Currently Hijo del Santo’s nephew has decided to carry on the name himself also, as “Nieto (grandson) del Santo”!
To think a single name and mask can mean so much to be carried over three generations is to contemplate quite a legend, a now mythical figure of Mexican folklore. CMLL every year, to not forget one of the biggest figures of their business in history, holds a tournament for young wrestlers called “La Leyenda de Plata” (the silver legend), and the winner is awarded a plaque with Santo’s face. To win it, and thus be compared with him, is no doubt the highest honor possible. Just by reading this you can see a testament to how even modern day fans want to know about the man who’s influence has remained in wrestling since even before his parents were born. Without Santo we would probably not have had Rey Misterio Jr., or Ultimo Dragon, or anybody who holds in such high regard the honor of the mask and the nobility of a luchador. As the sands of time pass us by, 30, 40, even 50 years from now, when we look back at the greats, we will still see Santo’s face, etched in stone forever.