El Santo – The Legendary Luchador

On what would have been his birthday, Marc Hemingway profiles the life and career of the biggest wrestling star in Mexican history.

September 23, 1917. Tulancingo, Hidalgo, Mexico. Jesús Guzmán Campuzano and Josefina Huerta (Márquez) de Guzmán welcome the arrival of their fifth child (of an eventual seven) and they gave him the name Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta. This child would go on to become El Santo, one of “the greatest legends in Mexican sports”, film actor, folk hero and a symbol of justice for the common man.

History does not record the exact date when Guzmán had his first wrestling match. Some report it was in Arena Peralvillo Cozumel on in 1934, others report it was in 1935 Deportivo Islas in the Guerrero colony of Mexico City, but what we do know is that towards the end of the 1930’s he was very well established as a wrestler and would popularized professional wrestling in Mexico, just as Hulk Hogan would decades later in the United States.

Several of Guzmán’s brothers were wrestlers fighting in the traditional Mexican style of ‘Lucha Libre’ which is characterized by colourful masks, fast paced matches and plenty of high-flying manoeuvres. Deciding he wanted to become a Luchador too, Guzmán learnt the martial art of Jiu-Jitsu and also practiced the Greco-Roman style of wrestling to gain the skills needed.

Guzmán cycled through a variety of different ring names including El Hombre Rojo (the Red Man), El Demonio Negro (The Black Demon) and El Murcielago II (The Bat II), before finally settling on the name that would stay with him for life, and into the history books: El Santo.

July 26, 1942. Arena México, Mexico City. It was here that El Santo (The Saint) made his official debut as part of an eight-man Battle Royal. When it came down to Santo and Ciclón Veloz it tuned into a ‘best 2 out of 3 falls’ match with Santo gaining the first fall, Veloz taking one back not long after. During the deiding fall, Santo was giving Veloz such a beating that the referee tried to stop it, but Santo turned on him which resulted in a win for Veloz and established Santo as a true heel.

In December of the same year El Santo’s infamy grew. His name was all over the wrestling section of the newspapers as during a match against Dientes (Teeth) Hernández, Santo gave his opponent EIGHT low blows in a row and by doing so became one of the most hated wrestlers in Mexico.

He would go on to form a formidable tag-team with Salvador ‘Gory’ Guerrero (father of Eddie Guerrero) with the brawler style of Santo complementing the great technician Gory and would take on and defeat any one that stood in their way.

May 15, 1946. American wrestler Jack Reynolds vacated the NWA Welterweight Championship and so the EMLL wrestling company asked the NWA to let them run an 8-man tournament for the belt. The final of the tournament came down to El Santo and the Bulgarian Pete Pancoff. Santo locked in a Boston Crab submission on Pancoff who had no choice to submit, giving Santo his first ever world title. When Pancoff submitted the crowd exploded into huge cheers of “SANTO! SANTO! SANTO!”

By defeating a foreign wrestler and winning the belt Santo was seen to be defending the country’s pride which made him a hero and turned his career around. Although he’d always wrestled as a heel, the crowds started to cheer for him and his popularity grew.

November 7, 1952. In a match that is now considered the most important match in the history of lucha libre, El Santo took on and defeated Black Shadow in a Mask vs. Mask match with the loser having to show their face and reveal their identity. It was around this time that lucha libre started to take off, due to better TV coverage and the first issue of the El Santo comic book was printed which would run in various forms for the next 35 years.

As the story telling world of Mexican wrestling mixed with real life, El Santo become much more than a wrestler to his fans. He made his first feature film in 1958 in a supporting role but would become the star in 1961s ‘Santo Contra Los Zombis’ (Santo vs. The Zombies.) More films would follow (a total of 52) and his superhero character took on Dracula, Frankensteins Monster, spys, mummies, witches and of course, aliens. El Santo made his last film, “The Fury of the Karate Experts,” in 1982 at the age of 65.

El Santo famously never took off his mask, even in private company. When he traveled he would take a different flight from his crew so that if he had to unmask at customs, they wouldn’t see his face. The name of Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta wasn’t linked to El Santo until, unexpectedly, he finally revealed his identity on Contrapunto, a Mexican talk show by briefly removing his mask. He would die 10 days later.

His funeral was one of the biggest in Mexican history with an estimated crowd of 10,000 fans showing up to pay their respects. The streets were literally blocked to the point that it took several hours until the coffin made it to the mausoleum. El Santo was of course buried wearing his famous silver mask.

He lives on in Mexican culture as a folk hero with a statue of the famous luchador near the Tepito market in Mexico City, with the Museum of El Santo in Tulancingo de Bravo, Mexico. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2018. He was remembered on his 99th birthday in 2016 with a Google Doodle and his movies are still shown in Mexico to this day.

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