Thousands of raucous fans that filled a sold-out Madison Square Garden in New York City recently may not have realized it, but a Mexican wrestling legend left his mark on them during WWE’s Road to WrestleMania tour.
You didn’t have to look very far to find this luchador’s influence. He found refuge in a four-year-old boy who wore a white and gold mask of his favorite wrestler, WWE star Sin Cara. His acrobatic ring style lived on in WWE wrestlers young enough to be his children and grandchildren. His superhero mystique and flair for colorful, sophisticated attire were be found in the T-shirts and replica masks belonging to WWE star Rey Mysterio, one of his many descendants in the squared circle.
While Mysterio is an icon in his own right in the pro wrestling –and Sin Cara could be one in the making – neither of them may have been possible without this pioneer – the “Man of 1,000 Masks” Mil Máscaras. And Mascaras' legacy was celebrated when he was inducted into WWE's Hall of Fame at the American Airlines Arena in Miami last night, the eve of the 28th annual WrestleMania.
Máscaras was gracious as he reflected on his career and induction.
"The biggest reason that I am being inducted into the hall of fame is that, 40 years ago I debuted in New York's Madison Square Garden as the first and only masked wrestler," Máscaras said in a statement to his fans. "It [The Garden] was then and is today, the capital of worldwide wrestling. There was no other masked wrestler before I arrived at Madison Square Garden."
"WWE is extraordinary," Máscaras continued. "Now it is all over the world while before it was just in the United States. Now, they have stations all over the world. I just want to say thank you [to all the fans]."
Máscaras made his in-ring debut in Guadalajara, Mexico in the mid-1960s. With a 245-pound physique chiseled from a Greek God and a high-flying, breathless wrestling style reserved normally for much smaller competitors, Máscaras was an instant hit. He was like Superman in a mask, a superhero brought to life. Soon, he was in demand from wrestling promotions around the world, and his burgeoning fame could not be contained to Mexico.
Máscaras was the first masked luchador to compete in Japan. He made his U.S. debut in California in 1968, ultimately making history four years later when he became the first masked grappler to compete in New York City's Madison Square Garden. Up until then, New York had a law that banned fighters from competing while wearing a hood or a mask. But the law was lifted to enable the World Wide Wrestling Federation (known today as WWE) to bring in Máscaras as a feature attraction.
The Garden debut of "The Man of 1,000 Masks" opened the door for countless wrestlers who grew up watching him. Máscaras' induction into WWE's Hall of Fame will only continue to motivate future generations of budding luchadors.
"I really think it's a door-opening, for me in particular, and for a lot of Hispanic wrestlers in WWE to come," said Rey Mysterio, a multiple-time champion and 23-year veteran. "It's historical. When anyone talks about lucha libre and that style of wrestling, the first person they think of is Mil Máscaras. The other man the true wrestling fan will think of is El Santo. These were the names that came to me when I was growing up."
Mysterio, rehabilitating a severe knee injury that has sidelined him since last year, has had a life-long love affair with the "sport of kings." He is a nephew of Mexican wrestler Rey Misterio Sr. and grew up watching his uncle and Máscaras wrestle. Mysterio's uncle and Máscaras helped mold his own wrestling persona and style.
" Máscaras’ physique, in terms of symmetry and size, and his style in the ring really made him stand out," Mysterio said. "He really did live up to his name 'The Man of 1,000 Masks.’ I think he had 1,000 masks and more. You would really never see him wear the same outfit twice. ... He was always very, very colorful. That's what I always try to pick up – being very colorful with my masks and ring costumes – when I wrestle."
Besides his influence between the ropes, Máscaras may have been one of pro wrestling’s first “sports-entertainers.” Long before Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson showed Hollywood that a pro wrestler could be a full-time action star and leading man in Tinsel town, El Santo and Máscaras were making films in Mexico. The Mexican film industry recognized the star appeal of wrestlers back in the 1950s. El Santo starred in 59 Mexican films during an in-ring career that lasted 48 years. Mascaras followed Santo’s lead; his early campy sci-fi films, “Mil Máscaras” and “Las Momias de Guanajuato” helped springboard his career to international stardom.
WWE Chairman Vince McMahon has long believed his performers are more than wrestlers, but are “Superstars” and “Divas” who transcend the action in the ring. That’s why he prefers to refer to WWE action as “sports-entertainment.” McMahon may have popularized the term in recent years, but El Santo and Máscaras lived it, even if accidentally, for decades.
“El Santo was making movies before [Mil Máscaras], but I’d say he [Máscaras] took it to the next level,” Mysterio said. “El Santo’s movies were kind of out there, but Mil Mascaras did the more reality-based type sci-fi movies. You could say he was one of the first to open the notion for those that subscribe to the mentality that this is sports-entertainment.”
Although he will turn 70 this year, Máscaras is only semi-retired. He still makes movies and occasionally competes in the ring. It’s difficult to imagine him leaving in-ring work entirely behind. After all, lucha libre is in his blood: His brothers, Dos Caras and Sicodélico are wrestlers and his nephew, Alberto Del Rio, is carrying on the family tradition in WWE.
Del Rio, who inducted Máscaras into the WWE Hall of Fame last night, still follows the wise advice of his father and uncle.
“They’ve told me to be focused and train hard and take care of myself because this can be a very dangerous sport and the risks are always out there,” he said in a past interview. “They also just told me to be prepared for what is coming.”
No matter what lies ahead for Máscaras, this much is certain: His legacy is assured. From his nephew to Rey Mysterio to the 4-year-old mask-wearing fans, Mil Máscaras lives on in more than 1,000 different ways.
Bryan Robinson is a Fox News Web producer.