Behind the mask: Heroes and villains go mano a mano in Kitsap County

- - Designed by Tad Sooter
— image credit: Designed by Tad Sooter

Ron Sutherland, co-owner of Suquamish Championship Wrestling, always enters the ring a wanted man. He’s known as El Gringo Loco, and he doesn’t wear a lucha libre mask. That’s because he wants fans to despise him.

"I don’t wear one, I want the enemy to know who I am,” said Sutherland, who briefly ended his wrestling hiatus last week for a Cinco de Mayo match at La Poblanita in Bremerton. “When I wrestled, I was hated, and I loved it.” In the world of lucha libre — literally “free fighting” in Spanish — masks are more than just costumes.

“The mask is crucial to everything,” Sutherland said.

Sutherland spent 10 years wrestling in Mexico, nearly dying once when a deranged fan stabbed him in the head with a knife. Last week, he also brought the highly acrobatic spectacle to Suquamish.

Often the costume of a wrestler lacks a shirt, and features skin tight pants. But the practitioners feel naked without their masks.

For example, El Vagabundo: After he was hit with a chair, thrown through a door and driven hard into the mat, El Vagabundo spent an hour in the locker room, the store’s meat locker, cleaning up his own blood with his mask still on. He won’t take it off, not even to greet friends.

The Mexican-born luchador lost the main event to rival, and friend, Juvi 775, also from Mexico.

One left the ring with his arm raised high in the air in victory, while the other limped away. Both kept their masks on. For them, nothing is more important than the colorful mask that conceals their identities.

The mask is more than a piece of cloth that ties an outfit together. A luchador’s mask, normally homemade, is a symbol of a wrestler’s achievements in and out of the ring, a tribute to wrestlers who came before them, continuing a tradition from their homeland. Their faces remain hidden, knowing that their act is ruined if the mask is ever ripped away.

“It’s a part of my life, it’s everything to me,” El Vagabundo said of his mask.

'This is a way of life'

When El Vagabundo was 6 years old, growing up in Mexico City, he attended lucha libre fights with his older brother. He told his brother that he would wrestle someday, and at 16, he started training.

Now, at 37, the 14-year veteran was matched up against fellow Mexican luchadores and American wrestlers at the Cinco de Mayo bouts.

“It’s part of our culture, a tradition for Mexican wrestlers, and it represents the man behind the mask,” he said.

El Vagabundo lost in the hardcore match finale, and amidst the shattered glass from broken light tubes that were smashed over his stomach, he walked away from the ring, hunched over and holding his mask in agony.

“This is not easy,” said El Vagabundo after the match, wearing only his blood-stained mask and pants. “This is not a game. This is not a job. This is a way of life.”

His homemade mask was partly ripped by Juvi 775 in the match, but El Vagabundo managed to keep it on. Both wrestlers decided not to take off each other’s masks out of respect. For luchadores, it’s an affront to enter the ring without the customary disguise. Removing another wrestler’s mask during a match is subject to disqualification.

The mask represents family, heritage and a great sense of pride, said Juvi 775. In addition, the masks hide expressions of pain, and the faces of men who wrestle in secrecy.

Despite wrestling for more than a decade, El Vagabundo’s family didn’t find out about his career choice until two years ago.

But El Vagabundo’s mother still doesn’t know her son spends his days flying off the top rope, getting pelted in the face with chairs, or pins down fellow luchadores who have secret identities of their own.

“My family doesn’t want to see me get hurt,” he said. “I wear the mask as a tradition, but I also don’t want people to know who I am out there.”

El Vagabundo, literally “vagrant,” has a sewing machine at his home where he makes his own masks.

Every day for the last three years, El Vagabundo finds time to build new designs that include a variety of shapes and colors. He prides himself on also stitching together his pants, tights and shirts. He’s currently working on a new mask design for his next match.

The Mexican grappler currently has 20 masks in his closet, and he picks a different one for every lucha fight. The masks are made out of a special type of fabric, something resembling the same material used for swimsuits and dancer costumes, he said.

El Vagabundo is constantly improving the intricacies of his luchador masks by stitching with newer fabrics and adding double layers so he doesn’t sweat as much.

Feeling the heat under the mask poses a problem for luchadors, but like most, El Vagabundo adapts by piecing together his own modifications, ignoring any distractions.

“It’s always going to get hot and sweaty under there, but it doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I just build my own mask to fit me and I go from there.”

'I don't ever take it off'

Juvi 775’s disguise resembles an Aztec mask, designed to look like a demon in the ring, he said. The 11-year veteran dons a bright, shiny silver mask that opponents will recognize instantly. He also builds his own outfits with the help of friends.

“You remember the mask when I put it on,” he added. “You know it’s me out there.”

Juvi 775, who earned his name by combining a nickname and the area code of his hometown, Tulancingo, Mexico, is a friend of El Vagabundo.

Both men are originally from Mexico, but since moved to Tacoma to compete professionally. They became buddies three years ago when their wrestling careers crossed paths.

El Vagabundo likes to add variety to his wrestling attire, while Juvi 775 limits himself to four masks, staying consistent with the Aztec demon-looking character.

The shapes and colors of their self-made suits, and identities, contrast, but there is one thing they have in common.

They will never wrestle without their masks.

“Nope, not ever,” said El Vagabundo when asked if he will ever consider leaving the mask behind. “It’s like taking off one of my arms. It’s part of my body and who I am.”

Juvi 775 echoed his friend’s principles as a luchador.

“I don’t ever take it off,” he said. “I don’t want to ever lose it.”

Angel Azul dons a blue mask to represent the name that translates to “Blue Angel.”

He started wrestling in lucha libre six years ago in Auburn, and now competes in Tacoma with Juvi 775 and El Vagabundo.

Angel Azul has never fought without the mask, nor does he intend to ditch the Mexican tradition.

When he wrestled in Auburn, Angel Azul trained with Astro Imperial, a luchador who mentored the young athlete in lucha libre-style bouts. After Astro Imperial retired, Angel Azul continued with his own career, mimicking his teacher’s moves, and honoring him with the mask.

“It’s my way of keeping him around, and paying tribute to him,” Angel Azul said. “It’s my nod to a great mentor.”

Angel Azul also stressed that a luchador’s mask is directly connected to his or her persona in the ring.

“It’s everything to us,” he added. “It’s who you are. It’s your signature, all defined by that mask.”

When the luchadores put on their masks, they’re representing alter-egos aimed at intimidating opponents, and entertaining the crowd. Depending on the character, luchadores are portrayed as allies or enemies, and fans play along.

Anthony Abastilla, 31, of Bremerton, attended the lucha libre matches last week because he is a longtime fan of the sport. Hulk Hogan and The Rock are among his favorites.

“It’s one of my childhood things,” he said. “I can’t resist it, this is my town here. It’s a good way to get the community together.”

“I’m a broke college student, so I appreciate the free event. I hope there will be more events like this,” he added.

— Mike Baldwin is a reporter for the Bremerton Patriot and Central Kitsap Reporter. Tad Sooter reports for the North Kitsap Herald and Kingston Community News.

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