Halloween is just around the corner. Kids and adults alike are already planning their costumes for this year’s festivities. Who am I going to be? What persona do I want to express? What will be my “mask” for this year?
Imagine being in the situation where those questions wouldn’t answer what your Halloween costume would be for a single year, but would instead shape the persona you would have for your entire career. That’s the life of a masked professional wrestler. As part of Nerdoween, I wanted to let you know about the rich differences in the wrestlers who don the mask in Mexico, Japan, and the United States.
The origin of the wrestling mask goes back as far as 1865 when French circus performer Theobaud Bauer became the creatively named “Masked Wrestler.” In 1915, Mort Henderson became the first American wrestler to adorn a mask when he became “The Masked Marvel.”
Mexico is where the wrestling mask is the most sacred. Worn by many a luchador, the mask represents a Mexican wrestler’s “spirit animal” so to speak. When the mask in worn, the wrestler takes on the persona of the mask’s representation. The most famous Mexican wrestler of all time, El Santo (The Saint) took on the persona of the “working man’s hero,” always fighting for good. The most well-known luchador to American audiences today would have to be Rey Mysterio (I KNOW he’s from San Diego, but I think we can all agree this makes sense, right?). He has a fairly small stature for a professional wrestler, but his moves are so innovative, it’s a “mystery” as to how he is able to pull them off.
The use of the mask doesn’t just change the underlying wrestler’s persona: the person and the mask are one. El Santo, whose real name was Rodolfo Guzman Huerta, respected the mask so much that he was only seen without it once. Even when he died, he was buried with his mask on. Much like the dichotomy between Bruce Wayne and Batman, El Santo was who he REALLY was. This respect for the masked wrestler is so great that one of the major rules in Mexican wrestling is if you unmask your opponent during a match, accidentally or not, you are automatically disqualified. The ultimate high-stakes match for luchadors is the “Luchas de Apuestas” where the losing wrestler must remove his mask, the ultimate humiliation.
In Japan, the mask in wrestling started off as an homage to the country’s heroes in manga and anime. The two most famous masked wrestlers from Japan are Tiger Mask and Jushin “Thunder” Liger. Both of these wrestlers took their look and name from anime and manga series of the same name. While the specific anime influence has waned, the mask in Japan is still reserved for the lighter, high-flying wrestlers, continuing that superhero-like persona (or supervillain, depending).
In the case of Tiger Mask, it has become more about legacy than identity (as you see with the luchadors in Mexico). Much like the Phantom comics of the 1930s, the Tiger Mask is a mantle passed down from one wrestler to the next. Unlike the Phantom, there is no belief that it is the same person behind the mask. It’s a passing of the torch so to speak, much like when Steve Rogers gave the mantle of Captain America to Sam Wilson. So far there have been five Tiger Masks, the last one debuting in 2010.
In the Unites States, some of the most famous “old-school” masked wrestlers are Mr. Wrestling, the Assassin, and the Patriot. Unlike Japan and Mexico, the masks that are worn by wrestlers in the United States never really added anything special to the person wearing it. For example, Del Wilkes, the man behind the mask of the Patriot, portrayed the character as someone who loved his country. If he were to take his mask off, he would still be a man who loved his country. Having the mask on didn’t add anything to the character itself. A great analogy would be to imagine Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Clark Kent. Now imagine him taking off his glasses and suit to reveal his Superman costume. Finally, imagine him STILL acting like the bumbling Kent while in his costume. I never understood why this was. If you were going to create this masked wrestler, why not create a compelling character to go with it?
One of the exceptions to this rule was in the 2000s with the Hurricane. Wrestler Gregory Helms took on the persona of the superheroic Hurricane, with the mask, cape, patently obvious “secret identity,” and even a team of sidekicks. The Hurricane evolved over time from an over-the-top Superman-like persona to that of one closer to Batman, making his presence known so he can save the day, only to disappear just as quickly. This is an untapped well tWWE should utilize more often.
The mask in the United States is also used as a trope. When a wrestler is either fired or suspended as part of a long-term storyline, a masked wrestler with the same mannerisms and body shape will often mysteriously debut a few weeks later. The point was to not hide an identity but to use a loophole to antagonize the villains that caused them to get fired in the first place. One of the more recent examples of this trope was Hulk Hogan disguising himself as Mr. America in 2003.
While the mask in the United States is not usually linked to the wrestler’s identity, arguably the most famous U.S. wrestling character to don a mask is the only one to break this rule. Debuting as the Undertaker’s brother in 1997 for the WWE, Kane has worn his mask on and off for almost two decades. When a storyline calls for Kane’s “demon” side to come out, he adorns the mask. Instead of merely hiding his face, it fundamentally alters his whole persona, similar to how movies portray someone as having multiple personalities.
As you can see, the use of masks in wrestling is significantly different depending on the country of origin of the wrestlers using it. Much like a Halloween costume, it gives wrestlers an opportunity to become something even more fantastic in an already fantastic world.
You can check out more famous masked wrestlers in the gallery below.
So what do you think? Which is your favorite all-time wrestling mask? Let me know on Twitter or sound off in the comments below.
Images: WWE, Sunrise, New Japan Pro Wrestling, Toei Animation