The lucha libre
fighters of the Bronx
Inside the Bronx Wrestling Federation
On the first Saturday of every month, near the mouth of the Bronx River, Daro’s Extreme Fitness turns into a parallel universe: A diner owner and former drug dealer transforms into an ancient Mayan king, a New Haven bartender becomes a violent monkey, and a marketing exec assumes the persona of “Draven, the Embodiment of Sexiness and Arrogance.” Daro’s, a gym on the second floor of a warehouse, is the headquarters of the Bronx Wrestling Federation (BWF). There, founder Frank Segundo, 52, trains local wrestlers in Mexican-style lucha libre.
AUTHOR: Carey Dunne | PHOTOGRAPHER: Jonno Rattman
hanks to Hollywood parodies like Nacho Libre, starring Jack Black as a Mexican priest-cum-luchador, many Americans are vaguely aware of the world of spandex-clad lucha libre fighters. Flamboyant but hypermasculine luchadores act out operatic good guy versus bad guy narratives, somersaulting off ropes and body slamming for glory. Developed in Mexico in the 1930s, lucha libre is now the country’s fourth most popular sport. In the United States, though it’s recently gained some popularity in Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle, lucha libre is still on the fringes of pop culture. The East Coast scene is tiny, and in New York City, the BWF is home to one of the biggest active communities of masked Mexican-style luchadores. As it often goes in the city’s melting pot, this diverse community fuses lucha libre with American-style and other wrestling traditions, creating a hybrid genre that’s distinctly Bronxian.
Segundo, originally from the Dominican Republic, built the wrestling ring at Daro’s six years ago. After emigrating to New York in 2000 to work in construction, Segundo missed the Santo Domingo lucha libre scene in which he’d fought ferociously starting at age 18. Unable to find a local equivalent, he founded BWF.
“We are superheroes,” he says of the 60 wrestlers he trains, from rookies to seasoned local celebrities. “So many kids in this community love us.” Now, Segundo spends about 75% of his waking hours at the gym. He fights in the guise of Bronco Internacional, his luchador alter ego, with a neon purple, pink, and yellow mask, biceps about twice the circumference of his head, and a gut that looks eight months pregnant with muscle.
On the night of November 7th, the BWF celebrated its sixth anniversary with an epic four-hour series of fights, plus a cake decorated in hand-painted luchador action figures. “El dia de show,” as the solely Spanish-speaking Bronco Internacional calls fight night, is a series of Marvel Comics superhero brawls come to life. One hundred and fifty fans filled the usually barebones gym, including 30 Junior Guardian Angels—kid members of the crime fighting organization—in matching red hats eating hot dogs on folding chairs.
Theatrical fog spewed over a red carpet flanked by American, Dominican, Mexican, and Puerto Rican flags. Korn and Metallica alternated with reggaeton and Shakira over loudspeakers. Rainbow disco balls spun as the wrestlers burst out from behind a curtain and ran down the carpet into the ring, yelping and pulsing their pecs.
The deranged cast of characters included Caveman, a waiter by day, in a leopard print Flintstones toga, screaming “ooga booga” and waving a club; Menace, headbanging in a grinning skull mask and corpsepaint; Black Widow, with spiderweb sleeves and a rhinestone tarantula on her velvet choker; Monkey, in a grinning ape mask, patch vest, and long tail; and Batsu, AKA the Rad Dragon, “part human, part demon, part cyber-dragon, inspired by [his] favorite card game, Yu-Gi-Oh.” Batsu showed sketches for a new costume he’s working on—a light-up trenchcoat with wings that unfurl when you pull two strings.
“When you put on your costume to fight, it’s like when Bruce Wayne turns into Batman,” Bronco Internacional says. These transformations often have ripple effects through the wrestlers’ lives outside the ring. “There are quite a few fighters in the BWF who, if they weren’t wrestling in this gym, would be on the streets, maybe in jail or dead. Wrestling has guided them on a better path—you have to dedicate time to it and be strict about it. You need to be in great physical condition.” Daro’s Extreme Fitness is in Soundview, the South Bronx neighborhood often cited as the birthplace of hip-hop, where ‘70s rap pioneers the Jazzy Five MCs lived. It’s also where serial killer Son of Sam lived as a child, and where the unarmed resident Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by police officers in 1999. Off the Elder Avenue 6 train stop, Daro’s glowing awning is the brightest light source on a block of warehouses that smell inexplicably of dead fish.
When you put on your costume to fight, it’s like when Bruce Wayne turns into Batman.
BWF wrestler Victor says lucha libre helped him stop dealing drugs. After emigrating from Ecuador to Queens at age 12, accompanied only by his younger brother, Victor got involved in gangs and started selling cocaine while working nights at a deli. “I did that from age 13 to 17,” Victor says. “But then I started watching wrestling on TV. Those guys were my inspiration. Soon, I decided gang stuff wasn’t for me. I found another job at a nice deli. I’d work from 6am to 3pm, then go wrestle at the gym. Wrestling helped me get out of that bad scene.” Victor’s first character, inspired by Brian De Palma’s gangster film The Untouchables, wore knee-high lace-up patent leather boots and shiny blue leggings, with his long black ponytail poked through the laces of a bright blue luchador mask.
At the BWF’s sixth anniversary match, Victor debuted a new character: The Last Mayan King, an homage to his native country’s ancient history. He marched into the ring in a handmade day-glo green mask and patterned tights inspired by Mayan art. “I’m a proud South American,” Victor says. “It makes me feel good to know about my culture’s Mayan history, to wrestle as the Last Mayan King.” Generally, the bright neon colors and wide, froggy features of traditional luchador masks reference the iconography of Aztec history, evoking animals and gods. In Mexico, many professional luchadores consider their masks sacred and never leave home without them, wearing them to the grocery store as well as to the ring—sometimes to the grave (legendary luchador El Santo was buried in his).
Like most wrestlers in the BWF, Victor has a regular day job—he owns Mike’s Diner in Astoria—and has to maintain a kind of split personality. Some BWF members keep their luchador lives secret from coworkers. While pro wrestlers in the WWE get to live as their characters full time, in a national spotlight and often for lots of money, some indie wrestlers only get to unleash their rabid personas once a month, like werewolves. Many BWF wrestlers have dreamt of going pro since they were children. Victor says he knows plenty of people who, like him, turned their lives around after getting involved with the BWF and working toward this goal. “I feel very flattered when I see a kid transformed like that,” Bronco Internacional says, “like I’ve done something good for the youth in this community.”
At the match, it’s obvious why the BWF helps kids redirect aggression. “WE FINISHING BRONCO TONIGHT!” screams Dainja, a villainous character. “Enough of Bronco, Bronco, Bronco.” In spiked collars and shiny black masks, a lot of the “bad guys” look like they got their costumes at a flamboyant S&M store. A tag team called the Black Mafia throws a ladder, four folding chairs, and some metal garbage can lids into the ring. “This match between Bronco Internacional and the Black Mafia will be a HARDCORE match,” announces the commentator. In Mexico, no-holds-barred fights with sharp props like these are called lucha extrema. Some include barbed wire, power drills, and broken glass spread around the ring.
First, the fighters beat each other over the heads with the garbage can lids and ram the chair legs into each other’s stomachs. The crowd chants “YOU SUCK! YOU SUCK! YOU SUCK!” at the Black Mafia villains. Then Dainja lies on the ground as Bronco stacks a ladder and a folding chair on top of him, and flies off the ropes to belly flop squarely onto the stack, making a chair and ladder sandwich with their bodies as bread. Dainja convulses and moans, but stays lying under the ladder. Bronco’s sidekick then belly flops onto the ladder—Dainja, too—as another villain, Bobby C, gets bashed with a chair and starts bleeding from his cheek. Finally, as Dainja lolls, Bronco pins him for three counts and everybody cheers. Bronco parades around the ring in victory with his muscle belly waving a giant patchwork made from the flags of many nations.
“That was the most violent thing I’ve ever seen between humans,” one audience member says. But Bobby C claims his cheek gash is “just a scratch. That was the first time I ever bled in the ring, and because I was sweating a lot, it smeared everywhere. But it’s normal. You get juiced. I wasn’t scared.”
A few women wrestle with the BWF. In matches, they’re mostly supporting characters, standing on the sidelines rooting for their male teammates, or freaking out when their team is losing (“Get up! Get up!” shrieks Lexa Rose, a legal assistant by day now dressed in a camouflage getup, at her downed partner, Trigger). Sometimes they’re taken hostage by the opposing team, thrown over shoulders kicking and screaming. At one point, Black Widow, in a spider-printed corset, throws a cloud of white chalk dust in Menace’s face. The women wrestlers, too, see the anarchic circus of the BWF as a force for good. “It gives me a way to show girls you can be tough and do more than twerk and show your goodies on Instagram,” says Lexa Rose, from Long Island. “You can use your body, but it doesn’t have to be for Facebook likes.”
After the show, El Pequeno Pierroth (The Little Harlequin) posts a video of the brutal ladder bellyflop and bloodied Bobby C on Facebook, captioned “Para los que dicen que no es real la lucha libre” (“For those who say lucha libre is not real”). Many wrestlers get annoyed when people dismiss lucha libre, or wrestling in general, as “fake.” “Do you wanna get in that ring?” Batsu, the Rad Dragon, says. “When people say it’s fake, I say okay, get in this ring with me and get body slammed. Then tell me if it’s fake.”
Usually, in the non-“hardcore” matches, the wrestlers are cartoonishly performing pain. During practice, Bronco Internacional and his disciples rehearse their moans and screams almost as much as their physical moves, like a masochistic vocal warmup. But that doesn’t mean they don’t get their fair share of real injuries, like concussions and bone fractures. Though the action is choreographed, often with elaborate storyboards, and wins and losses are staged, there’s nothing fake about luchadores’ athleticism. If you body slam wrong, hitting your lower back instead of your upper back, you can end up paralyzed, a fate many wrestlers have suffered.
What’s also not fake is the wrestlers’ passion and dedication to the sport. For many, the BWF is the most important and sustaining thing in their lives. “Wrestling gives me meaning in life,” Trigger, a construction worker from Massapequa, Long Island, who wrestles in camouflage shorts, says. “If I don’t have wrestling, I’m nobody.” In this community, there’s none of the ironic detachment with which Hollywood parodies approach wrestling. No one makes fun of these men for grappling shirtless in sparkly spandex. “If you’re thinking, you’re sucking. The crowd isn’t gonna believe your story,” Buzz Bloodsaw, a bartender, an Alice Cooper-like character in a top hat, says. “I’m a psycho. I do whatever the fuck I want out there. Sometimes I dance.”
fter the match, a leading member of the volunteer crime-fighting organization the Guardian Angels honors Bronco Internacional with a trophy, labeled Most Popular Wrestler of the Year. Still in his mask, with the crying Jesus and Mary tattoos on his biceps all sweaty, Bronco Internacional describes his dreams for the BWF. He hopes to someday buy his own gym, with a pool, a medical center, and a recording and TV studio for broadcasting matches. “For financial reasons, I probably won’t able to take it as far as I want to,” Bronco Internacional says. “If I had the money, I’d make it a huge company. But that would take millions of dollars to buy all that. Now, with the little I have, I do these shows, and people like it.”
Even if he doesn’t manage to buy his own gym, and even if he someday can no longer get in the ring and fight, Bronco Internacional hopes to keep training young people in lucha libre. “10 years from now, when I can’t wrestle anymore, I want to keep working at the gym,” he says. “I want to keep teaching the youth, so they can keep the lucha libre legacy alive, and when they grow up and become really famous, they can say ‘I came from the school of Bronco Internacional, he gave me my first lesson, got me up on stage for the first time.’ If I’m alive to hear that, it would be hugely satisfying. That a kid who grew up to wrestle in a big company mentioned my name.”