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Masked Warriors In Mexico

EL UNIVERSAL
EL GRAN DIARIO DE MEXICO


Universal Journal

Masked warrior in the grip of God

SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE

TEOTIHUACAN, State of Mexico -- In the pantheon of Mexico's wrestling champions, few fighters can claim to have been heroes outside the ring as well as within it. Fray Tormenta won the loyalty of thousands of fans in a career which spanned 23 years and more than 4,000 bouts.

Like most Mexican wrestlers, Fray Tormenta ("Friar Storm" in Spanish) fought incognito, concealing his true identity beneath a golden cape, a yellow leotard with "FT" emblazoned in red across his chest, and a red and yellow mask.

The disguise allowed Tormenta to maintain one of the best-guarded secrets of the underworld of Mexican wrestling, a pantomime embodying all that is good and evil, tragic and comic. In real life, Fray Tormenta is a priest, who took up wrestling to raise money for his home for abandoned children.

His name is the Rev. Sergio Gutierrez Benitez, and he lives in Teotihuacan, a village outside Mexico City which was once a pilgrimage site for Aztec kings.

Father Sergio was organizing the afternoon's activities at the orphanage. He is a small, bespectacled, energetic man, at once stern and affectionate towards the 80 boys in his care. In his dog collar and immaculate white shirt, he was unrecognizable as the wrestler who felled opponents with double somersaults, boots colliding against chests in mid-air, and pinned rivals to the ground with crippling arm locks. Only his broad torso, still powerful at the age of 53, betrayed a lifetime of athletic training.

What had driven Father Sergio to lead a double-life: a priest by day, a masked wrestler by night, and how he had managed to keep it secret for so long.

"It is simple," he began. "No one would have taken me seriously as a wrestler had they known I was a priest. The fans, the impresarios, thought my nom de guerre was a joke, like all the other characters we impersonate in the ring. No one believed there was a real priest concealed behind the mask of Fray Tormenta."

Wrestling, he said, had been a lifelong passion. The priesthood came later.

Father Sergio grew up in a rough neighborhood in Mexico City, where wrestling was more popular than soccer, and a means of self-defense.

He was one of 18 children, and his parents had little money for education. He drifted to the port of Veracruz, hung out with pimps and prostitutes, and became hooked on drugs.

"The day I hit rock bottom, I went to see a priest for help. He chased me out of the church. I was so angry, so incensed, I thought there ought to be better priests in this world to help people like me."

But he was accepted by a Spanish order dedicated to teaching. He was 22. His theological training took him to Rome, and then Spain, and for a while he taught philosophy and history at Roman Catholic universities in Mexico. But he had still not found his true vocation.

A chance encounter with a street urchin, sleeping rough under a bridge in Veracruz, moved Father Sergio to ask his superiors' permission to found an orphanage. It was denied. So he left the Scholastic Order and joined the diocese of Texcoco, where the bishop and villagers of Teotihuacan raised funds for Father Sergio's home.

But money was always running out. No child was ever turned away, even when Father Sergio had no idea where the next meal would come from.

"I became a professional wrestler because I had a cause. If it weren't for my children, there would have been no reason to fight," he explains.

Like most poor boys who dream of becoming wrestling champions, Father Sergio thought he would earn millions if he became a prizefighter. He endured dislocated arms, a broken nose, three cracked ribs and several mangled fingers, but never made a fortune, in spite of a career that took him to Japan 14 times and to the US 70 times.

"The most I was ever paid was 5,000 dollars for a bout in Japan," he says, "but I am no longer disappointed. My boys are fed and clothed.

They have all gone to school. One is now a doctor, three are lawyers, 12 are computer analysts and 16 are schoolteachers." His kids, he says, are his proudest achievement.

It was easy to conceal his true identity. Mexico, he says, is a country of masks. "Whether out of fear or self-protection, we rarely present our true face to the world. Mexicans are secretive by nature. Our formality is a shield against scrutiny. We use masks all the time."

Mexicans also have a passion for masked heroes. At school, every child learns how Aztec warriors disguised themselves as jaguars and eagles to fight Spain's conquistadors. Following the earthquake which devastated Mexico City in 1985, Super-Barrio (Super-Neighborhood), Mexico's answer to Superman, emerged from the rubble to lead a successful protest movement which forced the government to build new housing for the capital's homeless.

In wrestling, as in guerrilla war, the mask bestows an aura of invincibility. A wrestler's disguise heightens his mystique.Conversely, there is no greater humiliation than to lose one's mask in a fight. Mexico's greatest wrestlers count their trophies in the number of rivals they have unmasked, like Mohican warriors with their scalps.

Fray Tormenta's unmasking was less dramatic, and carried none of the humiliation of defeat in the ring.

He was celebrating mass one Sunday in Teotihuacan. A fellow wrestler, who calls himself "Hurricane," happened to be in the congregation. He thought he recognized Father Sergio's voice, and his build matched Fray Tormenta's, a frequent opponent. After mass, Hurricane approached Father Sergio.

"So you really are a priest," he exclaimed, and the secret was out.

Fray Tormenta continued to fight for a few more years. His fans, and the donations to his orphanage, multiplied. In February, however, doctors diagnosed diabetes and a heart ailment, and advised him to retire from wrestling.

On the last Friday night in May, the Arena Mexico, the mecca of Mexican wrestling, was packed for Fray Tormenta's emotional farewell.

The Last Dragon, Mr Fog, Blue Panther, Black Warrior and the Saint, some of the greatest wrestlers of all time, came to pay their respects. So did the entire congregation of Teotihuacan.

The lights dimmed, bells tolled, and Fray Tormenta strode into the arena to climb on to the ring for the last time.

"Life," he said, quoting a Mexican proverb, "is but a brief masquerade. It teaches us to laugh with tears in our eyes, and to conceal our sorrow with laughter."

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