aka El Santo, The Saint, Rudolfo Guzman Huerta

santo5 Every nation has some one implausible cultural icon that speaks a profound truth about its society.

The United States has Ronald Reagan. Saudi Arabia has Osama bin Laden. Italy has the Pope. Great Britain has James Bond (or perhaps more appropriately, The Prisoner). Japan has Godzilla.

But Mexico has El Santo, so Mexico kicks all their asses. (Except maybe Japan's.)

Who is Santo? Mexican wrestling star, crime fighter, super hero, inventor, philosopher, gourmand, scientist, secret agent, psychologist, socialite, lover, father ... It might be easier to say who Santo isn't than to list his many qualities.

The man who would be Santo was born in 1917 with the name Rodolfo Guzman Huerta. After a short and undistinguished wrestling career under both his own name and a blatantly plagarized masked alias, Huerta irrevocably transformed into Santo El in 1942, winning an eight-man battle royale in his debut match, clad in a simply adorned silver mask.

After Santo's debut, Rodolfo Huerta vanished from public life. From that day forward, there was only Santo. Huerta went to great lengths to keep his identity secret and his face hidden. He appeared in public as Santo frequently, but never without his mask.

Known as lucha libre, Mexican professional wrestling was still an extremely young sport in 1942, but it had become instantly popular. Luchadors were (and still are) much more acrobatic and athletic than their American counterparts. They're also smaller -- El Santo was only 5'9".

"Lucha-style" wrestling tends to be airborne, with lots of flips, tosses and dives off of the ropes and turnbuckles. Santo was a good practitioner of the art, but far from the best. Like Hulk Hogan in the U.S., Santo's stardom hinged far more on his charisma than his moves (although Santo still had a hell of lot more in-ring skill than Hogan).

santo2 Although you wouldn't know it now, Santo began his career wrestling as a rudo, the Spanish word for a heel wrestler. He was the bad guy, whom audiences were supposed to hate. The problem with heels in wrestling is that the most successful ones become insanely popular. Once audiences start loving a wrestler, they usually become a tecnico (babyface, or good guy).

It's often a difficult transition, especially for wrestlers who are really good at being heels. When a rudo becomes a tecnico, there is a real danger that he can lose the edginess that made him popular in the first place.

Suffice it to say, Santo didn't have any of these problems. Despite a career marked by low blows and cheating, audiences quickly began cheering his matches, especially when he began teaming with some of the biggest and most skilled stars of lucha, such as all-time great Gori Guerrero (father of current WWE superstar Eddie Guerrero).

Santo's charisma was all the more impressive considering it emanated from behind a mask that left everything to the imagination. Santo's eyes were barely visible in the mask, the very tip of his nose protruded, his lips could be seen through the mouth hole. Nevertheless, that certain special something came through somehow, whether through body language or magic.

After several years struggling to establish himself as the breakout star of lucha libre, Santo entered the 1950s at the height of his popularity. Around this time, someone came up with the notion of creating a Santo comic book.

In the comics, Santo fought crime (much like his masked counterparts in America) and wrestled regularly. In 1958, these tales crossed over into the movies, and the result was stunning.

santo1 It was the beginning of a series of films which really have to be seen to be believed. Titles from Santo's 54 films include such classics as Santo vs. the Diabolical Brain, Santo the Silver-Masked One vs. The Martian Invasion, Santo in the Hotel of Death, Santo vs. Blue Demon in Atlantis and Santo vs. The Vampire Women.

The character of Santo was an unreal paragon of intellectual and physical excellence. If you think Batman strains credibility, you haven't seen Santo. In addition to his rigorous and demanding wrestling schedule, which was almost always a key element of the films, Santo filled his spare time with various pastimes, such as inventing high-tech gadgets (frequently a Dick Tracy-style radio-homing-beacon-watch), playing chess, solving crimes, uncovering mysteries of nature, and wooing the ladies, sometimes accompanied by his masked friend and occasional tag team partner, the Blue Demon.

The movies veered from pulpy crime stories to outright fantasy. In Santo and the Diabolical Axe, our hero faces off against a centuries-old axe-wielding maniac from the time of the Inquisition. In Santo vs. The Witches, an evil coven of beauties pit their human-sacrificing wiles against the resourceful wrestler. In Santo vs. Dracula -- well, you probably get the idea by now.

Santo vs. The Martian Invasion featured many of the best elements of the Santo series, including voluptuous aliens, bizarre costumes, bad science and even a Martian dance number. Taking a page from the Ed Wood playbook, the Martians have come to earth in order to keep the primitive humans in their place. Perhaps needless to say, the fate of the Earth is decided by a wrestling match between Santo and the leader of the Martians.

santo3 Despite this busy schedule, however, wrestling always came first. In Santo and Blue Demon vs. Frankenstein, Santo's girlfriend is kidnapped by the titular doctor, who has been on a killing spree in which he removes the brains from lovely ladies and transforms them into zombies. Despite this imminent danger, Santo and Blue Demon pause their search so that they can go wrestle a best of three falls tag team match. As Santo observes with frustration, "We don't want to wrestle... But we have no choice!" And when the ultimate confrontation between Dr. Frankenstein's monster and Santo finally takes place -- you guessed it -- they have a wrestling match (which ends in a no-contest when the monster takes to higher ground.)

All good things must come to an end, but no one clued Santo on that little fact. Although we live in a world where major league baseball players are washed up at 40, and NFL recruits are over the hill at 28, wrestlers almost always work well into middle age (in part because the pay is so crappy compared to what you make playing for a government-subsidized franchise).

Even for a sport that reveres its elders, Santo was a record-breaker. After the movies finally dried up toward the end of the 1970s, Santo continued to perform in the ring. At 64 years of age, he suffered a heart attack in the ring and grudgingly conceded that it might be time to slow down. After having heart surgery, he returned to the ring one last time for a retirement tour in 1982.

One month after he retired, his son took up the mask to establish his own legacy as el Hijo del Santo -- "the son of Santo." Now 41 himself, Hijo del Santo is still one of the top lucha stars in the Mexican wrestling leagues, generally considered a better wrestler than his father but definitely a lesser star. To a certain extent, his stardom issue was simply a product of the times. By the end of the 1970s, the populist genre of the no-budget-no-story movie was becoming a thing of the past.

The original Santo contented himself with public appearances until 1984, when he stunned Mexico by unmasking during a national TV talk show. Two weeks later, Rodolfo Guzman Huerta died of a heart attack. More than 10,000 mourners turned out to view his body. Huerta was buried wearing Santo's silver mask.

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