Six to nine months off with an injury. A failed feud. Rumours of backstage unpopularity. All is not well for Sin Cara, by far the WWE’s biggest ever signing from south of the border. Many fans of North American wrestling saw the hype, “MISTICO’S COMING!”, they saw the debut, “SIN CARA’S HERE!”, and they saw… little else. A move-botching midget flying around the ring with no realism or pace. Why were people so excited? Why was there so much hype? Yet again, a foreigner has turned up in the WWE to the delight of… pretty much no one. So why was there so much excitement? Who was Sin Cara, and why were people so excited about him?
It’s not a new problem, it’s been happening for years. For decades, the biggest names in wrestling from the puro arenas of Japan to the lucha stadiums of Mexico has seen the WWE, the WWF and WCW as a promised land, yet, very rarely is this ever the case. Along with Sin Cara, this article documents some of the problems that other foreign stars encountered when they tried to re-create the magic they had at home in the good old U. S. of A.
Case 1: Sin Cara
Might as well start with the most recent addition to the list, the story of Louis Urive, better known in America as Sin Cara, but MUCH better known in Mexico as Mistico. How much better known? Well, who do you think is the most popular wrestler to be discovered in the 21st century? John Cena? Randy Orton? If you answered either of those, say “hi” to Mistico, without question, the biggest name in wrestling of the century so far.
Urive started his career as a luchadore in 1998, but it wasn’t until 2004, when he was repackaged with the new gimmick of “Mistico”, that he really took off. And, boy, did he take off? He was teamed with El Hijo del Santo, one of the most popular luchadores at the time (more on his father later), who would end all of their tag matches together by declaring that “Mistico is cool”. And you thought John Cena was rammed down our throats. Difference is, in Mexico, this shtick actually worked. Mistico went on to win a ton of awards including “Box Office Draw of the Year”, “High Flyer of the Year” and “Performer of the Year” at the Wrestling Observer Awards, and Pro-Wrestling Insider dubbed him the third best wrestler in the world in 2007.
But it’s not just in the ring where Mistico achieved fame, no, like Hulk Hogan and The Rock before him, Mistico went mainstream. He had his own comic book, he stared in music videos, he guest starred in one of Mexico’s famously ridiculous soap-operas, he even made an appearance in a party political broadcast for Partido Accion Nacional, one of Mexico’s three biggest political parties.
What else was there to do? Mistico was the most popular wrestler that Mexico had seen in years. Yet, he’d noticed something. One of his fellow luchadores, one far lower down the roster than Mistico, Dos Caras Jr., had jumped ship to the WWE and was now enjoying a mega-push as Mexican playboy Alberto del Rio. Mistico saw the next step; the most popular wrestler in Mexico was about to become the most popular wrestler on Earth.
But there were two problems. Two major problems. The WWE is not CMLL (the Mexican company Mistico worked for at the time). They aren’t even close. WWE is what’s called a “sports-entertainment” wrestling company. There’s an emphasis on at least vague realism to the matches, which mostly consist of striking and power moves, which rely on strength and size. CMLL is a “lucha-libre” wrestling company. There’s pretty much no realism either to the matches or to the characters, and the action relies on a fast pace and athleticism.
And there lay the problem. Alberto del Rio is 6’5 tall, weighs 239lbs, and speaks fluent English. Mistico is 5’7, weighs 180lbs and speaks effectively no English at all.
But it was too late, Mistico had signed to the WWE, and Sin Cara was born, and so it was that the biggest wrestling star in the Americas became nothing but a short, underweight, unrealistic, mute, flippy mid-carder.
Case 2: Ultimo Dragon
Remember that cool back-flip-reverse-DDT Paul London used to do? Remember those crazy moonsaults to the outside that lightweights (and Shawn Michaels) do? Remember that weird sort of Camel Clutch that Low-Ki did?
One guy invented them all; Ultimo Dragon.
Ultimo Dragon, born Yoshihiro Asai (as in Asai DDT and Asai Moonsault), is one of the most successful Japanese wrestlers of all time. Or should that be one of the most successful Mexican wrestlers of all time? It’s a strange issue. Asai is Japanese, but his character, Ultimo Dragon, is Mexican. He trained for years in Mexico in the lucha-libre style, before bringing it back to his native Japan, becoming one of the founders of Japan’s own lucha-style movement, the Super Juniors.
Now, Ultimo Dragon is no where near the level of popularity of someone like Mistico, even in his homeland (either of them), but what he is famous for is his importance in the history of wrestling. As well as inventing a whole bunch of moves and co-founding one of the most important movements in the history of Japanese wrestling, Ultimo Dragon has also had an incredible career as a trainer, discovering guys like Dragon Kid, Don Fujii, Magnum Tokyo, Nobuhiko Oshima and SUWA, and he went on to found the Dragon Gate franchise, one of the best indy federations of modern times.
And then he went to America.
Actually, Dragon’s career in WCW certainly wasn’t bad, but it certainly wasn’t great. Like every non-North American wrestler in the company, Dragon spent his time aimless exchanging lower card belts. It should be added that, at the same time he was doing this, he’d just taken part in the 1995 Super J-Cup, considered by many to be one of the greatest pro-wrestling shows of all time. Soon, Dragon realised that this wasn’t going anywhere and returned to Japan and Mexico.
Then he came back to the WWE. That’s right, not the WWF, the WWE. As a light-weight. Who couldn’t really speak English. Try and guess what happened next.
Things actually started surprisingly well. Ultimo Dragon had two long held dreams of performing at Wrestlemania and performing at Madison Square Garden, and both of those would come true. Things started in a way that, to any Mistico fan, might seem familiar. His arrival was foretold with mystical videos, and he enjoyed a short run of going over just about every light-weight the company had (which, being WWE, didn’t take very long). And then… not too much happened. Dragon was quickly relegated to the hell that was the Heat and Velocity circuit until, only a year after joining, Ultimo Dragon was released from his contract to return home to where people actually, you know, liked him.
Case 3: Kaientai
Original Kaientai members reunite in 2006
Ah, who doesn’t remember Kaientai? Taka Michinoku and Sho Funaki, two hilarious, borderline racist comedy Japs, who cut unintelligible promos, and fell flat on their faces from great heights to the delight of thousands.
Now, many WWE fans are aware that Michinoku had been around for a while before joining the WWF, and maybe some will be aware that Funaki had been around earlier as well, but very few know about the history of Kaientai itself as a group, and may be shocked to learn that what was a pair of ludicrous comedy jobbers in the WWF, was actually, originally, Japan’s answer to D-Generation X.
The group was founded in 1994 in Michinoku Pro-Wrestling by Dick Togo, Kaz Hayashi and Takeo Otsuka, and, whilst the name Dick Togo is, admittedly, pretty funny, there was no comedy to be had in this faction. The name Kaientai actually comes from the name of one of Japan’s old mercenary navies, meaning “Naval Auxiliary Force”, and that name origin should tell you what you need to know about how “funny” this group were. They were assholes, and very good assholes at that. The group expanded to incorporate younger talent like Gran Hamada, Yoshihiro Tajiri (yes, THAT Tajiri) and, of course, Taka Michinoku and Shoichi Funaki. In the age of mega-factions like the New World Order in WCW, and D-Generation X in the WWF, the time seemed perfect for Kaientai to cross the Pacific to America.
The faction (apart from Kaz Hayashi, who was already in WCW by this point) signed with the WWF, and were re-branded “Team Kamikaze” (apart from Taka Michinoku, who, for some reason, was split up from the rest of the group and booked to feud with them). Soon, the team had reverted to the name Kaientai, and had begun a particularly bizarre feud with Val Venis in which Venis slept with the wife of the faction’s new manager, Yamaguchi-San and, as punishment, had his penis cut off with a Samurai sword… live on WWE T.V. The feud also contained such memorable scenes as Yamaguchi-San attempting to spank Mr. Venis with a wooden paddle, a salami being viciously destroyed, an appearance from John Bobbitt, who had, famously, REALLY had his penis chopped off, and the immortal line, “I choppy–choppy your pee-pee” being shouted by a small Asian man in a Kimono. Somewhere, the inventor of Fu-Manchu was saying, “That’s a bit too far”.
You can imagine what happened to the “Japanese DX” in the eyes of WWF fans after this. Togo, Otsuka, Yamaguchi and the rest of the group bolted for the nearest exit and vanished back to Japan, never to be seen by American eyes again, leaving behind Taka Michinoku and Sho Funaki to continue to bury the name and legacy of one of Japan’s most important wrestling factions.
Case 4: Konnan
To most fans of American wrestling, the name Konnan is an instantly recognisable one. Whether you remember him from his TNA days in stables like the sorely underrated LAX or the slightly less commendable 3-Live Krew, or if you remember him from a little further back, as the leader of WCW’s Filthy Animals, most fans have had some experience of this Cuban veteran.
Konnan’s career started in Mexico, in AAA, an institution in the world of Lucha-Libre, rivalled only in recent times by the rise of CMLL. From there, he crossed over to America, completing two relatively un-noteworthy spells in ECW and WWF before moving on to WCW, his first real home on the American wrestling scene. Here, Konnan played a role in three of the company’s biggest stables, the Filthy Animals, the No Limit Soldiers, and the legendary NWO. In his time at the company, he held the United States Championship, the World Television Championship, and twice held the Tag Team Championships. Compared to some of the other foreigners on this list, that’s quite the resume.
After WCW folded, Konnan headed off to TNA, where he was met by more upper mid-card success, winning the Tag Team Championships twice as part of the 3-Live Krew. He also went on the be the leader of the Latin American Exchange, better known as the LAX, a truly controversial group that played on the topical fears at the time of Latin America’s “cultural invasion” of the white part of the American South, a paranoia that was especially poignant to the crowds of mid-Florida, where TNA tapes it’s shows.
And that was the career of Konnan. Pretty good huh? Relative success in two big companies and a bunch of title runs, not bad going at all. Well, to see Konnan’s troubles in America, you have step outside of the arenas, and back away from the trophy cabinet. Konnan may have worked for two big American companies, but he also went to court with one of them.
Konnan left TNA in 2007, and, in 2008, he returned, not to wrestle, but to hand them their court papers. There was no kayfabe here, this was no storyline, Konnan was taking TNA to court, accusing them of institutionalised racism on an industrial scale. Konnan claimed that TNA were willing to pay the medical bills of the company’s white stars, like Scott Steiner, but denied the same help to minority wrestlers, like himself and his former tag partner Ron Killings (now known in the WWE as R Truth). The case was eventually settled in private, and it’s unknown exactly what transpired, and, for legal reasons, it’s probably best not to speculate.
Still, whatever happened behind those closed doors, Konnan had seen enough of America’s wrestling industry, and he hasn’t been back since, having returned to where it all began; AAA.
Case 5: El Santo
We’ve had a luchadore so trusted that he tells people who to vote for, a super-junior so influential that international wrestling would be totally different without him, a faction so of-the-moment that people thought of them as the Japanese DX and a Cuban who, overall, had a good career, but ended on a sour note in America’s courtrooms.
So now for the big one, a man who, unlike the others, had some success in America wrestling, but it was nothing, NOTHING, like what happened at home.
Here’s a question; Think of an NWA Champion.
If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking of Lou Thesz, of Ric Flair, of Terry Funk, or Buddy Rogers. But that’s only the NWA HEAVYWEIGHT Title. How many non-heavyweight NWA champs can you think of? Probably not that many. There are nine NWA championships, for tag teams, singles wrestlers of various weight classes and even midgets. Amongst those belts is the NWA Welterweight Championship. It’s an American belt, owned by an American company, but is almost exclusively won and lost in Mexico and Japan. It’s former owners are a who’s-who of international stars; Ultimo Dragon, Jushin Liger, The Great Sasuke, Dragon Kid. And of all those great champions, the first man to win it was a 29 year old man from the ancient Aztec city of Tulancingo de Bravo. A man who wrestled by the name of; El Santo.
If you thought Ric Flair was the world’s favourite NWA champion, if you thought Terry Funk was the most locally be-loved NWA champion, then you’re in for a shock. When Hulk Hogan lays on his deathbed and thinks back on his wrestling career, he’ll think, “Yeah, but I wish I could have been as big as El Santo”.
Remember, this is a guy who not only took part in a title reign that American wrestling fans don’t remember, but he also held a belt that American wrestling fans don’t even remember existing.
In the wrestling ring, in Mexico, El Santo’s legacy is untouchable. His son, El Hijo del Santo (the son of the saint) is, himself, one of lucha-libre’s biggest stars, and a female version of the same gimmick, La Novia del Santo (the bride of the saint), has gone to have great success. El Santo was a seven time Mexican champion, and has been a member of the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame since 1996; the year is begun.
But it’s not just wrestling where El Santo’s legacy lies. He’s an accomplished actor, starring in 52 films mostly called “El Santo vs…”. The series includes “El Santo vs. The Zombies”, “El Santo vs. Frankenstein” and even “El Santo vs. the Power of Satan”. Oh, and “Thunder in Paradise” they ain’t, some of El Santo’s films, such as “El Santo vs. The Mummies of Guanajuato” are considered to be some of the greatest action-movies in the history of Mexican cinema. He also had a successful comic book series, which ran for over 35 years, and was once announced to be one of the most popular characters in all of Mexican literature.
El Santo passed away in 1984 (he was buried, of course, still wearing his iconic silver mask, having never once broken kayfabe in public), but his legacy didn’t end there. Still today, despite not having wrestled in over 25 years, El Santo stars in his own cartoon show on the Mexican version of Cartoon Network, whilst characters clearly based on him feature in two other highly successful cartoons. His name has been referenced, with respect, and without irony, by countless musicians and bands in band names, album titles and song lyrics.
So, if you’re Sin Cara, don’t worry too much. Sure, you were huge back home, but you were more popular than Ultimo Dragon, and at least you haven’t been made into a laughing stock like Kaientai. Hell, if it really does go wrong, cry “racism” and try your luck in courts like Konnan, or perhaps you should give up on the WWE and go home. Sure, no one in America will remember you, but, hey, no one remembers El Santo either.
All photos provided and authorised for use by Mike Lano
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