After the death of legendary lucha libre wrestler El Santo, the challenge of preserving his legacy turned into a fight outside the ring.
In the beginning, there was El Santo, and El Santo was good. John Wayne combined with how-good-New Yorkers-say-Jeter-was good. Born in 1917 as Rudolfo Guzman Huerta in the city of Hidalgo, he entered the world of lucha libre wrestling in the 20s under a variety of names, until finally lacing up the silver mask and becoming El Santo several years into his career. Though together with two other heavyweights, Blue Demon and Mil Máscaras, he forms a trio of cherished wrestlers from the era nicknamed the “Big Three,” his own legacy is monolithic.
In the years that followed his exit from the sport, his once-pristine reputation has been dragged into a bitter family feud over how best to preserve the sacred name of El Santo. This ain’t the McMahon family—the bitter fighting has taken place away from the cameras and has revolved around the idea that only one member of El Santo’s dynasty had a say in who could claim to be a member of the family.
There was a time when El Santo—Spanish for The Saint—was seen everywhere in Mexico. He defined an entire genre of luchador flicks, campy B-movie horror films where lucha libre stars fought demons and vampires that could be vanquished with wrestling moves. In one film, called The Mummies of Guanajuato, Mil Máscaras and Blue Demon are kidnapped by a mummy named Satan and rescued in the end by El Santo. In the final scene, the masked wrestler pulls up a gold sports car and cape, toting flamethrowing pistols that reduce Satan and his mummy gang to ash. It was the highest-grossing movie of El Santo’s career.
“How did the thrilling legend of the legendary character known as Santo, the Silver-Masked One, begin?” asked a comic book about El Santo that was created in 1952. “No one could ever answer these questions. He appeared one day from parts unknown.” In the first pages of the debut issue, the reader sees a poor man brooding in the darkness of an alley, with a sick wife and starving children at home but no money for food or medicine. Suddenly, there’s El Santo! He’s got a fat wad of cash and gives it to the poor man, no questions asked, because that’s the kind of guy El Santo is.
In between fighting monsters on the big screen, El Santo found time to fight them in the ring, where heroic wrestlers, known as téchnicos, face off against their evil counterparts, or rudos. Like the luchador films, wrestling itself was a fantasy where right always triumphed over wrong. El Santo was pure técnico, and part of why he’s so beloved in the history of lucha libre was that he never once turned rudo. Flying off the ropes to headbutt opponents with names like The Horror, The Nazi and The Villain and finishing them with a hold called la de a caballo, he wasn’t the biggest star of a sweaty soap opera – he was the physical embodiment of good in a long-running morality play.
El Santo begat El Hijo del Santo. He was the youngest of Guzman’s 10 kids and the only one interested in continuing the family line in wrestling. Early on, El Santo begged his son not to go into lucha libre, but eventually he gave his blessing—and his mask—making the next generation of Santo possible. Shorter and smaller than his father, El Hijo del Santo took El Santo’s moves and added more acrobatic flair. On the new higher-quality cameras of the era, El Hijo del Santo’s speed and precision were perfect for producing slicker, more exciting visuals.
With the Santo mask came merchandising opportunities. The mask that stood for justice was now printed onto mousepads and stitched onto aprons, because nothing says “iconic folk hero” like protecting your polo shirts from barbecue stains. El Hijo del Santo used the name to open his own chain of coffee shops emblazoned with his father’s mask. He attempted some films, but even in the context of the luchador movie, the movies’ cornball quality was too much. He also developed a pilot for Cartoon Network Latin America that never took off. In that respect, it seemed the world of lucha had moved on.
El Santo himself was slowing down. He had his first grandchild, Axel, who would grow up to become the next luchador in the family. Axel’s childhood with El Santo was idyllic. “We spent hours in his study, and he let me see his capes and his trophies, telling me the history of each object.” Axel remembers the man that thousands of lucha fans admired for his outsized masculinity painstakingly pouring hot chocolate back and forth from mug to mug to cool it for his grandson. Axel always knew his grandfather was El Santo, and once he was told not to tell any other kids his grandfather’s true identity. The next day, Axel told everyone he knew.
Having started as a teenager, El Santo wrestled for over 50 years. In 1984, a year and a half after his retirement, Rodolfo Guzman died of a heart attack. He was 66. A short time before his death, he appeared on the Mexican talk show Contrapunto and, without prompting, rolled up the mask for a brief moment to show his face. It was a reminder to his fans that there were flesh and bones behind the mask.
He left the legacy of El Santo solely in the hands of his son. But though El Hijo del Santo claimed he always acted to defend his father’s reputation, he took the character of El Santo in directions that upset the rest of the family. In the 90s, a character named Santo Negro emerged as a rival for El Hijo del Santo. The supposedly “evil” version of El Santo was dressed in black and came from the jungles of South America. El Santo’s family was pissed and believed that their brother had something to do with the scheme. The family went to the promoter responsible to demand , out of respect for El Santo, that the gimmick be done away with, and Santo Negro was never seen from again.
Some years later, again trying to generate some heat around his gimmick, El Hijo del Santo did the unthinkable and turned rudo. Walking into a three-versus-three match dressed as another wrestler, El Hijo del Santo removed his disguise and began attacking the three técnicos fighting that night. The audience was so upset that fans shoved each other in the crowd and grandmothers and little children screamed at now-villainous Santo.
Around the same time, the grandson Axel was starting his own professional career. He steeped himself in the lucha libre tradition, training under luchadors like Daniel Garcia Arteaga, the famous Huracán Ramírez and one of El Santo’s close personal friends. He even went on to marry Huracán’s daughter Karla. The challenge of balancing his grandfather’s legacy fell to Axel, who says he worked to maintain the “honest and humble” character of El Santo. “When I’m about to climb into a ring, in those moments just before being announced—I already have the cape on, the mask’s in place—often I think in those moments, what would my grandfather think if he could see me working today?”
He began developing a gimmick where he would call himself El Plateado, with a mask design loosely based off El Santo’s, and say he was El Nieto (grandson) del Santo. Before his official debut, he decided to pay his uncle a visit with the news, because he wanted El Hijo del Santo to hear the plans from him directly instead of from some journalist. Axel’s place in El Santo’s dynasty seemed secure.
So when the calls started coming in trying to pressure Axel to bow out of wrestling, it was like a plancha suicida to the heart. Axel says El Hijo del Santo phoned him after he appeared on a popular talk show, where the host referred to him as El Nieto del Santo, and told him he would never allow him to wrestle. Huracán Ramírez was enraged. “I’m going to go to his house and I’m going to sock that bastard,” he told Axel. “If I go to jail, it doesn’t matter, I’m already an old man.”The old man never got his chance to exact his brand of street justice, and Axel began wrestling anyways.
Mexico currently has two major national promotions: Asistencia Asesoria y Administración, started in 1992, and the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre, Mexico’s oldest, plus numerous independent and regional promotions. Axel wrestled as a journeyman técnico, focusing mostly on Mexico City but traveling as bookings came in. He says his uncle started sending letters and making calls to the promoters that were hiring him, threatening lawsuits. According to Axel, one promoter laughed at his uncle. “What do you want?” asked Martha Villalobos, of King of the Ring. “He earns less and fights better than you.” Another time, it cost Axel work. After an angry call to the promoter following his debut in Naucalpan, Axel said he was dropped from the next 16 bookings in the city.
Then in 2010 came the lawsuit. El Hijo del Santo asserted that Axel was violating the copyright to the name Santo. The sports outlet Cancha looked into the legal complaint and found that if El Hijo del Santo won, Axel would owe more than $2000 for every day he continued referring to himself as the grandson of El Santo. El Hijo del Santo didn’t respond to email requests, but in 2013 he was interviewed about the lawsuit and told the reporter it was about Axel respecting his control over the Santo lineage. “The only thing I’m searching for—and I’m telling you the truth—is respect,” he said drily. “Respect and understanding that I’m the one who chooses the third generation.”
Axel couldn’t have waited for that decision to be made. Speaking with me days after his 40th birthday, he’s now been wrestling for decades, while Santo Jr., El Hijo del Santo’s son, was only just entering training. Everything about El Hijo del Santo isn’t quite right in the world of lucha libre. When an occasion required something more formal than spandex briefs and a cape, El Santo showed up in a tailored suit with necktie. Santo Jr. often shows up to public events in a blazer thrown over a t-shirt like some kind of frat bro, automatic Santo disqualification if there is one. When he speaks, his slow, clumsy movements make it difficult to pin one’s hopes on him to continue El Santo’s legacy.
“If I could speak to my uncle,” Axel says, “I could make him see it’s absurd arguing that I’m the grandson of Rodolfo Guzman Huerta but not the son of El Santo.”
Broken families are bad enough, but what’s truly disappointing is that this rivalry was never played out in the ring. Wrestlers go to the mat for titles and fame, and even put their masks on the line in luchas de apuestas. Years of legal battles could have been turned into 20 solid minutes of action to determine the existential conclusion of El Nieto del Santo.
El Hijo del Santo’s fears that his father’s legacy could be damaged aren’t off-base. Lucha libre is full of imposters trying to make a buck off a famous name and mask. Axel’s father-in-law Daniel García Arteaga never owned the rights to the Hurcán Ramírez character—he wasn’t even the first to play it—and there are a handful of wrestlers using the mask claiming to be a relative. Another famed luchador, La Parka, also lost the rights to the name and must keep tweaking the name just enough to stay ahead of the copyright lawyers.
For now, Axel says he’s won all the legal challenges, and that a judge agreed with him that if he’s truly the grandson of Rodolfo Guzmán, he’s also the Nieto del Santo. The wounds opened between him and his uncle still hurt. For now, he goes by Heredero de Plata, which translates awkwardly to the Silver Heir, and doesn’t make direct mention of El Santo in his promotions in order to avoid more legal trouble. “We’re the only dynasty of luchadors that are fighting amongst themselves,” he says. “I’m defending my legitimate right to work, he’s defending money.”
One question keeps coming up in El Hijo del Santo’s interviews that hints at a sadder reason for all the attempts to control the Santo legacy. He once interviewed Santo Jr. and lobbed the softest of softball questions, “What do you like more, being the son of El Hijo del Santo or being the son of the man behind the mask?” His son mumbled his way through it, but the asking itself pointed at something more painful.
In every dynasty, the new generation always loses some part of their individuality and endures comparison with those who came before. The expectations can be the spark that pushes young stars to train and compete harder just as easily as they can be a stone that drags down the athletes that can’t live up to them. Those troubles are magnified for the masked wrestlers of lucha libre, whose faces often stay hidden from the public for their entire careers.
“When I put on the mask, I'm transformed. The mask gives me strength. The mask gives me fame. The mask is magical,” El Hijo del Santo once told ESPN. He never equaled his father’s popularity, but he was always more eloquent. “Usually with the mask on, everything is positive. Without the mask I'm a normal human being who has his problems, who cries, who sometimes suffers.”
“I could tell you that I really admire El Hijo del Santo. But do you know who I admire more? The human being. Thanks to him, El Hijo del Santo has a life. And this human being sometimes sacrifices a lot to give this other identity life.” At this point, is there still a Jorge Guzmán behind the mask of El Hijo del Santo, or was the fight for El Santo’s identity so bitter because it was the only one he had anymore?