A Ring And A Prayer

In Mexico there is a most unusual man of the cloth who truly fights the good fight
December 21, 1987

Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other side.
—MATTHEW 5:39

Easy to say, Matthew, but not so easy to do when Hellface is about to give you a bionic elbow and Krypton is pinning your arms behind your back and the Gravedigger is trying to peel your mask off and the crowd is starting to throw beer. Easy to say, Matthew, when you don't have 86 orphans to feed, a truck acting up and an electricity bill that's a week overdue. Of course, these things never came up in the King James version.

So it is at times like these that Father Sergio Gutierrez, known to Mexican professional wrestling fans as the masked Fray Tormenta (Brother Tempest), must go a bit beyond what they taught him in seminary. Maybe slap a lip grip on his oppressor, followed by a kickout and a pile drive? Maybe cap it off with some serious rending of clothes and gnashing of teeth?

Unnnngh. Too late. The good and devout padre takes a vicious knee in the solar plexus followed by a whip into the turnbuckle.

"How can you treat a man of God like that?" a woman in the third row is screaming. "You will rot in hell!" Eight rows back, two women are banging on pots with spoons and yelling something about novenas. The crowd in the indoor arena in Mexico City is probably a lot like Mexico in general—about 95% Catholic—and when somebody starts wailing and smiting a man of the cloth, they want retribution. Blood would do.

"Kill him, Padre!" hollers one man. "I'll pay for the funeral!"

This is no time to be forgiving anybody's trespasses. This calls for...the Confessional.

Bounding off the turnbuckle, the good and devout padre leapfrogs Hellface and head-butts the unsuspecting noggin of Krypton. Spinning on his heels, he takes the Gravedigger and airplanes him out of the ring, then grabs the woozy Krypton and ties him up, public-square style, in the ropes.

This leaves the padre alone, mask-to-mask, with Hellface. Who says they don't write morality plays anymore? Leading with an overhand right (O.K., so the ref didn't see it), the padre sends Hellface to Sominexland with one punch and then—uh-oh, here it comes—locks him up in his south-of-the-border version of the figure-four leg vine, known as the Confessional. And woe be to him who enters it.

Hellface anguishes. The crowd roars. The Confessional is working divinely. Hellface pounds the canvas. Submission, submission, the crowd chants. Repent, sinner. The Confessional hears all. One, two, three, counts the ref. The good and devout padre emerges gloriously victorious. Cash your check in the back, Padre.

Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength....
—PSALMS 8:2

The wrestling priest of Xometla has a toothache. It's 6:10 in the morning, and he's fumbling through the stingy predawn light of his bedroom for the bottle of aspirin, trying not to wake the 16 teenage boys sleeping on a row of cots that cover most every inch of the cement floor. The bishop may not like it—Catholicism requires a priest to sleep alone in his room—but the bishop hasn't telegrammed lately with any suggestions on how to put 86 orphans to bed at night in a place that is meant to sleep no more than a dozen.

Trying to find the bottle of aspirin, the padre finds a scorpion instead. Un-flustered, he mumbles, steps back, slips on the only pair of nonwrestling shoes he owns and stomps the life out of it. This does not make his toothache any better.

The portly 42-year-old, now un-masked (but never photographed that way) wrestling priest of Xometla routinely strikes fear into no one. He has bushy eyebrows, Coke-bottle glasses with square black rims, hair liberally seasoned with gray and a nose that, having once been broken by a bottle, he can push until it's flush with either side of his chunky face. Still aching from last night's leotard crusade, he stumbles from his room into the courtyard of St. Michael's, the dilapidated 16th-century church that is home for him, 72 boys, 14 girls, three women volunteers, four stray Doberman pinschers, 20 or so pigeons, four kittens and 109,000 flies.

The flies feel particularly at home at St. Michael's because there is only one toilet—and that rarely works—one hole in the cement for the boys to urinate into, no toilet paper (the kids usually use old wrestling newspapers) and a septic system so ancient that it could have been used by Montezuma himself. As an added bonus for the flies, a door with the windows broken out of it leads from the bathroom to the kitchen, less than five feet away. This is one-stop fly shopping at its finest.

The diabetic, overweight, chain-smoking wrestling priest of Xometla doesn't want to be up at this unholy hour, but if he is to keep this orphanage standing—if that's what you call what the crumbling structure is now doing—then he has to keep wrestling. And if he is to keep wrestling he must be in some semblance of shape, and that means getting up before the roosters and running through his tiny farming village of Xometla—about an hour northeast of Mexico City—up the road where the farmers walk their pigs and cows and then, dreadfully, up the mountain.

To force his rotund body up the mountain, he needs inspiration, and such inspiration is now walking out that same bedroom door in the form of 15-year-old Marco Anthony, the padre's ni‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±o Friday. Marco Anthony rubs the sleep from his black eyes, puts on the same clothes he wore yesterday—and the day before that—sticks his dirty feet into the white espadrilles somebody from the U.S. thought were long past worth keeping (though Marco wears them every day) and lags behind the priest as they make their woeful way to the courtyard gate.

Nobody else is up. Not the 32 little boys who sleep like pretzel sticks in one 11-by 13-foot room and not the 24 bigger ones who are stuffed into a slightly larger room adjacent to it. This scene has the appearance of a college prank. For the two dormitories, there are 56 kids and only one door out. If Xometla had a fire marshal, his star would be revoked.

Of course it used to be worse than this. Not long ago, all the girls had to sleep in with the smaller boys, all those kids in that one room with one exit. But lately the Confessional has been particularly vengeful, so the padre is able to rent two tiny rooms across the street from the church. He puts his 14 girls in there, along with the three women—kind of a permanent slumber party without the popcorn—and one shower to share with 72 boys in the morning. Then again, with only a four-gallon hot-water tank, why bother?

Sleep, cachorros. Sleep, young lions, for the padre is going to keep his crummy appointment with the mountain this morning. He will wrestle two matches this week—at about $40 per match—and that means you not only will get three meals a day; he might even be able to buy you some coloring pencils so you can get your homework done. Sleep, for soon enough you will be shuffling half awake through the kitchen into the tiny dining hall, where you will lift your forks carefully to your mouths, trying hard to be sure that your elbow doesn't knock the fork out of the mouth of the one next to you. Your turn. Now my turn. Watching over your shoulder will be Jesus, painted splendidly on black velvet but illuminated disrespectfully by one tired light bulb, hanging by its cord as if from a noose, without the benefit of a fixture.

This overworked light can be a literal eyesore when 80 or so kids are jammed into the room, all trying to do their homework by the 60-watt, rust-rimmed bulb. But lousy light comes in handy at mealtime, when it helps the kids forget that what they are having for breakfast today is what they have had for breakfast five days out of the last six—refried beans and tortillas and three fingers of powdered milk.

Still, in a place where the most popular toys—practically the only toys, in fact—are two bald tires; where many of the children shiver in the moonlight, washing their clothes by hand so they have something to put on the next day; where toddlers wear old rags for diapers that are rarely changed in the course of a day; where the stench from the septic tank is sometimes the best cure for a hungry stomach; where, if you are lucky enough to have shoes and you begin to get too big for them, you simply cut out the toes; in a place such as that, the kids seem preposterously, impossibly happy.

And for that, one can thank only the size-XL-hearted wrestling priest of Xometla. So far this year, only three kids have run away from the orphanage—and one, Marco Anthony, came back. They stay, not because they would miss St. Michael's charm but because they think of the padre as their father—and who could ask for better?

"He doesn't beat me or kick me," says one boy. And besides, how many fathers get you to straighten up by giving you the bent-finger cry-uncle pressure grip? (That always brings them to their knees, at which point the padre graciously blesses them.) And how many fathers can show you the finer points of the fake roundhouse punch (a tip: always swing away from the audience) or the Chinese sternum crusher or the nose flattener or the kidney punch or the flying dropkick? And then hear your confession five minutes later?

And how many priests have sacristy walls where Sly Stallone and Bruce Lee bodyguard the Virgin of Guadalupe? Where Elvis hangs next to the crucifix and where wrestling posters rub elbow pads with the Christmas Mass schedule? "It makes them feel comfortable," says the padre. "They can talk about Bruce Lee and Jesus and Elvis all at once."

The kids stay because he loves them. "We don't have much, but we come by things honestly," he says. "I don't treat them like this is an orphanage. I treat them like it's their own house."

He's right, of course, when he says they don't have much. With no money coming in from an archdiocese that has its own financial problems, and with monthly food costs of $1,200 (clothes are donated), their house is able to stay afloat only by virtue of money the padre gets from baptisms (16,000 pesos apiece or about $7), marriages ($12), special masses ($6), performances of his mariachi band and his electric band (he sings and plays the organ; the kids play bass, guitar and drums), donations and, of course, his moonlighting job as hero in the part-acrobatics, part-mayhem, part-Broadway world of Mexican professional wrestling.

And the wrestling priest of Xometla thanks heaven for that.

And the Lord said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people.
—EXODUS 32:9

To wrestle professionally in Mexico, you must have a good name, a second job and hair that you're not particularly attached to. Sooner or later, as a promotional gambit, almost every wrestler in Mexico, women included, gambles his or her hair on the outcome of a match. You lose, you have your locks shorn by a barber right there in the ring afterward.

Considering this, the money is lousy. The biggest wrestling star in Mexico might make $200 per week, whereas Hulk Hogan probably grossed more than $2 million this year. No wonder so many Mexican wrestlers wear masks.

The wrestling itself is based on quick feet and agility, as opposed to American pro wrestling, which is based on quick mouths and good wardrobe men. Mexican wrestling is at times intricately choreographed, with three-man wrestling teams leaping over and under one another in long strings of complicated moves, looking as though they have practiced together for years, which, of course, they have. Fighting in threesomes allows infinitely more possibilities for anarchy and mayhem, even though there are two referees. One ref's job is primarily to act confused.

The names are different, too. They are less names, really, than abstract notions: the Fear, the Horror, Man of a Thousand Masks (or his brother, Man of a Hundred Faces). There are also the standard demons: the Nazi, Mèdico Asesino (Dr. Death), Ormuz the Viking God and the Ghost. These are the rudos, the bad guys. The good guys are the tècnicos, and they often wear masks, too.

"The mask gives you an air of mystery," says the padre. The good guys always prevail over the bad guys, which is not the case in American pro wrestling, but not before the bad guys win one fall out of the three and quite nearly win a second.

Fray Tormenta is a good guy even the bad guys like. The other day, the Spectrum, one of the baddest of the bad guys, brought two bags of rice to the orphanage. Ormuz, whom the father beat out of his huge head of hair one night, appears to hold no grudges and, in fact, came to Xometla the other day to help the father put on an exhibition for his kids, who rarely get to see him wrestle. And in Mexico City in late November, almost 20,000 people packed Arena Mexico for a benefit for the padre's children. Everybody came to see the good father win his match. (You beat the padre on his benefit night and you can kiss eternal salvation goodbye.) Six million pesos (about $2,600) was raised. Of course, Father Gutierrez hasn't gotten it yet and he's not entirely sure he will. In Mexico, nothing is a lock.

If he does, it will be his biggest payday yet and more than he has made in some years. In 1978, for instance, when he was living and working in Veracruz, the padre was trying to keep 14 kids fed and warm. He wasn't doing so well at it. Seven of the kids slept in his car and the other seven with him on the sidewalk.

Things are slightly better these days, but the padre's car at times still serves as sleeping quarters. For an out-of-town match, the promoter sends him plane fare and hotel money. The padre will save the pesos by driving to the match, even if it means a 17-hour haul, one way, as it once did. He'll then wrestle his 20 minutes and drive back, pulling over to sleep when he is tired. "To accept luxury would be taking food out of the mouths of the children," he says.

The padre is nuts about children, any kind of children—runaways, drug addicts, children of prostitutes and abandoned kids. These, of course, are mostly what the padre has already and what he takes in all the time. His crumbling church may be packed to the pigeonholes with hungry children, but the father isn't much good at saying no. He used to have only 45 kids. Thanks to the Mexico City earthquake of two years ago and to new poverty caused by runaway inflation, he keeps adding more. He has taken in eight new ones in the last two months alone, including a three-month-old. And there are plenty more where they came from.

Between 80,000 and 90,000 homeless children walk the streets of Mexico City, according to the padre, all part of a parade of beggars, hawkers, thieves, jugglers, schemers and fire-swallowers trying to scrounge their next meal in the world's most populous metropolitan area. Most of the padre's kids were part of that parade. Anita, 5, was found by the padre's sister lying under a blanket in Mexico City. Alfredo, 14, slept in the subways for two years before he heard about the wrestling priest and begged enough bus fare to come to St. Michael's. Sergio, 15, was a thief. He would steal—"money, cars, whatever," he says—to buy drugs and food.

The padre loves them because he sees himself in them. Growing up in Mexico City, he smoked marijuana and was called "the Crook" by other members of the gang he ran with. He was also the best athlete in the group. He was handy with his fists and was good enough to play soccer professionally for one year, 1961, when he was 16 years old. But his life didn't change for good until the day he went to confession and told the priest that he didn't feel worthy of forgiveness. The father convinced him that he could be a fine priest someday.

After being ordained in 1969, he began taking in orphans. One day four years later, he was watching wrestlers on TV when he heard about the "great sums of money" wrestlers made, and he told himself, I could do that. But he couldn't do it because no one would teach him. "Nobody wanted the competition," he says. Finally a wrestler named the Leader agreed to show him a few moves and holds. For a year he learned the ropes until the day came for his first professional match. Against—who else?—the Leader.

"The Leader must not have taught me everything" the padre says. "I lost."

Since then, he has found his way. Now he is one of Mexico's most popular wrestlers, and he hasn't lost in the last six months. Heaven hath no fury like a priest trying to make a truck payment. The Mexican people eat it up. When someone throws Fray Tormenta out of the ring, mothers and children jump out of their seats, dust him off and give him a boost back through the ropes. Fans often toss money onto the canvas after his matches. Sometimes, as he's walking up the aisles to the changing room, the people's handshakes contain money. Even the photographers help out. They always shoot the padre from the feet up. "To make me look like a giant." he says. He's 5'7" and weighs about 200 pounds.

At his age and size, the father needs all the help he can get. In fact he probably stays alive in wrestling only because the people will it to be so. After all, who can really believe his eyes when a man usually twice his opponent's age and half his strength cleans up so consistently? All is forgiven, though, when a man is eye-gouging for the Lord.

Besides, who wants to be the one to tell the padre it's time to hang up his boots? And then tell his kids?

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against...the rulers of the darkness of this world.
—EPHESIANS 6:12

You figure God is in the padre's corner?

"Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man," says the Bible (Genesis 9:6). It also says (Psalm 37:8), "Cease from anger, and forsake wrath." Ever see a wrestler refrain from either?

Father Gutierrez has suffered broken ribs, twisted shoulders, broken fingers. Could he have wrestled 14 years without anointing others with the same punishment? Wrestling is so bloody in Mexico that it was taken off television for the children's sake. And the padre wrestles for his children? In Mexico pro wrestlers have actually been killed. This is not exactly ministering to the sick.

And what of the deceit inherent in pro wrestling? Not every fan knows that he wrestlers play it the way the promoter's script reads. Isn't the priest, then, in the business of lying? Perhaps he wears the mask to hide his face from God?

The padre's superior, Monsignor Magin Torreblanca, the bishop of Texcoco, has never given permission for Father Gutierrez to wrestle professionally. Then again, he has never tried to stop him. He simply looks the other way.

"At first, I didn't approve," says Monsignor Torreblanca. "But since what he does helps the children, then I approve. If he were to change his priorities—say, first came wrestling, then came the church—I would not approve. But he is giving his life for those children."

Says Father Gutierrez, "I think God approves. Otherwise He would send something to hurt me. And He hasn't done that."

The padre justifies the occasional atomic knee drop as a gift from God to keep his children fed. "The Bible says 'Turn the other cheek,' but when you're in the ring, you sometimes forget you are a priest," says the padre. "And, actually, your opponents forget, too."

He also says, "I want people to see wrestling not as violent but as beautiful, elegant, artistic. I don't think the people who watch me see me as sanguinary. I think they just see me as someone who is trying to fight a good fight."

Jacob wrestled his angel. Jesus got violent in the temple. And the Bible says of the Lord, "his enemies shall lick the dust." What's wrong with trying to make poverty lick the mat?

And besides, Father Gutierrez doesn't totally ignore his vocation when he's in the ring. Once in a while, he might lose track of what he's doing and put a sleeper hold on one of the referees, then, seeing his mistake, bless the man. One time he married two wrestlers in a ring—with his mask on. If anybody should know any reason why these two should not be joined, let him step into the Confessional.

The ones to worry about, perhaps, are his Catholic opponents. At Arena Mexico, the wrestlers pray to a small shrine of Jesus before walking to the ring. How much guilt, then, does a Catholic wrestler absorb when he gives a poor priest who runs an orphanage the old over-the-knee back buster? "Sometimes it doesn't seem right," says Ormuz the Viking God. "Sometimes I get upset. But then I remember that I am helping the children and it feels good again."

This is one strange soup of a life. Take, for instance, the 3 X 5 file card containing his Sunday schedule, which his secretary hands the padre every Saturday night. A typical one reads something like this:

8 a.m.—Mass, St. Miguel's

9—Mass, St. Luca's [in the mountains]

10—Mass, St. Luca's

10:30—Baptism, St. Luca's

11:30—Mass, Maquixco [nine miles away]

1 p.m.—Mass, St. Miguel's

2—Baptism, St. Miguel's

2:30—Special Mass, St. Miguel's

3—Special Mass, St. Miguel's

4—Mass, St. Pedro's [six miles away]

5—Confessions

6—Wrestling match in Acolman [vs. the Leader, best of three falls]

7:30 to 9—Mariachi performance in town festival

"And at nine o'clock," he says with a grin, "I fall in bed like a rock."

For now, though, he dons his bright, multicolored uniform and begins to think of his lines. He's been over this a thousand times. He knows he must project the right image. He prays silently. All eyes will be on him. Soon someone will come for him, and he will walk through a huge door and enter his private stage.

A match against the Gravedigger? Nah. Vespers.

I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.
—I TIMOTHY 4:7

It will not be the most feliz of navidads at St. Michael's this year.

All the kids are supposed to bring an ornament to school to help decorate the town during the nine-day posadas, the traditional Christmas festivities, but the padre doesn't know where he's going to get the money. He gathers the kids around him in the courtyard.

"Tell your teachers I just cannot afford ornaments this year," he says, "Maybe next year."

The ornaments are just one of the things that won't get crossed off the padre's Christmas list. "Chicken," he says. "The kids would love to have chicken for Christmas dinner. Some have never even tasted chicken. But it's too expensive." So are toys. And decorations. And piñatas. And candy inside the piñatas.

But all that he can live without. The thing the padre really wants for Christmas is his Cuidad de los Cachorros, his "city of young lions."

Not more than a five-minute walk from St. Michael's are 10 acres of land the father has purchased to build what he hopes will be a real home, a place with more than one bathroom. It took the padre 10 years to save up the $3,200 it cost to buy the land. It will take another 150 million pesos, about $66,000, to build the home. Right now the padre has 7 million pesos in the bank, plus 6 million (light a candle) coming from the wrestling benefit. Somebody donated an old Renault to the church, and for that he thinks he could get another million pesos ($444). O.K., only 136 million pesos to go....

And, oh, if it ever gets built! "Eight dormitories, big, beautiful dormitories, room enough for all the kids to sleep," he says. "Eight bathrooms, one for every dormitory. It will have a big kitchen, a playground, and a big dining hall with many lights.... This is why I fight"

If it ever gets built. Without some divine intervention, it may not. In fact, never mind the new home for a moment. And never mind the ornaments. How much longer can the padre keep food on the table?

"I can wrestle 15 more years," he says, but his body makes you wonder if he can go 15 more days. No problem, he says. He is undergoing a strange medical treatment in which, he says, fluid from a pig's brain is periodically injected into his system. "It will keep my body preserved longer," he says. "Besides, I may be 42, but remember, I'm a priest. I've had no wine, no women, no all-night parties. I've kept in condition."

The padre will probably not make 15 years, but he has got a backup plan. He's training four disciples—three of his boys and a girl—in the beat-up ring behind the church. They all wrestle with masks, and they're all spinoffs of their padre: Tormenta Jr., Tormenta II, etc. The oldest is 15.

But, honestly, without wrestling, can the orphanage even make it?

"No way," says Father Gutierrez. "It's the only way I know to make enough money. I don't know anything else. What would happen to the kids?"

Behold, this dreamer cometh.
—GENESIS 37:19

And now, in the midnight blackness, the red-eyed, sore-boned wrestling priest of Xometla comes back to his corner of the sleeping-room-only bedroom at St. Michael's. It has been a long drive home, yet he didn't take his mask off the whole way. You wear the uniform, you stay with the mystery.

He won his match, but a few more victories like this and he'll be broke. The pay was less than $40. And it is not getting any easier to hammer at the devil by day and body-slam rudos by night.

He is tired. He longs to be a rock in the bed. He unlaces the mask from the back and pulls it slowly over his head to reveal his weary face.

There's no mystery. If He were here today, trying to keep 86 children warm and fed and out of the streets, would the face of Jesus look very different?

PHOTOSERGIO DORANTESAs a hooded hero he slams bodies; as a gentle padre (above left) he hears confession. PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANN[See caption above.] PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNEven a meager serving of tortillas and beans is a blessing for the orphans of St. Michael's. PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNBruce Lee and Rocky are in sacred company in the office where the padre does church business. PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNWith his 86 hungry children to feed, the padre is a masked marvel indeed. PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNIn his wrestling tights or clerical garb, the padre gives his kids someone to look up to. PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNTo maintain some semblance of shape, the priest works out at dawn before his daily run. PHOTOSERGIO DORANTESThe padre ensnares an opponent in "the Confessional," his deadly signature hold. PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNAfter a late match, the padre wearily returns to the room he shares with 16 of his boys.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)