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NXT Cruiserweight Champion Santos Escobar Brings Lucha Libre Heritage to WWE

After two decades starring under a mask in Mexico, Santos Escobar is bringing a unique dimension to NXT.

Santos Escobar is entering uncharted territory in NXT.

For nearly two decades, Escobar—Jorge Luis Alcantar Bolly—wrestled under a mask, and did so in style, starring for CMLL and AAA in Mexico, as well as with Lucha Underground and even briefly for Impact Wrestling. He first unmasked in 2018 at AAA’s Triplemania after losing a Luchas de Apuestas mask-vs.-mask match against L.A. Park, and then again in June in NXT when he chose to remove it.

Currently the reigning NXT cruiserweight champion, Escobar defends his title on Wednesday night against Curt Stallion. The match could provide a glimpse into the future of WWE, as Escobar possesses all the tools needed to become a major star in pro wrestling, particularly for Vince McMahon’s global sports entertainment enterprise.

Escobar spoke with Sports Illustrated about working without a mask, his relationship with Rey Mysterio and his goals in NXT and WWE.

Sports Illustrated: Since June, you have been wrestling without a mask. What has that been like for you? Have you found it easier to use facial expressions, or has it been a difficult process?

Santos Escobar: I first started wrestling with a mask 20-plus years ago. As you know, the mask is a huge tradition in Mexico that has existed throughout generations. I was obliged to do it as a second-generation wrestler. After a number of trials and examinations from my father, I inherited the mask. For the first 19 years of my professional career, I was wearing a mask. That comes with a very different style and a very different responsibility.

When I lost my match in a high-profile match in Mexico City [at Triplemania in 2018], I was at a crossroads. In Mexico, when you put your mask on the line and lose, you face two different options. One is to retire. The other is to reinvent and repackage yourself. That’s what I did. At first, that was very difficult. It felt like I was wrestling naked. That’s how I felt. After a while, I got used to it.

Then I got to WWE. I call myself The Emperor of Lucha Libre. I want to show the world my culture, my tradition, which is lucha libre. That’s why, when I first got to WWE, I asked to wrestle with a mask. That was actually more difficult for me, if you can imagine, to go back and wear a mask again. Then the story unraveled, and here we are.

SI: You come from a family of luchadores. Your father, the legendary El Fantasma, is also the president of the Lucha Libre Commission in Mexico City. Your uncle is Angel de la Muerta and your cousin is Fantasma Jr. What was your family’s reaction to you taking off the mask in NXT?

SE: That was quite a family conversation. Of course, my dad, who is an old-school, hardcore lucha libre legend, he was really depressed when I lost my mask. Then he got used to the new character I developed. Like I said, you have to evolve in this business, or else you die. He was getting used to that, but when he saw me wrestle again with a mask, he said, “No, you already lost your mask. You cannot do that.”

Then, as the cruiserweight championship tournament continued, he was very happy for me. Then he was upset again when I took off the mask in NXT. It’s been a real roller coaster of emotions.

SI: You have worked for CMLL in Mexico, which is a promotion with roots that date back nearly a century, as well as AAA, which was founded more recently in 1992 but also offers a gripping, compelling product. For those who do not know, can you explain the intensity of the rivalry between CMLL and AAA? It seems to be just like WWE against WCW, just multiplied by 100.

SE: There is a real rivalry. CMLL is the lucha libre tradition company. They founded lucha libre in Mexico in the 1930s. Something went wrong, and Antonio Peña created AAA. They became huge, huge enemies. There is still a rivalry of sorts. If you work for one company, you shouldn’t talk about the other. I worked for both of the companies. They are two different, diametrically opposite styles. I’m glad to have done well in both companies, but there is still a huge rivalry.

SI: What is the biggest difference in the psychology between Mexican and American wrestling?

SE: It’s a different style. Lucha libre is fast-paced and nonstop. Some luchadores don’t always pay attention to the tag. The masks bring it to a whole other level.

Mexican luchadores are quite exactly like superheroes. The psychology is the good guy will do amazing, high-flying maneuvers and fast-paced wrestling, and of course, the bad guy will always try to stop that. The main psychology is the fast-paced performance.

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SI: You possess all the skill to succeed in WWE: You cut compelling promos, have the ability to work as a high-flyer, as well as sound work technically and with a very meaningful psychology. But before we get to your current work in NXT, I need to ask. You have worked with the legendary Rey Mysterio. What does Rey mean to you? Is he the greatest luchador of all time?

SE: Rey is a beautiful human being. Let me say this, I love him. He has been nothing but good to me. I met him many, many years ago in Mexico City. My dad was a superstar, and Rey was only beginning to shine. I remember my dad telling me, “That is Rey Mysterio. He is going all the way to the top.” I guess my dad was right.

Rey was always good to me, and he still is good to me. Recently, at Halloween Havoc in NXT [last October], I thought of Rey. His match against Eddy Guerrero at Halloween Havoc in 1997, that put him on the map. That match means so much to me. I called Rey and asked if I could wear his wristbands from that match. He said, “No, not just the wristbands. I’ll send you the whole attire. If it fits, wear it.” Who does that? Only Rey.

Rey is noble. He is beautiful in every sense of the word. That’s why he’s been so successful in this business. He’s always been a good person. And he has such talent, and the trailblazing ability to change the way lucha libre is presented in the United States. That has always been my goal—I want to change the view of the American audience to lucha libre. I won’t be the best high-flyer, but I will deliver the best high-flying maneuver. I won’t be the best promo, but I will be the best Mexican individual cutting a promo on your screen. That’s my aim.

SI: You have an opportunity this week to defend your cruiserweight championship against Curt Stallion, who is an incredibly talented wrestler hungry for a chance to show his worth. In a very competitive landscape on Wednesday nights, why should viewers make sure they are watching you?

SE: No. 1, I am the Emperor of Lucha Libre. No. 2, Curt Stallion is nothing but a rookie, and I am going to make an example out of this rookie. I’ve been around for 20-plus years in this business. My success didn’t happen overnight. He made a terrible mistake trying to embarrass me last week. I urge the WWE and NXT Universe to tune in to the USA Network to see me destroy this rookie. This will be remembered as the night that Santos Escobar made an example out of Curt Stallion.

SI: Raul Mendoza and Joaquin Wilde are two extraordinarily talented wrestlers. Did you know them prior to working with them in NXT? You are also feuding with Lucha House Party. Gran Metalik is one of the best in the world in the ring and Lince Dorado is also very talented. How deep does your history extend with them?

SE: Gran Metalik, we worked a lot together in Mexico, but never against each other. Lince Dorado, I had never worked with him.

I’ve worked with Joaquin before in other promotions, and I met Raul a few years ago in Orlando. I wanted to become a group with Raul and Joaquin. I trust their ability and I like their approach to lucha libre. I’m hoping we can do even more together, and we will show the world why lucha libre is on the rise.

SI: What is your goal as cruiserweight champion? A match between you and Finn Bálor could help provide entirely new meaning to the cruiserweight championship. Ultimately, would you like to pursue the NXT championship?

SE: When I was first presented this opportunity to shine in the cruiserweight division, my goal became to move this title from the pre-show to the main show. I need to show this title in a new light and defend it at TakeOvers.

My end game is to become NXT champion. Finn Bálor is the champion, and we would present an amazing battle for that title.

SI: What is your main goal in WWE?

SE: I will give you a peculiar answer. There is one thing I haven’t been able to do, and that is meet Vince McMahon. I’m committed to this industry, and that is a lifetime commitment. I was born and raised to do this. I think Vince McMahon is a genius, and I want to meet him. That, to me, is an immediate goal. He will either like me or hate me, but I will discuss my background with him and what I bring to the table. I need to discuss that with Vince McMahon, and that is one of my most immediate goals.

My other goal? I want to be the first Mexican, born and raised, sports entertainer to ever main-event WrestleMania.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.