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Step inside the ropes to see what it takes to make it as a Lucha Libre wrestler in Mexico

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MEXICO CITY - If the Rocky franchise decided to film a sequel in Mexico, they could do worse than set the training sessions in Gymnasio Charles Bronson. Founded by Ismael Ramírez, "Charles Bronson of Lucha Libre," the run down gym near the center of Mexico City packs only few dozen people, opens and closes at imprecise hours, and seems to have a rule against exercise equipment made in the last 20 years.

Nevertheless, for athletes striving to become Luchadores--professional wrestlers who wear masks, practice acrobatics and embody a
character--Gymnasio Charles Bronson provides an inspiring home to learn the sport and the craft.

One reason they come is Tomas "Rudy" Santana. The 67-year-old block of a man comes from the "second generation" of the great Lucha Libre wrestlers. Now retired, he spends his days training successors. When asked "What is Lucha Libre?," he skips any prosaic, gringo-friendly explanation and launches into the sport as an existential calling. "Lucha Libre is a stage where good and evil are represented. For us, it is almost a religion," says Rudy.

Rudy transmutes his passion to his pupils. For three hours, his incessant (but never shrill) commands kept his group of half a dozen leaping, diving, falling onto a blue and red mat. While two wrestlers practiced breaking each others arms, others killed time doing headstands. If you didn't know what you were watching, you might think demons had inhabited human form to settle a few scores.

Lucha Libre is a stage where good and evil are represented. For us, it is almost a religion.

Besides training their bodies, Rudy trains his wrestlers to develop unique characters. Professional wrestling is a form of theater as much as a form of sport; building season-long story lines requires dozens of unique heroes and villains. Sometimes fighters grow into their own character, sometimes they need help from others. María Isabel Montañez Perez, one of Rudy's trainees, was struggling to find a name. "I wanted a strong name. I didn't want a doll name or a princess name. I wanted a tough name," said María. "Then Rudy called me The Sinister Nun and I loved it.

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María Isabel Montañez Perez, "The Sinister Nun"

Rudy welcomes all who want to learn from him. His oldest student is close to 40-years-old but in November of 2017, he had just taken on a 15-year-old. Like other professional sports, early commitment helps increase one's odds of success. The teen, Diego Murrieta Plata, said the gym already feels like home. "I feel really good because my teammates tell me that I need to have faith. And that here in Lucha Libre, there are no fears. The coach says that too," said Diego. "You jut got to go for it. You have to get it right on the first try."

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Arena de Mexico, one of the world's most popular Lucha Libre venues
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Rudy made sure to emphasize the dangers of Lucha Libre, and the importance of conditioning. While the sport is choreographed, athletes make mistakes. One too-early jump or one telegraphed hit can spell disaster. "There are people who have died in the ring because they don’t have that training," says Rudy. "You can get ruined if you’re not careful."

With the risk, comes glory, however. That was certainly the feeling inside Gymnasio Charles Bronson. Put in enough reps on the ancient bench press; leap high enough from the ropes onto the sweat-stained mat; never doubt your coach who is 50 years your senior--do all of these things and you might find yourself in the Arena de Mexico, under the big, bright lights.

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