Musclebound men in tight-fitting shiny suits leaping onto each other can mean only one thing – wrestling. ELISE RANA attends the pantomime that is one of Mexico’s most popular sports.

“Arena Mexico,” announces the cabbie as we pull up in the middle of the crowded street. “Las luchas!”

It’s Friday night and as Mexico City gears up for the weekend, we’re arriving at the biggest show in town. Outside the stadium hustlers hustle, hawkers hawk and as we make our way inside, the unmistakable whump of spandex-clad arse on canvas ringing around the concrete corridors tells us things are already underway.

Derided by some and adored by others, ‘lucha libre’ (‘free wrestling’) is one of Mexico’s favourite spectacles, second only to football in popularity. Seating 16,500, the Arena is one of numerous venues in Mexico City alone. Characterised by the flamboyant showmanship of its colourful cast of masked competitors, the world of Mexican wrestling also has something of a cult following beyond the country’s borders. It’s a phenomenon which Jack Black’s recent on-screen turn as priest-by-day, wrestler-by-night Nacho Libre can only boost – not least of all given that such a seemingly far-fetched storyline is based on real life. In Mexico, where the surreal is everyday, life is often stranger than fiction.

Lucha libre is everywhere. In the markets, posters of top wrestlers sell next to those of international pop stars. On highway bypasses and dusty village streets, ads for upcoming matches are painted in six-foot neon letters, or stapled to telegraph poles next to blue-faded election notices. While politicians are generally distrusted, big-name wrestlers can become national heroes. It’s a working-class sport in which both the audience and the wrestlers themselves tend to hail from poor areas, leading some to suggest that the appeal is in seeing the good guys win for a change.

Ultimately, the sport’s mix of circus flair and theatrical pomp makes for a damn good night out. Camply macho and outrageously entertaining from start to finish, this is family entertainment too, attracting men and women of all ages (the only people who are more animated than the toddlers are the grannies baying for blood).

Here at the Friday night fight, the action is hotting up with the ladies’ round. Dark Angel and Lady Apache are clearly crowd favourites, judging by the chants (“Lady! Lady!”) and the fervently-waved banners (Dark Angel, Te Quiere Siempre! – ‘love always!’), while kimono-clad Hiroka vamps it up as the Oriental assassin. With dizzying martial arts-inspired moves, kitsch costumes and larger-than-life characters, it’s like a video game made flesh – and directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Moving up the billing, the entrances become more and more ostentatious. Music booms and pec-flexing, bicep-kissing promo footage beams onto huge overhead screens as the luchador emerges in clouds of smoke with a bikini-clad babe on each arm, vaulting over the ropes into the ring and tossing aside their trademark cape/leather jacket/monk’s cowl/surgeon’s gown, mounting the ringpost with arms outstretched to soak up the deafening cheers – or jeers.

For whether you take it seriously or not, this is a showdown between good and evil. At the heart of each match is the pitting of a scheming, rule-breaking villain or ‘heel’ (‘rudo’) against an often smaller good guy or ‘face’ (técnico), the latter usually winning the day through quick thinking and technical ability.

A luchador turning from one to the other is a momentous occasion: when popular tecnico El Hijo Santo revealed himself as a rudo during a match in 1996, the stadium erupted into a mass fist fight. For many luchadores, key to their wrestling persona is the mask. Popularised in the 1940s by El Santo, father of the aforementioned, the mask has come to symbolise lucha libre itself, and is a powerful dramatic device – unmasking being the ultimate defeat. It’s also a killer merchandising opportunity.

What elevates Mexican wrestling above the overblown pantomime that passes for sport elsewhere is the sheer skill involved. The numerous weight classes of lucha libre allow for younger, smaller and more agile fighters to shine. Impressed by such ability (and keen to attract the interest of an ever-growing Hispanic population), US-based WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment Inc) is increasingly sending its talent scouts south of the border, with the relatively slight 1.68 m, 82kg Mistico now a rising star in the States.

As we watch another death-defying leap from the ropes into the air (and out of the ring and into the crowd), it’s true that the athleticism and acrobatics are nothing short of breathtaking. This isn’t to say that a few audience-baiting gimmicks ever go amiss either – the crowd reach fever pitch when an innocent mascot, a midget in a dayglo blue chimp suit, is suddenly dragged into the ring by the rudo trio and tossed around like a beach ball.

When the final match begins and airhorn-punctuated chanting fills the stadium, it’s clear who the crowd have come to see. In the popular lucha libre tradition of passing character identity down the generations, the ‘Wag-ner! Wag-ner!’ they’re shouting for is in fact Dr Wagner Jr, having inherited the mask from his famous father to become one of the sport’s stars.

A sitout crucifix powerbomb or two later, Dr Wagner’s signature moves bring victory, and bring the house down. On the way out, we stop to buy a mask as cultural memento: top seller is a special green and red Dr Wagner, its distinctive eagle-head design a tribute to the battle dress of ancient Mexican warriors. Nodding his approval of our choice is a small boy, happy to be photographed in his Dr Wagner T-shirt and mask. The boy’s dad throws us an enormous grin as his son obligingly crosses his arms and looks proudly off to the side, striking Dr Wagner’s signature pose. If only every country had heroes like this to believe in. •

Who’s who in lucha Libre
El Santo: Probably the most famous luchador of all time, ‘The Saint’ inspired a popular comic book series and starred in 52 films, including Santo v The Zombies, Santo v The Vampire Women and The Mummies Of Guanajuato. He revealed his true identity only a week before his death and was buried in his mask, leaving his son, Hijo Santo, to carry on the tradition.

Fray Tormento: A real-life Nacho Libre, Father Sergio Gutierrez Benitez was a priest who founded an orphanage for street children outside Mexico City, and took up wrestling to raise money for it. Incognito, ‘Friar Storm’ survived 4,000 bouts in his 23-year career and latterly acted as mentor for rising star Mistico.

Superbarrio: Incensed by the illegal eviction of poor tenants in the wake of the 1985 earthquake that devastated Mexico City, ‘Super Neighbourhood’ was the popular luchador-masked figurehead of a campaign for the fair distribution of housing. The success of Superbarrio went on to inspire the likes of Super Eco and Super Animal Crusader.

Rey Mysterio Jr: US-born but declaring his allegiance with a huge tattoo of the word ‘Mexico’ across his stomach, ‘Mystery King’ trained in lucha libre and went on to become a celebrity at the WWE, as the partner-turned-rival of the late Eddie Guerrero and underdog winner of the World Heavyweight Championship in 2005.

• Lucha libre matches take place every Friday night at 8.30pm at the Arena Mexico in the Doctores district of Mexico City (Dr Lavista between Dr Carmona and Dr Lucio). Tickets can be bought on the door.

• Elise Rana travelled to Mexico with Flight Centre (0870-499 0042; www.flightcentre.co.uk), who have fares to Mexico City from £440. Budget (0844-581 9999; www.budget.co.uk) offers car hire from Mexico City from £13.50 a day including unlimited mileage when prepaid online.