You’d never guess it from his gentle demeanor, but in his younger days Joel Floriano was one of Mexico’s top lucha libre fighters. Lucha libre (‘free fight’) is Mexico’s answer to big time wrestling, but with the added fillip of high-flying acrobatics, plus a lot of good vs. evil shenanigans in the ring. In a tradition dating back to the Aztecs, Mexican luchadores (fighters) wear masks and take professional ring monikers, adding an element of theatricality to the sport.
Floriano’s wrestling career came to an abrupt halt during a 1980 bout for the welterweight championship of Mexico’s Pacific Coast Division. ‘I jumped off the ropes, landed with my feet crooked, and broke both ankles,’ he says. During the two years it took him to recover, he attended jewelry- making school, and eventually found his way to Denver where he now works as a goldsmith and jeweler.
Floriano’s entire professional wrestling career lasted a scant seven years, but in that brief period of time, he experienced more triumph and tragedy than most people do in their entire lives. Born into a family of nine children, he grew up dirt poor on a small farm in Aguascalientes. His family lived in an adobe hut with no electricity or running water. ‘We ate beans, torillas, and nopali cactus,’ he remembers. ‘Scrambled eggs were a big deal in our house.’
When Floriano was seven, the family moved to Guadalajara where his mother enrolled him in public school. The city kids, however, did not cotton to this rube from the sticks who came to class shoeless and clad in the one shirt and pair of pants he owned. ‘I got into a lot of fights,’ he says simply.
One of his teachers, seeking to channel his aggression, invited Joel to join the wrestling team. He became the best grappler in the school, but by the beginning of junior high he’d had his fill of formal education. He dropped out and headed north to Mexicali, a town on the Baja Peninsula within spitting distance of the border.
Strolling through town one morning, he happened upon an arena plastered with colorful posters of masked luchadores. He walked in and asked for a chance to show his stuff. ‘Everybody laughed,’ he says. ‘They were all grownups, and here I was, this cocky little kid, challenging them to a duel. They thought they would teach me a lesson, but I ended up showing them. Nobody could beat me. They hired me on the spot.’ He was thirteen years old.
A lot of big names in Mexican wrestling were coming to Mexicali in the early 1970s, and Floriano was assigned to open the shows as a kind of novelty act—’Kid Fighter Takes on the Big Guys.’ Soon he was touring the countryside and making more money than he’d ever seen in his poverty-stricken life. Ultimately, he became well known all over Mexico as the last guy ever to fight Santo, at that time the most famous wrestler in the country.
The strenuous schedule—five shows a week—took a toll on his body, and like a lot of young fighters, he started medicating himself with booze and cocaine. One drunken night he got into a fight with a couple of cops, dislocating one cop’s shoulder and yanking his gun away before the second cop bashed him over the head with a truncheon. He woke up in a cell, bruised and bloody from the beating he’d received from his jailers. He bailed himself out and went home where, a few days later, his father found him cowering in the dark.
‘Don’t turn the light on,’ Floriano said. ‘I don’t want you to see me like this.’
‘How far down do you want to go, mi hijo?’ replied his father.
‘I was so ashamed. I resolved never to take another drink,’ Floriano says. ‘I was a fighter and I fought back. Lucha libre helped me to overcome my bad habits.’
Today, Joel Floriano looks back on the glory days of his professional wrestling career with a certain nostalgia, and maybe some sadness too. ‘In my mind,’ he says, ‘I never left the sport. I loved the excitement of it, and the fame and the respect I got from people. Sure, I’m glad to be here, and I’ve made a good living in this country. But still, I miss those days. I’ve never been truly happy since I stopped wrestling.’
Which is why last year, at the age of fifty, Floriano decided to get back into the game. In December he opened a gym in a warehouse in Commerce City where he provides free training to anyone willing to learn the ins and outs of Mexican wrestling. ‘Lots of kids are angry these days,’ he says. ‘They need an outlet for their aggression. I guarantee that lucha libre will help them conquer their rage.’
For more info:
A brief history
Lucha Libre USA
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