Thousands lined the streets of Mexico City one cold February morning in 1984 to pay tribute, one final time, to their hero. Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta had passed away at the age of 66, but I don't think it's an insult to say that Rodolfo was not the man being mourned. The people had come to see El Santo, the silver masked hero of more than 50 movies and countless matches in the ring.
Among the throng, a crowd so deep it took hours to make it to the church, was the Blue Demon, his greatest rival in the ring and his partner on film, where together they fought monsters and aliens alike in some of the most glorious B-Movies ever made.
Even for this solemn occasion, as he broke down in tears, the Demon wore his famous blue mask. Huerta was similarly adorned. He went to his grave wearing his iconic mask, a symbolic decision that crystallized for many the importance of the mask in Mexican combat culture.
More than a homage to their Aztec ancestors or the peasant's traditional fiesta dance, the mask was a declaration of exactly who a man was in the ring, a chance to express outwardly and emphatically what you intended to represent and what kind of man you intended to be.
To rising UFC star Erik Perez, it's a tradition that matters. One that carries weight in his Mexican homeland, a culture that has made lucha libre wrestling, at one point, the second-most popular spectator sport behind only soccer and has embraced boxing stars like Julio Caesar Chavez, Canelo Alvarez and Juan Manuel Marquez as national heroes.
It's also a culture the UFC is cultivating, one that promoter Dana White would dearly like to capture. Which is part of the reason Perez, after reportedly being denied the chance to import this small piece of Mexican popular culture into his ring introduction at his UFC debut June in Las Vegas, will be in full lucha regalia when he hits the cage this weekend at the MGM Grand.
"When I was a child, the masked warriors were people who never gave up, never stopped fighting no matter the odds, and fought with pride and warrior spirit," Perez told Yahoo's Kevin Iole. "I think all Latinos are luchadors, maybe not in the Octagon, but in life, and by putting on the mask, I become each and every one of them and they become me."
With his masked walk to the cage, Perez will do more than carry the legacies of childhood favorites like lucha libre star Octagon, a dazzling performer who mixed traditional martial arts moves with his high-flying escapades in the early 1990's. He will also build another bridge connecting professional wrestling and mixed martial arts, a tradition that started in Brazil at the very foundation of Brazilian jiu jitsu and lives to this day in the verbal hijinks of Chael Sonnen and the annual mega shows in Japan.
For Perez, that's just the backdrop. With his mask on, designed with the help of the UFC's PR team and brought to life with the help of master craftsman Victor Martinez, the 23-year-old Jackson's MMA fighter will be focused on the task at hand—opponent Byron Bloodworth.
I've got the blood of an Aztec warrior, of a Mexican warrior. When it's time to fight, I'm going to fight ... I want to fight to show that there are good things that come out of Mexico, not just bad things. That all things are possible with hard work and determination. I fight to show that.