lucha libra match in mexico
Settle in and watch the limbs fly. | ALFREDO ESTRELLA/Stringer/AFP/Getty Images
Settle in and watch the limbs fly. | ALFREDO ESTRELLA/Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

How to Get to Know a City One Fight Night at a Time

Catching a combat sport is a great way to get to know a foreign country—as long as you’re not the one in the ring.

One image stands out in my memory when I think about Mexico City. I’m at Arena México to catch a few bouts of lucha libre, and sitting a few rows ahead of me, just barely poking above the red arena chair, is the shiny mask-covered head of a child, dressed as a luchador.

It’s not just a slick blue and silver mask, glowing like a deep indigo pool illuminated by moonlight—those you can pick up anywhere, including the lobby of this particular arena. No, this is a planned, full-body affair, spanning a bodysuit and cape capped off with a silver collar. Dress for the job you want, as they say. 

luche libre fans in masks
The couple that masks together... | Bloomberg/Getty Images

Blue might have been an accidental choice, but most likely it was an homage to Blue Demon, a legend of the sport. Born in 1922 to a family of 13 and raised in a rural agricultural family in the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, Alejandro Muñoz Moreno left home to work for National Railroad, but set his sights on wrestling after a chance encounter with a famous luchador. In 1948, he entered the ring—then unmasked—for the first time in Laredo, Texas. But once he slipped on a mask and realized the extraordinary power luchadors held, revered as genuine superheroes walking the earth, he adopted the Blue Demon persona and promptly headed back to Mexico.

It was then that his star exploded. Moreno won numerous championships and eventually even outgrew the ring. He featured in movies, usually alongside the larger-than-life silver-masked Santo, Moreno’s nemesis and arguably the most famous luchador in history. Santo even had his own comic books.

...he was laid to rest wearing his trademark blue mask, refusing to break the fourth wall even beyond the grave.

When Blue Demon retired from the ring in 1989, he teamed up with his adoptive son, Blue Demon Jr., for one last match at the Monterrey Arena. Like with so many other luchadors, the Blue Demon character was integral to Moreno’s identity—so much so that when he suffered a heart attack in 2000, he was laid to rest wearing his trademark blue mask, refusing to break the fourth wall even beyond the grave.

As for the masked kid in Mexico City, maybe his parents showed him Blue Demon’s movies and he fell in love. Or maybe he just liked the color blue. All I know is that on that night, feet barely touching the ground, he sat patiently, with his arms on his lap, in anticipation.

luche libre masks
Pick a mask, any maks. | Bloomberg/Getty

Ask me what’s happening in most team sports, and I’ll definitely just make something up. Most rules evade me. I’ve been half-assedly attempting to watch football since, as a part of the band, I was forced to attend high school football games in Arkansas. As an adult, my participation at Rangers games at Madison Square Garden—also forced, this time by friends—mostly involves just yelling when everyone else does.

But two people in direct opposition? Heck, even a team sport-averse dummy like me can get into it. Mano y mano combat is as old as time, and a clear winner and loser is a gift for those with limited attention spans. Lucha libre makes it extra easy to know who to root for, hinging on an overly theatrical good vs. evil trope wrapped up in shiny lycra. The good guys—a.k.a. the ones who follow the rules—are called técnicos. They’re who you’re supposed to want to be.

The bad guys are rudos. These villains are tactically ruthless and sometimes so good at their jobs that audiences conflate their real and fake personas (just ask Arturo García, a former rudo that was stabbed with an ice pick by a deranged lucha libre fan).

Literally translating to “free fight,” the sport’s history is intertwined with the country itself, inspired by the Greco-Roman style of wrestling brought over during the 1862 French occupation of Mexico. In 1863, Lucha libre pioneer Enrique Ugartechea spun off to create his own type of free-style wrestling. But it wasn’t until a tax inspector named Salvador Lutteroth González entered the equation that the sport took hold. While living in Juarez in 1929, the man now known as the father of lucha libre attended a few loosely formatted wrestling matches in El Paso, Texas. He thought, Hey, this would do well in Mexico, and soon after brought the sport home, forming the Empresa Mexicana de Lucha Libre (today the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre, or the World Wrestling Council).

trying on a mask at a luche libre event
Take some time and pick the right color for you. | Paula Bronstein/Getty Images News

At that point there were no masks involved. But then an American wrestler took to the ring with a black leather mask in 1934, and Lutteroth dubbed him Maravilla Enmascarada, or The Masked Marvel. Masked wrestlers soon became all the rage, superheroes and villains IRL. Today, the mask has become the all-around symbol of lucha libre, with the most consequential matches described as “Mask vs. Mask” (or “Hair vs. Hair,” “Hair vs. Mask,” etc.). In these battles, luchadors wager removing their masks (or shaving their heads), and if they lose, they’re doomed to live out the rest of their careers unmasked. The loser’s identity is published in an area newspaper, their masks are retired, and they walk in shame forever.

Matches are a visceral, easily understood metaphor for, well, life. And with the second-highest rate of spectatorship in Mexico (after football), witnessing lucha libre is an easily attainable experience for visitors and locals alike. Arena México, built just as television rose in popularity, was specifically designed to broadcast the sport around the country. It hosts fights every Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday. Mexico City’s Arena Coliseo, the first arena acquired by Lutteroth, is a relatively more intimate affair with a capacity of 6,500, one third of Arena México’s. There, matches go down every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.

Regardless of the setting, a lucha libre bout guarantees surround-sound chanting, flying spittle, flying teeth, flying people, firework smoke, spicy micheladas, and wafts of popcorn and chicharrons slathered with Valentina hot sauce. You’ll see teenagers on date nights, families on outings, sports fanatics, and sure, tourists. In 1998, the government of Mexico City even granted the sport intangible cultural heritage status.

sumo wrestlers square off
Sumo wrestling in Tokyo | J. Henning Buchholz/Shutterstock

Of course, Mexico City isn’t the only place to get your cultural combat fix. Man has always been inclined to fight, whether for sport or survival. According to BBC Science Focus, it makes sense evolutionarily: Those who cultivated their dominance skills would be more likely to survive a real-world conflict. And then there’s the rest of us—the ones that would rather save our teeth and live vicariously. Says the BBC, "Watching combat sports such as boxing and wrestling is an extension of that habit, with all the thrill but none of the personal danger." As humans, we love a clear winner and loser, and we really love a symbolic folding chair. (But also can someone tell UFC that slap fighting is not a thing?)

From Asia to the Americas, nearly every country seems to have a combat sport rooted in history, many of which you can watch today. Traveling to Tokyo? Maybe check out sumo, which dates back 2,000 years and traces its origins to Shinto, a Japanese religion that predates historical records. In Nigeria, look into Dambe, a boxing style similar to MMA with roots in military combat, practiced as far back as the 10th century and currently making a comeback. There’s also India’s Gatka, a Punjab martial art that will be showcased in this year’s National Games in Goa. And in Australia there’s the time-honored aboriginal folk wrestling tradition of Coreeda. In the US, it’s straight-up boxing, which, though descended from Ancient Greece, grew in popularity upon its legalization in the 1920s—that’s when newly arrived immigrant populations built rivalries based on ethnic tensions, echoing a uniquely US phenomenon. Of course, Las Vegas, another uniquely US phenomenon, is now the fight capital of the world.

rajadamnern boxing stadium in bangkok
The storied Rajadamnern Boxing Stadium in Bangkok. | BBbirdZ/Shutterstock

I’m seated just four rows from the ring at Rajadamnern Boxing Stadium in Bangkok, one of the city’s two main destinations for live Muay Thai. In Thailand, the sport is known as “the art of eight limbs.” Originating as a military tactic in the 13th century, fighters here use their elbows, legs, shins, and feet just as much as their fists to land a strike. And does it ever land—Muay Thai is widely known as the most precise hand-to-hand combat style in the world.

The venue is bright, shiny, and no doubt more accommodating to tourists than other less-publicized spots. But hints of local culture still prevail. Gambling is illegal in Thailand, but bets are being placed all around me (for more on this, see Hurts like Hell, a Netflix series all about the Muay Thai underworld). My own contribution to this onsite economy, however, was admittedly more above board. Purchasing your match tickets in advance online is recommended, but my last-minute ringside ticket, bought at the box office just before the action went down, rang up to about $70 USD. Worth it.

Inside, the nose-tingling smell of Tiger Balm wafts over the stands as the competitors flex their way past me and into the ring. On their heads they wear Mongkhon headdresses, believed to bring good luck, while their fabric armbands—called Pra Jiad—are meant to do the same. Around their necks hang bright flower garlands known as a phuang malai, symbols of resilience and protection that pay homage to the sport’s warrior spirit.

Each bout begins with the competitors thanking their gurus via a dancing and stretching ritual called the Wai Kru. In it, fighters circle the ring counterclockwise, bowing their heads in prayer before performing a series of flowy movements backed by instrumental music. Their phuang malai are then removed, their sixteen limbs now free to fly.

muay thai fighters
Performing the Wai Kru warrior dance. | StudioByTheSea/Shutterstock

As with Arena México, the history of Bangkok’s Rajadamnern, started by order of the Prime Minister of Thailand in 1941, is intimately intertwined with the growth of the sport it showcases. Prior to its construction, Muay Thai was still mostly used for military combat and only enjoyed by the public at temple fairs or other special occasions. But when Rajadamnern debuted as the world’s first-ever Muay Thai stadium in 1945, it became the loci of the sport, and anyone who wanted to see the art of eight limbs could come on through. Today, you can only count yourself a bonafide fighter if you’ve graced its ring. It later underwent a sparkling 2022 renovation, making seeing a match in the 4,000-seat venue that much more appealing.

And like Blue Demon, Muay Thai has also outgrown the confines of the ring, with fight-fueled tourism adding a significant boost to Thailand’s economy. Today you can spar in luxury Bangkok hotels and join Muay Thai-specific gyms all over the world. Visitors can hop on Muay Thai-themed tours and even book their own curated Muay Thai holidays, where they train twice a day in 1.5- to 2-hour sessions and adhere to strict diets to keep them in fighting shape.

But your spectator diet can just consist of ice-cold beer. If you want to get to know a foreign country in a way that truly captures the human experience with a touch of cultural flair, try grabbing tickets to a fight night. At the very least, you’ll come away with some new shit-talking skills.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. Find her far back enough to avoid bodily fluids.