MEXICO CITY – Ultimo Guerrero is one of the biggest names in Mexican wrestling — a world-famous star known for his punishing moves, long black mullet and silver-capped front tooth.
He has toured Asia, South America and Europe, won dozens of championship belts and can't walk down the street in Mexico City without fans pestering him for autographs.
But in the months since the coronavirus struck and wrestling arenas were closed, the 48-year-old icon has been flipping burgers at a food truck.
"Everything stopped," he said on a recent afternoon, a chef's apron pulled tight over his bulging pectoral muscles, the smell of sizzling beef and onions wafting down the street outside his house in Mexico City. "Like everybody else, I had to do something to survive."
Lucha libre — literally "free fight" — is its own religion in Mexico, and wrestlers are gods.
The pandemic has brought them down to earth.
Even the best-known wrestlers were never paid very well, earning about $1,000 a week, most of it from a cut of ticket sales. With no matches save a few televised contests, superstars and up-and-comers alike have had to rely on emergency donations from fight promoters. Many have also begun selling street food.
There is Olimpico, with his crepe stand, and Rey Bucanero, with his ice cream and waffles joint. Shocker, who opened a lucha-themed taco truck last year to help raise money for jaw surgery, now lives off it. Many lesser-known wrestlers have also reinvented themselves as street vendors, hawking tortas, carne asada and doughnuts.
For wrestlers looking for quick cash, street food makes sense.
It is informal, with no permits or rent required. And luchadores have a leg up when it comes to marketing, with built-in networks of fans.
Ultimo Guerrero — who per custom only revealed his face and real name, Jose Gutierrez Hernandez, after defeat in a high-stakes fight six years ago forced him to remove his mask — opened the hamburger stand with his pro-wrestler wife, the yet-to-be-unmasked Lluvia. In their working-class neighborhood on the northern edge of the city, street food is a way of life.
On one side of their house is a stand that sells pork ribs so juicy that lines often extend down the block. On the other, a chef who lost his job at a resort in Cancun because of the pandemic sells cochinita pibil in front of his mother's home.
But the biggest draw now is the brightly painted truck, which features images of Ultimo Guerrero and Lluvia, whose stage names translate to "Last Warrior" and "Rain."
"People!" a friend shouted into a microphone, mimicking a wrestling match announcer. "We have hamburgers!"
The clientele includes neighbors, but also fans who come from afar to rub shoulders with their heroes.
"Enjoy!" Ultimo Guerrero told a star-struck admirer after he posed for a photo in his signature blue-and-white wrestling mask and then handed over a plastic bag laden with cheeseburgers and fries.
"If it's tasty, tell your friends," the wrestler joked. "If it's not, don't tell anybody."
The customer, Rene Nunez, giggled like a child. He and his wife had driven an hour and a half to be there.
"I'm a super fan," said Nunez, 32, who before the pandemic used to attend at least two wrestling matches each month. He compared lucha to the theater — "except you get to drink beer and don't have to stay in your seat."
He gazed at Ultimo Guerrero, who was now seasoning beef patties: "This is seeing your idol in flesh and blood."
Lucha libre mixes athleticism, strength and cartoonish masculinity with tight Lycra pants and sparkly masks. Since the first league was founded nearly a century ago, it has been the sport of the working class, with both fans and performers generally coming from humble origins.
Ultimo Guerrero grew up in the northern state of Durango, where his mother sold flour tortilla tacos known as gringas on the street. The last six months have felt like a vacation. The chronic pain in his shoulders has subsided, and he no longer takes painkillers. "My body doesn't ache," he said. "I feel good."