Updated: 5 days ago
Under the Learning Tree Season 1: Jericho & (mostly) Guevara
1.3 | Lucha Libre Roots in México
And forthcoming on Saturdays:
1.6 | Catch Roots in Lancashire
1.7 | Heartland Catch Roots in Iowa
Under the Learning Tree is a series that follows the story of professional wrestling backwards from a current star performer in AEW Wrestling, back in time to their trainer, to their trainer's trainer, ad infinitum. The first stars we've been giving this treatment to have been kayfabe mentor and mentee Chris Jericho and Sammy Guevara. Explaining Jericho's Tree only took a couple of paragraphs, but Sammy's is in the midst of taking several installments, (weekly, every Saturday!) If you have time, the story is better appreciated from the start, so please follow this link: part 1, and from there, follow links forward at the bottom of each page to each successive installment.
In the first part of this story of Sammy Guevara's Learning Tree, we learned about the main trunk of that tree, centered in Texas. In the second part, we learned about the essential branching place of this tree in the person of Hiro Matsuda, and the branching there into three major roots, and about the first of those roots, very firmly rooted in the soil of Japan and in the Japanese disciplines of puroreso, sumô, jiu-Jitsu, and jûdô. In this installment we will explore the root created when Hiro Matsuda had his unintentional sojourn through Latin America that led to him receiving training in Mexico's pro-wrestling discipline known as lucha libre from lucha's most legendary trainer.
Hiro Matsuda (pt 2)
Barnstorming through Peru and Mexico
In 1960, frustrated with his sensei, Rikidôzan, and longing to see the promised land of the USA, Yasuhiro Kojima—the man who would later become famed as Hiro Matsuda—was looking for a way to leave his island-nation home of Japan. But in those days—less than a decade removed from the American occupation—moving to the US was not as simple as buying an airplane ticket for a citizen of Japan.  Peru, on the other hand, had a long history of warm relations with Japan—being the first nation to recognize them diplomatically back in the late 19th century—and had one of the largest Japanese-migrant (or nikkei) communities in Latin America.  Peru had its own professional wrestling scene, and, through an uncle in the nikkei community there, Kojima was able to find a sponsor for a Peruvian work visa in the person of wrestling promoter Max Aguirre. Kojima had great success in Peru, but after three months wrestling there, he took advantage of an opportunity to take one step closer to his goal of reaching the US, by moving on to Mexico. 
Arriving in Mexico City, Kojima was told that he would have to wait one month for a working visa. He spent that month training at the gym that the luchadores frequented, and getting acclimated to Mexico City's high elevation. Kojima tells the story that he met lucha legend Gory Guerrero, (who would go on to be the paterfamilias of the legendary Guerrero pro-wrestling clan,) at that gym, and Gory challenged Kojima to wrestle him in a non-kayfabe spar. Kojima earned the respect of all of the luchadores, and the nickname "Todo Pistolero," (The Pistol Who Can Shoot Anyone,) by flummoxing the respected ring general with his jûdô throws. 
Eddie Guerrero's Legendary Papa, Gory
After some time wrestling in Mexico City, and a tour of many smaller towns in Mexico, Kojima then spent two weeks in the second biggest city in Mexico, Guadalajara, a place which made a big impression on Kojima as a beautiful representation of "old Mexico."  Guadalajara is also where lucha libre icon and superhero El Santo ("the Saint") had been making appearances in that timeframe, in the recently-built Arena Coliseo.  It cannot be overstated just how monumental the stardom and mystique of El Santo was in Mexico, or how instrumental this was to the enduring popularity of lucha libre. With his trademark silver mask and cape, El Santo, el Enmascerado de Plata, ("the Man in the Silver Mask,") was like a real-life superhero and folk hero to the people of Mexico, symbolizing in his ring-struggles, their own struggles against injustice. At this point in our story, Santo had already been the premier luchador for over 30 years, and would remain a massive draw for another 20, and go on to pioneer multimedia stardom, fighting injustice not only in the ring, but in comic books and movies, too! 
No El Santo movies had been released yet by 1960, but Santo had had his own comic book since 1952
El Santo's older brother, known as Black Guzmán, was also a professional wrestler. However, likely wanting out of the shadow of his superstar little brother, "Blackie" mostly wrestled North of the border, becoming a major draw for both the Dallas and Houston promotions. By 1960, his career was winding down and he was acting more as a scout for promoter Morris Sigel back in Houston, working with luchadores who wanted to work in the USA, arranging their green cards in return for a small cut of their net. 
Later that year, Kojima, who had long dreamed of the "promised land" of the USA, met Guzmán and took him up on that deal. However, although the older brother would go on to play such an important role in Kojima's life, Kojima's biography never mentions Santo himself once. 
So, although both men certainly spent time in Guadalajara in 1960, and we have confirmation that they would later be on opposite sides of a tag match, when Kojima made a return tour of Mexico over a decade afterward,  it is unknown if these two legends ever actually crossed paths during this period, or if they ever had a singles match!
However, Guadalajara—which acted as a feeder promotion or "minor leagues" for young, up-and-coming luchadores—hosted another icon of lucha libre for Kojima to meet. And that icon was the famed trainer of lucha legends, Diablo Velazco. 
Maestro de Leyendas de la Lucha Libre
In 1934, Cuauhtémoc Velazco Vargas saw his very first lucha libre match.  Empresa Méxicana de Lucha Libre, (EMLL)—or The Mexican Wrestling Enterprise, Mexico's first ongoing wrestling promotion and the oldest promotion in continuous operation in the world today—had begun running shows out of a run-down old boxing arena, Arena Modelo, the previous year.  Velazco was enthralled by the action and spectacle, and immediately decided that he wanted to become a luchador, himself. 
There is a good chance that the first wrestling show that Velazco attended was EMLL's first anniversary show, since that was, by far, their biggest drawing show that year. If so, he would have seen in the main event a promotional innovation that went a long way to defining the unique character of lucha libre as fans know and love it to this day—the first of many masked luchadores, La Maravilla Enmascarada, "the Masked Marvel." The mystique of the mask was an instant sensation, and became a central aspect of lucha from that moment forward. It should be remembered that it would be another four years before the American comic books would introduce similar amazing costumed heroes like Superman and Batman to similarly explosive acclaim. 
El Maravilla Enmascarada
If Aniversario was indeed Velazco's first show, the opening match also had a competitor who would go on to be important to his future in a more personal way—it featured Raúl Romero,  who would go on to take Velazco on as his protégé. Romero spent two years passing on the grappling skills he had been taught, before Velazco made his debut in the ring in 1937. In spite of his skill and passion, whether he went by "Telmo" or "Diablo," Velazco never set the world on fire as an active competitor, and ended that aspect of his career by 1942. And yet, he is still remembered among the premier legends of lucha libre. 
This is due to his incredible impact as a trainer of future legends of the ring—starting in the 1930s when, despite being a relative rookie himself, he had a hand in training some of the early stars of the sport, such as Tarzán López, (the aforementioned) Gory Guerrero, and "the Caveman" Cavernario Galindo. Through the decades of his career as a trainer, he showed the ropes to a parade of young men who would go on to the main event in lucha libre, including: Rayo de Jalisco, Angel Blanco, El Solitario, Mil Máscaras, Satánico, Perro Aguayo, El Dandy, and Atlantis. Even after his hip surgery in 1986 meant the end of mixing it up with his students physically, he continued to take a hand in the creation of star luchadores such as Shocker and Mr. Águila, till very near to the end of his life in 1999. 
Diablo Velazco surrounded by his students
Hiro Matsuda does not mention training with Velazco in his memoir, but every other resource on either man lists Velazco among Matsuda's trainers and lists Matsuda among Velazco's noteworthy students. [5, 15] Consequently, I'm not entirely sure if Guadalajara-based Velazco spent some time in Mexico City teaching the lucha style to Matsuda during the month he was working out and waiting for his visa to clear, or if Matsuda worked with the maestro while he spent some weeks in Guadalajara as one of his stops touring Mexico. But in any case, this interaction links some of the most illustrious chapters in the story of lucha libre with the Sammy Guevara Learning Tree.
El Profesor Misterioso
There are major stars of lucha libre whose faces have never been seen and whose names remain unknown to the general public. This mystique can have a powerful effect on their drawing power. Velazco's mentor, Raúl Romero, was never one of these: although he occasionally wore a mask, his real face and name and year of birth are matters of public record. However, some of the relevant facts of his life have something of an air of mystery—likely this was not intentional, unlike for someone like El Santo. Rather, the confusion may be chalked up to some combination of misunderstanding, miscommunication, and the fog of time.
Raúl Romero held the Mexican National Lightweight Championship in 1944 
The records we have on the basic facts of Romero's career do not include any references to primary documentation such as interviews or the like. But profiles in databases such as luchawiki indicate that he was born in 1909, was trained by the El Paso wrestling hero Matty Matsuda, debuted in 1934, and was, (along with his tag partner, Yaqui Rocha,) the first luchador to visit Japan in 1956 (as mentioned in Part 2,) where he wrestled against jûdô legend Masahiko Kimura. 
Romero (in mask) vs. Kimura, 1956
There is just one problem with all of the things we believe that we know about the man they called "El Profesor": his purported maestro, Matty Matsuda, passed away in 1929. Is Romero's debut date wrong? Or his trainer? Or is there some reason he didn't wrestle for five years after being trained? As to the answers, there is, so far, no proof. However, I have a theory which I believe is extremely plausible. And the setting for this theory is Liberty Hall in El Paso in 1929, the time and place BOTH of Matty Matsuda's tragic and shocking death, AND when Salvador Lutteroth received the spark of inspiration that went on to lead to him founding EMLL, and to the lighting of the flame that is lucha libre.
This Learning Tree's "Missing Link"?
Salvador Lutteroth was a former officer of the Mexican Revolution who had left the military to accept a position as a property inspector for the Tax Department of Mexico's post-revolution government. For some months in 1929, his work took him to the bordertown of Ciudad Juarez. While he was there, he would regularly cross the bridge to the US side to take in the El Paso nightlife. Soon he would discover his favorite entertainment in El Paso: heading to Liberty Hall to cheer and boo the professional wrestlers! His favorite was the Greek grappler, Gus Pappas. Pro wrestling would become a passion for Lutteroth that would inspire him to save his money, make the needed connections, and do the legwork to found EMLL and bring professional wrestling to his home of Mexico. 
Oddly, when speaking of noteworthy individual wrestlers at Liberty Hall, Lutteroth mentions Pappas, but not Matty Matsuda who had been the #1 wrestling hero to the people of El Paso all through the teens and 20s, until August 15, 1929, when he suddenly and unexpectedly died.  At the very least, the drama of the situation would have been worth a passing mention, so I suspect that Lutteroth arrived later in the year and entirely missed having seen Matty wrestle, or having been shocked, along with the rest of the city that loved him, by his brutally sudden death.
Once EMLL got rolling, the story of Diablo Velazco is a typical one—going from fan, to trainee, to luchador, to maestro of the next crop of trainees. However—until Lutteroth could use the thrill of the wrestling shows to recruit new local wrestlers—for those first few shows all of the talent had to be imported. Which is not to say that all of those first shows' competitors were gringos. There were a couple of caucasian norteamericanos on EMLL's very first show—including Cyclone Mackey, (the same man who would go on to take on the role of the Masked Marvel for Lutteroth, one year later,) and Bobby Sampson, who was on the losing side of that first main event. They even had a Chinese competitor—Leong Tin Kit, aka "Chino Achiu," the king of the tope, who defeated Mackey on that first show. 
Promotional flier for EMLL's first show
But even though Mexico had never had an ongoing wrestling promotion before, the rest of the card was Latino—competitors who had primarily worked the Southwest USA, before Lutteroth invited them to Mexico City. This included the man who defeated Sampson in the main event of that debut show—Yaqui Joe. 
You'll remember that decades later, a Yaqui Rocha would be Romero's tag partner when Kimura invited luchadores to wrestle in Japan. "Yaqui" was a name that would be used by several different luchadores over the years to denote their links to the Native tribe of the Yaqui river valley in the state of Sonoma. The Yoeme tribe, commonly referred to as the "Hiakim" or "Yaqui" were cousins to the Aztecs, but never conquered by their empire, nor by the Spanish Empire later, despite several attempts. They had been at bloody war with the Army of the same despotic President Porfirio Díaz, whom the Mexican Revolution (that Lutteroth had been an officer of) later finally ousted.  As such, an association with the "Yaqui" people was one of deep symbolism to the common people of Mexico of defiance in the face of powerful injustice.
Yoeme Deer Dancer
Little is remembered and recorded about Yaqui Joe. As mentioned, he had won the main event of EMLL's debut show and went on to be the first to hold the Mexican Middleweight Championship—a title best remembered for later adorning the waist of El Santo for much of the 1940s. Before being invited to take part in the EMLL promotion, he had wrestled all over the Southwest US throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s following his debut in El Paso in 1925, where the records claim he had been trained by a "Matty Matsura"—an obvious transcription error or typo of the legendary Matty Matsuda! 
Is it possible that Raúl Romero was actually trained by Yaqui Joe? And that sometime when he was trying to explain his training-lineage connection to the Japan-born great Matty Matsuda—possibly to the Japanese press during his excursion there in 1956, in order to make a local connection—the intervening step of Yaqui Joe was misunderstood, lost in translation, or glossed over? I cannot prove it, but it seems not only possible, but highly likely to me.
Hiro Matsuda (pt 3)
Reaching the Promised Land
The astute reader may have noticed that I have mentioned several times a wrestler named Matty Matsuda who competed under the same last name that Yasuhiro Kojima would later be best known by. Once Kojima was wrestling in the US, it wasn't so long before he took a booking in Missouri and met the Greek wrestling promoter and former wrestler, Gust Karras. Karras suggested that Kojima reminded him of a man he used to wrestle back in the teens and 20s, who went by "Marty Matsuda," (obviously a misheard or misremembered "Matty,") and that he ought to take that on as his ring name rather than "Saito." It's never mentioned in his memoir, so it is likely that Velazco never discussed his training lineage with Hiro, or he never made the connection, and Hiro never realized that his namesake, Matty Matsuda, was also a root in his own learning tree. 
Hiro Matsuda, finally in the USA
Gone Too Soon, but Not Forgotten
The story of Manjiro Matsuda has many parallels to that of Taro Miyake. Both were born in Japan, were martial arts prodigies in their youth, and emigrated as very young men. But where Miyake made his home in the great capitals of Europe and later New York City, Matsuda sought out the cornfed Iowan wrestling World Champion, Frank Gotch, to add his catch-as-catch-can style to the jûdô he had already mastered. 
He would return the favor by teaching jûdô to Gotch's students, including Gotch's wrestling protégé, Roy Moore, who would go on to be an important figure in bringing competitive jûdô to the States.  Manjiro would take on the Americanized nickname "Matty" and settle down in El Paso, TX, where he would become the mainstay of the main event of the regular wrestling shows at Liberty Hall all through the teens and the 1920s. He won and defended the World Lightweight title and later the World Welterweight title in long reigns, in one case going 124 matches without a defeat. I have mentioned before that competitors of Asian descent working in the US in those days were often typecast as sinister menaces, but nothing could be further from the case with beloved "Mattie". He was characterized by sportswriters as a "skillful wrestler and a gentleman" and embraced by El Pasoans as a transplanted hometown hero. 
Manjiro "Matty" Matsuda, Champion
In late July of 1929, M. Matsuda had a match against a competitor from the subcontinent of India named Basanta Singh. By all accounts it was a hard-hitting affair, with Matsuda barely eking out a victory. M. Matsuda collapsed after the match and was rushed to hospital. So far, so much a typical wrestling trope to build heat for a return match. However, serious internal injuries were discovered, and, less than a month later, the hero of El Paso had shockingly died. 
What would cause such serious injuries in a worked wrestling match? Nobody knows for sure. Was it in fact a shoot match? Did his opponent attempt a double cross and go for a not-agreed-upon win? Or was it a relatively rough but normal kayfabe match, and merely exacerbated some heretofore unsuspected underlying condition that had been lying in wait all along? At this distance of time, there is no way to be sure. But the ways in which the world of professional wrestling may have turned out differently M. Matsuda had lived is, to me, one of the most fascinating what-ifs in grappling history.
Puroresu in Japan and lucha libre in Mexico have had a warm and collegial relationship going back many decades. Since Raúl Romero's excursion to Kyushu in 1956, there have been many crossover stars: from Mil Máscaras, lucha's first global superstar, who was ambassador for the style to both the US and Japan, to Gran Hamada a Japanese competitor who—feeling he couldn't reach the heights in puroreso due to his smaller size—became a star in Mexico, and would bring the high-flying style of lucha libre back home to Japan with him when he would visit. 
Japanese luchador, Gran Hamada
Who knows how different the world of global professional wrestling might have been today, if—when Salvador Lutteroth discovered the joys of pro wrestling in El Paso's Liberty Hall—he had also discovered the beloved hero between the ropes to El Pasoans, and Japan-born expert in both jûdô and catch, Matty Matsuda?
This marks the completion of the part of our story covering the lucha-libre-styleroots of Sammy Guevara's learning tree. Once Hiro Matsuda made it to the USA, he wandered from promotion to promotion for a couple of years, acquiring valuable experiences and the name, Matsuda, that he'd be known by thereafter. He had a memorable run in Oklahoma feuding with the local legend there, Danny Hodge, who would go on to be H. Matsuda's lifelong rival. After Oklahoma, he headed to the territory where he would go on to set down roots and spend the rest of his career: Florida. In 1963, H. Matsuda had a big feud with the local hero there, Eddie Graham. But never one to rest on his laurels, he afterward took months off to further improve his pro-wrestling skills by training in the Lancashire style of catch-as-catch-can grappling under Karl Gotch, which is where our story will begin next time. 
Link to: Part 4
Learning Tree Lineage Diagram
Work-in-Progress Learning Tree Hypertext Document
Samurai Spirit by Stephanie Kojima