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201 Non WWE Matches to See Before You Die #3: Villano III vs. Atlantis
[A long time ago in a War Rig far, far away, a young War Boy named 'Plan wrote an excellent column series called 101 WWE Matches to See Before You Die. It was perfect, so perfect that it's now a book you can buy on Amazon! There was just one problem; it only focused on WWE matches! Thus, as a fellow War Boy, I've taken it upon myself to take a look at the other stuff, compiling a list of 201 Non WWE Matches to See Before You Die. This right here is entry #3. Enjoy! And buy 'Plan's book!]
The mask; it’s not only a solid Jim Carrey movie, but it’s also the symbol of lucha libre. In Mexico, the mask means everything. It’s bigger than titles, bigger than the wrestler, hell sometimes it’s just bigger than everything. To put your mask on the line in the halls of Arena Mexico, the Mexico City Arena or any other arena south of the border is the dream of every young man and woman growing up wanting to be a luchador(a). The spoils of such bouts are great; if you defend your mask and win your opponent’s, it’s the sign of your greatness to the lucha world. If you lose your mask however, it’s a step taken into a land that science fiction likes to call “the uncertain future.” It’s one thing to lose a title; those come and go. Losing your mask changes everything; you become exposed to the world both figuratively and literally (an unmasked wrestler must be forced to reveal his real name in accordance with tradition), you lose the thing that made you what you are. To be blunt, losing the mask doesn’t just become a part of a lucha star’s legacy, it can become said legacy. Nothing is ever the same when the mask comes off; sometimes it’s for the better, sometimes it can mean the end. Like I said, it’s the path to the uncertain future.
On March 17th, 2000, CMLL held their Juicio Final event, headlined by a mask vs. mask match; Atlantis vs. Villano III. It was, leading up to the bout, touted as “the biggest Apuestas (bet) match of the decade”, and it’s easy to see why. One, it was three months into the year 2000, making it hard for any other bet match to have occurred and meant as much. Outside of that however, the match was still something to behold. The third of five sons produced by lucha legend Rey Mendoza, Villano III had spent the past 30 years becoming one of the biggest stars in lucha libre, a masterful in ring technician with a penchant for winning mask vs. mask matches. In fact, his record when putting his mask on the line coming into this match was a staggering 59-0; that’s a Taker at Mania, Goldberg in WCW esq streak. By contrast, Atlantis had nowhere near the pedigree; he was not the son of lucha royalty, and had only wrestled 8 Apuestas matches prior to this one (going 8-0). Never the less, Atlantis was a complete success story in his own right, having become one of the biggest technico’s during his near twenty year career, along with inspiring numerous youngsters to become luchadors (Aerostar notably has listed Atlantis as one of his favorite stars ever). More impressive was his loyalty to CMLL; as many of his peers fled to AAA during the early 90s, Atlantis stayed, continuing to be a stable, steady draw for the promotion through good and bad times. It was indeed a match that sold itself; legend vs. budding legend, Villano’s chance to go 60-0 in Apuestas matches vs. Atlantis looking for the biggest win of his career, and of course, mask vs. mask. Thus, it was no shock that Arena Mexico was filled to the brim that spring night. Little did they know that this bout would be more than just your average mask vs. mask match. It instead became a struggle; dare I say even a life experience.
Every great wrestling match has a moment where things turn, when you realize that something massive is going to happen. For Punk-Cena 2011, it was when Punk got out of the STF and put Cena in the Anaconda Vice; for Michaels-Taker Mania 25, it was the ill fated dive by Taker out of the ring; for Gringos Locos vs. Octagon/Hijo del Santo, it was Octagon’s spirited come back to tie the match at one fall a piece. For Villano-Atlantis, it was a suicide dive. Five minutes in, after some chain wrestling and one vicious mask ripping by Villano (the ultimate sign of disrespect), the lucha legend leapt out of the ring for a move he’s done a thousand times. Only this time, something funny happened. Whether it was by design or not (I’m guessing not, but who knows?), Villano’s head collided with Atlantis’ flush, collapsing both men to the floor. For a few moments, the match seemingly stops, as Atlantis’ white mask (what’s left of it) suddenly turns red with his blood and Villano staggers around like he’s been concussed, all while several doctors attend to both men. The problem is it doesn’t; the referee in fact counts all the way to twenty (unlike the US, count outs happen at a twenty count, not ten), resulting in a double count out of both men. Now, for those unaware, lucha libre matches (especially in CMLL) take place under lucha libre rules, which means each bout is 2 out of 3 falls. So in effect, the double count out left Villano and Atlantis needing only one fall to win, basically making it an American style match. It changed nothing, and yet changed everything.
You see, after that dive, the match went from a battle of one man trying to wrestle control from the other into a fight of desperation, a fight of survival. No, there were no weapons, no underhanded tactics or any of that, but there was a primal sense of urgency on both men to get the job done. It showed through when Villano immediately began kicking Atlantis in the face as soon as both men regained their bearings. It showed when each man attempted pinfall after pinfall, painfully missing victory by a second or two. But most importantly, it showed in their countless attempts to make the other man quit. You’ve obviously seen matches with near falls right? Have you ever seen one with so many near submissions? Indeed, the psychology of this match, the story, went from two men simply trying to unmask each other to something more sinister. It wasn’t enough for either man to just win; they had to make their opponent hurt, suffer, leave him with the humiliation of not just losing his mask, but tapping out to do so. It’s an effect that you hardly see, but one that worked extraordinarily well, to the point where the Arena Mexico crowd, a crowd that generally is more quiet than boisterous, began to roar like Madison Square Garden as the match continued.
Of course, every great story needs a great ending, and this was no different. And yet, that great ending wasn’t necessarily the match’s ending, a great sequence in its own right that saw Atlantis lock in his finisher, a hybrid torture rack known as the Atlántida, forcing Villano to finally submit. It was an amazing moment (made better by Atlantis getting Villano in that move a few minutes earlier, only for Villano to slip out) and as Atlantis celebrated, Arena Mexico exploded with one of the biggest pops ever. But what sticks in the mind is what happened immediately after, where a defeated Villano lifted Atlantis up on his shoulders and carried him around the ring to the fans delight. It was a joy you don’t see from losers of this match; in fact, the reaction afterwards is generally sadness (look no further than La Sombra’s reaction to losing his mask just a few months ago). But as Villano gave an impassioned post match speech while taking his mask off, it became crystal clear that losing the mask, while sad, wasn’t a world ender. Instead, he took joy in the fact for 25 minutes, he and Atlantis were the two best wrestlers in the world; two artists painting a canvas that would last a lifetime, gaining respect for one another all while trying to humiliate them. In twenty five minutes, Villano had cemented his legacy, Atlantis had indeed become a legend, and the “biggest Apuestas match of the decade” turned out to be more than a tagline. As such, it turned what should’ve been Villano’s darkest moment into the greatest victory lap of his career.
As it turns out, most agree. Dave Meltzer would in fact name the Villano-Atlantis match as his Match of the Year for 2000, an amazing feat considering that 2000 is considered to be the greatest year WWE has ever had. Whether or not it’s indeed the best match is up for debate; what matters is that it truly was a legendary performance that certified both men as future Hall of Famers. Villano worked another fifteen years after that match before retiring this year at Triplemania, his Apuestas record still an amazing 80-2-1 when all was set and done (his other loss was to the original La Parka). Atlantis meanwhile used the win to forever solidify his standing as a top star in CMLL, which he remains today at the age of 53, all while continuing to sell out arenas and take masks (La Sombra being his most recent in an excellent match at the Anniversary Show). Try as each man might though, no win, no other accomplishment can ever quite equal the night they locked horns on March 17th. Indeed, if you’re ever looking for proof that the mask means everything in lucha, look no further than here. For 25 minutes, Villano and Atlantis bled for the mask, fought for the mask, went to depths they didn’t know they had for the mask. In the end, only one was able to go home with his, but both were changed forever. That is greatness. That is the power of the mask.
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