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LuchaPalooza! Lucha Tributes: Antonio Peña
What You Already Know
Even if you’re a lucha novice you know that Antonio Peña was the founder of AAA, the famous lucha libre promotion that Peña would run from its inception all the way to his tragic death in 2006. And while it wasn’t always perfect Peña’s work, especially in AAA’s early years, is considered to be some of the best booking in wrestling history thanks to the inclusion of more ambitious storylines, creative/colorful characters Peña created himself and a crop of young stars such as Konnan, Rey Mysterio, Psicosis, La Parka, Octagon, Mascara Sagrada, Fuerza and Juventud Guerrera, Blue Panther and Los Gringos Locos (just to name a few) to essay them. If there’s a lucha libre star out there today that you love, chances are Antonio Peña had something to do with it. You could combine Francis Ford Coppola, David Lynch and James Cameron together and still not get someone as brilliant as this man.
What You Didn’t Know
If you’re not read up on Peña it’s easy to think he just was a creative guy who happened upon lucha libre one day and never looked back. NOT SO FAST MY FRIEND! Like almost everyone else to ever be associated with lucha, Peña was a lifer. His father worked for years as the luchador Ponzoña while his uncle, Antonio Hernández Arriga, is fondly remembered for his run as Espectro during the 1950s and 60s. Peña would eventually train under his uncle and a few other luchadors and would debut in 1974 at the age of 23 (Wikipedia says he debuted that year at the age of 18 but also lists him as being born in 1951, making it impossible to have been 18 that year. So much for Wikipedia’s reliability there!). By all accounts Peña had a pretty successful career, first as Espectro Jr. from 1974-1980 and then most notably as Kahoz from then till near the end of his career. It was in Kahoz that Mexico first got a taste of Peña’s creativity. Envisioned as a sort of Jake Roberts like character years before Jake Roberts, Peña portrayed Kahoz as a dark character who would conjure dark spirits, carry a bag of pigeons to the ring and then send them flying into his opponent before then “biting” off one of their heads and just overall doing really out there stuff in order to gain a psychological edge over his opponent. Peña would never win any titles as Kahoz but all accounts suggest he didn’t care. It’s hard to see why he would considering Kahoz still main evented numerous shows and still stands out to many lucha fans as one of the most ambitious characters in the history of lucha libre.
Naturally the next thing to assume is that once Peña retired he then decided to form AAA in order to compete with CMLL right? Right? Nope. In fact, before Peña formed AAA he spent nearly a decade working for the company he would later know as his greatest rival. That’s right; Antonio Peña and CMLL were once in a beautiful relationship together, starting when Peña got a job in the public relations department after his retirement in 1986. Before long he was suggesting story ideas and gimmicks to CMLL higher ups and eventually Paco Alonso brought him on board to the creative team alongside Juan Herrera. Much like in the early years of AAA Peña’s CMLL tenure is considered a huge success. He was a major part (along with Herrera) in getting CMLL rebranded from EMLL to CMLL, introduced the Mini-Estrella division that has become a big draw for both CMLL and AAA today and began to cement his legacy of finding and developing some of the greatest lucha libre talent ever. It was in CMLL that Peña first developed the gimmicks of Octagon and Mascara Sagrada which propelled both to superstardom, while a young Canadian named Ian Hodgkinson became an overnight sensation as Vampiro under Peña’s tutelage. There was clear cut evidence even back then that Pena was someone who was going to do big things.
So why didn’t it happen with CMLL? Despite having worked together so well for several years, the relationship between Peña and Herrera soon turned into a power struggle for control of CMLL’s direction. Herrera, a sharp mind by all accounts, preferred to continue booking CMLL as it always had been; headlined by mat based heavyweights like Atlantis, Rayo de Jalisco and others. Peña meanwhile preferred to showcase the younger, faster, more athletic generation of stars like Konnan, Octagon, Sagrada and countless others. Ultimately the power struggle was decided by Paco Alonso and, well, what do you think a man as conservative business wise as Alonso chose? Realizing his influence over CMLL would be vanquished in no time and tired of watching his guys get mistreated (Konnan was made the first ever CMLL World Heavyweight Champion only to lose the belt soon after in what was seen as a power play move by Herrera), Peña made the decision to bolt. Luckily for him he had a deal with Televisa in his back pocket and the support of guys like Konnan, Octagon and Sagrada who agreed to jump to AAA with him. The rest they say is history. Good Cthulhu, could you imagine if Pena had actually won favor with Alonso over Herrera back then? How much different is CMLL now? How much different is lucha libre right now? The alternate universe where that happened has got to be the craziest place ever, besides the one where Sting actually goes over Hogan cleanly at Starrcade 1997.
Now comes the black mark on Pena’s run as AAA honcho. While he was certainly more creative than many of his contemporaries and overall a decent and far less cutthroat businessmen than say Alonso or Vince McMahon, Peña burned his share of bridges over the years, the lone exception surprisingly being Octagon (who later nuked his bridge with Peña’s successors, brother-in-law Joaquin Roldan, sister Marisela Pena and nephew Dorian Roldan). At first it was mainly over pay issues. Despite the success of AAA during the first several years thanks to its fresh new style and big shows like Triplemania and When Worlds Collide (Peña’s masterpiece), the decline of the Mexican peso in the mid 90s hit AAA hard. As a result the company would go through numerous money problems which would eventually lead to several stars falling out with Peña and the promotion. Konnan would leave over these issues in 1996 to form Promo Azteca, taking a good chunk of AAA’s talent with him. In fact Konnan’s departure would lead to a falling out personally between him and Peña, though they would work together again a decade later and appear to have patched things up before Peña’s death.
Bigger than the money issues were the copyright wars. Because Peña came up with many of the gimmicks during this time he would later claim to have full ownership over them, thus allowing him to strip said performers of their gimmick if they ever went to a rival lucha promotion. It didn’t help that Televisa quietly owned the rights to the AAA name and was thus making a ton of royalty payments from merchandise sold, cash most of said luchadors either saw little or none of. Many luchadors would bolt from AAA because of this and were then blocked from using the gimmicks that made them famous. The most notable were Máscara Sagrada, Psicosis and La Parka. Sagrada would leave AAA in 1997 and was forced to change up his name for almost a decade before winning the rights back in court. Psicosis and La Parka initially were allowed to keep their names went they joined WCW, but upon returning to Mexico were forced by Peña to change their names (to Nicho El Millonario and L.A. Park respectively) and alter their looks somewhat. In all three cases Peña threw salt in the wound by giving each man’s gimmick to another luchadors, with several performers taking up the Máscara Sagrada mantle with limited success while Psicosis was essayed for years by the lifeless corpse we know today as Ripper. Only La Parka’s replacement would go onto have a long run of success and as anyone who reads me knows he came nowhere close to becoming the legend his predecessor is. Perhaps the saddest aspect of this whole thing is that almost none of the relationships were ever repaired. Psicosis would in fact work with Peña again in 2005; the same cannot be said for the other two. Sagrada has never returned to AAA (and likely never will) while Parka would return in 2010, four years after Peña’s death. It’s unknown if either man reconciled with Peña before he died, but I’d suggest the odds aren’t high.
I’m very tempted to go with a moment that no one knows about, which is Peña’s comeback match from 2001 when he took on Cibernetico in an overbooked smorgasbord at Guerra de Titanes. As I value all of my readers and wish for their eyes not to bulge out of their heads I’ll refrain (though if you’re curious you need just type in Antonio Peña vs. Cibernetico into YouTube’s search engine). Instead I’ll take this opportunity to talk to you about When Worlds Collide, which I mentioned earlier is Peña’s masterpiece. Sure the first Triplemania may have put 48,000 people into Plaza de Toros less than a year after the company came together (and is largely considered a great show) it’s still not When Worlds Collide, the original Wrestle Kingdom 9 and a show that may just be the best wrestling event ever. It only features one of the best tag matches ever (you know the one), an emotional main event between Konnan and Perro Aguayo Sr. and overall a pretty solid undercard. Peña did a hell of a lot right during the first few years of AAA but nothing as big as this; to get a show this right on the stage it was on (up until Triplemania XXII this had been the only lucha libre show to ever make US PPV) is as good as it gets. If only WWE would put it on the Network already. They’ve got everything else there and they can’t add the greatest show you’ve never seen? Good thing you have people like me to keep you covered!
Last week I wrote about CMLL owner Paco Alonso and often compared him to Vince McMahon. In many ways Antonio Peña is the same, especially in one category Vince and Paco don’t share; ambition. When you think of ambition in the wrestling world, there’s Peña and then there’s Vince. It was that ambition that hurt him many times and that ambition that at one point made AAA the premiere promotion in Mexico. Yes, even bigger than CMLL. Antonio Peña put his company’s equivalent of Wrestlemania in a building that seats only 41,000 people not even a year into its existence and sold 7,000 tickets than the intended capacity. Antonio Peña got a shot on American PPV and delivered one of the greatest shows ever. And that’s just the things he did. Perhaps you’ve heard this story but if not here you go; When Worlds Collide wasn’t just supposed to be AAA’s breakthrough, it was supposed to be the set up to the ultimate climax. Peña had intended to do what no promoter in history had done up to that point, which was use the momentum from When Worlds Collide to build towards a third Triplemania in Estadio Azteca, headlined by a match between Konnan and Art Barr following Los Gringos Locos turning on Konnan. Here’s the kicker; Estadio Azteca can sit over 87,000 for a football match and over 130,000 for a boxing wrestling event. It never happened because of Barr’s death and the Mexican peso crisis and may not have sold out the building anyway. Does it really matter? The fact that Peña was willing to try and put together the highest drawing wrestling show in history (at least until Collision in Korea happened) should tell you all you need to know about the man. He was creative, he was ambitious, he was nuts and some would say (and not unjustly) that he could be cruel and petty. But above all else he was brilliant, and the world of lucha libre could use more people like Antonio Peña these days. Maybe it’s time someone dreamed of selling out Estadio Azteca again instead of just trying to sell out Arena Mexico.
That’s it sports fans. I’m out till tomorrow, which will see me review Super Viernes. Slow day I know. Till then, rock on! I’m tired and can’t think of anything cleverer, cut me some slack.