It was supposed to be a quick trip in Mexico to cover the Lucha Libre World Cup for Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine. But Photographer Jerry Villagrana, based in Detroit, eventually spent the next 15 months in the country shooting Mexican wrestling both for major promotions in 18,000 seat arenas as well as local neighborhood areas with dirt floors. Here is his story.
Lucha Libre events generally take place in dark arenas and the action is fast paced and unpredictable. This results in rough shooting conditions to say the least. The risk of physical injury when shooting ringside should not be taken lightly. When shooting major sports, you do not get to shoot from the field itself. And though the action may spill out of the arena, it promptly returns. "I have had a number of wrestlers thrown over my head, I have had wrestlers thrown into me, and have had to dodge more than one shattered light tube," said Villagrana. "Several colleagues of mine have had gear destroyed by a kick to a lens, or a drop while shuffling around the ring trying to avoid oncoming wrestlers."
The erratic nature of this type of photography explains why Villagrana prefers to shoot a Canon 80D (APS-C). "The 80D is a great all around camera but doesn't break the bank as I understand that at any given moment it could meet an errant flying knee," said Villagrana. He continued that he has learned to embrace the noise, saying that the arenas have grit, so why not the photos?
Glass is more important however. In terms of lenses, the selection depends of the assignment but fast lenses are mandatory even in the largest, most well-lit arena. When shooting from the stand, he picks the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 G2 but switches to the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 Art for the ringside.
Most Lucha Libre photographers either shoot with whatever natural light is available or use an on-camera speedlight. Direct flash is bad for shaping the subjects and are too unpredictable as wrestlers move all over the place. There is simply no time to change the settings depending on how close or far away the wrestler is at any point of time; hesitate and the expression of pain is gone. Villagrana began using natural light until one day when he took a photo that caught the flash of one of the other shooters. It instantly became his favorite photo, and it was the first ever Lucha Libre image to be featured on the Instagram account of Canon Mexico.
Following this experience, he picked Flashpoint 360 strobes as they are small, battery powered, lightweight and have a great recycle time. They stand alone so he rarely have to prop them up on light stands which fans could trip over or worse; on one occasion a wrestler utilized one of the light stands as a weapon and choked out his opponent with it (see below). Villagrana usually just finds a flat surface high up in the arena to place them onto.
In Mexico, he'd heard of wrestlers earning 100 pesos for a match — roughly 5 dollars — to put their bodies on the line. “You can imagine that the budget for photography is rather low,” Villagrana said. He continued, “You have to love what you are doing, it’s the only way to justify the risks over the rewards.” Knowledge of this discipline is invaluable as you can anticipate the signature poses, dives, maneuvers, and be in the best place to capture them. Timing is also critical as fractions of a second can be the difference in getting a timeless shot or missing the moment completely.
Finally, he said that he has a tremendous respect for Lucha Libre because it is the ultimate fusion of theatre and athleticism. In the end, his goal is to show Lucha Libre to the world as he sees it: exciting, vibrant, and alive.
Images by Jerry Villagrana and used with permission.