Cassandro The Exótico: From Brutal Beginnings to Lucha Icon

Luchador Saúl Armendáriz’s path was once fraught with pain and rejection. But once he blossomed into Cassandro, a cross-dressing "Exótico," his fate changed. With the major film release Cassandro featuring Gael García Bernal and Bad Bunny garnering critical acclaim, we explore the hidden life and wrestling career of the "Liberace of Lucha Libre."

"Cassandro" Saúl Armendáriz: From overcoming childhood trauma to becoming a revered Lucha Libre legend.
“Cassandro” Saúl Armendáriz: From overcoming childhood trauma to becoming a revered Lucha Libre legend.

Cassandro: Brutal Beginnings

A family portrait of Cassandro with his siblings and parents.
A family portrait of Cassandro with his siblings and parents. Photo Credit: Annick Donkers.

Saúl Armendáriz was born May 20th, 1970, and raised in El Paso, Texas, but much of his family lived just across the Mexican border in Juárez, Chihuahua, his family’s native town.

His truck driver father heavily drank, brutally punished, and ultimately rejected his effeminate son. When his parents broke up, his father disowned his gay child.

The only person that accepted him was his mother. And when she died, intense bouts of addiction would follow.

"It was difficult for me to see that he was gay," Saúl’s father later would admit. "Machismo—you know. That was why we didn’t talk. But now I accept him, thank God. And we talk all the time."

Being Bullied

"Cassandro" Saúl Armendáriz.
“Cassandro” Saúl Armendáriz. Photo Credit: IMDB.

The future Cassandro, Saúl Armendáriz, was bullied and abused by the neighborhood children as well.

"I beat up a lot of people. Just like they beat me up. My daddy never accepted me. I started being [harassed] at age seven. People could tell from a mile away I was a little Tinkerbell. I was an easy target," Cassandro noted in the documentary Cassandro, Queen of the Ring.

Saúl’s escape was going to Lucha Libre shows. He adored the pageantry and dreamt of becoming a luchador.

At age fifteen, Armendáriz quit school to follow his dream. He began training in Juárez.

Breaking In

Cassandro takes a leap at a 2014 wrestling event in Paris, France.
Cassandro takes a leap at a 2014 wrestling event in Paris, France. Photo Credit: Marie Losier.

Starting at the bottom of small indy lucha cards, Saúl began his career in 1988 at 17.

Working under a mask as Mister Romano, the gladiator rudo (villain) character was created by legendary Rey Misterio, Sr., father of the multi-time WWE champion. Saúl wore a frightening black-and-white mask and costume while honing his wrestling skills.

Less than a year later, Armendáriz was encouraged to abandon the character by Exótico Baby Sharon.

Borrowing From His Mother’s Closet

Cassandro in 2020.
Cassandro in 2020. Photo Credit: Samuel Gayton/El Paso Times.

Saúl Armendáriz wrestled his first match unmasked as Rosa Salvaje (“Wild Rose”), a flamboyant Exótico in Juárez.

Digging into his mother’s closet, he sported her butterfly blouse, the tail of his sister’s quinceañera dress, and a woman’s bathing suit.

In an interview with the El Paso Times, Armendáriz had this to say about his trial by fire.

Wrestling is obviously a contact sport, and early on, there were some guys who didn’t want to work with me. It meant I had to work ten times as hard to show them I was their equal in the ring. Wrestling may be choreographed, but a lot of egos and jealousy are involved."

He wasn’t always embraced by the crowds, either. Homophobic slurs were hurled, as were drinks and anything else available. There was danger involved as some even took shots at the colorful performer.

While he brawled through the crowd, an old woman stabbed him under the rib cage one harrowing evening.

The Night Cassandro Was Born

"Cassandro" Saúl Armendáriz.
“Cassandro” Saúl Armendáriz. Photo Credit: Katie Orlinsky.

It was in Mexico’s Universal Wrestling Association (UWA) that Cassandro was born.

He decided to change his ring name to Cassandro in homage to a charitable Tijuana brothel keeper named Cassandra, whom he admired.

Cassandro swiftly won over the crowds and climbed the ranks through sheer talent, flamboyance, and charisma.

Climbing the Ranks, Outraging the Naysayers

Cassandro and El Hijo del Santo in Paris, France in 2009.
Cassandro and El Hijo del Santo in Paris, France in 2009. Photo Credit: AGO.

At age 20, he was scheduled to wrestle El Hijo del Santo, Mexico’s premier star.

But not everyone was happy that an Exótico had climbed so far, so fast. Some promoters and members of the athletic commission were against his push. Many fans were outraged, and the homophobes weren’t shy about their disdain for the young challenger.

In an interview with Vice, Cassandro exclaimed, "The wrestlers would beat me up. They stabbed me at a party. Because they didn’t want me to be successful; it was all machismo."

The pressure became too much.

A Thwarted Attempt to End it All

“Cassandro” Saúl Armendáriz. Photo Credit: Twitter/@ElHijodelSanto.

A week before the biggest bout of his career, Cassandro slit his wrists with a razor, and luckily a fellow wrestler found him in a bathroom and saved his life.

He fulfilled the booking, performed exceptionally well, and won over the crowd and power broker El Hijo del Santo.

It was the career boost he needed; he was now a top challenger and international attraction.

Hitting Rock Bottom

Cassandro performing at the Mestizo Arts Festival in Antwerp, Belgium's "Stadsschouwburg" theater.
Cassandro performing at the Mestizo Arts Festival in Antwerp, Belgium’s “Stadsschouwburg” theater. Photo Credit: Annick Donkers.

As a celebrity, drugs and a non-stop flow of booze were readily available.

From Coke to Tequila, Cassandro took advantage of it all and partied hard for over a decade, ultimately hurting his career.

There was also an ill-fated long-term affair with a closeted married lover.

His beloved mother’s death in 1997 was a major setback as well.

Wrestling far less, he hit rock bottom.

He chronicled the horrors to Vice.

"I became a drug addict during Lucha Libre. In the beginning, it was all fun and games. Then you get to that moment when all the fun turns into Hell. I would enter an arena filled with people chanting, ‘Cassandro,’ and then you’d end up back in your hotel room alone."

He ultimately found himself living in a friend’s backyard.

In Cassandro, Queen of the Ring, he explains,

"I had the money, the world title, the chauffeur. I had it going on. I tried to kill myself. I was facing all these demons—drugs and alcohol and sex. And I said to myself, ‘What the hell am I doing? Saúl, do you realize you’re going to die?’"

Redemption of Cassandro

Cassandro backstage at a wrestling event in Mexico.
Cassandro backstage at a wrestling event in Mexico. Photo Credit: Annick Donkers.

Summoning the strength to return from the brink, his sobriety date of June 4th, 2003, is tattooed on his back.

There were also the inevitable injuries that all wrestlers face. Wrestling for some of the biggest companies in the world, on April 3th, 2010, Cassandro made his debut for Ring of Honor. He defeated Rhett Titus on their Big Bang! pay per view, but broke his leg, one of the myriad injuries suffered during his impressive career.

On May 7th, 2021, he successfully had a brain embolism removed after multiple convulsions and hospitalizations.

But all the pain and tragedy would lead to acceptance and triumphs even Cassandro could never have imagined.

Cassandro The Ambassador

Cassandro, lucha libre’s unlikely hero.
Cassandro: Lucha Libre’s unlikely hero. Photo Credit: Mark Laita.

Cassandro became a beloved figure who transcended pro wrestling as his profile rose.

An in-demand speaker, he lectures on diversity at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and in university settings.

He teaches classes in England and France and has been the subject of two documentaries.

Cassandro, using his influence at the U.S. Embassy and with American wrestling promoters, helps Mexican wrestlers apply for visas to perform in the United States. He has helped more than a hundred luchadores pursue their dreams.

His company gives back to his local community with free Lucha shows and English classes.

Conan O’Brien Trains As A Luchador with Cassandro

Conan O'Brien learned a few impressive Lucha Libre moves from Cassandro and others in a memorable skit on Conan in 2017.
Conan O’Brien learned a few impressive Lucha Libre moves from Cassandro and others in a memorable skit on Conan in 2017. Photo Credit: @TeamCoco.

In February 2017, Cassandro reached millions, appearing in a skit on Conan, training Conan O’Brien and longtime wrestling fan Andy Richter to become luchadors.

Even the straight-laced El Hijo del Santo brought him on his TV show, praising him as a luchador and pioneering gay man.

Hijo del Santo surprised everyone when he showed viewers a small box that held one of his greatest treasures- Cassandro’s hair, which he had won in a memorable steel cage battle.

Yes, Cassandro has attained the respect and adoration he’s always sought.

YouTube video

Cassandro (The Movie): An Honest Review

Gael García Bernal plays the role of the "Liberace of Lucha Libre" in the Amazon Original film Cassandro (2023).
Gael García Bernal plays the role of the “Liberace of Lucha Libre” in the Amazon Original film Cassandro (2023). Photo Credit: Amazon Prime.

In today’s wrestling boom cycle, many stars have been featured in wrestling books and documentaries and even evolved into film stars in their own right. But few have ever had a biopic on the level of Cassandro.

We were given early access to view the film prior to its September 15th, 2023 theater release. Like Darren Aronofosky’s The Wrestler, director Roger Ross Williams brilliantly emphasizes Cassandro’s personal life and struggles rather than endless in-ring action.

For Cassandro, wrestling is like religion and an escape from the harsh reality of his dysfunctional family and personal struggles.

Lead Gael García Bernal gives an Academy Award-worthy performance that is just heart-wrenching. In the scene where Cassandro’s mother passes away, rather than fall into hysteria, the pain etched on Bernal’s face renders a punch to the gut. Perla De La Rosa, as his devoted mother, is also wonderful in a poignant performance.

Bad Bunny and Gael García Bernal Thrive in the 2023 Film “Cassandro”

Bad Bunny and Gael García Bernal in the 2023 film, Cassandro.
Bad Bunny and Gael García Bernal in the 2023 film, Cassandro. Photo Credit: Amazon Content Services LLC.

The in-ring action in the film Cassandro is riveting. A balcony dive by Gael García Berna is filmed artfully and memorably. The mat action forwards the plot beyond the high spots and spectacular moves. El Hijo del Santo and other luchadors add authenticity to the film, and Bad Bunny also appears.

While some poetic license is applied, emotionally and dramatically, it all rings true.

Featuring beautiful cinematography, a taut script, and performances from the heart, you’ll laugh, cry, and marvel at Cassandro’s strength and resilience.

In short, this is one of the best wrestling films ever made.

Cassandro is available to watch in theaters on September 15th, 2023, and for streaming on Amazon Prime from September 21st, 2023.

YouTube video

The Legacy of Cassandro

Lucha Libre grand duchess Exótico Cassandro.
Lucha Libre grand duchess Exótico Cassandro. Photo Credit: Loverboy Magazine.

Cassandro was the first Exótico to hold a "World’s Championship" by winning the UWA World Lightweight Championship on October 29th, 1992.

But few wrestlers have crossed over into the mainstream, and for an openly gay Exótico to do it makes him a pioneer of utmost importance.

"It was so hard to be you in a macho world. I fought for my place. Sometimes, I stayed as a luchador out of resentment. ‘Watch. You watch what I’m going to do,’" he exclaimed in Cassandro, Queen of the Ring.

And for AEW’s Anthony Bowens to become their first out LGBTQ+ male champion and to be met with cheers and adulation no less, it took Cassandro and others to open that door. It wasn’t all that long ago that Chris Kanyon never found that acceptance and took his own life.

From Abused to Revered

Cassandro, the cross-dressing wrestling wonder.
Cassandro, the cross-dressing wrestling wonder. Photo Credit: BBC.

“Wrestling has given me so much. It’s enabled me to lead a wonderful life — I’d do it forever, and I’ll miss it when I can’t,” Cassandro told the El Paso Times.

From the bottom rung of the Lucha world to a world-class biopic, from abused to revered, Cassandro has come a long way.

He exclaimed to Vice, "Cassandro is an Exótico who has come to rebuild the Exótico and demystify them respectfully. Cassandro is an open book among those who hide behind makeup or a mask because they fear what others might say. That’s Cassandro."

Thank you for your sacrifices.

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Evan Ginzburg is the Senior Editor for Pro Wrestling Stories and a contributing writer since 2017. He's a published author and was an Associate Producer on the Oscar-nominated movie "The Wrestler" and acclaimed wrestling documentary "350 Days." He is a 30-plus-year film, radio, and TV veteran and a voice-over actor on the radio drama Kings of the Ring.