From his origins in the dusty rings of Mexico to becoming a pop culture phenomenon, El Santo (“The Saint”) wasn’t just a wrestler; he was a symbol of heroism and justice, adorned in his iconic silver mask. Uncover the untold story of one of Mexico’s greatest luchadors through these following ten tales of hardship and triumph.
1. Contradicting Stories From Early Childhood
“People are surprised when they see me in my car, out and about in the city. They think I’m always off somewhere, living adventures, helping poor people, or rescuing some unfortunate lady in peril. People don’t believe that I’m flesh and blood.
“They believe I live in some enchanted castle. People love fiction, and I feed that with my movies. I never want to disappoint them.”
– El Santo in 1970
El Santo was born Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta on September 23rd, 1917, in the dusty region of Tulancingo, State of Hidalgo, Mexico, and was the fifth of seven children.
Details about his early childhood often contradict themselves.
Some say that after his father died, Rodolfo, about five years old, moved with his family to Mexico’s capital, searching for a better life. Other sources claim his father made the trip with them.
At around eight years old, he played various sports, such as baseball, swimming, and, surprisingly, American football. He then learned Jui Jitsu and amateur wrestling from a friend at the textile factory.
Trying to assure Rodolfo of a better future, his mom gave him an ultimatum to study or work.
Around 1933, at approximately fifteen or sixteen, he began taking lucha libre (professional wrestling) classes at the police casino with brothers Miguel and José. He also labored to exhaustion at the textile factory, making socks for a few cents that barely helped feed his large family.
That same year, lucha libre took its first step in becoming the modern product we know today. On September 21st, 1933, Salvador Lutteroth’s EMLL (later CMLL) held its inaugural show.
Their professional wrestling trainers at the police casino were Professor Gonzalo Avendaño and David Barragán, who represented Mexico in the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam.
Rodolfo debuted one or two years later as Rodolfo Guzmán on June 28th, 1934, versus Eddie Palau at the small Peralvillo-Cozumel Arena in the Tepito neighborhood.
He used many names before debuting as El Santo in 1942.
2. The Famous Brothers of El Santo: Their Successes and Tragedies
El Santo is highly recognizable with his iconic silver mask and matching attire. Many fans may not have ever seen him perform live but may recognize him from one of his fifty-two movies. He also had brothers who wrestled and were overshadowed by his success.
Debuting May 24th, 1934, his older brother Miguel wrestled as Miguel Guzmán and Black Guzmán, “the man with the iron legs.”
El Santo’s brother had a stellar career outside of Mexico, mainly in Southwest Texas during the late ’40s and throughout the ’50s, capturing the NWA Texas Heavyweight Championship eight times and the tag titles on seven occasions, with Rito Romero and Ray Gunkel.
Later, he made Houston his permanent residence and occasionally returned to Mexico as a promoter.
El Santo’s brother Jesús was the second brother to debut in professional wrestling. He wrestled as La Pantera Negra (The Black Panther). However, he tragically died in the ring during a show in Puebla on August 13th, 1934.
It is unclear what happened, but some sources point to him possibly overeating before the match. El Santo, during an interview, claimed that someone had “killed” his brother, although this is probably untrue.
After this sad incident, their mother prohibited her sons to continue in lucha libre. They respected her wishes for about a year. Still, Rodolfo used masks (not as El Santo yet) to avoid fans associating him with his family.
The often-forgotten fourth Guzmán grappler was Jimmy Guzmán. No matter how hard he trained and tried moving up, the blonde youngster mainly acted as a second to his brothers and never wrestled past the prelims and in smaller venues called “arenas chicas.”
3. Names Used Before El Santo and How He Obtained His Most Famous One
The future El Santo worked under various monikers, including Rodolfo Gomez, Rudy Guzmán (most used before he became El Santo), Pantera Negra (like his fallen brother), El Hombre Rojo (The Red Man), El Enmascarado (The Masked One), El Incognito (The Unknown), El Demonio Negro (The Black Demon), and El Murciélago Enmascarado II (The Masked Bat # 2).
Because there was already a Jesús “Murciélago” Velázquez, the original protested to the newly formed boxing and wrestling commission, and they prohibited Rodolfo from continuing with the gimmick.
Rodolfo was once again at a crossroads and looking for an identity to call his own. But what?
It’s essential to point out that he did lose his mask while using the Murciélago II name, and that was the only time Rodolfo lost any mask. Later, as El Santo, Rodolfo avenged this defeat by beating Velazquez for his National Middleweight title and shaved his head clean on January 31st and March 19th, 1943, respectively.
Did you know? An important side note is understanding the importance of masks in lucha libre. Winning an opponent’s mask (or getting an opponent’s head shaved) is often seen as more valuable than a title belt. Luchadors eagerly show off masks they’ve won and boast the number of opponents that have lost their “cabellera” (hair) to them. The bigger the star, the more valuable the “mascara” (mask).
Roberto Shimizu, who owns and curated the most extensive collection of El Santo and lucha libre memorabilia, credits Lucha libre’s “godfather” Salvador Lutteroth and ex-EMLL referee Jesus Lomelí for “baptizing” Rodolfo as El Santo.
Inspired by Leslie Charteris’ The Saint detective stories, The Saint battled crime lords, corrupt politicians, and other lowlifes, even to the point of killing them if needed. The Simon Templar character seems heavily inspired by Robin Hood and is the blueprint of many of today’s comic book heroes.
In 1941, “The Saint in Palm Springs,” directed by Jack B. Hively, hit Mexican theaters and made an impression.
The other more romanticized version and often more widely accepted one either by repetition or simply “not letting the truth stand in the way of a good story” goes like this:
Along with little people matches, Relevos Australianos (trios matches) would become very popular around 1952 and onward, but ten years preceding this modality shift, Lutteroth and Lomelí planned on forming a trio of wrestlers all wearing silver gear and masks.
They wanted Rodolfo to be a part of the group and gave him three names to choose from: El Diablo (The Devil), El Angel (The Angel), and El Santo (The Saint). Rodolfo, of course, chose El Santo and debuted in a battle royal on July 26th, 1942, in Arena, Mexico.
4. El Santo Began as a Heel
Many historians credit Cuauhtémoc “El Diablo” Velasco with establishing the first formal lucha libre school and helping El Santo polish his ring skills. Others say that the first school was the aforementioned police casino with Professor Avendaño.
So, Rodolfo was now El Santo but had no money to buy his gear, so he confected his first outfit, piecing it together how he believed the fans wanted the character to look.
The mask was silver from the start but made from uncomfortable and unbearably hot pig leather! He also added a cape, silver boots, and blue tights, which later changed to white and finally silver.
Fans were attracted immediately to the character’s contrast because he was introduced as a “saint” but acted anything but! Described as a rudo (heel) idol, he became an enigma.
He was like a fallen angel, divine yet untrustworthy. It is hard to imagine this because there is no video footage, and TV in Mexico was still some years away. So, most who saw Santo and are still alive saw him as a técnico (babyface), and that is also who we see in the movies and comics.
Rafael Olivera, who became a well-known lucha libre commentator, remembers seeing Santo on September 6th, 1942, at Arena Afición of Pachuca against Lobo Negro (Black Wolf), who was a heel.
Santo misled the fans because he fervently kneeled and prayed in his corner and even made the cross sign with his hands across his chest before the bell rang. And once the bell rang, Olivera remembers Santo attacking his opponent with such “strange savagery” that the fans began booing Santo and cheering on the heel!
The young rising rudo star was both loved and hated for many years. But most importantly, his magnetism drew fans in. His famed finishing move was “a caballo,” AKA the camel clutch.
His movies hit theaters in 1961, and Santo became a full técnico the following year because his film and comic book characters now had to be congruent with his ring persona. It also made better business sense.
In the 1962 movie “Santo vs the Zombies,” El Santo saves an orphanage from a zombie attack, so there was no looking back!
“It was the children that made me change,” said Santo in a 1970 interview with CABALLERO Magazine. “Even as a heel, they’d read my comics, watch me live at the arenas, and cheer me on. I’d hear the applause and reflected to myself that the children didn’t deserve an anti-hero, an evil idol.”
5. Mexico’s First Comic Book Hero
As read here, El Santo wasn’t the first wrestler to appear in a comic strip, but he was indeed the first Mexican luchador with a very successful comic book.
“Santo El Enmascarado de Plata. !Una Revista Atómica!” photocomic debuted on September 3rd, 1952, under Ediciones José G. Cruz. He officially nicknamed him “El Enmascarado de Plata” (The Silver Masked One), eventually inciting a legal battle between them.
The photomontage technique used in Santo’s comics gave them a scrapbook appearance and, at its peak, published triweekly with a print run of five hundred thousand copies per issue at fifty cents a pop.
Santo was proud to appear in the comic and loved the character he portrayed. Even though he’d share the stories with his sons and daughters, he had nothing to do with its contents. They’d use his poses from photoshoots and then build the stories around them. El Santo went from being a sports hero to now a comic book hero!
At first, the pulpy villains were mere human criminals. We later saw horror, supernatural, and science fiction elements shoehorned in with a touch of melodrama and more outlandish and exploitative elements that kept the readers hooked.
Witches, mummies, aliens, living shadows, mermaids, wolfmen, golems, apes from the Planet of the Apes, zombies, the son of Kong, and even death himself challenged Santo.
Even though the creators and “El Santo” dedicated the publication to the kids in the first issue, the comic tried to reach a broad audience. There were plenty of women who swooned over Santo as well.
In the comic, Santo trusted Our Lady of Guadalupe (appearance of the Virgin Mary in a vision in 1531); he dedicated his life to fearlessly protecting others because he believed she would always watch over him. When things went south in the comic, Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared and helped Santo with her celestial powers.
Spoiler alert: Interestingly, the first Santo in the comics died in the first issue! The Santo character we saw moving forward is Santo’s son but not Hijo del Santo, who became his real wrestling successor and debuted in 1982.
6. El Santo Has More Movies Than Godzilla or James Bond!
Like the USA, the ’50s saw Mexican television become very important to professional wrestling.
Two promotions fought for fans’ attention and money. Television brought Santo and the whole sport to the forefront of a wider audience.
During this time, fans lucky enough to witness El Santo vs. Black Shadow on November 7th, 1952, witnessed what many lucha historians still place as the all-time most significant mask versus mask match.
Santo believed that lucha was entering a golden age thanks to television because it and the movies showcased him in front of millions.
Santo became a B-Movie cult icon and the most well-known luchador movie star, with 52 movies. Blue Demon, a distant second, starred in 27 and teamed up with El Santo in several. Godzilla has 38, and superspy James Bond has 25! So, notch another victory for El Santo!
But he wasn’t the first luchador on the big screen. The first lucha libre movie was based on his persona and called “El Enmascarado de Plata” (The Silver Masked One) from 1952, directed by René Cardoza, who attempted to cash in on lucha libre’s boom at the time.
It starred El Medico Asesino (The Killer Medic) instead of Santo. Jorge. G. Cruz was credited as one of the writers; if you remember, his editorial was behind El Santo’s comic book.
The huskier Medico sported a white doctor’s smock and matching mask. Santo couldn’t come to financial terms with the director, plus his rigid schedule with EMLL wouldn’t allow too much time off.
Meanwhile, after seeing such a positive acceptance overseas, like in Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, and the Southeastern USA (like his brother Miguel Guzmán in Texas), in 1958, Santo broke free from Lutteroth’s EMLL and went independent. He remained that way until his retirement in 1982.
In 1958, a former Spaniard wrestler and actor Fernando Osés, nicknamed “La Maravilla Madrileña” (The Madrid Marvel), who in Spain had wrestled at shows that took place in bull rings and circuses, finally convinced Santo to do movies because he told him that as an independent, he could work in film on the side.
His first two movies, Santo vs. The Evil Brain and Santo vs. The Infernal Men, were filmed back-to-back in Havana. They starred screenhunk Joaquín Cordero, who produced the movie and paid for the trip.
At worst, Santo would have a pleasant all-expenses-paid vacation. Joselito Flores directed both films, and they finished one day before Fidel Castro entered Havana and took over!
His theatrical debut was on July 7th, 1961, with Santo vs. The Evil Brain, where he had very little dialogue and was never called Santo but instead “El Enmascarado de Plata.”
Santo admitted the production values were crude, with many improvised acting scenes. They aren’t masterpieces. But he conceded that the public reception was positive, and he appeared in 50 more films.
The movies solidified Santo as a Mexican icon. Though often unintentionally funny, the films have a cult following and influenced a whole generation of wrestlers, who cite them as their gateway into the sport. Their appreciation has increased over the years, and they’ve aged like wine.
In the 1977 “Santo and the Bermuda Mystery,” Santo, Blue Demon, and Mil Mascaras “die” in a nuclear explosion. Many believe the reason was to end luchador movies forever, but Santo still worked in a few more afterward!
7. The Story Behind Santo’s Saucy Movies
El Santo wasn’t famous just in Mexico. Other Latin American countries, such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia, also experienced them. Even the USA and Europe got their fair share of masked luchador movies, including erotic versions not shown in Mexico!
Is it possible that the person so many people admired, especially children, could be involved in anything less than wholesome?
Well, yes and no.
While lately, a couple of adult versions of his movies that do contain individuals in the buff and somewhat steamy scenes have been unearthed, Santo does not appear in said scenes.
First, we have “Santo and Dracula’s Treasure” from 1969 and the adult film version, “El Vampiro y El Sexo,” which was exported to overseas markets in Europe and El Paso, Texas, USA.
Calderón Productions financed many Santo films, including this one, and family member Viviana García Besné rescued it from one of their warehouses, where she found three original reels.
She explains that in the late ’60s, it was her grandfather Guillermo Calderón Shell’s idea to combine the success of Santo’s films and add unclothed scenes.
In the mid-’70s, he is attributed to starting the genre called “cine de ficheras,” which contained many double entendres and revolved around cabaret women who, through conversation, dance, and their attributes, incite clients to consume in the club.
After the thorough restoration that took years, the scheduled premiere in 2010 was canceled because Santo’s son, Hijo Del Santo, protested. He argued that showing such films damaged his father’s image.
But on July 15th, 2011, it premiered at the Diana Theater in Tipton, Indiana, because the right holders felt the film would not damage Santo’s image. After all, even though Count Alucard does sensually suck/bite Santo’s reincarnated girlfriend’s chest (Noelia Noel) and there are several topless dancing vampire women, Santo is not in those scenes, and the film has no love scenes.
This is not the case with the next movie we shall touch upon.
In the family version shown in Mexico, he bites her neck instead of her chest, and the vampire women wear black negligé with undergarments.
The movie was curated by Gullermo Del Toro for the Cineteca National Film Festival, along with other films in the vampire genre.
Fun fact: Blue Demon also has adult film versions with femme fatales that collectors are searching for called “Blue Demon and the Invaders” in Mexico, and the version exported overseas was renamed “Blue Demon and the Seductressess.”
So, are there still more “adult” luchador movies out there? Besné believes so.
The other controversial movie with El Santo was called “Santo vs. The Riders of Terror” in Mexico.
This movie was reconstructed from the original 35 mm negatives. Of course, Hijo del Santo protested this film’s release too.
If you want to check it out, upstart streaming service Videomart owns the rights.
Unlike “El Vampiro y El Sexo,” “Santo VS. The Riders of Terror” does contain adult scenes, but not with El Santo. As far as we know, it is the most graphic film Santo’s been involved with.
“My family planned on throwing these films away,” Besné exclaimed. “The fact that these films still survive is a miracle. The makers often didn’t see their value and may even have been ashamed to have been involved with them.
“It doesn’t matter if I like them; that’s not the point. I think the film is a technical disaster, not just the [adult] version but also the domestic one. But these films belong to the people, and I see myself as their caretaker.”
8. Fight for Ownership of the El Santo Nickname
By 1976, with the advent of television and movies, the once hugely successful comic was declining and published weekly (not triweekly) and down to 25 thousand per issue (down from at least 300 thousand).
Some sources claim that legal problems emerged when El Santo demanded a more significant cut from the comic sales. But still, others believe that what bothered Santo the most was when José G. Cruz began using someone else to pose for the covers. Santo wasn’t always available due to his busy wrestling schedule, and Cruz misrepresented him to the readers.
Cruz also fought for the name of “El Enmascarado de Plata.” He tried claiming full ownership, thus believing that he could use anybody in the magazine as El Santo. The courts in 1978 thought differently.
Thanks in part to political connections Santo had cultivated throughout the years and motivated by some doctored photos Cruz sent to newspapers proclaiming the unmasking of the luchador, Cruz found himself in jail.
Strange occurrences during the court dates included Santo with his head shaved, trying to pass himself off as a regular citizen in the crowd during a hearing.
When called to speak before the judge, Santo claimed he had injured his nose and had a face covering underneath his mask just in case the judge ordered him to unmask himself publicly.
In the last years of the magazine, we see a more musclebound Santo wearing silver speedos and an “S” on his mask.
The juiced-up Santo was bodybuilder Héctor Pliego, also known as Mr. Mexico. An attractive woman often accompanied him within the pages of the stories that took a more cynical and violent tone.
The early ’80s saw the magazine’s final demise. Once out of the clink, Cruz fled to Los Angeles, California, where he died on November 22nd, 1989.
This was a huge court victory for El Santo, but by the early ’80s, the sun was setting upon his illustrious career.
9. El Santo Unmasked Himself
El Santo partially unmasking himself on television was shocking, but his dying a couple of days later was even more so.
Santo suffered pre-heart attack symptoms after a match in November 1980, where he teamed with Huracán Ramirez and Black Shadow vs. Negro Navarro, El Texano, and El Signo. His opponents were nicknamed “Missionaries of Death” once the details of Santo’s near-death experience came to light.
He began using a pacemaker afterward and went into semi-retirement.
After one last tour, with three scheduled shows, he retired on September 12th, 1982, in the famed Toreo de Cuatro Caminos. He closed the book on 46 years of ring activity.
His son, Hijo Del Santo, debuted on October 18th, 1982. And even though he badly wanted to debut on his dad’s final tour, the promoters and his father refused, believing he wasn’t ready. Although disappointed, his son attended all three shows in his silver mask and watched from the crowd like everyone else.
In public, Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta never retired the character. He was determined to continue being El Santo in every sense of the word, just not in the ring anymore.
As previously stated, a luchador’s mask (or hair) is of utmost importance, and few go through their whole careers without losing it in a match.
Santo never lost his mask as El Santo and belonged to a select few who retired with their identities intact, just like Blue Demon and El Solitario.
But curiously, on January 26th, 1984, El Santo appeared on Jacobo Zabludovsky’s “Contrapunto” (Counterpoint) talk show discussing lucha libre’s legitimacy titled “Circus, Acrobatics, Theater or Sport?” Also in the studio were wrestlers Blue Demon, Wolf Ruvinskis, Manuel “Mocho” Cota,
El Santo, who never raised his voice, calmly sustained that it’s a sport but that each wrestler infuses their personalities to bring their characters alive and make the audience suspend their belief.
Here, Santo comes across as a knowledgeable person who was never ashamed of his profession. He praised Mil Máscaras as a superb athlete. He recognized the over-the-top theatrics of wrestlers such as Cavernario (Caveman) Galindo and Murciélago (Bat) Velázquez but assured that despite their characters, they were always athletes.
I don’t know what kind of conversation they had in the studio, but after a commercial break and 34 minutes into the show, Santo was unmasking on TV! He lifted his mask past his eyebrows briefly, but his eyes remained closed.
The people’s hero had revealed himself as a mere mortal. Shockingly, the Earth didn’t stop rotating! The show proceeded. Santo even reminded people he’d wrestled a Bengal Tiger in Colombia in case anybody doubted wrestling’s legitimacy.
The show aired on February 3rd, 1984.
10. The Death of El Santo
Rodolfo Herta Guzmán died two days later, on February 5th, 1984, after appearing at the Blanquita Theater in one of his escape artist routines he began doing once semiretired.
Sadly, he had suffered another heart attack, but this time, not even Our Lady of Guadalupe aided El Santo in his time of need. He was 66.
Two events occurred shortly before his death that his son Hijo del Santo claims affected his father very much. First was the passing of his wife “Maruca” in 1981 and his retirement from wrestling.
Per his wishes, El Santo was buried with his mask on and rests peacefully at Mausoleos del Angel Cemetery.
But of course, the legend lives on through his son Hijo del Santo, a 40-plus-year ring veteran.
His son Santo Jr. debuted in 2016. Axel, one of Santo’s many grandsons, was not allowed by Hijo Del Santo to use the Santo trademark name. Rocker II is his brother.
In summing up his lauded career, El Santo famously stated, “Truthfully, in those savage encounters, every match was a war to the death, with our blood-covered faces, eyebrows, noses, our bruised eyes, and reddened lips.”
We hope that the ten stories above have deepened your understanding of the legendary El Santo and enriched your appreciation for the remarkable journey of one of Mexico’s greatest luchadors and pop culture icons.
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