Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta, the legendary Lucha Libre wrestler known as El Santo “The Saint,” was born on Sept. 23, 1917.
Huerta, who enjoyed a five-decade career, would become Mexico’s most popular son. Born in Tulancingo, Hidalgo, Huerta moved to Mexico City, where he fell in love with Lucha Libre, which means free flight in English.
At age 16, he started his wrestling career after training to become a professional wrestler at a local gym. His stage name in his debut fight was Rudy Guzman, and he competed as a “Rudo“: a heel wrestler.
To coincide with the rise of masked wrestling taking over the sport in 1934, Guzman began sporting a mask and called his reinvented character El Murcielago II “The Bat.” That lasted briefly, as the original Bat took exception to the use of his name.
The third character’s name was the charm and launched a massively successful career. It wasn’t until Guzman read Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Man in the Iron Mask that he came up with his famous stage name. El Santo was derived from a character in the book who was imprisoned and forced to wear a black velvet cloth mask. Besides wearing a silver mask, he also wore a long silver cape that completed his signature look.
El Santo became a cultural phenomenon after his 1951 weekly comic series and more than 50 films that helped found the Lucha Libre horror genre that dominated the 1950s and 1960s. Las Mujeres Vampiro (Vampire Women), in which El Santo saves a professor’s daughter from the vampires who had kidnapped her, came out in 1962 and was one of his most popular films.
In a number of these films, El Santo was joined by wrestling superstars Mil Mascaras and Blue Demon. He was always fighting against the forces of evil and was a symbol of justice in the ring, comics, and movies.
Part of El Santo’s legend and mystique was that he never removed his mask. When he ate, he had a special mask in which the chin was removed to allow for greater flexibility. When he sat with politicians, he did so in his mask. When he traveled, he took a different entrance for the plane so no one would see him go through security without his mask on. And when he was buried, it was in his mask.
Forty years after first introducing people to El Santo, the pop culture icon retired from wrestling on Sept. 12, 1982. The youngest of his 10 children would become the only one to make a career in professional wrestling. El Hijo del Santo (“The Son of the Saint”) debuted shortly after his father’s retirement.
Just because El Santo was done in the ring, that didn’t mean the mask was going to come off. In TV cameos he made after he retired, El Santo wore his silver mask.
Then without any heads up to Contrapunto, a Mexican talk show, El Santo removed his mask publicly for the first time on Jan. 26, 1984.
A few days later in the Teatro Blanquita, while El Santo rested in his dressing room, he had a heart attack, Variety reported on Feb. 22, 1984. He was taken to Hospital Mocel, where he died at age 68.
Mexico has seen few funerals as large as El Santo’s ceremony. It took hours for his coffin to reach the hearse from the parlor, as thousands of people tried to get a glimpse and pay their final respects.
Mil Mascaras and Blue Demon broke down in front of the coffin, and eventually, El Santo was laid to rest in a Mexico City mausoleum that featured a plaque of his likeness — wearing his famous mask, of course.