MEXICO CITY: Wrestlers fight as part of the Copa Dinastias event of the World Wrestling Council (CMLL), at the Arena Mexico in Mexico City on Friday. – AFP

MEXICO CITY: The raucous sounds of roaring applause, lighthearted laughter and derisive whistles are again resounding through the cavernous Arena Mexico in the country’s capital, a temple of the colorful “lucha libre” wrestling, as the receding threat of COVID-19 has allowed a return to something closer to normal. Though the stands in the arena in the heart of Mexico City are far from full owing to COVID restrictions, the deafening echo of the voices of hundreds of enthusiastic fans, along with the grunts, taunts and shouts of the wrestlers, seem to make up for the empty seats.

Ivan Martinez, a 47-year-old doctor, admitted to feeling “quite emotional.” With his family, he had traveled the 1,700 miles (2,800 kilometers) from his native Tijuana, in the northwest, to see the return of pro wrestling. “It gives me great joy to return to an arena, to the wrestlers I’ve loved and enjoyed since I was a child — a love I’ve passed on to my own children,” he said.

Colorful masks
In the ring, the colorfully garbed gladiators do their thing. Some of the hulking athletes wear the stern-looking masks that have made Mexican wrestling famous, while others, in dazzlingly colorful outfits, choose to bare their scowling faces. Each leap, punch or hold culminates with a body being slammed to the canvas mat, producing gasps and thunderous applause from appreciative fans. But it is all more circus than true combat.

The return of professional wrestling has been a boon to businesses in the neighborhood, boosting sales of everything from masks and dolls of the more famous wrestlers, to food and drink. “Many people depend on the wrestling,” said Samia Garcia, a 40-year-old pharmaceutical biologist who was heading in to the show. “So I’m glad they are starting to open.”

The city government has authorized the arena to sell only 500 tickets — barely 3 percent of its normal capacity of 16,500. Everyone has to wear masks and maintain social distance. Still, the sense of joy is almost palpable. “I’ve loved wrestling since I was little,” said Ramses Salas, a 26-year-old mask seller. “I used to run around in here when I was a child… and now I’m more than happy to come back.”

All this has been made possible by a sharp improvement in Mexico’s COVID situation. With 759 people currently hospitalized with the coronavirus, the hospitals of Mexico City are currently at 9 percent of capacity — down dramatically from 90 percent in January, and the lowest level since April 2020.

Mexico, with 126 million inhabitants, has registered 2.4 million confirmed cases and 223,072 deaths, making it the fourth hardest-hit country in the world in absolute numbers. Experts say the steady decline in coronavirus cases and rising levels of immunity from vaccination or infection suggest that the worst of the pandemic may be over for Mexico. Wrestling fans hope it won’t be long before they can fill all the seats in the arena. – AFP