Saúl Armendáriz, The Real Life Gay Wrestler Explained

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Summary

  • Saúl Armendáriz, the real-life gay wrestler known as the “Liberace of lucha libre,” quit school at 15 years old to pursue professional wrestling full-time.
  • Armendáriz transitioned from playing a gladiator-themed villain to becoming an exótico wrestler, embracing a flamboyant persona that allowed him to express his true self.
  • Cassandro, the film centered around Armendáriz, showcases his rise in the wrestling world and his historic achievement of becoming the first exótico to hold a championship title.


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The Gael García Bernal-led Cassandro is based on the true story of Saúl Armendáriz, a real-life gay wrestler who has long been dubbed the “Liberace of lucha libre.” For viewers who want to get a sense of the origin story of both Armendáriz and his titular wrestling persona, Cassandro is a great place to start. Marking the scripted feature debut of Oscar-winning documentarian Roger Ross Williams’ (Music by Prudence, Life, Animated), Cassandro is one of those feel-good biopics that soars, thanks to the charismatic Bernal’s unwavering commitment to the lead role.

Without a doubt, Saúl Armendáriz is a larger-than-life figure. Eager to become a bona fide star, Armendáriz confronted the wildly macho world of Mexican wrestling. Despite the many challenges and criticisms he faced both inside and outside the ring, he excelled as a lucha libre contender by embracing his true self. It’s something Werewolf By Night star Gael García Bernal embodies perfectly. And although Williams captures the arc of the wrestler’s story, there are always some details that get left on the cutting room floor, making Cassandro more of a starting point when it comes to understanding Armendáriz.


Saúl Armendáriz Quit School At 15 Years Old To Pursue Wrestling

Gael García Bernal and Bad Bunny in Cassandro

As the feature film Cassandro implies, Saúl Armendáriz felt passionate about pursuing professional wrestling from a young age. Filled with colorful outfits, high-flying moves, and complex choreography, the lucha libre style of wrestling provided a young Armendáriz not just with a creative outlet, but a sense of belonging. Although he grew up in El Paso, Texas, the young wrestler often crossed the border to partake in the infamous lucha libre scene of Juárez (via El Paso Times). By the time he turned 15, Armendáriz was so committed to — and taken by — the world of wrestling that he dropped out of school to pursue those dreams full-time.

By The 1980s Armendáriz Wrestled As An Exótico Character

Gael García Bernal swings a chair at a fellow wrestler in Cassandro

At first, the underdog-turned-superstar began his professional wrestling career by playing a gladiator-themed villain (rudo) called Mister Romano, who’d get beat up by the story’s heroes (técnicos). In Roger Ross Williams’s Cassandro, Saúl Armendáriz is tired of playing a masked wrestler, be it Mister Romano or El Topo, who is always destined to lose. The film’s version of events sees Armendáriz’s new trainer, Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), encouraging the wrestler to play a flamboyant exótico character instead.

Traditionally speaking, exóticos — folks who wrestle in drag — are stereotypically effeminate, unmasked contenders whom audiences love to ridicule. For Armendáriz, however, the opportunity to embrace a larger-than-life persona bolstered his confidence. When he reentered the fray as an exótico, Armendáriz went by Rosa Salvaje, a tough-as-nails wrestler who was anything but an offensive caricature. When Rosa’s storyline came to an end, Armendáriz became his most enduring lucha libre persona: Cassandro.

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Cassandro Was The First Exótico To Hold A Championship Title

Gael García Bernal climbs on the ropes in Cassandro

As the film’s title implies, the 2023 biopic centers mainly on Saúl Armendáriz’s time as Cassandro. “The name came from a Tijuana brothel keeper, Cassandra, whom he admired,The New Yorker noted in a profile of the luchador. “Cassandro found her blend of talents and sympathies inspiring.” For Armendáriz, his namesake meant that someone could embrace their spicy side, all while being a good person — someone to look up to and root for. After moving to Mexico City, the up-and-coming Cassandro was set to square off against Hijo del Santo, Mexico’s beloved world welterweight champ.

In lucha libre, the outcomes of matches are predetermined. While contestants need to pull off daring acrobatics and convincing moves, their storylines are fixed in advance, in part by promoters (it’s not unlike WWE’s monopoly on wrestling in the U.S.). The pressure of squaring off with Hijo del Santo — son of Mexico’s all-time greatest wrestler — terrified Cassandro, and pushed him to consider death by suicide. However, Cassandro (and Armendáriz) persisted. Just a year later, he became the first exótico to win a world title at the world lightweight championship.

Cassandro Has Worked In Pro Wrestling Circuits For Decades

Gael García Bernal with a fellow wrestler in Cassandro

After several years of success in the early to mid-’90s, Cassandro joined the independent circuit for promotions. His wrestling career took him across Mexico and the U.S., but his success also opened the doors to damaging temptations like substance use. Soon enough, heavy drinking and drug use impacted his performance in the ring, though he committed to sobriety in 2003 (via Lucha Libre AAA). In the mid-aughts, Cassandro returned to lucha libre, where he competed as a beloved técnico.

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While he’s since waffled between the independent circuit and lucha libre — generally returning to the latter for high-stakes fights or grudge matches — it’s clear that Cassandro changed pro wrestling for the better. When he started out, Saúl Armendáriz was booed, with audiences hoping the other wrestlers would kill him in the ring. Now, he’s one of the most admired wrestlers in the sport, venerated for his singular personality and undying enthusiasm for wrestling in all its permutations.

Armendáriz Became The Subject Of Two Biographical Films

Gael García Bernal is lifted in the ring by a fellow wrestler in Cassandro

Cassandro isn’t the first film to chronicle the wrestler’s life story. In 2018, Saúl Armendáriz was the subject of Marie Losier’s documentary Cassandro the Exotico!, which gives great insight into the performer’s career and how his public perception has changed over the years. The dramatized Cassandro, however, changes a few things about Armendáriz’s journey to best convey the essence of his life story. Fresh off Cassandro‘s Sundance premiere, the film has received much acclaim. In the end, Cassandro makes it clear that although the exótico character made a young Armendáriz feel othered in his day-to-day life, that difference has since sustained him in the ring — and, now, outside it.

Sources: El Paso Times, The New Yorker, Lucha Libre AAA