Dominica Duckworth is a school teacher, stand up comedian and tidy brat who lives for drama. Follow her yelling about wrestling @wehaveallgotknives.
This is Part 2 of a multi-part series on wrestling and utopia. Read Part 1 here.
Young Eddie G
Eddie was the youngest son of a famous wrestling legacy family. His father, Gory Guerrero, a Mexican champion, moved to El Paso, Texas, where Eddie was born. Famously, he pushed none of his four sons into the business – they all chose it, and all succeeded to some extent. Eddie was an international star, wrestling for years in Mexico, Japan and the USA, one of the hardest workers on the planet and also universally beloved, despite the fact he was almost always a heel.
Wrestling is haunted and one of the things it’s haunted by is racism. The convenient shorthand of racial stereotypes have always had currency in wrestling. Blackface, brownface and yellowface all happen in wrestling. There have, over the years, been many wrestlers claiming a race or nationality they weren’t – Abdullah the Sudanese Butcher was actually Lawrence Shreve from Ontario; George Gray, a white man, played Akeem the African Dream for two years – because wrestling needs heels and it’s easy to make a heel who is other. Diversity has only recently arrived in wrestling, and only very inconsistently. If you’re a black, Latino, or Asian wrestler in a North American wrestling ring, you fight against a majority white audience’s expectations as well as your opponents. The way Eddie Guerrero handled this in all his markets was to lean in.
In Japan, he was Black Tiger, the masked enemy of anime hero Tiger Mask. In Mexico, he was part of a villainous faction called Los Gringos Locos – the Crazy Americans, where he wore red, white and blue and played up his birthplace.
I’m going to focus on his roles in his birthplace: the USA, where he was able to work within and around white society’s biases against Mexican-Americans.
During his time in World Championship Wrestling, Eddie Guerrero allegedly confronted Eric Bischoff, the company president, over Eddie and other Latino performers not being offered enough opportunities in the company – no main events or pay per view shows. The story goes that Bischoff threw coffee at Eddie. Eddie claimed that the disrespect Bischoff offered forced Eddie to form Latino World Order.
It is true that Latino wrestlers were underrepresented in the North American market. WCW had, a few years earlier, hired Scott Hall, a white man from Maryland who had been playing Razor Ramon, a Cubano gangster modelled on Scarface. Hall and other white wrestlers who dabbled in cultural appropriation dominated the market. It is also true that Eddie Guerrero went to Bischoff looking to do more work, and Bischoff knocked over a coffee, which spilt on Eddie. Latino World Order, however, was a parody which had already been in the works for months, and ended up in Eddie’s hands only because the original planned lead, Konnan, got offered other work.
The New World Order was, at the time, one of the largest and best known wrestling factions. It was the brainchild of Eric Bischoff himself; originating in 1996 as a stunt to draw audiences who were leaning towards WWE. It included Scott Hall (the former Razor Ramon), Kevin Nash and Hollywood Hulk Hogan – self proclaimed outsiders of the industry, despite the fact that they were anything but. Their angle was “a war” on management, a “hostile takeover” of the powers that be – all staged, all scripted, all approved, carefully constructed to be exactly as edgy as was marketable.
The Latino World Order officially began in 1998, when Eddie Guerrero climbed into the ring during a fight between Hector Garza and Damién 666 – two Mexican born luchadors. He speaks English and Spanish into the mic as he asks them both what Eric Bischoff has ever done for them:
“He’s got us wrestling each other – week in, week out. He never gives us the opportunity to climb the ladder of success.”
He points out that they don’t get paid enough to rent their own cars or sleep in their own rooms – and the luchadors nod. Most of the audience could probably nod along with the idea of being underpaid, of having to share space because your boss won’t shell out. Eddie gestures to the crowd -“Looks pretty full to me in here tonight” – reminding the audience that it’s their money being collected by Bischoff, their money that he’s “rolling around in.” He’s getting booed by now, but smiles a bitter smile as he lists the luxuries that other, whiter wrestlers have: Lear jets, limos, choice over their fights. He says, loud and clear: “I can’t do nothing by myself, but together! United! La raza! Latinos!”
He presents a shirt in the red, white and green of the Mexican flag, and the others put it on. They yell, “Viva la raza,” literally long live the race, a slogan of Mexican-American pride. There’s a mix of boos and cheers now.
He came back a week later with almost all the Mexican wrestlers on the WCW roster on his team. At a time when Latino wrestlers couldn’t main event in North America, and so recently white men donned brownface to mock the global south, Eddie Guerrero offered a powerful alternative – proud self identification, fighting for the collective rights of Latino wrestlers working in North America, on prime time television. Everything he said in this promo was true – not only for wrestlers, but for many of the viewers. There was a righteous anger to the moment that could have developed into an interesting storyline.
However, in 1999, Eddie Guerrero, under the influence of GHB, a tranquiliser which he used recreationally, flipped his car. He was seriously injured and had to take time off to recover and detox.
Without leadership, LWO fell apart. They ended up spending most of their time fighting each other – because Eric Bischoff was still in charge, and actual collective action was dangerous to his position. However, for those months, there was an alternative offering for Latino wrestlers and Latino fans. Though they still weren’t the main event, the luchador style fights they staged were show stealing and presented audiences something unprecedented in the North American market.
Guerrero joined WWE in 2000 and started developing a new, more extreme character. This man – from a respected family, with a wife and young daughters, who, in shoot interviews, proved himself to be soft voiced, respectful, solemn and honest about his addiction issues with alcohol and painkillers – played Latino Heat.
Latino Heat was a sleazy Chicano gang banger whose motto was “I lie, I cheat, I steal”. This phrase, which was in his entrance music, was printed on shirts, which in turn were eagerly purchased by marks (wrestling fans) of many cultural backgrounds.
He was a comic relief figure – exaggerating all the worst, most negative cliches of Mexican-American men – smug, lascivious, jealous, insecure. He called every man “esse” or “holmes”, every woman “mamacita”. There were storylines about poisoned burritos, B&Es, entering venues in low slung Cadillacs complete with fuzzy dice, car park brawls, unlikely cousins called Jose and Chuey, and repeated cheating. Initially, white audiences hated him.
The most interesting thing is that Eddie Guerrero chose to be Latino Heat. He came up with the angle. He invented the name and phrase. He identified the needs and expectations of the audience and embraced them because he knew that his best chance at success was a recognisable character – that a heel would always be necessary. This is one of many cases in mainstream culture where the only representation allowed to oppressed people is a negative or reductive one – and is particularly common in wrestling, which always needs a cartoonish villain to stand in the ring, enjoying the audiences’ loathing.
By bringing these stereotypes to the fore, by putting them on center stage and making the audience face them, there’s a purge of expectations. White American audiences’ racism is presented to them and parodied, made into a joke. He knows what people say about him, about people like him, so he leans into the stereotype and invites the audience to hate him – and they do, until they don’t.
In a few years, he became a fan favourite. Guerrero was not hired to be a representative of Mexican-Americans, he was not hired because WCW or WWE had an eye on their roster’s racial diversity – he was hired because he was an established talent. Latino audiences had always loved him, and the affection was well founded. He had real skill in the ring, a mobile, emotive face and a trickster’s charisma, but he also excelled at combining work and shoot in a way that got the audience onside. By portraying an underdog who used smarts to overcome bigger, badder and more boring competitors, Eddie became widely beloved.
There’s a 2002 shoot interview where he explains his logic – that the best wrestlers work for the match, not for themselves. That there was no merit in making one person a hero – every fighter had to work together to make the show effective. He also talks about the fact that while there absolutely is politics in wrestling, in who gets booked and who doesn’t, there’s also an equality to it – you can give whoever you want opportunities but they’ll only be successful if they are good in the ring. They’ll only reach heights if they have talents and are willing to work. Eddie was, in many ways, a model American – a perfect dreamer and an absolute professional in his wrestling while he played up the lazy, dodgy villain that the audience expected “people like him” to be.
But wrestling is real, and the competitors are real. He dropped in and out of the card with injuries, including some prolonged absences while he entered rehab for his substance abuse issues. He was one of the first WWE stars to admit, in the ring, to having a drug problem and to treat it seriously. This was an incredibly interesting gamble – to take the true, publicised and stigmatised shoot fact of his addiction issues, and make it part of his work character – no longer just comic relief, but dramatic depth. The gamble paid off – audiences chanted his name, applauded his courage.
Beating those demons
The height of his power and success came in 2004, with a series of main event fights.
In early 2004, the WWE Champion was Brock Lesnar, a square headed blond brick shithouse. He was a hundred pounds heavier than Eddie, a foot and a half taller and whiter than rice. After Eddie wins the right to face him in a Royal Rumble, beating 19 other fighters, Lesnar makes a show of dismissing Guerrero as a competitor entirely. He hires a mariachi band, wears a sombrero and dances to mock Eddie, and everyone like him.
It gets increasingly personal. In a brutal in ring promo, Lesnar calls Eddie an addict. Several times, to his face, he explicitly explains that Eddie was going to lose because while he’d been away, dealing with his demons, Lesnar had been winning belts.
Eddie absorbs this, and slowly, slowly starts to talk. He admits to being an addict, admits to making mistakes. “I lost my wife, I lost my kids, I lost my job, I lost myself.” His wife had filed for divorce in 2002, he had been let go after a DUI charge, worked in the independent scene for months before being rehired by WWE. “I disgraced my race, I disgraced my family, I disgraced myself.” He’s still using the same theme music, with the chorus “I lie, I cheat, I steal”, which still opens with a sample calling “Viva la raza” – by saying this now, after years of jokes at the expense of his own heritage, he draws a line between Eddie Guerrero the man and Latino Heat – in his eyes, he hadn’t disgraced his race by any of his performed shenanigans, but by his real life failures. “Day by day, I have earned my life back. I’m gonna prove to my family that I can provide for them – I can give my kids the bikes that they want, I can provide them a better education.” These claims are endearing in their selfless simplicity – he’s not trying to be the champion of the world, only a better father, providing a better future. This is part of the charm of Eddie Guerrero – he was never trying to win for himself, but for his family and community, fighting for the match and not for himself.
He gets up close to Brock Lesnar, a humourless hulk who has, on his huge head, a pig’s eyes without any of the intelligence of a pig. “Every obstacle that has been put in front of me I’ve overcome. People told me – you’re not six foot seven and three hundred pounds, you’ll never do anything in the wrestling business – those personal demons you battle with every day are too strong – you’ve failed your family, you’ll never regain your kids back – you can’t do it, Eddie, you’re no one!” Here, he drops the mic, overcome, hides his face. Lesnar just looks confused.
The audience chants, “Eddie, Eddie, Eddie!”
He picks up the microphone again.
“No, holmes, by the grace of god, I am beating those demons. I am overcoming those obstacles. All I do is picture people like you: a big fat face of hatred – people like you have been hating me my whole life. You are nothing but my next obstacle – next Sunday, you’re not going to be facing Eddie Guerrero, you’re gonna be facing all the battle that burns within me! All the fire within me! You’re gonna be facing Latino! Heat!”
The audience come unglued.
In a few moments, he synthesises Eddie Guerrero – a man with chronic pain and custody issues, who’s been handling his own otherness for decades – with Latino Heat – a larger than life figure, previously a pathetic caricature – moulding them into an inspirational hero.
I’ve talked about Eddie Guerrero’s character work and promos, but I haven’t talked about any of his fights.
Eddie was, strictly speaking, a cruiserweight, a lucha style high flyer, taking athletic dives and doing cool stunts, who should not be facing a traditional heavyweight wrestler. At No Way Out, in February, Lesnar, huge and brutal, seems like he should easily win, but Eddie hangs on and on and on, getting thrown out of the ring and climbing back in, only to be kicked out again. Mid way through the match, he legitimately breaks Lesnar’s nose, causing him to bleed. Lesnar yells, “Just die, Eddie! Give up like you always do!”
Latino Heat has spent years giving up, or cheating to win.
Eddie doesn’t give up. Lesnar suplexes him again and again. Latino Heat doesn’t give up.
Eddie spreads his arms, turns his face to the sky, as though praying, and head butts Lesnar. He starts winning, drop kicking Lesnar’s injured knee, attacking him. Lesnar’s still stronger, and rolls out of the way of Eddie’s finisher, a top rope frog splash. He lifts and slams Eddie into the ref, knocking both of them out cold – and there’s an awkward moment when he tries to pin Eddie but realises that without the ref, it doesn’t matter. Lesnar picks up the championship belt – a common weapon in these matches – and looks like he’s about to do some unnecessary damage to a prone Eddie. The audience is crying for Eddie to wake up, scared for him.
While Eddie’s still out, Lesnar gets speared by another one of his competitors, who has run in, and then out again, in one of the WWE’s now patented shock twists. This gives Eddie time to recover, to consider using the belt himself – the instinct of cheating, stealing, rears its head, and we worry that Eddie has relapsed – but Lesnar recovers too, knocks the belt out of his hands, lifts him to suplex him again – at the last minute Eddie outsmarts him with skill: he converts the suplex into a DDT, a lucha style move where he uses his legs to slam Lesnar’s head into the ground. Eddie gets to his feet, climbs to the top rope and does another full body frog splash on Lesnar, then pins his shoulders and wins, one, two, three.
He immediately jumps the ropes, the barrier, spills into the crowd, sharing their ecstasy – security have to pull him out so he can accept the belt. He runs to the other side of the ring and hugs his mother and brother, who have been sitting in the front row. This action is one hundred percent babyface, full of love and trust – this is public redemption. He’s not smug anymore, but joyous. He stands on the commentary desk, holds the belt aloft, gestures to someone in the crowd – and catches a Mexican flag that gets thrown to him.
He will not let the audience forget where he came from, and why what just happened is important. He was a David who beat all the worst parts of himself and society, embodied in a bitter, white Goliath.
Tougher than tough
Through the rest of the year, Eddie Guerrero kept fighting symbols of white America in main events – outmaneuvering and outlasting Olympic medalist Kurt Angle at Wrestlemania, destroying the explicitly racist character of capitalist cowboy John Layfield Bradshaw at Judgement Day while bleeding from a nicked artery. He was, for a year, a heroic face.
Eddie lost the belt to JBL in late 2004, and slid back into heel territory, with a darker remix of his theme tune. He was cheating to win, but not winning. He turned on his friends, including his nephew Chavo Guerrero Jr and shoot protégée Rey Mysterio. Unlike his drug related absences, these were entirely manufactured issues, which rang false and uninteresting to audiences who missed the fun, charming champion. In his personal life, he had reunited with his wife and family, been clean and sober for years. There was another face turn in the works, signposted by Eddie shaking hands with Batista and bringing back the low rider.
These plans were cut short by his sudden death in late 2005.
Eddie Guerrero had a fatal heart attack at 38. His arteries had been narrow for years, possibly as a result of his previous narcotics addiction and steroid usage: he was, after all, not six foot seven or three hundred pounds. He had gotten hurt a lot.
Every wrestling promotion in North America mourned him. Many had tribute shows. He is remembered in the industry as a highly influential and inspirational professional.
There’s still a gap in the market created by the loss of this generous of a performer, who could work into an audience’s needs, into the needs of the match. He was willing to make a fool of himself and know that it was not a disgrace to his heritage. Eddie Guerrero built a space for a Latino champion to hold a Mexican flag high in an industry still mired in the most obvious and clumsy of America’s racism. He wasn’t the first Latino WWE champion, or the first heel champion – but he was the first to make this transition from lying, cheating, stealing, racist stereotype to a vulnerable and cherished hero. It was a triumph of optimism, of overcoming the odds with utopian verve.