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The Angel in the Marble
The Life and Death and Life of El Generico
He grew up an orphan on the mean streets of Tijuana. He learned his fighting skills protecting other children from bullies and thugs. He fled Mexico after he injured a man with a brainbuster gone wrong.
We don’t know these facts about El Generico’s life from his own words. Generico was never one to talk much about his past–or, well, to talk much at all–so all we know about his history comes from stories told by other people, from casual jokes made by other wrestlers or from urban legends spun out on message boards, woven together to create some sort of continuity. From the beginning, he has lived and breathed in the stories other people created about him.
The first example is one of the best: the story of his very first match and how he changed his destiny that night. The booker and publicist for IWS, who went by Llakor, tells it with energy and joy in his essay “I Am El Generico’s Father,” but to condense it here: the bookers were looking for someone to lose to wrestler TNT in a dramatically painful fashion that would make clear how dangerous he was. A new wrestler, a red-headed kid, took that moment to pester them for an opportunity, and it was decided he would be sent out in his first IWS match to lose spectacularly. However, they didn’t want his humiliation to do long-term damage to the kid’s character in IWS, so they grabbed a luchador mask and told him to wear it.
The unnamed (and thus, yes, generic) luchador came out to get tortured, and proceeded to suffer so vividly and sympathetically that the crowd went from laughing at him to cheering for him, calling out “olé!” The more he was brutalized, the more loudly the audience loved him, until finally TNT threw up his hands and left the ring in exasperation, leading to the semi-conscious luchador winning by count out.
Understand how momentous this is: El Generico was destined to lose that night. The result of his first match had already been written down in the books of fate. But his connection with the audience changed that story, rewrote the ending. That doesn’t happen often in wrestling. Many wrestlers might never experience it. Generico did it in his first night of existence.
Of course, there was no going back after that. “You do realize, now you’re stuck with the mask?” the promoter told the kid.
And so began the story of El Generico.
There’s one line, a quick tossed-off sentence in Llakor’s tale, that keeps nibbling at me, that I return to over and over as I think about Generico and what he came to be. It’s that, when handed the mask, the red-headed kid balked at first, protesting that “he would be wearing someone else’s mask – a huge violation of the sacred traditions of Lucha Libre.” It’s interesting that it’s specifically mentioned, within the boundaries of the fiction, that the young wrestler had his doubts about the ethics of wearing the mask. Because–let’s be real here–El Generico is a minefield of a concept. Think about what he could have been in someone else’s hands. A Mexican character played by a person who knows almost nothing of Mexican culture, who speaks no Spanish, who gets his story across through sheer physical humor? With almost anyone else under the mask, it would have been small-minded, and cruel, and hurtful. Instead, El Generico becomes a sort of holy fool, simple in the best sense of the word, heroic and relatable at once. And it’s all done with such deft grace, with such a nimble gentleness, that it’s easy to believe it came as naturally and effortlessly as breathing.
Here’s a Generico moment that I’ve never giffed, that I’ve never written about, but one that’s important to me. It’s in Chikara, in 2005, and Kevin and Generico–both nineteen years old–are facing All Money is Legal in a firehouse basement in Pennsylvania. The referee is doing the traditional check for weapons, and as he approaches Generico, Generico goes down on his knees and puts his hands behind his head.
Get it? Because he’s Mexican, see, and Mexicans are in trouble with the law so much that he automatically assumes that–
Well, it’s a dumb joke, it’s a stupid little visual gag that a teenager might have thought was funny. It’s even possible, I suppose, that it was meant as a sort of trenchant, ironic commentary on how people of color are treated by the police in the United States. If so, it’s the kind of thing that Eddie Guerrero could have pulled off, maybe. But not El Generico.
The audience doesn’t even respond; they don’t seem to notice it much at all. But Generico’s opponents do. One of them steps forward, points at Generico and says, “Hey, that’s some racist stuff, man. That’s racist.” Beside him, his partner groans in annoyance, “Come on.”
They aren’t playing it up for comedy, they aren’t playing to the crowd: they’re speaking directly to the wrestler, stating clearly and firmly that they consider this out of line.
Okay. So let’s say you’re nineteen years old, you just made an offensive joke, and you’ve been called out for it. You’ve got some choices to make. Some people would respond by ignoring it and moving on to the match, maybe pretending they hadn’t understood. Some would lean into it, play it up even more.
Generico jumps to his feet and puts his hands up in an conciliatory gesture, touching his heart in as close to an apology as a character with no language can probably get.
More importantly, although I haven’t come close to watching all of Generico’s matches, I’ve watched a lot of them, and I’ve never seen him try this gag again.
Oh, he has other boneheaded moments, he does and says other cringeworthy things in his career. But they’re few and far between, and they don’t tend to repeat. And that means a lot. This moment–this random nine seconds in a Pennsylvania basement–is precious to me because it’s a reminder that El Generico was not the spontaneous result of a natural overflow of a soul filled with sunshine and rainbows. He was a choice. Someone chose, and chose, and chose again, to make El Generico what he became. Someone chose, and chose poorly, and rethought and re-chose, day after day, deliberately and consciously, to shape and craft El Generico into something that reflected the best instincts of the audience and not the worst.
When Michelangelo was asked how he created his statue of David, he is said to have responded that it was easy, you just take a piece of marble and carve away anything that doesn’t look like David. That’s how simple and how impossible El Generico is: someone was handed a block of flawed marble, and he intuitively saw the potential for something beautiful within it. Week after week, match after match, year after year, for more than a decade, he chipped and chiseled and sanded away every single thing that did not bring the audience joy. The result is one of the greatest works of art in wrestling history, and I say that as a person who would give up a hundred El Genericos for one Sami Zayn; a thousand fictional orphanages for one child in a war zone given medicine and comfort.
Here’s another Michelangelo quote: I saw the angel in the marble, and I chiseled ‘til I set him free.
After Generico’s last match for PWG, he stands in the ring at Reseda, surrounded by his fellow wrestlers and the loving, grieving crowd, and he says to them, “You deserve the truth.” Everyone immediately goes quiet as he goes on, “For a long time, I come here and I don’t tell you the truth about me. I wear a mask. You don’t know my face, you don’t know who I am! So now, I’m going to tell you the truth.” Reseda is silent in startled anticipation: is he going to unmask? Is he going to give them the gift of who he really is, here at the end?
Generico looks at them and says: “My name… is El Generico.”
He takes a deep breath, then lets it out in a sigh, as though he’s bared his inner soul, while the fans break into laughter at what seems to be an anticlimax. And then you can hear that laughter hitch a little, and shift, and deepen into joyous applause. It’s as if they’ve reached out their hands for Mardi Gras beads and found themselves holding ropes of diamonds instead: This is the truth. El Generico is real, and every time you cheered him or suffered for him, that was real. El Generico will not be taken away from you.
And it’s not just the audience, look at the wrestlers over there on the right side of the ring as his words sink in, look at the delight that kindles. Adam Cole rises in ovation; Stu Grayson and Drake Younger kneel down to pound the mat in glee; Jay Briscoe embraces Roderick Strong and pumps his fist in the air. They know what a gift this is. It’s a gift, and a promise, and I don’t know what the future holds, but I believe it is a promise that will be kept as much as possible.
You deserve the truth, says El Generico, and gives us not the boring mundane truth, but the real truth of the heart, and that’s all we ever ask of wrestling.
Kevin says Generico is dead.
When asked directly, he’s always replied that way, with a complex mix of humor, sorrow and annoyance. And the thing is, I absolutely understand why he says this. For Kevin, it’s the equivalent of cheerfully cutting away a safety net and waving at the bare concrete below: an act of utter faith, of absolute certainty that the trapeze artist is never, ever going to fall. I take it as the odd sideways promise that it is, and I appreciate it.
But other people pick it up, and repeat it, and embroider it. And if Generico has always lived in other people’s stories, then each time someone tells a story of his death, he dies a little more. And not the right kind of death, either. Sometimes the orphanage is firebombed, and they all burn alive. At once point, Kevin mentions on his Weekend Escapades show that he was executed by a Mexican drug cartel and left to rot in a ditch. I hear that and I can see him in my mind’s eye, on his knees, his hands behind his head, as–
No. No, I cannot accept that. It isn’t right that his story would end that way. I think about Llakor’s essay, about how the faith and belief of the crowd gave him the victory that first night. Surely it can give him a final victory as well. Surely we can tell that story. The least we can do is try.
The feud is on in earnest.
Luckily, I’m not alone: this feud was going on before I ever even heard of El Generico, waged by the fans who love him. I’m just joining in, late to the battle, but happy to be part of it. They make gifs of him dancing, making people laugh. They make art in which he lives and breathes. They weave stories about him, swapping visions: how did he feel when Kevin won the Universal title? Did he cry when Kenny and Kota reunited? You’d hardly even know it was a feud, it’s so full of joy and celebration. Twitter adds notifications, and people quietly confess: —I put one on El Generico’s account, just in case. I know it’s silly. –Oh, I did too. You never know, you never know.
Things start to give way, maybe just a little. Kevin tweets that he texted an, uh, impressive brainbuster to Generico’s old number and was surprised to get a call back.
It’s clearly just a joke, but we seize it and refuse to let go, even when he quickly adds that now the number has been disconnected. Like children playing tug-of-war who feel the rope slip an inch, we dig our feet in and keep pulling. El Generico shirts mysteriously go on sale at ProWrestlingTees and we spread the word, we stock up, because art and adoration is great and all, but nothing says “I love you, please don’t be dead” in wrestling quite like buying merch.
I worry a little, sometimes, about what Sami Zayn thinks of this refusal to let El Generico go. Because there are plenty of hints that it wasn’t easy for him to say goodbye. In a 2014 interview with Sam Roberts, for example, Roberts asks him if it was hard to come to NXT and keep an open mind about learning new things. It’s a pretty vague question about his attitude, one you could ask any wrestler showing up at the Performance Center, but it seems to strike an unexpected chord in Sami’s heart: “God, I’m not sure how honest to be here,” he says. “I don’t know, man, it’s really up and down. It’s just change, change is up and down, it’s not clean. Like if you go through a breakup, it’s not like ‘We’re broken up, I’ll go this way, you go that way.’” He waves his coffee cup around and his sentences get increasingly choppy as he tries to explain: “Like… you still kind of talk, and… maybe one of you gets lonely and texts one in the middle of the night… It’s not clean. It’s not clean, it’s not a clean break.”
“What in the world does that have to do with being in developmental?” I say to Dan, pausing the video. “Who’s he breaking up with?”
Dan thinks about it for a little bit. “I think… he means El Generico,” he says. “Sometimes it feels like he gets texts from Generico late at night, asking how he is.”
“Oh,” I say.
I think about that for a while.
“Oh,” I say more softly, and rub my eyes.
Or on the Edge and Christian Podcast, Sami talks about saying goodbye to El Generico, how he gave him him a kind of eulogy in promo class at the Performance Center, and then cried all the bike ride back to his apartment. He says it lightly, but there’s a real pain there as well. I worry a little: if he’s laid Generico to rest, who are we to insist that he live on?
But we can’t seem to let it go; we keep tugging and prying, reliving his triumphs, telling stories. Maybe it’s just to keep his memory alive. Maybe it’s just because we can’t bear to say goodbye yet. Maybe it’s to try and hand his story on to a new generation of artists and storytellers, to keep the torch burning. Whatever the reason, we keep creating, we keep talking.
And then a miracle happens: all those little wistful, hopeful Twitter notifications go off like a string of firecrackers around the globe, as El Generico tweets for the first time in almost five years.
It’s as if the other side in this tug-of-war has suddenly simply dropped the rope and walked away: we go tumbling backwards in free-fall, sprawling on the ground in a heap, shocked and stunned. He’s not dead! We laugh together; we pound each other on the virtual backs; we sing. Celebratory Generico-themed baked goods are produced.
We mark our calendars: March 26 is Generico Rebirth Day from now on. We don’t expect to ever actually see him again, and that’s okay. He’s out there somewhere, with some spotty WiFi access and two numbers he knows how to text, and it’s enough.
He’s not dead.
The secret of El Generico’s survival, the way he can miraculously be not-dead while not exactly being alive, lies in this odd fact: wrestlers are only partly of this world.
The result of a truly weird carnie performance art in which an actor is expected, at some level, to play a singular, consistent role even while in public for what may well be their entire life, a wrestler is an intersection of a fictional character and a real person, a junction between fiction and reality. That’s the magic of wrestling: that a monster capable of tipping over an ambulance might look you in the eye as he walks to the ring. The rich brocaded robes of the Empress of Tomorrow could brush against you as she passes. Tommaso Ciampa, the most depraved and tormented fiend in wrestling, will hear your voice if you cry out in support of Johnny Gargano, and it will scald his black heart. You can see that enchantment in the face of any child reaching out toward their favorite in hope and joy. You can feel that enchantment yourself, if you’re willing to let it happen. There’s nothing like it: a story come to life, a story you can be part of, because wrestlers are where fiction and reality meet, where a character exists in the same space and time as a real person. A story that becomes flesh and dwells among us.
But it comes with a terrible price.
Because in order to exist in the same place as us, in order to see our joy or hear our anger, wrestling characters are bound to this reality, subject to time and gravity in a way that other fictional characters don’t have to be. Paul Rudd can injure himself and Ant-Man will remain untouched. Sean Connery must age, but James Bond will always be at the height of his powers. Superman lives on forever, separate from any of the dozens of people who have played him. But if Fergal Devitt’s shoulder gives way, so does Finn Balor’s, whether it fits the story or not. Kenny Omega ages in real time because Tyson Smith must. And when we lose Virgil Runnels, then Dusty Rhodes is gone too, and all our love and all our grief will not prevent it. Wrestling stories ebb and flow across decades, unfolding in front of our eyes, full of highs and lows; wrestling characters have catastrophes and they have triumphs, but because they’re bound to a real person’s life, the one thing they can never have is true, final closure–a storybook happy ending. Demons and dragons, kings and queens, monsters and models and maharajas, the only ending that awaits them is the same one that awaits us all.
Except for El Generico.
Except for El Generico, silly and simple and wisest of wrestlers, who somehow had the gift and the grace to know how to pass that point of intersection on to someone else and to walk away entirely into the story crafted for him with such affection by the people who loved him. There in the story, freed from time and entropy, he has exactly the ending that we imagine for him. Any ending we imagine for him. His success is our success. His failure is our failure. If we believe in him and have faith, there is nothing Generico cannot do. That’s been the very nature of his character, from his first moment of existence.
So here we are at last, at the reason this essay exists. This is the point where I come to you, my friend who cared enough to read this far. This is the point where I reach out as if somehow I could touch your hand through these words, as if I could brush aside these letters and look into your eyes and say to you: Help me. Please, please help me.
I need you to imagine an orphanage for El Generico. I need you to build Los Angelitos de El Generico in your mind and your heart, to hold it there with all your strength. Make it someplace real and true, full of living detail. My version is perched on the edge of a canyon outside of Tijuana. It’s in a grove of ancient olive trees for the orphans to climb, with a vegetable garden in the back and a row of sunflowers out front. There’s a billy goat–I don’t know where he came from, he showed up and he won’t go away–with baleful golden eyes, who likes to break into the garden and rip plants up just for fun. In a fit of annoyance, Generico once called him “Chuck Taylor,” and it stuck, and now sometimes you can hear the children’s voices calling Chucktaylor, get out of the garden, stay away from the tomatoes. Chucktaylor, no bueno. On the far side of the canyon there’s a little mission, and at dusk and dawn you can hear the bell chiming faintly. Generico sits on the steps next to the sunflowers and listens to it sometimes, his head tilted, smiling.
But yours doesn’t have to be like that at all. It should be your own vision. It could be in downtown Tijuana, with bright graffiti on the walls and laundry strung fluttering across the alley. There are always cats sunning themselves on the stoop, because Generico can’t resist feeding them. Or maybe it’s in Japan, up in the mountains, surrounded by wild cherry trees that fill the spring air with petals for the children to dance among while Generico makes wrestling-themed bento boxes for school. Set it in Montreal, at the end of a cul-de-sac. The orphans play in the snow in the winter, all of them with mismatched mittens, because Generico cannot keep them organized and spends all winter in a frantic flurry of mitten-hunting. You can put it anywhere in the world; any place where there are children who need comfort and protection.
So anywhere, anywhere, anywhere at all.
Put something of yourself into it, something that only you could give. Maybe it’s someone picking out a song you love on a guitar. Maybe it’s the smell of your favorite food cooking. Maybe it’s a cat with an uncanny resemblance to a beloved childhood pet. I only ask that you make sure to include music and laughter, because if El Generico has taught me anything, it’s that laughter and song make everything more real.
Can you see it in your mind, steady and solid? Is it a place where a hero could rest, where a good man could find peace and purpose? Does it bring you joy? Can you believe in it?
Oh yes, that’s perfect.
Now, with that vision in your mind, here’s a story to hold it: like a setting for a gem, a place for it to shine. Listen:
Once upon a time, there was a luchador who was fierce and reckless, bold and bright as the dawn. He loved deeply, and he suffered terribly; he endured betrayal and despair, and triumphed over both. Thus he grew in wisdom and compassion, until he conquered even hatred and pain and made his greatest foe his truest friend once more, until he achieved all his dreams and all his goals. Then, in that place which cherished him the most, surrounded by the people who loved him the best, he said farewell to us and walked away from this world, into legend.
And so, alone among wrestlers, El Generico, the generic luchador, did the impossible.
El Generico lived happily ever after.