Marisela Peña, president of AAA Wrestling, has a tradition: She brings an urn, a vase made of gold and silver so ornate it practically glows, to every major AAA event. The urn contains the ashes of the company founder, her brother Antonio, who died in 2006.
Backstage at the Arena Ciudad de México, 20 minutes before the start of Triplemanía XXIII, the biggest lucha libre show of the year, here is Peña in a poufy baby blue evening gown more appropriate for the Met Ball than a wrestling match, holding the urn and delivering a pep talk to her roster—her children, as she calls them. She stands next to Luz Ramírez, who also clutches a memorial—a modest carved mahogany box with a tiny gold crucifix secured near the lid. It contains the ashes of her son Pedro “Hijo del Perro” Aguayo Ramírez, one of tonight’s inductees into AAA’s Hall of Fame.
On the night of Friday, March 20, 2015, Aguayo wrestled in Tijuana in a four person match that, when compared with the bloody brawls he was known for, appeared fairly sedate. “Everything was normal,” says T.J. “Manik” Perkins, Aguayo’s tag team partner that evening. “Up until the moment we were both on the ropes, everything was totally normal.” About five minutes in, Aguayo charged one of his opponents, Óscar “Rey Mysterio” Gutiérrez Rubio, in the corner, where Mysterio delivered Aguayo a double boot to the face. Aguayo then rolled forward and took a flying head scissors to the outside, resulting in an awkward bump on the ring apron. When Aguayo reentered the ring, Mysterio drop-kicked him in the shoulder. He crumpled into the middle rope, the perfect position for Mysterio’s signature move, the 619. Manik fell next to Aguayo. Both were supposed to duck when Mysterio swooped in, but Manik, sensing something was wrong, whispered, “Perro, Perro, down!” As Mysterio flew over him, Aguayo lay still, then slumped to the bottom rope and, finally, to the canvas. He died at a nearby hospital. The cause of death was cardiac arrest, likely the result of a cervical stroke that occurred when his neck was broken. He was 35.
Peña’s speech outside the locker room is brief, a few words on the company’s success and the tragic circumstances of this evening. It ends with another AAA tradition: a cheer for the departed.
“Perro! Perro! Long live Perro! Rah, rah, rah!”
When Peña talks about Aguayo, the son of a legend who became a legend himself following a decade long stretch as the most popular rudo (heel, or bad guy) in Mexico, she still aches. “I feel a pain in my heart,” she says. “The people of Mexico feel a pain in their heart.” The mourning spread across borders. “I was just in Colombia and there were fans with tears in their eyes, holding pictures of him,” Aguayo’s on-screen girlfriend Taya Valkyrie says through her own tears. “After he died, I swear I saw him in the dressing room. It still feels like a presence is missing.” Aguayo’s death has been called a freak accident. It is also a tragedy with more than one victim.
A few minutes before Peña’s address, Konnan, director of AAA’s Creative Department, lumbers between dressing rooms, providing last minute instructions to the luchadores. A 51-year-old Cuban born Carlos Ashenoff, Konnan was the biggest star in Mexican wrestling in the early 1990s. He now walks with a slight limp after hip replacement surgery; he’s also had a kidney transplant. His concern at the moment is the hair vs. hair match between Alberto El Patrón and Brian Cage, an American with Wolverine sideburns and an “evil foreigner” gimmick—he wears a VOTE FOR TRUMP: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN T-shirt.
Konnan listens as Cage runs through the outlined finish. “Super kick, one, two, that’s the slow count, DDT, slow count, we head to the top rope, I catch him, power bomb off the ropes, false finish, low blow, he takes me into the chair that’s set up in the corner the whole time, then arm bar.”
“Just so you know, I talked to Alberto. Bring the physicality up,” Konnan directs. “I need it to be pure and crisp.” Before exiting, he remembers a big stunt planned for the match. “Listen, there’s something you need to know about the particleboard. The best way to break it is to fucking flip into it. If you go into it shoulder first, it will just break in half. If you flip, it will blow up, and the fucking crowd will blow up. I watched the match between Perro and Myzteziz, and when Myzteziz threw Perro into the particle board, Perro did a full flip and the fucking thing exploded.”
Konnan thinks of Aguayo often—and not just because he was ringside in Tijuana. He remembers meeting—and threatening—Aguayo when the boy was 11 years old. At the time, Konnan was battling on screen with Pedro “El Perro” Aguayo Sr., possibly the most popular nonmasked wrestler in Mexico’s history. It was the hottest feud in the country, and during an appearance on Y Usted…¿Qué Opina?, a long-running talk show, Konnan told Aguayo Sr., “I hope your son gets in the wrestling business, because once I’m done whupping your ass, I’m going to whup his ass.” Later, in the dressing room, Perrito, as the younger Aguayo was nicknamed, refused to shake Konnan’s hand. He was terrified. His father, an old school type, had yet to reveal that wrestling—and all the violence and rivalries within it—is scripted. It wasn’t until Konnan visited the Aguayo home and played with the family dog, a chow chow named Bola, that Perrito felt safe around him.
Konnan and Aguayo Sr. were tag team partners when Perrito made his professional wrestling debut in June 1995 at the age of 15, a rarity even in Mexico. But in front of 19,500 fans at the Río Nilo Coliseum in Tonalá, Jalisco, Aguayo lived up to the high expectations that came with being his father’s son. “The younger Aguayo is such a natural in the ring,” gushed Wrestling Observer Newsletter, which awarded three and a quarter stars to Aguayo’s match with Juventud Guerrera. Afterward Konnan told Aguayo Sr. he would look after his son for him once he retired.
“Those words haunt me sometimes,” Konnan says today.
Aguayo Sr. was fearful and reluctant to allow his son to follow in his footsteps. He knew the dangers of the business, the wounds and broken bones that could be inflicted inside the ring. A botched piledriver had almost left him paralyzed. Today, Aguayo Sr.’s forehead is mutilated, a calloused mass of scars. This is the result of decades of blading, a long standing wrestling routine of using a small blade to cause intentional bleeding during a match. The Mexican media have speculated that Aguayo Sr. suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. His current condition and his son’s fate are reminders that even though wrestling is scripted, it’s not exactly fake.
Perrito began training young. Playtime was forward rolls and running the ropes after his father’s matches. By the age of eight he was learning tae kwon do, as well as Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling. His passion was evident. Eventually, his father relented.
With his debut match a success, Hijo del Perro Aguayo was brought along slowly in AAA, often wrestling in tag matches with his dad. Father and son looked similar, and early on they wore matching ring gear. As time passed and Aguayo Sr. crept into retirement, Perrito, unlike many other “Juniors” and “Hijo dels” in wrestling, created his own persona and legacy.
Like his father, Hijo del Perro Aguayo was a brawler who would spill his own blood in the ring to heighten drama; “red equals green” was Senior’s motto. But he was a more versatile performer than his father. He could chain wrestle on the mat or dive from the top rope. He was very athletic, and he was polished on the microphone. His greatest attribute, though, was his charisma, especially when working as a heel.
“I’ve seen a lot of good wrestlers, but not all of them have that charisma—in Spanish we call it an angel, as in ‘the grace of an angel,’ and that’s what Perro had,” Peña says through an interpreter. “He always took over. He was that bad guy who, when he came onto the scene, he just took control of the audience.”
Aguayo was a true rudo. He knew how to get heat, how to conjure villainous energy. He was a throwback to a time when bad guys could whip fans into a frenzy. No matter the town, no matter the opponent, he identified every trigger point for the crowd. He registered emotions well with his face. His timing was perfect—he recognized how and when to suppress a babyface (a good guy or hero) trying to mount a teased comeback. A low blow was one of his finishing moves.
Aguayo was a different person outside the ring. He was humble and well-spoken. Whereas his character was a blood-licking thug, Perro was fresa—Mexican slang for “preppy.” He wore suits. He lived near his parents in Tala, Jalisco, a town 30 minutes west of Guadalajara. And though he was fiercely private, it’s known he was divorced.
He got his big break after leaving AAA in 2003 for CMLL, the world’s oldest running wrestling promotion, where he formed a heel group called Perros del Mal (Dogs of Evil). In the tradition of such anti-heroes as the N.W.O. and D-Generation X, Perros made it cool to be bad and became the hottest act in the company. (Their catchphrase was “God forgives; the Dogs…no!”) A 2007 turn on the highly rated reality-show competition Los 5 Magníficos heightened Aguayo’s popularity. Later in his career he was a regular on the telenovela Qué Pobre Tan Ricos.
Business was booming. Aguayo often wrestled 10 times a week and regularly headlined Friday night shows at Arena México. Wrestling Observer called it “as far as a singular arena…one of the greatest attendance runs in pro wrestling history.” And Aguayo capitalized on his popularity. He was a shrewd businessman who exploited each opportunity. After forming Perros del Mal, he hired professional artists to design a logo, which he test marketed before unveiling to the public. The black shirt with red slashes over white lettering became the first wrestling T-shirt to go mainstream in Mexico. He understood marketing redundancy, wearing the T-shirt everywhere—in the ring, in photo shoots, even on Los 5 Magníficos. He created a brand and even opened a brick and mortar store in La Roma, a trendy neighborhood in Mexico City. Between the clothing line and his construction company, Aguayo made a fortune. “He didn’t have to wrestle, I’ll put it that way,” Konnan says. “He wrestled because he loved it.”
Predictably, WWE, the billion dollar promotion headed by Vince McMahon, approached Aguayo. He declined an audition. “Perro had charisma, definitely had the ability, and I think he could have gotten over [with the crowd],” says former WWE writer Court Bauer, now a consultant for AAA. “The language barrier was the only issue he would have faced.”
Aguayo saw the foreign market as challenging. Another concern was that because of licensing rights, WWE likely wouldn’t bill him as Hijo del Perro Aguayo. He was proud of his name and had worked too hard building his brand to abandon it. Instead, he gambled: He left CMLL in 2008 to bankroll his own independent promotion, Producciones Perros del Mal. The market, however, wasn’t kind to start ups. The recession had ravaged the world economy, and the promotion struggled to land sponsors and a television deal. So in June 2010, Aguayo, along with Perros del Mal, invaded AAA, where he wrestled until his death.
Aguayo had an agreement with AAA that permitted him to make sporadic appearances for other promotions. Now 20 years into his career, he didn’t wrestle as often, but the March 20 show in Tijuana was a homecoming for Rey Mysterio, the former WWE superstar.
Aguayo started the day with a workout in the hotel gym before meeting the promoter of the event, CRASH owner Ignacio Delgado, for lunch at the Golden Palace, Aguayo’s favorite Chinese restaurant in Tijuana. Once Aguayo’s cousin Kahn del Mal, a fellow wrestler, returned from a shopping trip across the border, they left for the sold out show.
Backstage, the mood at Auditorio Municipal was calm. As is tradition in lucha libre, the younger performers stopped by Aguayo’s locker room to shake the veteran’s hand. He then went over the match with his tag team partner, Manik, along with Mysterio and his partner, Xtreme Tiger. Aguayo gave Manik a Perros del Mal T-shirt before the masked wrestler departed. It was almost bell time. On their way to the tunnel entrance, Aguayo, Manik, Konnan and Kahn saw doctors treating a wrestler for a broken collarbone.
Aguayo employed his trademark heel tactics to start the match—he swung a chair, threatened to tear off Mysterio’s mask and then climbed the ropes, arms outstretched, to bask in the jeers. In the final sequence, the only unplanned bit was when Aguayo exited the ring following the head scissors—he was supposed to fall into the middle rope for the 619 spot. When he reentered, Mysterio’s dropkick put him in the correct position, but Aguayo’s body went limp after hitting the ropes. Video shows him bleeding from his eye at this point. Still, the match continued for 70 seconds with Aguayo languishing on the canvas. It took another 80 seconds for emergency personnel to arrive.
With other injured wrestlers already occupying all the gurneys, a decision was made to place Aguayo on a piece of plywood. He was carried to the back, lifted onto a stretcher and then, six minutes after the injury occurred, loaded into an ambulance for the quick ride—two blocks west—to the hospital. As EMTs attended to Aguayo, Kahn and Konnan removed the tape from his fingers and wrists and unlaced his boots—anything to stimulate a reaction. Kahn noticed Aguayo’s chest wasn’t moving. He squeezed his hand. There was no response. Doctors worked on Aguayo for 90 minutes at the hospital before pronouncing him dead at 1:30 A.M.
Could Aguayo’s life have been saved? With two ambulances and a doctor present, CRASH’s medical provisions were higher than the industry standard for independent wrestling shows. And though the optics were appalling—the match continuing; the makeshift plywood stretcher—Aguayo’s longtime family doctor has said that no medical treatment could have kept him alive. Aguayo fractured his C1, C2 and C3 vertebrae; a C2 fracture is called a “hangman’s fracture.”
Everyone has a theory about which move—the kick in the corner, the bump on the ring apron, the dropkick, hitting the ropes—caused the injury, but it couldn’t be determined. We will never know. Kahn says Aguayo had no preexisting neck or spinal injury and that in fact his wrestling license was renewed less than a month before his death. In his career Aguayo had suffered a broken leg and a knee injury, and it was reported he had a cancerous tumor removed from his stomach in 2011. Kahn, the family spokesman, believes a blow to the chest earlier in the match felled his beloved cousin. “I was ringside. From that point forward, I noticed there was something odd about him. His legs weren’t sturdy. His vision looked different,” he says through an interpreter. Kahn then switches to halting English. “You know your brother. You know him. You know everything. You know when something is wrong.”
“Is this going to be on camera?” Rey Mysterio asks. “No? Okay, then we can take the mask off.” Mysterio, 40, unzips the red and blue mask to reveal a still boyish face. He lounges on a couch in the locker room of the Arena Ciudad de México on the night before Triplemanía, wearing a Cassius Clay T-shirt, dark denim and construction boots. At five-two, he can barely scrape the floor with his feet.
Having departed AAA in 1995 for the Philadelphia based promotion ECW, then ultimately thriving in WCW and WWE, Mysterio missed Hijo del Perro’s rise. And so he was thrilled that after leaving WWE in February 2015 his first matches in Mexico were with Aguayo. Mysterio and Aguayo changed in the same locker room that night in Tijuana and spoke about life, family and their recent match in Guadalajara. “I told him, ‘You blew my mind. You are on another level,’ ” Mysterio says. “That was the last thing I told him before we went out to the ring.”
Mysterio has seen the footage from Tijuana. “I had doubt in my mind if I had done something—that I could have caused it,” he says. “I probably went over it a hundred times trying to find what I could have done different, if anything. Apparently not.” He first realized Aguayo was injured while in midair, attempting the 619. When he swung around and saw Aguayo on the ropes, he thought Aguayo had suffered a concussion or been knocked out. Breaking character, he nudged Aguayo. When there was no response, Mysterio and Manik called an end to the match as quickly as possible. Mysterio spent the night at the hospital with Konnan and Kahn.
With more than 25 years in the business, Mysterio has seen too many wrestlers—too many friends, including Eddie Guerrero and Edward “Umaga” Fatu—die young. This hurt even more, Mysterio says, because it happened in the ring. “It has affected me to this day. My preparation for matches, sometimes I feel blocked. Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t be doing this. Sometimes I think I should throw in the towel,” he says, his raspy voice breaking up. “Being around my wife and kids, I think that’s my biggest fear. For my kids not to have a father—that really scares me.”
Mysterio’s name was the most searched item on the internet on the morning after Aguayo’s death. He received death threats on Twitter. Adding to his woes, the deputy prosecutor of Baja California announced he would open an investigation into Aguayo’s death, meaning Mysterio could face manslaughter charges. Mysterio tells me the prosecutor’s office hasn’t contacted him; the president of the Tijuana Boxing and Wrestling Commission (yes, such a position exists) has said no one is to blame for the incident but also stated that wrestling should be regulated much like boxing is. A senator from Baja California later proposed a bill that would establish a protocol for medical attention at wrestling events.
There have been at least 15 documented incidents of wrestlers dying in the ring, the majority from a heart attack or a brutal neck bump. Aguayo, however, died following a series of routine moves, leaving many on the AAA roster shaken. “When I saw how it happened, it was like, Oh God, that can happen to me. It made me feel so vulnerable,” says El Hijo del Fantasma. He’s a 31-year old graduate of Universidad Anáhuac with a degree in international relations who speaks perfect English and plans to one day enter politics. How does he, a thoughtful guy, block out the risks in his profession? “By wrestling, by doing more lucha,” he says. “We have this tradition that if someone passes, the way we honor them is by dedicating everything you do to them. The night after Perro died, we were devastated, but we did a great show for him.”
At the time of his death, Aguayo was slated to star in the main event of August’s Triplemanía XXIII, a hair vs. mask match against either Myzteziz or Rey Mysterio. Instead, those two masked wrestlers clashed in what was billed as a dream match. But illogical story lines, sloppy action throughout the card and technical problems that caused audio issues for the pay per view audience turned Triplemanía into a bust—“Pretty much a disaster,” wrote 411mania.com in one of many dreadful reviews.
After the show, Dorian Roldan, AAA’s executive vice president of business development, sat in the control room, looking exhausted. As the son of Marisela Peña, Roldan plays a familiar character on screen: the sniveling, privileged scion.
Behind the scenes, though, he’s part of a team responsible for much of AAA’s recent growth. When his uncle Antonio Peña passed away in 2006, Roldan says, AAA had two sources of income: gate receipts and two sponsors (Corona and Comex). Roldan and his mother expanded the company, focusing on marketing (Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation sponsored Triplemanía), licensing products such as sticker albums and video games, hiring a PR agency and spending big to bring home former WWE stars. AAA, which now stages 800 shows a year worldwide, is also nearing a potential windfall with the loosening of the Televisa and TV Azteca duopoly in Mexican broadcasting. At the moment AAA does not receive compensation for its television rights from Televisa. That will soon change with more competition.
Roldan also has one eye on the U.S. (“We really hope Donald Trump doesn’t become the next president,” he says.) Triplemanía XXIII was the first AAA pay-per-view event to air stateside since 1994, and the company is a majority stakeholder in Lucha Underground, an acclaimed wrestling program produced by Mark Burnett (Survivor and, ironically enough, The Apprentice) on the El Rey Network. “One of the things America understands really well is superheroes,” Roldan says. “And wrestlers are like the Mexican superheroes.” But he is now without his greatest supervillain—and also trying to recover from the stunning October departures of Myzteziz to CMLL and Alberto El Patrón to WWE. “The wrestling business is complex—negotiations, new players are changing every day. Of course, we are closing new deals with really important talent,” Roldan says. “I am really confident that we are still the most powerful company in Latin America and really soon AAA will have two big new stars on our roster.”
The show must go on credo is pervasive in professional wrestling. Hours after Aguayo’s death, Konnan traveled to Los Angeles for a Lucha Underground taping, the first of many tributes to Aguayo. He says Aguayo would likely have appeared on the show in 2016, exposing the American audience to his talents. He tries not to consider hypotheticals, though. He just knows that his friend is gone. “It’s very hard, bro. I cried. I dealt with it. I thought about leaving the business. But at the end of the day you can’t let it consume you—that’s the best way you can explain it,” he says. “I understand at this juncture in my life that tragedies are a part of life and it’s just how you handle them. Everything isn’t going to be good, and you have to be prepared for times like this. This isn’t the first time that’s happened to me. It probably won’t be the last.”
Rey Mysterio is also attempting to move forward. On the Thursday before Triplemanía he had a heart to heart talk with Angie, his wife of nearly 20 years and the mother of his 18-year-old son, Dominic, and 14-year-old daughter, Aalyah. He told her he was nervous about the big event. He had doubts. He doubted whether he should still be wrestling. He thought of his uncle, who spent 30 years in the ring and is now in a wheelchair. He thought of his friend WWE superstar Tyson Kidd, out of action and lucky to be alive after suffering a horrific neck injury in June. He thought of Perro.
“I ask myself, do I really need to be out here still grinding it out?” Mysterio says. “But those emotions go away as soon as I make eye contact with the fans. It’s magical, and then all the fear is gone.” And so he heads to the ring again.