11 January 2015

¡ Feliz Cumpleaños Negro Casas!

In honor of Negro Casas' 55th birthday today (and his great match tonight at Arena Mexico vs Maximo), we are reprinting Doctor Lucha Steve Sims' article about the great luchador from the inaugural issue of RUSSIAN FLAG BURY (issue still for sale). We hope you remembered to vote for Casas in this year's Wrestling Observer Newsletter Awards, especially for Best Technical Wrestler, Best Brawler and Feud of the Year vs Rush.

Tonight's match vs Maximo (credit: luchablog)



by Steve Sims

              The day is Friday, August 2, 1996, I, born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, am sitting at a bar in The Keio Plaza Hotel in Skinjuku-ku, To-kyo--to-, Japan, watching the 1996 Summer Olympics, the ones held in Atlanta, Georgia. I am waiting to leave on the JR Yellow Line for Ryokoku Kokugian – the Sumo Place. It is hot and sticky and rush hour trains with their incredible cramped-ness are to be avoided at all costs, so it’s best to leave early and avoid all that.

     The television is showing highlights of Michael Johnson’s then-stunning time in winning the 200 metres gold medal. As I get up to leave, to my utter amazement, so does the only person in the bar at the time – my favorite wrestler of the moment, the Mexican luchador Negro Casas (Jose Casas Ruiz)!

    Amazing coincidence you say? Not so fast, my friend. Casas and I are there for the same reason – The New Japan Pro Wrestling G-1 Climax Series, 5 consecutive nights of professional wrestling at the sacred Sumo Hall. The Series features two tournaments, one for New Japan’s current roster of heavyweight wrestlers to win their annual company singles tournament, the G-1, and a tournament with lighter-weight wrestlers from around the world (okay, Mexico and Japan) in which the winner wins the championships (and associated champion ship belt) of eight separate organizations or classifications.  An octo-champion if you will.

    Let me tell you, brother, nobody in Mid-South ever won EIGHT title belts after winning a title match, that match is for sure. Not Ted DiBiase at The Boys Club, not Junkyard Dog at the Superdome, nor Stagger Lee for that matter, not even Big Cat Ernie Ladd who was about two feel taller and about 150 pounds heavier than the Negro Casas in front of me that moment. No, Casas was after eight belts, and I, with my nickname of Dr. Lucha Jr., was there to cheer him on, traveling halfway around the world to do so.

     Casas inspired that kind of awe and fanatical following, though on a much smaller scale, in his home country, and had for years. The son of a wrestler-turned-wrestling-maestro, Casas first wrestled as a teenager in tiny small shows as a fill-in or to gain experience and appears to have kicked off his official ring career just as he turned in 19 in January 1979.  At the time, the heaviest wrestlers dominated the wrestling business in Mexico, and Casas would have been maybe 5”5” 135 pounds at his debut (35 years later, he’s really not much heavier than that today). But a sea change was coming to Mexican wrestling, as it was to Japan and alert to the US – the smaller and lighter wrestler with quicker action and more daredevil moves was over the next quarter-century to become more and more and more popular with audiences.

     Casas was debuting in a late-1970’s Mexico in which boxing was the number-two sport behind soccer. Boxing carved up its action into weight classes (in 1979 far fewer than in 2014), and Mexicans held world titles and/or were competitive challengers in each of the classes from middleweight on down – and none at the heavier weights. Mexican sports and fight-sports fans accepted those lighter weight divisions and celebrated with national pride their champions. They came to love the greater offense and more action of the lighter-weight fights.  When a wave of very talented lighter-weight wrestlers arrived on the scene from 1979 and on through about 1993 or 1994, the Mexican audience was ready to accept them or their talents.

    Talent was what Casas had (and still does to this day, more on that in a moment). He knew the holds and the counter-holds of the veterans from his first official match, and he worked at a pace and did moves with a speed greater than any of his contemporaries. He debuted under his father’s watchful eye with Francisco Flores’s promotion out of the Mexico city of Naucalpan that promoted its cards and matches under the initials “UWA.” The UWA in January 1979 was full of slower, heavier wrestlers on top, many very talented workers in their field, but their matches were slow, ponderous even; to spice them up, foreign objects and heavy blood starting to become regular parts of the card. Casas’s speed and fluidity in his moves provided such a contrast and such a breath of fresh air.

     On the underground walkway to the train in Tokyo,I introduced* myself in English and bad Spanish to Mr. Casas. Sr. Casas introduces himself back to me, warily as I recall it, in Spanish and bad English. I had introduced myself to hundreds of wrestlers before, from Freebirds to Von Erichs, from Midnight Rockers to Midnight Express, and announcers as well from Jim Ross to Alfonso Morales. With the exception of Ric Flair, none of them had I ever been nervous with. With Casas I was. Can’t tell you why. Maybe I saw him, like Flair, as bigger-than-life, and the others I didn’t? Bigger than life was funny, because as I stood next to him, I got a first-hand clue of the man behind the character. Dressed in shirt and tie (remember it was a typical boiling, humid August day in To-kyo-, where you take a shower, get dressed, walk outside, and by the time you get to the train 5 minutes later you’re drenched and feel like you need another shower, you know, like Memphis in the summer) with expensive-looking dress shoes and designer sunglasses, Casas presented himself as a yuppie businessman on his way to work, which I suppose he was. I tried a conversation, but it didn’t work. We sat next to each other on the train and I thumbed through a Shukan Puroresu magazine as he stared at the women on the train who were taking into their tiny mobile phones. I don’t know to this day was he just staring at the women for the usual reasons or was he as startled as I was in 1996 that someone would take their phone with them from home, on the train, and into work? He got off the train and to this day 18 years later I have not spoken with him since. Oh, about that * above, actually it was not the first time I had spoken with him. Re-introduced might be a better word there.

     Casas was able to exhibit heart and ferocity as well, even with his smaller stature, and started to become a major drawing card. Not often used in the main event, not often used in major feuds, he nonetheless was selling tickets.  He became the one the fans really came to see, the ones that they would nudge their son or wife or cousin or daughter or aunt or uncle or nephew or second cousin or great-nephew sitting there with them and say, “Negro Casas’s match is next!” “Here comes Negro Casas!” I know this to be true because I saw it and heard it for myself on three occasions. The third time was the August 1996 dates referenced above. The first time, well, that was the first time I actually met him.

    That would have been Sunday, October 28, 1990, at the “El Toreo” bullring in Naucalpan, in front of a mostly full house. There were five matches on the card that day. The main event was a match for the UWA World Trios Titles. The third (middle) match had Negro Casas in it.  I mean to tell you, all during the pre-show and the first two matches, you’d have thought The Mid-south Coliseum was just about to bring out from the back all the newly boiled hot dogs to the concession stands. People could not wait for what was about to come. They kept poking each other and saying, oh Negro Casas’s match is about to happen, or, here comes Negro Casas. Casa was a bad guy (rudo) in this match, but he got the most cheers and reaction of anyone on the entire card. He was subtle when he acted hurt, and he was sublime when he accomplished something positive during the match. He had most fun wrestling with Silver King and the two just went through their paces faster than anything I had ever seen before. He exuded evil charm and charisma far beyond what else I saw or experienced that day. Casas and his team lost that match.

            I myself am a rabid lucha libre fan, but there is a man alive more rabid, more knowledgeable, more a fan, more alive, than anyone else I know. His name is Kurt Brown, and he has been following lucha libre in Southern California since the late 1960s. Lucha stars from Mexico have, since the 1940s, worked Los Angeles and environs as if it were just another Mexican marketplace for lucha libre. In the 1980s, after the old Eaton/LeBell promotion had loosened its stranglehold on the LA market, a lucha wave took over the Olympic Auditorium, a major main venue for wrestling in LA. The biggest lucha star ever, El Santo, had died in 1984 and his son, riding a wave of sympathy, was on a hot streak like you wouldn’t believe, selling out 7-10 shows a week most every week for 3 years, including major shows in Tijuana. When the lucha promotion ran the Olympic in LA, Negro Casa was picked to be the man to make the then-ATM for all lucha libre in Mexico, Hijo del Santo, look good. Both men worked their butt off, and eventually Casas and Santo had a match of mascara contra caballera that drew so  many fans they box office had to turn people away – a match that during the early days of VHS tape trading became one of the most sought-after matches to see that a heard-core fan could find.

            You should ask Kurt about that match sometime, via Facebook or Twitter, oh the stories he can tell. Casas made the match like he made the build-up. He was a bigger star after it was over than when it started, even though he lost the match and his hair. Kurt fell in love.

            In 1989, New Japan Pro Wresting needed a new star for its youngest fans, and created a wrestling character based on a Saturday morning cartoon, Ju-shin “Thunder” Liger. Liger got over huge In that day, a common promotional tactic was to bring in famous talented foreigners and have the new start beat them cleanly to get over as bigger stars. I can’t even describe to you the reaction, the look, the yell, the earthquake-like-rattling that came from the condo in Walnut when Kurt Brown found out and then informed us all that Liger’s first foreign opponent would be Negro Casas. It was 1989 right around Christmas and no internet or the like back then, so none of us could wait to go to the local Japanese shopping plaza with its magazine store subsidiary and its video-tape subsidiary and see the match. It was memorable; indeed, Casa came out in a completely new costume, one that Antonio Peña has designed for Casas’s brother, Jorge Luis, who wrestled then and wrestles now under the battle name of El Felino.  Just seeing that costume and highly unexpected matchup of what was considered the two best lighter-weight wrestlers in the world, that was enough to send Kurt and me and our ilk to the moon and back.  The match itself, frankly, was not anything all that great, and Casas, while exhibiting all the charisma you would expect from an award-winning movie or theater actor, lost.

     In fact, Casas lost in the tournament at the Sumo Hall as well. In the first round. Did not win a match. Turns out he did not have a match on the 2nd, but he lost his match on the 3rd.
            Indeed, only once ever in my whole life have I ever attended a Negro Casas match live that he won. It was also the single best match I have ever seen in my life in person. Sunday, October 6, 1991. My travel companion Jody Boyns had just gone back to New England. Mid-South had gone from Tulsa to Atlanta to the grave. My trip would end in the morning. Casas defended the UWA World Middleweight Championship against Lyger (spelled that way in Mexico for phonetic reasons) in a three-fall bout that went about 23 minutes, as I recall, every one of them basically perfect.  It was the first time Casas, in a singles title match, was ever in the main event at the El Toreo bullring for UWA, and the building sold out. Except for a brutal, brutal power bomb, the details of the match have faded in 23 years. I do recall vividly, however, trying to go see him in the wrestler’s underground cave / tunnel that led to El Toreo’s primitive locker room facilities. I got to the door and stopped. I was standing there with Xochitl Hamada.  He was waiting for him, anxiously, as a girlfriend would. Then I remembered that she was married. Not to him. So I waited. Then I remembered he was married too. Not to her. So I left.

           Negro Casas, now 54, wrestles to this day. He may well be right now today at that age the best professional wrestler in Mexico. Not a few hard-core lucha fans would concur. He would too.

     He is still politically involved with work in the front office of his wrestling employer. He still trains younger wrestlers. He’s now married to what is either his second or third wife, a Panamanian woman who also wrestles. He hasn’t wrestled in the US much in the past 18 years, Japan either, they want younger flashier talent now. What was his story, what was his calling card, in the early 1980s – more offense, faster pace, more “high spots” – is the same story that will write him out in the next five years. In the era of video games, shorter attention spans, offense-increasing rules changes in most professional sports, and UFC, the style of work that succeeds in modern lucha libre is not the style of the classic old-school story-tellers like Negro Casas.

      But when you need just the perfect person to get a new talent over, or get a new wrestling story told, or get a few extra fans in the seats, he’s till the man everyone goes to first.
     As for me, now 56, I still watch him from afar, on TV, HD perhaps but still never the same as live. He’s got his eye on standing up to the new kid on the block, Rush, this generation’s version of lucha legend Perro Aguayo. Casas has one more main-event run left in him, I can sense it. Maybe I have one more trip left in me to see him. I know Spanish better than I did then, Maybe I’ll re-introduce myself.

Dr. Lucha Steve Sims writes about Lucha Libre for the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and Figure Four Weekly. He can be reached on twitter at @drluchajr.