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The colorful masked man from Tabasco, Mexico would become a building block for the Universal Wrestling Association and would go on to fight a who's-who of top wrestling names from the companies home base of Naucalpan, Mexico. One of the most famous luchadores in Mexico's long history, El Canek remains perhaps the most popular Mexican wrestler since the original El Santo.
El Canek got his start in professional wrestling when he was 20 years old when he was called upon to fill in for an injured wrestler. Since he was still in training during this time period he went by the name El Universitario (translated to mean "The College Student") to reflect his trainee status. Born Felipe Estrada, El Canek had a background in Olympic wrestling and also competed in bodybuilding and turned into a fast learner in the ring. Soon he was teaming up with the veteran wrestler Angel Azul and he changed his name to Principe Azul in honor of his mentor. El Canek's mat skills and muscular physique contrasted with the normal look for a luchadore, which tended to be aerial based and was typically done by smaller men, and he began to attract a following. Later he decided that he needed to create his own character as opposed to standing in the shadow of Angel Azul. He settled on basing his name off of the Mayan revolutionary Jacinto Canek, who led a revolt against Spanish imperialists in the 1760s and the character of El Canek was born.
In 1973 El Canek began to work for the top promotion in Mexico, Empresa Mexicana de Lucha Libre. During this time period EMLL worked more like the NWA, where local promoters promoted their own shows in their towns, under the nation-wide EMLL banner. El Canek became a popular wrestler mainly working in the northern states of Mexico and eventually won the Northern Mexico Heavyweight Championship from Jose Torres.
In 1974, EMLL founder Salvador Lutteroth, who was largely responsible for turning wrestling in Mexico into a national past time when he founded the company in 1933, brought his son, Salvador Lutteroth Jr. into the promotion to take over for him when he retired. This, along with stagnant and conservative booking, caused a rift between some of the wrestlers and promoters and eventually the EMLL promoter in Naucalpan, Francisco Flores, along with investor Benjamin Mora Jr. broke away from EMLL and formed their own promotion, the Universal Wrestling Association. This bold move attracted several other regional promoters to join up with Flores, and EMLL wrestlers, particularly young stars like El Canek who were frustrated with the lack of upward mobility in EMLL, jumped over to the upstart promotion.
El Canek became a strong upper-midcarder in the company during its formative years, and when top star Mil Mascaras began to take more bookings in the United States and Japan, and the age of veteran stars Ray Mendoza and Rene Guajardo began to show, the UWA decided to push new talents to the main event level. Management settled with Dos Caras as their top babyface and El Canek as their new heel. Dos Caras wrestled a smooth and flashy style while El Canek was physical bully who owned the mat. El Canek began to climb to the main event when he defeated Dr. Wagner to win the Mexican National Light Heavyweight Championship in January of 1978. A feud was then built between the fan favorite Dos Caras and the rudo El Canek. Dos Caras would defeat El Canek for the championship in July. The feud between Dos Caras and El Canek became one of the top attractions in Mexico as their matches were highly regarded and set the tone for a new generation of Mexican wrestling.
In September 1978, El Canek ascended to the top of the ladder when he defeated the legendary Lou Thesz to win the UWA World Heavyweight Championship. The victory over Thesz, who despite being over 60 years old at the time still held great respect as an in-ring technician, put El Canek's name on the international radar. El Canek would hold the title for over 500 days before dropping the championship to New Japan Pro Wrestling star Tiger Jeet Singh. Despite the fact that he had been a big heel in Mexico, El Canek began to get over as a huge babyface when he began to defend his championship against foreign talent. The UWA struck deals with large promotions from other nations, most notably NJPW, and would bring in top names to work with their top stars, in addition to sending men like El Canek and Dos Caras out on foreign tours.
The feud between Singh and El Canek drew consistent sell-out crowds for the UWA and it was apparent that the fans really wanted to cheer for El Canek as the Mexican hero who would defend the honor of his people against outsiders. The wild, sword-wielding Singh was a perfect foil for El Canek and became the most hated villain in the country. El Canek would chase unsuccessfully for the tile before finally dethroning Singh in February 1981. During this same time period, El Canek traveled to Japan and wrestled some of the top stars there, including Riki Choshu, Tiger Mask and Tatsumi Fujinami. A memorable match took place in 1983 when El Canek teamed up with his rival Perro Aguayo to take on Japanese star Gran Hamada and budding American titan, Hulk Hogan.
The formula of El Canek taking on various, large foreign wrestlers became one of the most successful booking ideas in the history of wrestling. While EMLL and later AAA were true national promotions, the UWA was more of a regional promotion, basing most of their shows out of Naucalpan. However, El Canek and the UWA were doing incredible business in that area. At the El Toreo de Cuatro Caminos, a bull ring in Naucalpan, the UWA reportedly drew over one million fans to the arena in a single calendar year. That number is widely disputed, but when I asked Dave Meltzer about it he said that in fact they did get very close to that number. A million fans to one arena in one year, and El Canek was the top dog in the company during those heights. Nobody in the history of wrestling, not Bruno Sammartino at Madison Square Garden, not Lou Thesz at Kiel Auditorium, not Inoki at the Sumo Hall, nobody ever claimed such a high number. Week after week they ran the bull ring in Naucalpan, and week after week it was sell-out, sell-out, sell-out.
El Canek tackled his largest challenge in 1984 when he wrestled Andre the Giant, becoming one of the few men in history to actually bodyslam Andre the Giant and became one of the even fewer men to have victories over both Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan on his resume. El Canek continued to wrestle several other big name American talents, including matches against Vader and Stan Hansen, and even unsuccessfully challenged Hulk Hogan for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship in 1984 at a UWA event in Mexico City.
Like all great storylines, the battles between El Canek and various foreigners began to peter out and the glory days were over for the UWA. By 1991 the UWA and CMLL (the former EMLL) buried the hatchet and began to exchange talent and El Canek began to wrestle once again for CMLL. El Canek teamed up with Dr. Wagner Jr. and the duo captured the CMLL World Tag Team Championships and held them for over a year. In 1996 El Canek left CMLL and began to work for the company's rival, Asistencia Asesoría y Administración, and gave the promotion another established, veteran star. Working for AAA also allowed El Canek to make an appearance on WWF television during a short-lived working relationship between the two companies, working a match at the 1997 Royal Rumble in San Antonio. Despite being past his prime years, El Canek continued to be an important figure in Mexican wrestling for the next 15 years, working for various promotions throughout the country, including AAA, CMLL, International Wrestling Revolution Group, and various independent groups. Despite being 63 years old, El Canek continues to be an active wrestler in Mexico today.
Although he never captured the same worldwide notoriety of some of his contemporaries, most notably Mil Mascaras, El Canek became one of the biggest wrestlers in lucha libre history to don a mask. To this day he remains a pivotal figure in the industry and one of the most popular wrestlers in the country. El Canek became a sensational draw during the 1980s and was the top star in Mexico during that time period, making him one of the top stars anywhere of the last 50 years.
Next week, #34 will be revealed, a super-heavyweight who became one of the biggest heels of all-time.
The Top 50 so far:
50.Ted DiBiase (click link for description of the qualifications of the list)
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada
36. Jushin Thunder Liger