The WWE Legacy of Alberto Del Rio, Who Wasn't What American Audiences Expect
In the wake of Alberto Del Rio's second departure from WWE, it's worth examining why he never quite reached the heights expected of him in America.
Photo by Miguel Discart/CC BY-SA 2.0
Alberto Del Rio is going to be just fine, that much should be clear. He's already headed back to the indies and probably his home country of Mexico, where the 39-year-old will be paid handsomely as he slides into his pro-wrestling dotage.
Still, in the wake of his second departure from WWE, it's worth examining why he never quite reached the heights expected of him in America. His pedigree is immaculate: he's the son of Dos Caras, a legendary luchador, and the nephew of Mil Mascaras, an even more legendary luchador. He has a great look—handsome, muscled, lantern-jawed. He's smooth in the ring, with an eye for both the physical grind and the dramatic aspects of the form. Del Rio may as well have come from a pro wrestling genetics lab.
In WWE, his gimmick was that of a rich Mexican playboy. He'd come to the ring in a different high-end car each week, parking at the ramp and having his personal announcer introduce him in Spanish to his bellowing mariachi theme before hitting the ring. It was a heel gimmick custom-made to annoy the shit out of anxious middle-class Americans, hitting all the resentment buttons while adding new ones: not only were Latinos coming to take your job and force you to encounter Spanish; they might end up being rich and handsome, too.
The entrance was hot for years—our cultural neuroses distilled. And then Del Rio would hit the ring and, invariably, it would all fizzle. This isn't to say Del Rio was a bad wrestler; on the contrary, he was and is a great ring technician. Nor is it to say that the heat always dropped off, as the tremendous pop Dolph Ziggler received after beating him at Payback 2013 can attest.
It's just that the audience seemed to accept only certain parts of the Alberto Del Rio package. The entrance, yes. The announcer, the trash talk, of course. There were two World titles and two WWE titles in his career, and they weren't letdowns. But there was also a sense that rising to the lofty status expected of him was always just around the corner, that there was this forever out-of-reach more in WWE that he could never quite grasp.
To watch Del Rio wrestle is to see a true heavyweight bridge wrestling styles. It's a blend of approaches: he's a big man at six and a half feet tall and nearly 250 pounds, but he moves quickly, with lots of power moves mixed with submissions and a smattering of high-flying stuff to change things up. His armbreaker finisher is so smooth it barely registers that it's happening.
And this is perhaps where the interest waned. Del Rio doesn't look, act, or wrestle like American audiences have been trained for decades to expect from Latino pro wrestlers. Those expectations, tinged by stereotype, have limited Latino wrestlers to a narrow range of styles. In the 1990s, WCW made wrestlers from Mexico household names, but mostly they were either pure high-flyers—almost always in masks—in the Rey Mysterio mold, or they toyed with slightly dangerous-to-middle-class-sensibilities gimmicks like Konnan's gang member aesthetic. Del Rio, once he got into the ring, was just a really good all-around wrestler.
One man serves as the most obvious antecedent to Del Rio: Eddie Guerrero. Guerrero bridges styles, as well, and could be viewed as working a similar gimmick to Del Rio, albeit toned down a bit; he transitioned from a gimmick portraying him as a cheater in a low rider to an untrustworthy lothario to (eventually) the most hyper-competent guy on the roster, nearly without a bold-lined gimmick beyond "amazing wrestler." That's roughly how Del Rio was presented once he hit the ring.
The problem with anyone choosing Guerrero as a model is that he was a generational talent. Del Rio, despite all of his ability, is not Eddie Guerrero. There's always been something of a disconnect between what Del Rio is, what American audiences expect, and what WWE want him to be. So in WWE Del Rio was somehow rudderless, despite the titles and the accolades.
Now he's gone. Again. Del Rio's first departure from WWE came in 2014, when he was fired after slapping an employee who allegedly had made a racist joke. He was rehired last year for big money and did practically nothing of note, only to be suspended in August for a wellness violation, rumored to be steroid-related. He wanted out, WWE was happy to let him go, and that's it. Now he's preparing to open a restaurant in San Antonio and retire in two years.
What's left is a question that is as difficult to answer as Alberto Del Rio's career in WWE is to assess: How good was he, really? By any purely aesthetic assessment of the sport, very. But in terms of impact, influence, and ticket sales, he has been strangely underwhelming over the years. Given the success he has had outside WWE, that's not the disaster it might have been, but it still places Del Rio in the unenviable spot as one of WWE's almost-greats.
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