Villano is a guy whose prime is almost completely missing. We have bits and pieces of it -- matches he had in EMLL, matches he had in Japan, matches that aired in Japan or were filmed by Japanese crews, and a few handhelds of his apuesta matches -- but mostly we're left with ring results and pictures, and Jose Fernandez' bio.
By the time the UWA got television, he was nearly 40. Forty is not old by lucha standards, but it's not considered most workers' physical peak. Judging by the footage, he had gained a fair bit of weight but was still in tremendous physical shape. The TV at the time is helpful, but the matches weren't shown in full, we don't have the complete run, and the show only lasted from '91 to 92. After that it's slim pickings from AAA and CMLL up until his famous mask match. For a guy who's a potential hall of famer that's not great.
The other problem that exists is that a lot of what did make tape or video in '91-92 is from his feud with Chris Benoit, a guy who wasn't a luchador and not proficient in the style. It's never a good idea to judge a luchador against a non-luchador, but that's what we're forced to do. Still, we can see some trends emerge from his matches with Benoit, and fortunately we have a match against his long time rival Rambo to compare those trends with.
Villano III vs. Rambo, WWF Light Heavyweight Championship, UWA 2/23/91
This was edited down to fit one of those 'Idolos de hoy en la lucha libre' videos the UWA released in 1991, but what they showed was a blast.
Rambo was never the most talented guy in lucha. When you think of the things he did well, there were a dozen or more guys who were better at each of them, but the one thing he had was gusto. If you ever want to see a moderately talented wrestler wrestle with bravado then Rambo is your man. That takes away from the fact that he did a lot of things well, but what made Rambo special was his ability to get under Villano's skin. On the surface, Rambo should have been just another mask, but the mercenary's hatred for Villano was so visceral that the feud never died. They wrestled each other in hair vs. mask matches and title bouts, in trios matches and in mano a mano fights. When Rambo couldn't get the job done, he'd enlist the help of others. He'd be their second, their corner man, their eyes and ears at ringside. Christ, he even had it in for the rest of the family. Even when Villano unmasked, Rambo was invested in taking his hair (what little of it there was left.) Despite the fact he never beat Villano in an apuesta match, he would have gone to the ends of the earth to try. All told, they fought an apuesta match in four different decades.
The first thing you notice about this match is the matwork. It's lucha matwork, which means they don't just lie around in an ordinary looking hold. They twist and bend that hold until they shape it into something expressive. Some people may turn their noses up at that, but let's face it, those people will never be invited to a lucha dinner party. For the initiated, it's pure joy. For the hardcore fan, it's the only time Villano gets to stretch his lucha legs in this set of matches. It wasn't just Salvador Dalí stuff, though. They took some nasty jabs at each other with Rambo headbutting Villano's leg and Villano giving him a knee drop to the eye, and the matwork towards the end got down and dirty before they stood back up and delighted me with some good old fashioned butt offence off the ropes. Only in lucha could it all come together.
(It was actually kind of smart from Rambo as it looked like he was going to lead with the butt again, but he hooked the waist and flipped Villano over for the pin.)
Another notable thing about the bout is that Villano lost the first fall and struck back quickly to take the second. Villano loved that trope. You might even say he was the master of it. To be honest, he over used it. The way he'd do it was smart, but when it happens match after match you start to raise an eyebrow.
The third fall was a tidy fall, and if there's one word if use to describe Villano in this set of matches it's tidy. The matches didn't hit any high notes, but they were as solid as the gym sessions interspersed throughout the tape and overseen by the patriarch Ray Mendoza. Does that mean that Villano III wasn't as special as the history lessons make out? Probably not when you consider how difficult the craft of lucha singles matches is. His bloody mano a mano bouts and apuesta bouts were no doubt better than his title fights, but he's still one of the all round better lucha singles match workers you'll see. Both guys sold like they were buggered, which they probably were. Rambo tried to take a short cut by claiming he was fouled then gave Villano a legitimate mule kick to the Mendoza family jewels. Unfortunately, his big nearfall off a top rope sunset flip was mistimed and Villano had to step into it, which didn't look good on the replay. After nailing that over the head, double legged takedown spot Rambo loved so much, the big man went to the well one too many times, and Villano countered it for what else -- a tidy finish.
Fun match, especially if you're familiar with the rest of their work.
Villano III vs. Pegasus Kid, WWF Light Heavyweight Championship, UWA 3/3/91
This is probably the best lucha title match I've seen from a non-luchador. The mat work wasn't what you'd expect from a lucha title match. Benoit had some good ideas for holds, but then he'd just lie in them. It was interesting that Villano didn't appear to carry him. Perhaps it was his experience working with so many foreigners, but he seemed to tap into that international juniors style that workers never left home without in the 1980s. His own holds and counters were solid and he knew how to make a theatrical production out of a nearfall. What Benoit was good at even in '91 was what I would loosely call kick/punch transitions. When they were off the mat and transitioning into mid range offence like his snap suplex, he was excellent at setting those holds up. It was all cribbed from Dynamite Kid, but like Keiichi Yamada, he was a devout pupil.
The second fall was longer than the usual Villano response. Sticklers will notice that he went after the leg which was then completely dropped, but it was awesome watching him cut loose with the arm drags. They got a lot of mileage out of the snap suplex and DDT, and Benoit had enough in his holster with the diving headbutt and plancha to provide solid tercera caida action. Their counters were a bit sloppy in the final fall, but it was acceptable in the same way that play breaks down in any close game. The pacing and selling were very good, and if Villano wasn't exactly carrying the action, he was making sure the crowd stayed involved with his appeals for their support. The third fall could have gone either way and was nicely balanced. Benoit won under a cloud of controversy as Villano claimed to have been fouled. Rambo didn't care, though. He was over the moon.
The alleged foul was quite a good one. It came when Benoit set Villano on the top turnbuckle for the superplex. Villano claimed that he'd posted him on the turnbuckle, but Benoit signaled to the ref that it had caught the inside of Villano's thigh. Nevertheless, Villano kept selling the posting after the superplex and the pin. Lord knows if it was intentional or not, but it created a tremendous grey area where Benoit could easily claim it was non-intentional and a pure accident, while Villano could push for a mask vs. mask match.
Villano III vs. Pegasus Kid, mask vs. mask, UWA 11/3/91
Deathly dull. The only time this resembled an apuesta match was towards the end when Benoit ripped Villano's mask. The rest of the time they lay around in holds like it was a title match. Since Villano had been in so many bloody wager matches and mano a mano bouts, I'd place the blame squarely on his shoulders. He should have taken this kid and led him by the nose through a proper mask match. That's not the worst of it, though. There's no commentary for this fight, and the guy who led the rudo chant every thirty seconds was doing my head in. I made it through without muting it or playing some music, but never again.
El Hijo del Santo y Villano III vs. Negro Casas y Pegasus Kid, UWA 1/19/92
It looks like they were pretty liberal with the editing here as I can't imagine the full match was this truncated. Still, this was a lot of fun. It's not every day you see Villano III and El Hijo del Santo team together. If I were a kid, that would be like Marvel Two-in-One.
Casas was sporting the oddest outfit I've seen him wear -- this gold amateur singlet. It didn't affect his wrestling, though, as he tore it up with Santo. If you need a Santo/Casas fix then this is a double espresso. It's standard Santo stuff, but they rush headlong into it and the takedowns are amazingly quick.
Villano III vs. Benoit is nicely chippy in anticipation of their return title match. The match was nicely structured actually with Benoit finally getting the hang of rudo tactics and having an excellent teacher in the form of Negro Casas, but hey, it's Santo and Villano, you think that team-up is going to fail? Watching Santo eliminate Casas from this match was sublime and could have/should have easily made Vintage Negro Casas of the Day. Detail lovers will also get a kick out of Villano punching Casas repeatedly while he was in the Santo surfboard. I know I did.
Villano III vs. Pegasus Kid, WWF Light Heavyweight Championship, UWA 1/26/92
I seem to remember this being longer on the version I had. The matwork again wasn't great here, but there were signs that Benoit grew during this time in Mexico as he was beginning to make an honest attempt at countering holds instead of simply letting them die. Villano dug into his bag of tricks and managed to make an extended leg lock sequence pretty interesting. He also had a really nice knee-to-the-face counter to a backbreaker where Benoit was really grinding and rolling Villano's back against his knee. It looked like Benoit had the first fall with a series of submissions where the drained Villano would fall prey to the snap suplex between holds, really taking it out of him, but this seemed like Villano's game 7 here, more so than the mask vs. mask match. It actually gave me a sense of how much the title meant to the Villano character, which I never really had before. Those of you who are used to other styles of lucha may be surprised by how long they resisted submitting compared to the instantaneous submissions which are much more common in Mexico, but interestingly this fall was structured like a tercera caida. Benoit won it with the diving headbutt, which was a hell of a punctuation mark, and when it was over there was time to catch your breath and realise that was a hell of an opening fall in terms of the scope. There was none of that work the mat, take it to the ropes, one wrestler makes a mistake and the other captialises waltz that you really see. This was pretty epic even if the work didn't quite match the production.
Villano won the second fall in a matter of seconds. It worked and the crowd ate it up even though they'd surely seen it before. It was a tremendous shift in pace like the jolt you get from a small earthquake, but there's a nagging voice at the back of my head that says that's an overused trope. But Villano really wanted that win so we moved on. Again, Benoit looked to systematically take Villano apart in the final caida. This was Benoit at his best -- methodical, precise. It wasn't very lucha like, but it worked in a high stakes bout like this one. The crowd popped big when Villano got his knees up on a Benoit dive and I thought this would have a good time to switch the title, but the UWA had other ideas, and after a valiant effort at refusing to submit where all he could do was crawl across the mat after every attempt, the ref finally called the bout off when Villano refused to give up. His brother wouldn't throw the towel in and it seemed like Villano was about to pass out. It was a big call, but the right call, and y'know you don't see too many workers get put over like that in Mexico. Villano saved face by not visibly submitting, but Benoit clearly beat him unlike the foul controversy surrounding their first title switch. It seems that the promoters wanted to turn Benoit face and did so through pushing his wrestling skill. At least it seems that way from the match results.
Pretty good match that got better with repeat viewings.
So what can be said about Villano III?
A very good worker during this time, excellent even, but like Santo a very formulaic worker. It was notable for me that when Casas made his brief appearance in the matches he was instantly more interesting than Villano had been and that was only showing a spark of his usual genius. There was something spontaneous and exciting about him whereas Villano was well rehearsed and assured. I'm not sure Villano screams top 100 for me as I wouldn't have him in my top 10 luchadores,
Points in Villano's favour would be the handicap of working with a non-luchador and doing pretty well to the point where Benoit got better as the footage progressed. The mask match is a negative, but most luchadores have experiences in failing at apuesta matches. He was a solid all-round performer, though a bit hefty during these days and blew the odd spot. One thing that surprised me was that he was surprisingly good at selling. He was great at staggering before he fell and falling in a crumpled heap, and he sold his head hitting the canvas with aplomb. I just didn't get the feeling he was brilliant like the best workers are.