A Eulogy for Mr. Niebla

The 46 year old luchador died Monday

There is a cultural obsession with the idea of the troubled troubadour; the performer who is so talented that even in their darkest moments, the unromantic and ugly ones, they are capable of producing something beautiful. An image of a travelling man (almost always a man), unable to get out of his own way, snatching obscurity from the jaws of commercial appeal in increasingly depressing ways. The notion that genius was ever present and its display was always at the very least a shadow of a possibility, even when common sense would tell you otherwise.

Truthfully, professional wrestling has a long list of performers to whom we try to apply this title. Terry Gordy overdosed on pain medication on a plane and suffered permanent brain damage, and for half a decade there were whispers of matches in which he still showed glimpses of the things that made him wondrous to behold in the years prior. Ultimately, these flashes were a mirage, an unfair hope thrust upon an ailing man from an overzealous fandom. There are others, euphemistically unable to outrun their demons, talked about endlessly on somber DVD documentaries.

Mr. Niebla, born Efren Tiburcio, was not like these men. If one was to sum up his life by his ability to outrun his prov. Within five years, he was a trios champion and took the mask of Shocker, a former partner and main rival, at Anniversario. Despite this, it ended up being Shocker who became the better regarded of the two performers. Niebla, while immensely popular when present, found his momentum often taken away. Intermittently it would be announced that Niebla was injured. This was sometimes true, as knee and shoulder problems became near constants on his larger than average frame, but more often was code, a way for a guarded industry to protect the personal life of a troubled star. It happened so often that he often found himself clarifying to fans and magazines when he was actually injured and when he simply needed personal time.

At various points, it became too much to bear for companies likes CMLL and AAA, who genuinely seemed to value him and keep him employed even as he struggled. He would be let go, and work independent dates and shows, stringing enough work together and enough personal responsibility to find a way to return. Even as companies protected themselves, keeping him at arms-length and never again trusting him with the pressures of a major apuestas main event, he found himself in noteworthy factions and feuds. In AAA, he would form the Los Vipers trio. In CMLL, he became a founding member of La Peste Negra. It was within the latter group that Niebla began to hone the work that would define the latter portion of his career.

As his bouts with alcoholism became increasingly public, Niebla eschewed the heavyweight technical style he had been so proficient in earlier in his career. Instead, he began to blur the lines of reality beyond all recognition. Stumbling and brawling, each match was a bar fight, equal parts silent move pratfalls and incoherent violence. One moment he could be flinging a wooden box at his opponents head, or whipping them with a chain. The next, he might slip on the ring apron, tumbling to the floor, embarrassed and angry, kicking and screaming at something he claimed tripped him. Later still, he would dance in the center of the ring, an ugly arrhythmic series of moves, but ones that belied a grace and athleticism that so clearly still bubbled beneath the surface.

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It is perhaps the greatest shame that Niebla’s career is now defined by these moments, the ones designed to play at his own sordid past, the ones designed to delight and disgust children and tourists, the ones that were so easily turned into memes on twitter. It will almost certainly be what he is remembered for, a performer so well known for being drunk that he played one on TV. It would be like if Townes Van Zandt was best known for the jokes in between songs during his live sets. For those moments, no matter how clever or cheeky or sad they were, obscured the fact that Mr. Niebla was still a performer capable of capturing an audience in a way that only a handful can. It is this that separates him from so many others. For Mr. Niebla, no matter how much we try to romanticize his life as a series of what ifs, was still someone capable of genius in ways that other, more dependable men were not. Mr. Niebla, for all of the times his career was eulogized prematurely, was able to see the future in the way that all great wrestlers are able to see the future. Alcoholism did not rob him of his abilities like it did so many of his peers. It merely robbed us of opportunities to see those abilities once more.