By Mike Mooneyham

Nov. 28, 2004

He flies through the air with the greatest of ease, but he’s not the daring young man on the flying trapeze.

He’s pro wrestling’s human highlight reel, Rey Mysterio, whose spectacular moves inside the squared circle seem to defy the laws of gravity. A little man (5-6, 170) in a big man’s sport, Mysterio looks more like a horse jockey than a grappler. But once the bell sounds, his blinding speed, springboard leaps and acrobatic arsenal make everyone who watches the colorfully masked competitor a true believer.

Mysterio, who will appear on tonight’s Smackdown show at the North Charleston Coliseum, has literally revolutionized the game during his 15-year career. His innovative, daredevil style has earned him legions of fans not only in this country, but in Mexico and Japan as well, Born on this side of the Mexican border in Chula Vista, Calif., to parents who had immigrated from Guadalajara, Mysterio went to school in the San Diego area, but often traveled to Tijuana, just 15 minutes away, to see his uncle wrestle. He moved there at the age of 9 and fully immersed himself in the art of Lucha Libre wrestling, second only to soccer as the country’s national sport.

Rey Mysterio, Jr.

Rey Mysterio, Jr.

The 29-year-old Mysterio, whose birth name is Oscar Gutierrez, carries the ring moniker of his uncle, Mexican wrestling star Rey Misterio (“King of Mystery”). The younger wrestler initially took the name Rey Misterio Jr., but slightly altered the spelling of his surname and dropped the “Jr.” when he joined World Wrestling Entertainment.

Mysterio was trained by his uncle in Tijuana in the same camp that produced fellow Lucahdores Konnan and Psicosis. Mysterio was only 14 years old, a tad over five feet tall and pushing 120 pounds when he made his professional debut as El Colibri (The Hummingbird) on April 30, 1989. He dropped out of high school at 17 to focus on his wrestling career, performing in the gyms of Tijuana and bars in Hollywood, sometimes working for mere dollars. But those who saw him knew he was destined for something much bigger.

A favorite for years in Mexico’s AAA promotion, Mysterio’s unique style and off-the-chart matches with the likes of Psicosis and Juventud Guerrera in Philadelphia-based Extreme Championship Wrestling got him noticed by the Ted Turner-owned World Championship Wrestling in 1996. From there he was off to the races.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

Mysterio has persevered despite major miscalculations during his career. The biggest blunder occurred when then-WCW head Eric Bischoff ordered him to remove his mask in 1997.

Mexico has a long tradition of masked wrestlers, and the hood is a sign of respect for one’s heritage and a very special part of the culture. Sometimes wrestlers wear the same mask generation over generation to honor their predecessors.

Bischoff’s convoluted logic was that by taking his mask off, Mysterio could show more emotion and would therefore be more marketable. While that assumption might have held true in some cases, Mysterio was an exception.

Mysterio says he was young and naive at the time, but he knew that wasn’t a sound business decision. Many followers of the industry, who had tabbed the youngster as a potential big-money player who was tailor-made for the burgeoning kids market, agreed.

“I was young, growing up and learning about the business then,” says Mysterio. ” Of course, being in the United States is totally different than being in Mexico. When you cross the border and find out how business is done here, it’s all about marketing. At the time I was very good friends with Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, and I learned a lot from both of them. I sit back nowadays and think about those days, and I think about how much could have been done with the character Rey Mysterio. It was just a big ego thing in WCW. It was who you know and who’s going to get over. They didn’t care about making money with smaller people.”

Mysterio didn’t surrender his hood without a fight. He had even planned to no-show a pay-per-view match with Eddie Guerrero at Halloween Havoc in a bout in which he was to lose his mask.

“There was a rumor that Eric was going to take off my mask. No he wasn’t,” says Mysterio, who was prepared to get a doctor’s excuse to miss the bout. Bischoff, however, got wind of the impending no-show and placed a call to Mysterio.

“It surprised me. He said I better make the show because I would be in breach of contract, and that I better do as I was told. I told him I’d be there. Everything but that (losing the mask) happened that night.”

A match shortly thereafter, however, saw Bischoff follow through with his threat. “I think that was payback for not doing it the first time,” says Mysterio.

Mysterio had worn the mask for nine years, and losing it amounted to embarrassment and humiliation. His popularity also took a hit.

“He (Bischoff) didn’t care. It was an ego trip, and it was all about Hogan, Hogan, Hogan.”

Mysterio found himself facing a big decision.

“I’m going to be honest with you,” he says. “It was the money. The money was outstanding. I had never made that kind of money in my career. It was out of sight, out of mind. But then it came to a point with some guys, that they were being wasted there and their career was going nowhere. That happened to me when I started to see everybody leave. The money was great, but this is what I had trained for my entire life. This was a dream come true. So I had to decide if I just wanted to sit around there and make the easy money and do nothing with my career. I decided to move ahead.”

REACHING HIS POTENTIAL

Mysterio has come full circle since then. He regained his popularity and then some since arriving in WWE in June 2002 with his trademark mask intact.

When WWE owner Vince McMahon purchased WCW in 2001, Mysterio feared that he wasn’t going to have a job and considered returning to Mexico City. He was hired by WWE a year later and has been an integral part of the roster since then.

He admits to having slightly relaxed his high-flying style due to various surgeries and the wear and tear on his body. Also adhering to a company request that wrestlers cut back on some of the high-risk maneuvers that were causing an inordinate amount of injuries, Mysterio has made a conscious effort to pull back on the reins just a bit, but still has visions of going full-throttle inside the ring.

“There’s times when I just want to go out there and do what I used to do,” he says.

He’d love to recreate some of his classic matches with Psicosis. Their ECW bouts in 1995 were considered revolutionary and gave that promotion a tremendous boost.

“We didn’t think it was that spectacular at the time because it’s what we did in Mexico all the time. We just did what we routinely did. If I ever wrestled him again, it would come down to that point. We’d definitely rock the house.”

Mysterio also is longtime friends with former WWE champ Eddie Guerrero and Konnan (Charles Ashenoff) dating back to their days in Mexico. He credits Konnan, who now lives near his San Diego area home, with helping him get his foot in the door in both ECW and WCW.

It was Mysterio’s dream to carry on the proud tradition of his uncle. Mysterio says he’d like to do something in WWE with Rey Misterio, who is still performing in Mexico.

“I see my uncle and visit him at family get-togethers, and my kids are very close to his kids. I think he has tremendous respect for what I’ve done in my career. He sees me with this passion, and he’s proud that I’ve gone this far.”

Mysterio, who tipped the scales at 140 pounds during his early days in WCW, has added extra muscle and pounds to his diminutive frame, along with an assortment of tattoos and body piercings that accentuate his colorful ring character. He now maintains a weight in the 170-pound range.

He’s also added to his considerable mask collection. He now owns about 150 hoods along with complete outfits. He says they’re waiting for his son if he decides to become a wrestler one day. It’s a time-honored tradition to keep the family name alive in Mexican culture, says Mysterio, who has two children, a 2ñ-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son.

“My son likes wrestling – he likes to wrestle with me. But right now he plays soccer and wants to try out for football. I think if my son ever decides to become a wrestler … Wow!”

SPLIT ROSTERS

Like many of his colleagues, Mysterio is well aware of the perception that Smackdown is the lesser of the two WWE brands. But with the show’s ratings on the upswing (Smackdown recorded its best rating of the year for its Nov. 18 show), he firmly believes there are some creative ways to get the division back on track.

“I think we can do a lot more with the show. When I first stepped foot in Smackdown, there were tremendous storylines. Of course we had The Rock and Triple H back then, and the roster was different and exciting. All of a sudden the ball drifted, and Raw was getting the better hand. We’ve tried to work very hard to pick up to where Smackdown is interesting and people want to watch.”

Not surprisingly, Mysterio feels the brand’s cruiserweight division could be one of the show’s more appealing selling points if the company got fully behind it. Cruiserweights accounted for some of the most exciting matches in WCW during its glory days, and they remain a hallmark of such promotions as Total Nonstop Action and Ring of Honor.

“I think the cruiserweight division has a lot more potential than what we’re doing right now. As far as people categorizing Smackdown as the B show, I don’t think most of the boys see it that way. Wrestling is in one of its down periods right now. We look at what we can do to improve our show. We want to try different things and make the show one that the fans want to watch.”

Mysterio lists Billy Kidman, Juventud Guerrera and Shannon Moore among the standouts in the division.

“That kid (Moore) has tremendous potential, and I shouldn’t say he’s a kid because he’s probably around my age, 27 or 28 years old. He still has an opportunity to make it, and I think he’s going to succeed once they do give him that opportunity. (Sho) Funaki is another wrestler who’s been in the mix who could move up in the cruiserweight division. Akio (Jimmy Yang) also is a great athlete. There’s definitely a lot of potential here. We could be what WCW didn’t do. We could take it wherever we wanted to go. From there you could always pull out guys to work on top with the heavyweights.”

Mysterio, who recently held the WWE tag-team title with Rob Van Dam, views the company’s recent talent purge as an opportunity to pick up some new potential stars who could help the promotion in the long run.

“I think we always are in a position to develop talent. We just released 10 guys, so making 10 other guys would definitely not hurt us. The problem is: Are they ready? There are a lot of guys out there who have been handed the ball, but unfortunately they’re not ready. Some of them don’t see the business with the same passion that other people see it. We all have to be on the same page. I love this sport; I’m living my dream. This is something I’ve wanted to do since I was born, and here I am. There are 20 other guys who are on the same page I’m on and are pushing hard to make this product work.”

Mysterio, who turns 30 in two weeks, knows his time in the ring is limited.

“I don’t want to retire within the next five years, even though I feel hurt, I’m tired. But I don’t want to miss out on my children’s games, my daughter’s dance classes and all that. I want to be able to go on for as long as I can, be it three or five years, and then have a modified schedule. Maybe a schedule where I can have a couple weeks off or a month off throughout the year, so I can be around my kids.”

For now, though, the pint-sized high flyer will continue to dazzle fans with sunset flips, moonsaults, top-rope huracanranas, suicide planchas and his patented 619 (the zip code of his hometown). He’s a rare performer who has the ability to bring the crowd to its feet.

Relying more on speed than power moves, he’s worked against some of the biggest behemoths in the business, including Big Show, The Undertaker, Brock Lesnar and Kevin Nash. But the giant-killer still fancies himself as a champion of the small people.

“Even though I age year after year, I think I’ll always represent the small people. My major fan base is the kids. They bring their parents, so now I’ve got the whole family watching.”

And when the kids bring their parents and introduce them to the amazing Rey Mysterio, it makes it all worthwhile.

“It makes me feel very special. It’s just a blessing from God that I can have people come watch who might not otherwise.”

Mike Mooneyham can be reached by phone at (843) 937-5517 or by e-mail at [email protected] He is the co-author of the New York Times best-seller “Sex, Lies and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment.” For wrestling updates during the week, call The Post and Courier Info Line at 937-6000, ext. 3090.