Defying the Impossible: How Kalisto became WWE’s next great luchador

Defying the Impossible: How Kalisto became WWE’s next great luchador
How did Kalisto rebound from a career-threatening accident to become lucha libre's newest ambassador?

Lying on an arena floor in Mexico, staring up at the masked faces of concerned luchadors milling around him, Kalisto worried his career might be finished.

While competing on an independent card in 2011, Kalisto — who was then known as Samuray Del Sol — had made a miscalculation. He attempted a double backflip cannonball from the top rope onto opponents outside the ring, but overshot his target and crashed skull-first on the concrete.

It was evidence of what WWE Performance Center coach Norman Smiley called Kalisto’s biggest strength, but also his biggest detriment: “His guts.” To compensate for his size disadvantage — and it’s always a size disadvantage for the 5-foot-6 masked wonder — Kalisto barely keeps his feet on the ground, instead springing into action with a dizzying neon blitz from the sky. The result is thrilling to watch, but, as proven that night, also full of risk.

Following the nasty spill, Kalisto recovered for two months at his aunt and uncle’s house in Mexico and considered his options. Around that time, a heart attack befell his mother back home in Chicago. Kalisto blamed it on stress caused by his accident. Guilt weighed heavily.

“I don’t know what would’ve happened had I never been injured,” he said. “My mom would have not had a heart attack — at least, that’s what I was thinking. I felt it was my fault. That’s when I decided to retire.”

The decision was made. At age 24, Kalisto would complete his final booking commitments before selling off all of his Samuray Del Sol shirts and masks at a fan festival in Mexico called “Expo Lucha” and calling it quits. The King of Flight was grounding himself.

I'm sure many people can relate to feeling like your world is ending.

- Kalisto

It would be an unremarkable and premature end to not only a career that looked so promising, but also one individual’s lifelong dream.

A product of a childhood split between two cultures, Kalisto was born in Chicago, but spent his formative years in Mexico, where he fell in love with lucha libre, the utterly unique form of sports-entertainment introduced to him on his grandmother’s television. His family relocated back to Chicago while he was still a child but would visit relatives in Mexico annually. With each trip back, he became further enamored with lucha libre and the masks worn by técnicos like Octagon and Tinieblas, the latter of whom was a competitor billed from outer space.

“I was amused by the luchadors and the art they wore on their faces,” Kalisto explained. “Lucha libre is translated as ‘free fighting,’ but it’s really a different way of presenting wrestling. It’s an aerial art, but it’s also about having a unique presence.”

Back in the United States, Kalisto was certain nothing could captivate him the way lucha libre had, until he latched onto The Undertaker’s supernatural WWE Championship rivalry with Yokozuna. The Attitude Era then turned Kalisto into a devotee. Exposure to ECW opened his eyes to the spring-loaded arsenal of Rob Van Dam, while the daredevil styling of Hayabusa, a masked Japanese  legend whom Kalisto watched cut his teeth in Mexico, transfixed via VHS. Sports-entertainment, and lucha libre in particular, he realized, was his calling.

“I always knew I was going to be a wrestler; I just didn’t know how,” he said. “It wasn’t easy because I had no connections; I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know anybody other than friends who liked wrestling.”

After graduating from high school, where he competed in amateur wrestling, football and jiu-jitsu, Kalisto eventually found a wrestling school online that was located two hours away. He wedged in time for training in between two jobs and his college coursework, and quickly picked up the fundamentals, even making his ring debut within his first month — far sooner than his training school typically allowed students.

Finding creative inspiration in unlikely places like the ballet and Jean Claude Van-Damme movies — and, above all else, lucha — and blessed with incredible speed that made opponents look like they were sputtering in quicksand, Kalisto was soon being hailed as independent wrestling’s next great high-flyer. Just a few years in, he achieved a personal milestone of returning to Mexico, this time as a luchador. There, the gutsy aerial display almost sounded the death knell on his blossoming career.

“I was mad at myself,” Kalisto said of his errant dive. “I knew the opportunities I had, and for me, to backtrack is the worst thing in the world. I’m sure many people can relate to feeling like your world is ending.”

Fortunately, fate, in the form of a phone call from his now-wife, intervened and put a stop to his plan of selling off his merchandise and moving on to a different line of work. As Kalisto put it, “everything happened at once.”

“I thought she was calling in regard to my mom and that I’d have to go back to Chicago to check on her, but nope,” he remembered. “She ended up telling me that WWE had called and invited me to a tryout.”

With the support of his girlfriend and his family, Kalisto went to the tryout, and though it did not immediately lead to an offer, he returned to the indie circuit reinvigorated by the knowledge he was on WWE’s radar.

Things sped up quickly from there. In Mexico, his scary accident only seemed to increase interest in the young risk-taker. The country’s leading organization, AAA, signed him, and Octagon, the same popular luchador that amazed Kalisto as a child, took notice, anointing him his protégé and bestowing upon him a new mask and the identity of “Octagon Jr.” Still competing as Samuray Del Sol stateside, Kalisto began landing more high-profile matches in organizations like Dragon Gate USA, EVOLVE and Combat Zone Wrestling.

The momentum carried Kalisto into another WWE tryout in 2012, this one resulting in an eventual contract offer. He reported to the WWE Performance Center the next year, during the first week it opened, and took a seat under the learning trees of Smiley and the late “American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, as well as other coaches there, like Sara Amato.

“When I first started, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” he recalled. “I underestimated everything. Like any other normal person, you’re nervous when you’re working your dream job. You don’t want to mess up or give a bad impression.”

Easing his transition was the fact Smiley, who, like Kalisto, speaks Spanish and had a successful career in Mexico, was the instructor for his first class. The competitor once known as “Black Magic” bolstered Kalisto’s confidence — “He saw that I was nervous and helped me calm down, a lot” — and even tipped him off to the Performance Center’s crash-pad ring, built for flyers like Kalisto to perfect risky maneuvers.

“He would retain everything I told him and apply it,” Smiley said. “He has a ton of passion, and it made my job so much easier because I could come up with things that most guys physically cannot do, and I would say, ‘Hey, do you believe you can do this and do that?’ And he would just do it like it was nothing.”

Smiley was also impressed by the youngster’s commitment to improving his craft. As part of their duties, the Performance Center staff offers monthly evaluations of trainees, listing their strengths on one page and their weaknesses on another. When the time came for Kalisto’s review, he was only concerned with one thing: How to get better.

“I’ve done hundreds of these evaluations, and he’s the only student who has ever looked at his weaknesses first,” Smiley said. “He wasn’t concerned about his strengths, so he just wanted to improve in every aspect. He’s hungry and he’s going to make his mark here.”

Meanwhile, WWE Hall of Famer Rhodes, the “oak of NXT” whom Kalisto called El Jefe, helped the newcomer discover a deeper meaning to the “Lucha, lucha” chants that have become his trademark.

“I did that in the indies, but I didn’t know what it meant. I just did it to have fun,” Kalisto said. “I told Dusty my whole story, about how I grew up as a fighter, and we talked about how lucha means to fight for your dreams. He said, ‘You’re full of life, and lucha excites you. You are lucha.’”

Taking on the identity of Kalisto, a moniker based off an old Spanish name meaning “the beautiful and great of everything,” the speedster took NXT by storm in 2014. Shortly after teaming with Sin Cara for the first time as The Lucha Dragons, the pair won the NXT Tag Team Championship before finding a place on the WWE roster.

The partnership has benefited both Superstars. Sin Cara said teaming with Kalisto has given him a “fresh start.” They also gelled inside the ring from the outset, though Sin Cara admitted his heart wasn’t in the “lucha” chants at first. 

“At the beginning, I used to tell him to hurry up,” he said, laughing. “But now it’s one of those things that people recognize us for. I fell in love with it.”

The veteran Lucha Dragon appreciates his teammate’s devotion to lucha libre, calling him a great representative of the culture. He also noted Kalisto’s love for the family that has supported him through his journey.

“He’s a good person, and he’s always trying to get better, not just in the ring, but outside the ring, too,” Sin Cara said. “He wants to do well. He helps his family. He has a great heart.”

Kalisto’s appeal is far-ranging, and his potential to be an ambassador of lucha libre is huge, Smiley added. The King of Flight not only represents the Latino community, but in much the same way the eternally undersized Rey Mysterio captured fans’ imaginations for years, Kalisto proves you do not have to be a giant to succeed in WWE.

“I would always let him know even though he wasn’t the biggest guy on the roster, he could always use that to his favor,” Smiley said. “He has influenced, and he will continue to influence, a lot of 10-year old kids who will want to become a WWE Superstar in the future."

Some four-plus years after an in-ring accident nearly derailed his dream for good, Kalisto stands poised to become WWE’s next great luchador. With an experienced Superstar by his side, a new piece of hardware in the form of the United States Title, and a growing fan base, Kalisto still finds motivation where he always has — his family and lucha libre.

“My nephews and nieces look up to me now. They tell me that they want to follow their dreams. That’s really big, to know I’m having an impact on their lives,” he said. “That’s a message of lucha that I want to spread. Whatever you want to do in life, you can do it. Don’t say ‘never.’ Nothing’s impossible.”

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