The Heartwarming Story of Mexico’s Real Life Badass Wrestling Priest
For just over 2 decades the people of Mexico were thrilled by the antics of a dashing masked lucha libre wrestler known only as Fray Tormenta. Styling himself as a priest fighting the forces of evil, Tormenta travelled the globe elbow dropping large men from low orbit. For much of his career, few people knew that the man beneath the mask was a former streetwise drug addict turned priest who was wrestling solely for the benefit of the orphans in his congregation he had pledged to take care of.
Fray Tormenta was born Sergio Gutiérrez Benítez in 1945 in a small town of Cieneguillas in the state of Hidalgo, Mexico. The second youngest of 18 children, Tormenta’s youth was an unhappy one with his family moving around for several years after the murder of one of his uncles before eventually settling in Mexico city- a place where the young Tormenta fell in with a series of ever worsening crowds. Already a member of a gang and abusing drugs before age 10, Tormenta’s formative years were spent getting into fights and working a series of odd jobs, doing everything from making chairs to performing on street corners, to fund his numerous substance abuse vices. If all that doesn’t sound like fun enough, we should also point out that during his youth Tormenta was stabbed multiple times, smashed over the face with a beer bottle, and once even shrugged off being shot, earning him a reputation as a tenacious and seasoned street fighter.
This all changed when, at around 20 years old, Tormenta found himself facing down a murder charge after a friend from his gang turned up dead with a drunken Tormenta the prime suspect. After narrowly avoiding life in prison when it turned out he was passed out drunk in a bar at the time the murder occurred, Tormenta sought solace in religion and walked into a local church. What happened next isn’t entirely clear as Tormenta has recounted multiple versions of the same story with various layers of embellishment over the years; all we know for sure is that it turned the 20 year old drug addict into a man of god.
One version of the story tells of Tormenta being roughed up by the church’s priest after asking for help, while another explains that Tormenta had a vision of himself in full priest regalia giving a sermon. Either way, Tormenta’s experience inside the church profoundly changed him as a person after he came to the conclusion that if there were “cool priests” who understood the pressures young, impoverished people were facing, maybe fewer of those youths would turn to crime and substance abuse.
Before he could walk the path of a holy man though, Tormenta had to rid himself of his addiction to drugs and alcohol. Showing the same kind of grit and determination that would later make him famous in the ring, Tormenta opted to shake the hold substances had over him the hard way- entering a rehab clinic where they basically strapped him to a bed for a week and let the drugs work their own way out of his system. It was just the beginning, however. As a nurse at the clinic told him: “Here you don’t get cured; you get detoxed. Curing you have to do for yourself.”
After leaving the rehab clinic, Tormenta did just that, as well as travelled to Toluca where he was thrown out of the first seminary he joined owing to punching someone in the face. When later asked about this in an interview with Vice, Tormenta quipped: “How are you going to break a wild colt from night to morning?”
Tormenta was able to control himself better in the second seminary and travelled Europe as a priest-in-training, learning about philosophy, theology and child psychology. After completing his training, he returned to Mexico and was sent to a run-down parish in Veracruz to spread the word of God. Of course, Tormenta being Tormenta, he almost immediately made an impression on locals by getting into a fist-fight with a local drug addict.
The fight which occurred basically moments after Tormenta set up shop in Veracruz was a calculated move to earn the respect of locals. Dutifully, Tormenta prayed for forgiveness from God and then threw down… in the process getting his butt kicked. Nevertheless, covered in blood, Tormenta stood up after the fight and merely asked “Who’s next?”- a move that instantly endeared him to his new flock.
Soon after, he began helping the people of Veracruz, feeding the hungry, clothing the poor and forming multiple mariachi bands. That last one isn’t a joke by the way. A keen musician, Tormenta taught down-on-their-luck drug addicts, prostitutes, and petty criminals to play various instruments and helped them secure band bookings at local events to give their life structure and help them earn an honest living. It’s noted that it was a member of one of these bands, a young man called Pinguino, that pushed Tormenta to become an officially ordained minister, owing to Pinguino’s death.
A drug addict just like Tormenta had once been, Pinguino unfortunately relapsed and went on a binge at which point he was found by Tormenta. Fearing for his life, Tormenta put him into his car and began speeding towards a nearby hospital. On the way, Pinguino began pleading with Tormenta to hear his confession and read him the last rites- a request Tormenta could not honor as he hadn’t yet been officially ordained. After taking a visible turn for the worse, Tormenta pulled over and read the boy his last rites anyway, reasoning that God would forgive him for breaking the rules to provide comfort to the sick and weary. Pinguino ended up dying in Tormenta’s arms right there on the side of the road, just moments after he absolved him. Shaken, he asked to be ordained just a few days later, a request which was granted on May 26, 1973 at his own church surrounded by his faithful parishioners, instead of the more stately local cathedral as the bishop suggested.
Now officially a priest, Tormenta began taking in young boys, turning his small church into a makeshift orphanage. Tormenta’s commitment to the orphans was such that when he was transferred to another church 150 miles away, he paid for them to come with him at considerable expense to himself. A short while later, he was transferred yet again, this time at his behest to another church in Texcoco after his new church requested he stop taking in orphans. A request you can probably guess, he didn’t pay any attention to. Although the diocese of this new church allowed Tormenta to continue housing orphans, it was decided that he would have to pay for their upkeep.
Unfortunately for him, priests of his ilk aren’t exactly known for being flush with cash or material goods to sell. Thus, while carrying out his priestly duties and pondering how to best provide for the many children under his care, Tormenta fondly recalled a film he’d seen a decade earlier called El Señor Tormenta. A fairly obscure film released in 1963, the movie details the adventures of a priest who inexplicably decides to become a lucha libre wrestler to earn money for some orphans in his care. For most, it was a fantastical film with no basis in reality. For Tormenta, it was a sign from God.
Inspired by the film and the reported astronomical per-fight earnings of boxer Muhammad Ali, Tormenta began training in secret and creating his now iconic alter-ego, Fray Tormenta – literally “Friar Storm”. Yes, Tormenta’s wrestling alter ego was also a priest.
To sell crowds on his priestly-ness Tormenta would walk to the ring in his priest robes, pray mid-bout and even had a finishing move called La Confesora – literally the confessor – which involved putting his opponent into a crushing leg-lock and making them beg for forgiveness from God. For much of his earlier career, many assumed that Tormenta was simply incredibly committed to his priest gimmick and nobody realised that the humble local priest padre Sergio Benítez and the high-flying wrestler Fray Tormenta were one in the same. This was fine by Tormenta who knew that if his bishop learned that he was secretly going out at night and drop-kicking people for money, he could get in trouble.
As for masking his identity, Tormenta’s wrestling attire consisted of a simple yellow and red mask of his own design. When asked what the colors represented, Tormenta explained that yellow stood for life whereas the red stood for the blood he had to spill in the ring in God’s name. From here, Tormenta faced off against countless wrestlers, most of whom he humbled with holy elbow drops and crushing backhands. On one occasion, he even put a wrestler called Judas into La Confesora, much to the delight of the gathered crowd.
Juggling his secret life eventually became second nature to Tormenta and he would casually recall in a later interview the feeling of stepping into the ring at 9am to suplex someone in the name of god knowing he had to give mass at 12, then again at 3.
Despite making efforts to conceal his secret identity from the masses while he was, well, giving mass, a fellow wrestler called Huracen Ramirez noticed Tormenta at a wedding in full priest attire and put two and two together and his secret identity was revealed.
Initially, Tormenta’s bishop was furious and ordered the priest to stop wrestling as it was felt that word of his actions could damage the church’s reputation. The problem, of course, was the orphans. Working it out, Tormenta agreed to stop moonlighting as a wrestler if the local diocese would match the money made from his winnings so that he could continue funding his makeshift orphanage. At the time, Tormenta wasn’t earning a huge sum. For example, he reportedly earned the equivalent of just $10 for his first fight, which he won. But he banked on the bishop assuming he was earning much, much more. It worked, and the bishop begrudgingly told Tormenta they couldn’t match the funds, so he could keep doing what he was doing on a singular condition- “be careful”.
With the implicit blessing of the church and his identity revealed, Fray Tormenta’s popularity exploded and Tormenta soon found himself wrestling on both the Japanese and American circuit, earning him enough to build a proper orphanage for the children under his care in 1975. As a knowing nod to the invaluable contribution his wrestling persona had made to the existence of the orphanage, the priest decided to name it: Casa Hogar de los Cachorros Fray Tormenta, or in English, “Shelter for Fray Tormenta’s Cubs”.
Despite his growing fame, Tormenta continued to live a simple, spartan life devoid of luxury, funneling just about every penny he earned back into his church and orphanage and thumbing his nose at fame, as he would tell The Guardian in 2006: “I wasn’t after glory, I was after money for the kids.”
Still, Tormenta wasn’t completely adverse to fame, as long as he could capitalise on the fortune that often comes with it for the good of his orphans. To this end, he appeared in films, recorded albums and lent his likeness to toys and comic books.
Within a few years, the fame of mask had eclipsed the man beneath it, with Tormenta’s own parishioners taking to calling him Padre Tormenta, or in some cases simply, El Fray. In response, Tormenta began going about his priestly duties while wearing his wrestling attire, sometimes saying mass from his pulpit while wearing both his priest robes and mask.
A veritable legend of lucha libre, Tormenta earned the admiration of most, if not all of his fellow wrestlers who largely consider it an honor to have faced off against or fought alongside a man of such convictions. Although he retired from wrestling in the early 2000’s, Tormenta continues to occasionally don his iconic mask while giving mass, and peppers his sermons with lessons he learned in the ring and stories of his time as one of Mexico’s most famous and respected wrestlers.
Noteworthy, after retiring from wrestling, the mantle of Fray Tormenta was picked up by a former orphan who’d been trained by the original Tormenta. This would later be directly homaged by the video game Tekken 3, where the character King (who is loosely based on Tormenta) is replaced by an orphan the original King had helped raise with his wrestling earnings.
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- Image Source https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fray_Tormenta_en_interview_(cropped).png
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