Becoming a star in professional wrestling isn’t easy. You need a good look and compelling matches. You need opportunity and effort, and a non-trivial amount of luck. But it’s often taken for granted that, once a wrestler reaches those heights, their legacy is etched in stone. For José Ángel Nájera Sánchez, known throughout his native Mexico as Fishman, this was unfortunately not the case. He is a man who during his peak was regarded as a master of his craft, then faded, before sadly passing away April 8 with little fanfare. He was 66.
Fishman was one of the major stars of lucha libre in the late 1970s and early 1980s. With a distinctive and ornate green and gold mask, he stood out as imminently recognizable, and his mask was featured prominently in the colorized photos in Mexican sports magazines. As a youth, he claimed to favor the tactics of the evil rudos, and the brutal mat- and strike-based style he would later adopt recalled the antics of those men he idolized. By the early 1970s, after just a few active years, Fishman joined EMLL, the oldest and largest promotion in Mexico, where he would see his stock steadily rise, and where he eventually found himself victorious in a feud against Sangre Chicana and El Cobarde, unmasking both within a week of each other (the 1970s lucha equivalent of Jericho beating The Rock and Stone Cold in one night.)
In the mid-1970s, after EMLL booker Ray Mendoza broke away and formed his own company, many stars would follow suit and join EMLL’s first true competition, the UWA. Fishman—along with noted rivals El Solitario, Villano III and Perro Aguayo—would help bring the UWA to national prominence, focusing the product on an exciting and hard-hitting style that younger fans desperately craved. Fishman would stay in the UWA for the majority of his career, almost until the company’s very last days in the early 1990s.
In some ways, that loyalty may have cost Fishman the legacy afforded to so many of his peers. There is some alternate timeline in which Antonio Peña does not form the AAA promotion, the peso does not crash, and the UWA survives some leaner years. In that universe, Fishman would have enjoyed the comfortable post-prime life of an elder statesman, a manifestation of the glory days of the promotion. Instead, he found himself outmoded and floundering, a performer with a legacy but no home. In 1992, Fishman tried to recreate the magic that propelled him to stardom in the late 1970s by jumping to AAA. But once there, he found himself an anachronism, wrestling a plodding and outdated style for an audience that wanted newer, younger stars and high flying.
In 2000, Fishman lost his mask to little fanfare, and retired shortly thereafter, the days of sold out arenas well behind him. While Fishman leaves the world of wrestling with an impressive resume of championships and memorable matches, he also leaves behind two valuable lessons: No legacy is certain, and glory inevitably fades.
JR Goldberg is a Clevelander living in Philadelphia. Punk rock, pro wrestling and board games. You can follow him on twitter @wrestlingbubble.