Remembering Eddie Guerrero, WWE’s Latino Pioneer, On What Would Have Been His 50th Birthday

Wrestler Eddie Guerrero attends a press conference to promote Wrestlemania XX at Planet Hollywood March 11, 2004 in New York City. Photo by Peter Kramer/Getty Images

Eddie Guerrero’s mainstream wrestling career could be defined in two words: Latino Heat. The El Paso-born, third-generation luchador based his latter career’s character off of his Latino identity, one that was stereotyped through the lens of wrestling’s funhouse of racism. He lied, he cheated, he stole, but Eddie’s Latino fanbase never diminished in the face of a eroticized and criminalized character that drove into the arena on a lowrider. It was a character that Eddie himself never fully appreciated; he believed that it tarnished his family’s name, a name that was built on decades of luchadores fighting for their spots, both in the United States and abroad.

Starting with Eddie’s father, Gory Guerrero, the Guerreros have been a mainstay in professional wrestling for over 80 years. Gory was one of the first pioneers of lucha libre in Mexico, and he’s even credited with inventing the Camel Clutch submission move, which would later be made even more famous by the Iron Sheik in WWF. His eldest son, Chavo Guerrero Sr., who helped usher in an era of lucha libre in the 70s and 80s. His legacy as one of the greatest Mexican-American wrestlers ever even inspired a Mountain Goats song in 2015.

Eddie–who was the youngest of Gory’s wrestling sons–began his career as a masked luchador in both Mexico–as Mascara Mágica–and in Japan–as Black Tiger. The former created one of his first signature moments in a career chock full of them, as he voluntarily removed his Mascara Mágica mask–the first luchador to ever do it of his own volition–and revealed himself to the world as Eddy Guerrero. (Fun aside: despite becoming famous under the spelling “Eddie,” the man himself considered “Eddy” the real spelling of his nickname.) Now unmasked, Guerrero was able to work on his character as himself, not as a superhero luchador. That reveal got a payoff a few years later, when he would join Art Barr as part of Los Gringos Locos, a hated and villanous faction in AAA that went full-on American jingoism as its gimmick. That’s right. Before Latino Heat and “mamacita,” Eddie was an pro-US villain in Mexico, touting the valor of American exceptionalism and the ol’ red, white, and blue.

Los Gringos Locos would get intermittent callbacks in Eddie’s most famous WWE tag team, Los Guerreros. Partnering with his nephew Chavo Guerrero Jr., that’s where the “we lie, we cheat, we steal” persona truly took hold of the wrestling universe’s imagination. By utilizing heelish tactics, Eddie was able to push past his previous heights as a mid-card/cruiserweight attraction into the rarified air of world champions, where the men were bigger than Eddie’s 5’8″ frame. It was only via cheating that audiences would accept such a small champion, or at least that’s how the company saw it. It wasn’t immediate, however, and the redemption of Eddie Guerrero remains one of the most heart-warming stories in modern professional wrestling.

While World Championship Wrestling (WCW) collapsed and was sold to WWE in 2001, Eddie had already joined the wrestling giants in 2000 as part of the Radicalz, an invading group that presaged the full-on, branded WCW/ECW Invasion that would occur in the latter part of 2001. However, he was let go from WWE in 2001, partly due to a painkiller addiction stemming from a 1999 car accident that almost claimed his life; the company released him after sending him to rehab in May of that year, and would release him days after a drunk driving arrest in November. While a devastating blow at the time, during his release, Eddie found God and worked on his addiction, eventually getting back to WWE in 2002, where, shortly after, he won the Intercontinental Championship from long-time ECW star Rob Van Dam. That title win was just a sign of good things to come.

After runs with his nephew and with Tajiri–a replacement for Chavo after he got injured–Eddie was able to call himself a two-time WWE Tag Team Champion, as well as a United States Champion. Really, all that was left for the most famous Guerrero was to win the so-called “big one,” a world championship. The only problem, and it’s really the problem many a luchador has had in mainstream US wrestling, is that Eddie was not built like a world champion. Never being billed at over 220 pounds, Guerrero was short and skinny, the very antithesis of how Vince McMahon, WWE’s chairman, picked his champions. Case in point: entering No Way Out 2004, the most important event of Eddie’s career to date, he was set to face Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship.

In case you are not familiar with him, Brock Lesnar is a giant beast of a man; 6’3″ and over 280 pounds, the Beast Incarnate was in his physical prime in 2004, and the match against Eddie was a showcase for Lesnar’s strength. He threw the luchador around like a rag doll for near 30 minutes, showing off his freakish strength and unmatched agility for a man his size. The narrative counterpoint to Lesnar’s strength was Eddie’s grit; the short luchador, pegged into a stereotype so many years after starting a career that never reached the ultimate peak, just would not give up.

And so, through the help of timely interference and a hit with the championship belt unseen by a knocked out referee (it wouldn’t be an Eddie win without some cheating, after all), the youngest Guerrero brother claimed his spot on the top of the mountain, a world champion at last, and an inspiration for a Latino fanbase whose heroes were routinely mocked and never rewarded thusly. Michael Cole, WWE’s play-by-play announcer, might have driven the point home a bit too literally, screaming about Eddie overcoming his addiction, but there was no lie in this scripted drama. Eddie truly had overcome his demons and reached the pinnacle of the industry.

A few months later, Eddie would have another signature moment, albeit one that holds a dark legacy now. After winning his title defense at WrestleMania XX, Eddie popped up again at the end of the show, after his long-time best friend Chris Benoit had won the other world title in the company. The two men embraced in the ring, tears in both of their eyes, as they together could claim to be the best in the world, decades after their journeys began. Tragically, roughly 3 years later, both men would be dead, claimed in their youth by the lingering effects of their chosen profession.

Eddie Guerrero passed away on November 13, 2005 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was found unconscious in his hotel room by Chavo Guerrero Jr., dead of heart failure. That night’s SmackDown was dedicated to the memory of Eddie, the complicated superstar with a heart of gold, one who won over fans with his innate charm, his immense wrestling ability, and his love for the business that his family helped revolutionize.

In an industry that either shunted off its Latino wrestlers to the Mexican associations or kept them in masks when they made their way up to the US, Eddie showed that he could be himself and still be successful. While his character was a stereotype at best, or just plain racist at worst, he transcended WWE’s attempts to rope him into lying, cheating, and stealing. At the end of the day, he was Eddie Guerrero: a recovering addict, a family man, and a symbol of Latino excellence in an industry that rarely let them climb as high and as far as the top. Latino Heat will live forever.