Stuffed into a triangular slice of wilted grass between a diesel-belching freeway and a stucco-clad supermarket, a crowd of masked children, grinning parents, and screaming teens packs the platform of a freshly erected wrestling ring in the northern-Mexico City district of Martin Carrera on a hot afternoon just days before Christmas. The ring's wobbly legs rise and fall with the exertions of a trio of wrestlers in blue tights emblazoned with gold dollar signs. They're joined by three more fighters, who strut into the ring to groin-tremblingly loud techno music, flip off the crowd, and fling themselves against their opponents. One of the fatter fighters pins an adversary against a corner post, pulls down the man's spandex tights, and buries his face between sweat-coated ass cheeks, tossing salad to the crowd's delight until the referee breaks it up. A woman carrying an infant squeals with laughter, shouting "¡Chinga tu madre!" ("Fuck your mother!")

Backstage, in a space the size of a one-car garage, another 20 wrestlers on today's bill slather lubricant on their biceps, adjust their mullets, and smoke cigarettes. Amid this Boschian tableau of demon masks and flaming-skull-embossed tights, a 42-year-old, five-foot-four unmasked fighter with wavy blond hair known as Cassandro tucks his junk between his legs, adjusts his pink-sequined leotard, and touches up his makeup. He has black-and-white eyeliner tattooed on his eyelids—a practical time-saver. Although today's contest (a free event to celebrate the opening of a kids' park on the site of a former trash heap) may seem inauspicious, Cassandro is a celebrity in the blue-collar world of lucha libre, as the sport is known in Mexico. As the country's first openly gay wrestler to have won a world title, he has become the lipsticked, mascara'd ambassador of los exóticos—flamboyantly attired, usually gay wrestlers who wear makeup instead of masks while campily confronting macho Latin culture. And he's increasingly finding fans outside Mexico: In the coming months, Cassandro will tour Australia as part of its Big Day Out festival, perform in London, and headline Los Angeles' Lucha VaVOOM club, where Mexican wrestlers and burlesque dancers entertain crowds that have included the likes of David Arquette, Jack Black, and Robin Williams.

And yet this feisty, flamboyant trailblazer has struggled to achieve proper recognition in his adopted home of Mexico City. Born Saul Armendariz in El Paso, Texas, to Mexican parents, he has been wrestling since he was 19, when he moved south of the border to launch his career. Although the exóticos will, for the first time, have a float in Mexico City's gay-pride parade this June, Cassandro and his ilk continue to work in a hardscrabble corner of gay culture. "I don't think that the upper-middle-class gay community pays any attention to the exóticos," says Heather Levi, a Temple University assistant professor and the author of The World of Lucha Libre. "I could easily imagine they would be deemed kind of embarrassing." And Cassandro will likely never achieve his ambition to wrestle in Arena México, a 16,500-seat complex in the neighborhood of Colonia Doctores that is Mexico City's equivalent of Madison Square Garden. Although Mexico City has set a goal to become the gay capital of Latin America (gay marriage was legalized there in 2009, and The Advocate recently named it one of the world's "Top 20 Gay Travel Destinations"), the arena, according to wrestling insiders, maintains an unspoken policy banning openly gay exóticos. "It's the only thing I haven't done that I don't think I'll do before I retire or die," Cassandro says. "They don't look at me as a good wrestler. They only see a homosexual." (Arena spokesperson Sandra Granados states the venue has no policy against openly gay wrestlers.)

Video by Stayton Bonner

Today's event, 30 minutes by car from the glamour of the arena, is Cassandro's first gig after coming off knee surgery that laid him up for eight months. "I never thought I would feel this way at 42," he says. "I feel like I'm 60." His injuries are the by-product of a wrestling style that's as daring as his outfits—Cassandro's stage dives are the stuff of legend in lucha libre. During his hard-partying days, he kept the pain at bay with liquor, weed, cocaine, and heroin. Now sober (he gave up drinking in 2003), he gets by on prescription drugs and gritted teeth.

It's only a few minutes until ring time, and Cassandro and two other exóticos—Diva Salvaje, 35, a hulking blond, and Black Mamba, 29, an effete brunet—curl their eyelashes, apply glitter, and shimmy into panty hose with the precision and speed of a Nascar pit crew. Makeup bags unfurl like safecracker kits. Cassandro covers his tattooed shoulder blades in a red-and-gold floral-patterned cloak with an 18-foot train. Underneath he wears spandex tights, pink kneepads, and white leather boots adorned with rhinestone butterflies. Versace Crystal Noir perfume wafts from his buffed skin, but his eyes are bloodshot, thanks to a Red Bull–fueled all-nighter at Privato, a strip club in the red-light district. ("He's my sugar candy," Cassandro says of a cell-phone snapshot of a stripper in a Santa hat and a Speedo.) "I haven't slept since I arrived in Mexico City," he adds in a valley-girl singsong coarsened by decades of Marlboro Ultra Lights, rubbing osteoarthritis balm on his knees as the announcer calls for the exóticos to make their entrance.