How American Mark Jindrak won hearts of Mexico's lucha libre fans

MEXICO CITY -- Mark Jindrak slowly steps backward up the ramp, sizing up the runway to the ring. Kids reach their hands out trying to touch his boots. Screaming women fan themselves at their front-row view of his butt, which is tightly packaged in red-and-black briefs emblazoned "Marco."

Inside the ring, his teammates hold three dazed opponents, who shake their heads in fear of what's coming. The crowd sees it too. A roar grows. The big screen behind him keeps a wide shot of the carnage about to unfold.

With a stutter step, Jindrak is off. His teammates scatter from the frozen opponents, as if they just loaded a mortar shell. Six feet before the ropes, Jindrak takes flight. He easily clears the 4-foot-high top rope, his body twisting sideways into the ring.

For a moment in the air, he becomes Michael Jordan, a childhood idol. "I feel like I'm dunking from the foul line," he said.

His outstretched 6-foot-6, 265-pound frame levels all three opponents. His teammates pile on, and the referee violently taps out three counts. The whistle blows, and it's done.

Jindrak climbs onto the corner ropes, throws his arms wide and breathes it all in. The "Marco" chants. The horns. The fawning women. The adoration of Arena México, the holy site of Mexican wrestling.

"It makes me feel like a rock star," he said.

After a decade in the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL), Mexico's top pro wrestling circuit, Jindrak's character, Marco Corleone, is an idol.

Jindrak, 39, is living the dream south of the border. He's a crowd favorite in lucha libre. An acting career is on the rise. He has a beautiful wife and an infant son.

He's the gringo who made it big.

JINDRAK DOESN'T LACK for self-confidence.

"I know how to get the crowd going," he said backstage, untying clunky, black knee-high boots. He stopped, looked up and asked, "When did the crowd get loudest tonight?"

Basically, anytime Marco did anything.

He's one of a handful of wrestlers in the CMLL who win with athletics and sex appeal. He's the foil to the potbellied brutes. His tag-team matches always hinge on his signature moves.

"He's just perfect," said Maria Jose Herrera, a 42-year-old fan sitting about 20 rows back from the ring, her husband bashfully beside her. "He's funny and charming, and you can see every one of his muscles."

Diehards disparage him as a foreigner who doesn't know the subtle art of lucha libre. He doesn't care.

"I just never pay them respect. I don't hear them," Jindrak said. "All I see and hear from up there on the ropes is a sea of people going f---ing crazy."

This Friday night at the beginning of January was one of the best in his recent memory. The crowd was thunderous and huge, overflowing into the rarely occupied upper deck of 16,500-seat Arena México. But it took years for Jindrak to become so effortlessly entertaining in Mexico.

For some Americans, the image of lucha libre might come from the 2006 Jack Black movie "Nacho Libre," which farcically harkened back to a time when masked luchadores were Mexico's working-class superheroes. The masks were cover for their daily alter egos -- taco vendors, construction workers and desk jockeys. In the 1960s and '70s, Mexicans packed arenas to see their idols in person. Wrestlers such as El Santo and Blue Demon starred in Mexico's golden age of cinema, body slamming Nazis and alien invaders.

Today, lucha libre doesn't hold the same cultural weight. Crowds are smaller, and the CMLL struggles to get prime-time TV space. Despite that, pro wrestling in Mexico still broadly parallels the WWE in the United States.

There are técnicos -- babyfaces, the good guys. They follow the rules and carry crowd support. There are rudos -- heels, bad guys. They break the rules, take cheap shots and attack referees, and their victories are met with angry whistling and profanity. (Booing isn't really a thing in Mexican sports.)

JINDRAK FIRST CAME TO MEXICO after a disappointing crash out of the WWE. He'd grown up in Auburn, New York, (he says the city's only son more famous is William Seward, who as secretary of state was responsible for the Alaska Purchase in 1867) as a promising young basketball player. But as he bulked up, he decided to try out wrestling.

In the late '90s, he was a top prospect out of the WCW's training program, the Power Plant, along with guys such as fellow big, athletic high-fliers Chuck Palumbo and Sean O'Haire. After some big wins in the WWE, Jindrak was slated to join Evolution, a stable with Triple H, Randy Orton and Ric Flair that formed in 2003. But at the last minute, he was dropped from the group and the spot went to Batista.

"I was immature," Jindrak said in retrospect. "I didn't know how to commit to working at that level. I just wanted to be the class clown."

He considered going to Japan to wrestle but eventually came to Mexico in 2006 for a few fights with Johnny Stamboli, resurrecting a WWE stable called the Full Blooded Italians.

As with nearly all American wrestlers who head south -- Jindrak was a rudo when he got to Mexico.

"It's very hard. We Mexicans love our own fighters," said José Jair Soria, a barrel-chested 45-year-old who wrestles under the moniker Shocker. "For an American guy to come to Mexico and get the crowd going and have people love him, it's very difficult."

In the Full Blooded Italians, Jindrak adopted the name Marco Corleone, and it stuck. Today he's introduced as, "The dream of all the ladies, the Italian Eagle, Marco Corleone!" Many fans assume he's Italian.

At the end of 2006, he fought Shocker in a hair match. Unsurprisingly, Jindrak, the gringo heel, lost. The crowd reveled in nationalistic catharsis as the physically superior American was shaved bald by his Mexican opponent.

"We got such good press for that match that when I came back in January 2007, people already liked me," Jindrak said. "By March, I was a técnico."

A DECADE LATER, Jindrak and Shocker are on opposite sides of the ring in a tag-team match. Shocker, the arrogant, surly heel. And Marco, the sexy, confident babyface.

The two play off each other as well as any pair in the CMLL. When the ref blows his whistle, Marco throws his hands on the back of his head and begins gyrating. The place erupts in ear-splitting screams as his six-pack curls up and down. Shocker shakes his head in disgust and lunges. They spar for a moment, and as soon as Marco is knocked to the ground, Shocker mockingly gyrates over him.

When Shocker throws Marco into the ropes, the towering American bounces back and splays his legs as he hops, easily clearing the 5-11 Shocker's bleach-blond head.

"We've been working together for almost 10 years, so we know each other really well," Shocker said. "We know what's coming after every move. We can tell a story with that."

With the match tied after the first two falls, any Marco Corleone fan knew what was coming. His signature finish: Air Italia. He polished off Shocker and the boys with his massive leap.

"People love him," Shocker said. "All he needs now is to fight me for a title."

A decade in the CMLL, and Jindrak has never fought for an individual championship.

Watching a single night of lucha libre is a delight and a must in Mexico City. The costumes. The hyperbolic acting. The surprising acrobatics of the pudgy fighters. The drama created inside a 15-minute match is mesmerizing.

But on any given night, it's tough to follow the storylines beyond the fight in front of you.

It's unclear who the reigning champs are. Fighting stables have wonderful names -- Black Plague, Love Buffet, Evil Dogs -- but they're trotted out sporadically. Fighting in the Love Buffet, Jindrak won a tag-team title and defended it 12 times, but the CMLL stripped the team of its belt when Jindrak got in a car wreck in 2013 and was sidelined for six months.

He hasn't had a chance to fight for a title since. It feels as if he might have hit a ceiling in the ring.

Jindrak talks a lot about legacies. He'll chat your ear off about Jordan vs. LeBron. He'll tell you about the best Dallas Cowboys of all time. And he'll try to predict his own place in history.

He's as successful in Mexico as any American wrestler ever. But Jindrak sees his legacy elsewhere. Since 2009, he has delved into a world that might be even more synonymous with Mexican culture than lucha libre: telenovelas. These uber-dramatic network dramas make American soaps look tame.

"I'm a strong B star in novelas right now," Jindrak said. "Maybe a small A. But I just need one role to shoot me to the top."

WALKING THROUGH A MALL along Mexico City's main avenue, a gaggle of women surround Jindrak for pictures.

"Oh my god you're so handsome," one blurts. He's sweet and polite with his doting fans, usually middle-aged women.

In a hip clothing store, as Mexicans look curiously at the familiar face, Jindrak replays his big scene in a highly anticipated upcoming show.

"I come in and I've got an automatic rifle and I go, 'bap-bap-bap-bap,' " he says, motioning the spray of bullets over a rack of lumberjack shirts before ducking and running around a pile of frayed jeans. "And I yell, 'We don't want you here. Go back to your own f---ing country!' "

He mimics more shooting from the anti-immigrant terrorist he plays in the show set in Los Angeles.

His breath has quickened after the reenactment. He's keyed up and excited.

"It was my first role in English, and I killed it. It was a home run. I felt so comfortable doing that," he says, punching a fist into an open hand.

It's a style that fits Jindrak's over-the-top entertainment personality well. He really broke through in 2012 playing a Russian gangster named Ury. (This further confuses fans about his nationality. In fairness, he looks as if he could be a relative of Ivan Drago.)

Jindrak's big break came thanks to some dialogue fit for a wrestler: "Te voy a hacer picadillo," a menacing message to a protagonist who tried to cross him -- "I'll make you into ground beef."

His snarling Ury and the grisly tagline cemented his place in telenovelas. In later episodes, you could feel the audience anticipation when Ury threatened, "You know what will happen?"

"I'll make you into ground beef," he'd growl.

It was a whirlwind. People would stop him for pictures at the grocery store. They'd shout the catchphrase from across the street. He started popping up in gossip magazines.

But nothing's guaranteed yet. Just like wrestling, telenovelas are scripted but success isn't predetermined. As with all his previous shows, Jindrak doesn't know if he'll get a callback for his latest role. Each taping is an audition. Each shot a thrill.

Jindrak is convinced it's just a matter of time.

"There is no act in the city, no one person that performs, or group that gets that type of reaction I got and get regularly," he said. "The loudest five noises of the night in Mexico City were owned by me, a foreigner. I gotta capitalize this year. What adrenaline, bro."

A few days later, he's called to meet with a top Mexican film director. He's being cast as the protagonist's ex-boyfriend in a movie set for release in late 2017. At the meeting, he invited the director and screenwriter to his next wrestling match.

"The people will go monkey s--- for me again, just like last week," he said. "They'll see the power of my fan base."