Pro wrestler Sam Adonis is limping to a coffee shop in Mexico City when he answers the phone. He has just finished training for his next gig in the capital city, where for the past four months he has been one of the most in-demand performers in the CMLL.
Adonis, who grew up in Pittsburgh as Sam Polinsky, is one of the few Americans who has made a successful career in Mexico’s competitive Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre, or World Wrestling Council. The 27-year-old is tall and blond, which makes him stand out in the lucha libre community, but he didn’t become a superstar until this past November, when he began playing on Mexico’s anger at President Trump.
“Wrestling always kind of plays off what’s happening in the mainstream [media], so I was thinking about it and I said, ‘Yeah if [Trump] wins I’m getting myself a flag with his face on it,” Adonis said. “And once [the audience in 16,500-seat Arena Mexico] see that big orange spot on the flag, you can just instantly, in one moment feel the room change. It’s a fever pitch.”
When deciding to cultivate his in-ring persona as Trump’s biggest fan, Adonis said he drew inspiration from pro wrestling days of yore, and specifically, the Iron Sheik, the Iranian-American WWE Hall of Famer who used the Iranian flag to taunt audiences in the 1980s when he fought Hulk Hogan.
Hoping to recreate the passion and emotion pro wrestling audiences used to feel four decades ago when many still thought the competition was real and the Iron Sheik really was an enemy of the state, Adonis thought, “Why not? Let’s play this up. Get a picture of Donald Trump instead of the Ayatollah and the people will be just as pissed off.”
“The energy in the arena is always great, but when I’m out there it’s just absurd,” Adonis said. “The hatred. It’s almost a hostile environment. I’m sure there’s places in Afghanistan more tranquil than this.”
Adonis was only half kidding.
During Sunday night’s show when Adonis teamed up with two other “rudos,” the Spanish term for heels, to take on three popular Mexican stars, spectators chanted “Get out!” at Adonis; they threw popcorn and beer at him; others screamed obscenities in his direction as they watched him lose to legendary luchador Blue Panther and his partners Triton and Drone.
“There is a lot of ill will for Trump’s character, and because of that every time they hit him, we enjoy it,” wrestling fan Gerardo Romero told the Associated Press at the show.
Adonis called the atmosphere in the arena “uncomfortable,” noting that even his girlfriend, who is Mexican, feels that way when she attends his matches. He said it sometimes verges on dangerous, which has prodded his colleagues to urge him to be careful. Adonis, however, said the reaction he gets outside the ring is almost always jovial.
“People are enamored… that I put them through such a good show,” he said. He likens his role to that of a comic book villain and said most people see him that way, too.
“In order to have a good good guy, you need to have a good bad guy,” Adonis said. “I’m just doing my job.
“Wrestlers don’t get enough credit for being masters of human psychology. I know how to take people on an emotional roller coaster, so the fact that I can get people in such a frenzy and control them the way I want to, there’s an artistic pride behind that.”
Trump has given Adonis plenty of material. During the campaign, the Republican accused Mexico of sending its “rapists,” “criminals” and “bad hombres” to the United States. He promised to build a multi-billion-dollar wall along the border, with Mexico picking up the tab.
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto canceled a visit to the White House because of Trump’s rhetoric, and Mexican leaders have said repeatedly that they will not pay for a wall. On Sunday, thousands of protesters spread across a dozen cities in Mexico rallied against Trump and criticized Nieto for appearing weak in contrast.
Adonis did not vote in the general election, but said despite his portrayal of Trump, he would have considered voting for him. Adonis the American hopes the United States and Mexico will work out their differences. Adonis the wrestler, meanwhile, has some respect for the 45th president.
“I respect the fact that he’s kind of a villain. He’s kind of embraced his position, as you like me or you don’t, but I’m not changing,” Adonis said. “It is almost a professional wrestling mentality and I have a sympathy for that.”
And if Trump — inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame for having played opposite Vince McMahon in several pro wrestling bits in the 1990s — wants to check out his alter ego, Adonis has a suggestion.
“Get him a lucha libre mask and hide him in the audience as one of the fans,” he said. “That’d be great.”