Wolf Ruvinskis is mostly remembered as a movie star in Mexico, but he was also a famous wrestler and, for a magical afternoon, the star in Bogotá’s El Campín stadium.
Bogotá. January 27, 1945. The back page of Saturday’s edition of the capital’s El Tiempo newspaper was filled with adds for the different movie theatres of the city. ‘Gone with the wind’ was still playing, five years after its release, and the news broadcast before the movie promised images from the war in Europe. The call to attend the first football match of the year stands out at the top and spans the whole width of the page. As part of a three team tournament, Boca Junior (a team from the city of Cali, named after the famous Argentinean club) take on the local side Santa Fe, who are to be reinforced with Ruvinskis on Sunday afternoon. Ruvinskis: the very same man who, according to another add on the same page, is to feature in a preliminary bout of catch wrestling that Saturday’s night.
Born in Riga, in 1921, to a Russian father and Latvian mother, Wolf Ruvinskis left Europe at the age of five, in the company of his family. They made their way to Argentina and, upon arriving in Buenos Aires, Wolf and his brother were sent to a school for orphans, as their father had taken ill during the trip and perished soon after arriving. Their mother was left to fend for herself in new surroundings.
The three of them re-united two years later and the boys grew up in poverty on the outskirts of the city. In his teenage years, a slim but athletic Ruvinskis found success in Greco-Roman wrestling, winning championships and catching the eye of people in the entertainment business. Pretty soon, he was travelling around South America with a troupe of fellow wrestlers. By October 1944, he had made his way north to Colombia, and was performing at the Olympia Hall on a semi-regular basis.
At the time, professional football was still a few years away, and so, invitational tournaments and amateur regional championships were the only chances teams had to compete against each other in front a crowd. Just how Ruvinskis was engaged to play at the start of 1945 is a mystery. A report alleges that he was a member of Santa Fe, a social and sports club, and had volunteered to play for free. Players in the capital were already receiving fees every time they played a match; this made it attractive for the red-and-whites to hire a free pair of hands and spend their cash on other players.
The fight on Saturday saw Ruvinskis triumph over his rival Ossa, in the final preliminary bout of the evening. In the main event, “King-Kong” defeated “Tarzan” that night. Indeed, stage-names were frequent. The Latvian, for his part, had used different names in different venues, and was often referred to, unsurprisingly, as “El Lobo” (The Wolf). The fight had left him in no shape for a football match, meaning his football debut would have to wait another week.
Having to wrestle the following Wednesday, and once more the next Saturday, on the eve of the football match, Ruvinskis was not included in the advertisement for Sunday’s game. When the rematch against Boca Junior started on a sunny afternoon at El Campín, the man was there, standing in goal in front of four thousand people. Had he even trained for the event? Had he any experience that would warrant his inclusion in the first eleven?
A better question is: how did he manage to record a clean sheet? The Latvian is all over the sports page of Monday’s El Tiempo. A picture of him in action on the pitch is the only image printed of the match; and his name features in bold letters twice, in the title of each article devoted to the game. “The goal was well defended by W Ruvinskis” is the headline for the match report. “The man of the match was Wolff Ruvinskis” starts the other article, with an erroneous extra “f”.
The fans had been expecting it to be a mere publicity stunt carried on from the previous week. It seemed to them that the wrestler was there just to draw the crowds. There’s even reason to believe that, the “never before seen” free-for-all wrestling match to take place the next Wednesday (a sort of predecessor to the WWF’s “Royal Rumble”) could have benefited by Ruvinskis increased popularity. But the fact is he played his part to perfection and from the first save that afternoon, he started winning the crowd. The media praised him as a savvy goalkeeper and claimed him as one of the brightest stars of local football.
That’s the magic of Wolf Ruvinskis, everything he did he was good at, particularly if there was a crowd there to watch him. That afternoon’s game ended 0-0 with Santa Fe being perhaps the better side, albeit wasteful in front of goal, which probably contributed to the wrestler-goalie being the star of the match for his saves at the other end.
While its claimed in Mexico that Ruvinskis also played for rival club Millonarios, its something that, after so many years, is hard to ascertain. Local newspapers back then covered local football sporadically, and with little depth. The national team, still in its infant stages, was the main focus of attention for its debut participation in the South American Championships (the first name given to what is now the Copa America ).
Furthermore, whether Ruvinskis ever made another start in goal for Santa Fe is also unclear. On the wave of his increasing popularity, and perhaps on his good look as well, he was hired to play a small part in a feature movie that premiered on the 9th of May. There was, however, no mention of his performance in the press reviews the following day.
His trail becomes hard to follow until 1946, when he emerges in Mexico as big wrestling star. This time the fights are more like the ones we see today: fake punches, leaps, props to hit opponents with and the occasional excursion outside the ropes. Ruvinskis created for himself a tough ‘persona’ and thrived on defying the crowd.
A Mexican TV report on his life recalls how, one day, a few years later, a theatre producer approached the Latvian wrestler for the role of Stanley Kowalski in a local staging of Tenessee Williams’ “A Street Car Named Desire”. That he would become such a success and follow his lauded theatre performance with a lengthy career in the movies is absolutely surprising. Starring as a tough guy, a wrestler named “Neutron” and even as biblical characters, he eventually featured in films along-side some of the greatest stars of Mexican Cinema, like the legendary comedian Cantinflas, and achieved celebrity status. Later in life, he opened-up a restaurant where he would entertain guests by singing tango, playing the guitar and performing magic tricks.
Perhaps, his greatest trick was suddenly shinning as a goalkeeper and then vanishing from the pitch without a trace.