Years before Kalisto claimed the title of World Wrestling Entertainment’s cruiserweight champion, he was a Chicago Public Schools student chasing a dream and doing his best to keep his nose clean.
The 31-year-old muscly masked luchador, whose real name is Emanuel Rodriguez, is the son of Mexican immigrants who raised him in the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods.
“We literally came with nothing,” Rodriguez said in a phone interview Thursday, recalling the attic of a friend’s home his family lived in when they first came to the United States.
As a kid, his parents kept him busy with a litany of extracurricular activities to ensure he stayed out of trouble and off the streets. He took taekwondo lessons and enrolled in after-school programs that helped him focus on progress and discipline, he said. He played flag football, practiced gymnastics and played guitar and piano.
“Little things like that to keep me busy since we lived in such a rough neighborhood,” he said.
Rodriguez wrote about the challenges of his upbringing in a WWE blog post last year acknowledging National Hispanic Heritage Month.
“At that time in Pilsen, gang violence was at an all-time high and our community was living in fear,” he wrote, adding that his family returned to Mexico City for a short while before returning to Chicago in the ‘90s, homeless and struggling. “Despite this, my family always remained positive and instilled in me that we were capable of overcoming any obstacle.”
That philosophy of overcoming adversity and his relentless work ethic would become engrained in his life, he said.
But before the theatrical combat and eccentric luchador gear, before shouldering the 15-pound purple and shimmering silver title belt after dethroning Enzo Amore with a deciding “Salida del Sol” finisher last Tuesday, Rodriguez was doing homework with the help of tutors at the Boys and Girls Club of Chicago.
“I wanted to challenge myself in life,” he said. “That’s how it started.”
“It” being the drive that would eventually home in on what children his age watched on TV sets around the globe: professional wrestling. Something in Rodriguez lit up when he saw the suplexes and flying stunners soaring across the screen, the alliances, betrayals and storylines infused into the bouts. He recalled the first match he ever saw: the Undertaker versus Yokozuna, the dour muscle machine against the caricature of a traditional sumo wrestler.
“I feel like I’m gonna be in that ring,” he remembers thinking at the time. “I can’t explain it.”
That drive rooted in his discipline as a child followed him to Curie Metropolitan High School in the Archer Heights neighborhood where he continued to keep busy with tutoring, sports and working out.
“When I was young I always wanted to join the Marines,” he said. “The reason I didn’t join ROTC was because they didn’t lift weights.”
He loves to work the heavy weights in the gym—claiming to push three times his own body weight.
So, with the ROTC lacking for weight training, it was football for Kalisto.
Standing just under five-and-a-half feet tall, he was a lineman for the Condors throughout high school—voted MVP, he said.
And the Condors don’t forget one of their own.
“Congrats to Curie alumnus @KalistoWWE for winning the @WWE cruiserweight championship yesterday,” the school tweeted last week.
In his late teens, Rodriguez began training at the now defunct Windy City Pro Wrestling where he first honed his craft all while taking classes at Robert Morris College and working three jobs—as a security guard, a school librarian and at a video store. He took two trains and two buses to get to school.
“I was really pushing my limits,” he recalled.
While studying for a degree in fitness and nutrition, just shy of his graduation date, his father became ill. He put school on hold to help out around the home.
Eventually he would start gigging with an outfit of traveling luchadores based out of Los Angeles known as Lucha VaVoom while working side jobs.
It was while touring with the troupe of masked grapplers in Mexico that Rodriguez suffered a “tragic accident,” he said. What was supposed to be a weekend match ended in a two-month hospital stay after he fell on his head during a contest.
It was almost the end of his days in the ring.
“I gave my mom a heart attack,” he said. “It took a toll on me.”
Following the injury and a gruelling recovery, though, was an opportunity.
WWE invited him to a try-out, he said, and he couldn’t say no.
“If I’m in the ring I feel like I belong,” he mused.
When he brought his WWE contract home to Chicago and showed his parents—they burst into tears.
The kid from Pilsen got his break in the world of professional wrestling, just like he thought he would during that 1994 match between Undertaker and Yokozuna.
“I ended up following my dream,” he said. “Now I’m the cruiserweight champion for WWE.”
And while WWE professional wrestling is scripted entertainment and title winners predetermined, Rodriguez’s efforts and successes are as real as they come—and he wants the kids of Chicago to know that.
“If you have a dream—fight for it,” he said.