There is a unique opportunity in
– Chris O’Mealy 6/8/17 – 5:01PM
Lucha Underground may be the best American wrestling product that people need to discover.
On Wednesday, May 31, Lucha Underground returned to television on the El Ray Network. It was the first episode following the mid-season break, and featured a Lucha Underground championship match between the champion Johnny Mundo (formerly known as Johnny Nitro and John Morrison in WWE) and The Mack, who is better known by the name Willie Mack to fans of Championship Wrestling from Hollywood and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. They competed in a match that would go “all night long,” which is an Iron Man match that ends with the TV broadcast. It was a welcome return for the Los Angeles based wrestling promotion, which in my personal opinion, is the best wrestling product in the United States of America currently.
If you’re reading this article, then you are a fan of pro wrestling. Or maybe you’re just a fan of me, which is flattering! More likely, you’re a pro wrestling fan, and that’s why you opened up this article in the first place. Or maybe you saw the Lucha Underground logo at the top and wanted to read more about the promotion you love so much, in which case there isn’t much I need to tell you, because you’ll probably agree with it. However, given the chance that you’re a pro wrestling fan who has yet to see the Lucha Underground product, I highly encourage you to read on, because this is a product you need to be watching.
Let’s face it, as a long time wrestling fan, we’ve all seen WWE grow stagnant and yearned for something different. We all want an alternative wrestling product when Monday Night Raw gives us lackluster storylines to sink our teeth into, with cringe-worthy scripted dialog and top talents being pushed hard as babyfaces despite being booed out of the building on a nightly basis. Yes, WWE today in 2017 has some of the best quality matches they’ve ever had, but fans still grow tired of seeing the same-old thing. This can be especially true with three hours of Raw, two hours of Smackdown, and then an hour of 205 Live, Main Event, or even NXT if you’re hardcore enough to watch the Network shows too. It’s a lot to digest in one week, and a lot of personal time to put aside. People grow tired of that, and want something different.
Back in the 1980’s, the decade I was born in (I’m still young and hip! Yolo, AM I RIGHT? No? Okay…) we had dozens of options to choose from. There was the WWF, NWA, and AWA, along with tons of other promotions, like WCCW, to provide great wrestling as long as you knew where to find it. In the 90’s, we had the Monday Night Wars between WCW and the WWF, as well as Paul Heyman’s renegade ECW running wild. In the 2000’s, we lost a lot of the alternate options, as WWE monopolized American wrestling. Who would be an alternate product? TNA? Hardly, their product copies WWE heavily while also mocking them at every turn. Japan? Great options there, but only recently has NJPW become easily accessible to American fans, and many fans will have a hard time getting into the product without understanding the language. Ring of Honor? A great option for pure mat-based wrestling and excitement, but is still truly an independent no matter how to slice it. No, if you want a real WWE alternative, one that looks and acts different from any other wrestling product, you want Lucha Underground.
By the way, before anyone fires off hate mail thinking I buried any of the promotions above, save your energy. I love them all, I’m just thinking about reasons other fans have told me why they can or can’t get into a certain product. However, I do not like TNA and I think their product is awful, so feel free to send me hate mail on that regards, but I’ll probably just delete them, Matt Hardy style.
Back to the topic at hand. One watch of any episode of Lucha Underground will show you the real difference, but let’s break it down a little bit.
First off, WWE has a formulaic show. People fight over titles and other conflicts, cut promos, have matches, and continue on the next week. Lucha is a little different. They have several long and arching storylines that have been created since the show’s debut. In fact, if you were to watch episode one on Netflix, and watch all the way up until the current episode, you’d several very long and very detailed storylines, many of which are still going! When was the last time WWE did a storyline that long or in depth?
As for the storylines themselves, Lucha takes great pride in writing out their product to be designed to be one big movie. The characters in the Temple aren’t just going to work, they’re there to fight for tons of different reasons. Ancient Aztec tribes, wars, and supernatural elements are all part of the action. The character’s personas are all based on one of these elements. For example, Prince Puma (played by indy star Ricochet) fights for an ancient Aztec tribe that he is descended from. Mil Muertes (formerly Judas Mesias in TNA) is the embodiment of death himself. Ricky Reyes’ character Cortez Castro is an undercover cop trying to bust Lucha Underground Temple owner Dario Cueto (more on him later) for all of his crimes against humanity. Lucha Libre star Drago’s dragon character is given supernatural powers like fire breath, and his partner Aero Star is treated like an actual traveler from the universe. While that may read cheesy on paper, and bring up memories of the over-gimmicked Ricky Steamboat or Max Moon embarrassment character from the early 90’s WWF, it’s actually done in a realistic fashion that fits the atmosphere of the product itself.
Let’s talk about the atmosphere for a moment, because I think it’s what truly separates Lucha Underground from the other products out there. WWE and other promotions film their backstage segments with an obvious camera crew. Interviews are conducted to the camera, and the cameras always catch the locker room antics as they’re happening. TNA to their credit tried a more voyeur approach to their backstage segments, with camera crews “spying” on the wrestlers engaged in conversation with one another. It was original thinking, but it was still a camera crew.Lucha Underground doesn’t do that. They film and edit their backstage segments professionally, like you’re watching a movie. The cameras aren’t really there, you’re just watching what’s happening in various parts of the Temple. This allows for a lot of clever camera angles with multiple shots and film style cuts to make the entire Temple more atmospheric. As a result, everything the viewer sees backstage is not known by the announce crew or live audience. I’ve heard some Lucha viewers say they don’t like this element, but I think it adds to the realism of the show. For example, Rey Mysterio Jr. appeared in vignettes at the beginning of season two, but the announcers and live crowd popped huge for him when he came out at that year’s Aztec Warfare match, because it wasn’t known that he’d arrived just yet to them. The vignettes themselves are also all shot to be dark and gritty, to fit the Temple itself.
Ah yes, the Temple. Let’s discuss where the matches actually take place. The Temple in Boyle Heights is designed to be less of a wrestling arena, and more of an underground club where people come to fight and a crowd comes to watch. It’s designed to be dimly lit and dirty. The mat itself is painted to look like it’s covered infilth. The backstage locker rooms and bathrooms are all mocked up with graffiti and grime. The only thing lavish in the Temple is the office of Dario Cueto himself, the promoter. His office is also located with a door leading directly to ringside, to create the illusion that the boss is always watching. It’s all part of the Lucha Underground experience.
Dario Cueto. We need to talk about him. He is easily one of the best characters in wrestling who doesn’t actually wrestle. He is played by Spanish actor Luis Fernandez-Gil, who has a bit of a filmography behind him. His character is one of a wealthy manipulator who loves competition and will get it via any means necessary. He enjoys giving his wrestlers “unique opportunities” and loves seeing the great lengths they will go to just to prove themselves to him. He is always dressed like he just walked out of a meeting with Tony Montana, sipping on alcohol or smoking a cigar, with his jet black hair slicked back and a devious smirk on his face. He is not one to shy away from questionable acts inside his Temple, from embezzlement to flat out denial of murder in his arena. And yes, in this gritty wrestling environment, wrestlers are killed and don’t come back (or they do, but as an entirely new masked character).
With all this dark realism, Dario has attracted the attention of the local authorities, leading into one of the biggest storylines in all the seasons. Undercover cops are trying to uncover the mysteries behind Temple competitors’ disappearances. This includes anyone who competed in Lucha Underground but left the promotion, like Alberto El Patron or Hernandez. While that’s going on, Dario is trying to product his monstrous and murderous brother Matanza, fend off the Black Lotus tribe, keep his A-list stars Johnny Mundo and his entourage happy, and run a temple filled with hopeful wrestlers and ancient warriors alike. Sound like too much? Wait until you see the actual wrestling itself.
Lucha Underground incorporates an Americanized version of the Lucha Libre style in Mexico. This means a lot of high flying athletic action with a background in honor and integrity. There are also no gender specific divisions, as the girls wrestle alongside the guys, and are treated as fully equal stars. This is becoming more common in independent promotions throughout the country, but isn’t featured on any mainstream American wrestling product. Lucha Underground also uses trios belts, instead of tag teams, with exciting six-person matches taking the place of the standard two-on-two wrestling. Another import from Mexican wrestling, these trios have had some daring and exciting encounters, with South African star Angelico performing a cross-body off the top of Dario’s office as a seasonal highlight. They also use a Gift of the Gods championship title belt, which can be exchanged for a shot at the Lucha Underground Champion anytime the title holder wishes. This belt is earned by winning one of the seven ancient Aztec medallions, and then having the seven winners compete for the belt.
The show itself runs seasonally, beginning and ending with one major story. Unlike other promotions which run year round, Lucha Underground takes a break, allowing for the viewer to be excited and anticipate the show’s return. This is something that isn’t done in other major promotions, and adds to the uniqueness that is Lucha Underground. The season ends with a two week special called Ultima Lucha, which blows off all the major feuds from the year, puts all the titles on the line, and gives you a teaser for what’s to come next season. Top to bottom, it’s an incredible wrestling product, and it’s one that everyone who likes wrestling should check out.
Will everyone enjoy it? No, not likely. I could easily see plenty of reasons why someone wouldn’t enjoy a seasonal show with characters all based like they’re real no matter how out there they are. Ancient warriors thousands of years old and an undead dude killing his minions by ripping out their souls won’t appeal to everyone, even if they were fans of the Undertaker and the cartoony WWF characters. Still, if you want an actual alternate to the WWE, this is it. It looks different, it feels different, and everything about it is different. NJPW is a great promotion filled with excellent wrestling, but it’s still wrestling in arenas with a big production. Ring of Honor is different in style, but it’s still an independent. TNA is too much like WWE, even if their ring has two extra corners. Lucha Underground is so different, it’s a viable alternative to the WWE, and the best one there is. You should watch Lucha Underground.
If you don’t have the El Rey Network, you can watch Lucha Underground’s first two seasons on Netflix. You can also find them on YouTube, Dailymotion, and dozens of other streaming sites. I promise they’re at least worth a look. Give it a few episodes, and if you’re not completely hooked, I will understand that it isn’t for you. But I promise you that if you give it a try, you could find the best American wrestling product airing right now.
If you’re tired of Kevin Dunn’s bucky beaver teeth production garbage, watch Lucha Underground today.
Shall I answer some of your questions? I shall.
Q: If Samoa Joe loses to Lesnar next month at Great Balls of Fire, and does so in a lopsided loss, what does that do to his credibility and viability as a main event talent? Will the WWE be ruining him at this point? (Via Randy on Facebook)
A: Interesting question. If WWE is stupid enough to let Brock Lesnar run through one of the few truly badass draws that they have, they would ruin him in a heartbeat. I don’t see that happening though. I don’t know if Brock Lesnar will actually lose to Samoa Joe, but I don’t think he’ll win easily. Joe could – and should – take Brock to the limit. If he doesn’t, then I call a serious missed opportunity on WWE’s end to elevate a great talent, and having Joe lose to Brock in say, five minutes, would do WAY more to hurt Joe than help cement Brock as a monster. I’d rather see Brock Lesnar barely scrape by and defeat Samoa Joe in twenty minutes more than I’d like WWE to change this awful PPV’s name. But one thing at a time.
Q: What was the one gimmick or wrestler that you hated so much you turned the channel as soon as their music hit? (Via Allan on Facebook)
A: Most of the garbage that became legendary, like Mae Young giving birth to a hand or Katie Vick, I’ve rolled my eyes hard and looked away from. There are two distinct times WWE really turned me off to the point that I actually turned them off. One was the really uncomfortable Vince Vs. Stephanie match that happened in 2003, but since that was a PPV, I couldn’t really avoid it. The other was the time they mocked Jim Ross’s colonoscopy with an atrocious skit that wasn’t funny or advanced any storylines. I still cite that as worse than Katie Vick or the hand, because Katie Vick furthered an actual feud, and the hand happened during the Attitude Era when shock TV was in. That JR skit from 2005? The worst thing I’ve ever seen. I also turned the channel on the Little People’s Court segment, and anytime I’ve accidentally turned on TNA programming in the 2010’s.
Q: You have been given the responsibility of picking the WWE HOF Class of 2018. Who would you pick and why? (Via Russell on Facebook)
A: WOW. Loaded question. Okay, I know the big thing is to induct people who deserve it, and not have too many dead people in at once to dampen the spirits, but I’d make sure Owen and Chyna were both included in 2018. I’d also give the nod to Undertaker if he’s truly done for an epic speech. If not, The Rock instead, as Taker and the Rock are the two most deserving currently, but I wouldn’t put them in the same year. I’d also induct Sean Waltman, Hillbilly Jim, the Dudley Boyz, and JIM CORNETTE and the Midnight Express. Jim Cornette is one of my favorite wrestling personalities of all time, and I’d make sure he finally gets his nod. I also want RVD in the hall of fame someday sooner rather than later. As for the Warrior Award, I’d use it to induct who it was actually supposed to be for – backstage people. I’d make sure Jim Johnston and at least one referee gets inducted. Earl Hebner or Charles Robinson. Finally, I’d use my authority to ensure that Kevin Dunn and his bucky beaver teeth never get recognized for anything. Ever.
Q: Do you think 205 Live should introduce its own TakeOver-like show, or do they have a deep enough roster to do so? (Via @Markjabroni on Twitter)
A: Interesting question. As much as like the Cruiserweight style, I’m actually tired of 205 Live. I hate that the Cruiserweights only ever wrestle each other, because they’ve already run out of combinations of wrestlers I want to see wrestle each other. I think they need to let the talents mix it with everyone on Raw, and then do their 205 show with each other. There’s a lot of lost potential there, because they have some fantastic talents who they just aren’t utilizing to their fullest potential. I don’t think a TakeOver special would draw very well, and probably make the higher ups decide to cancel the division altogether, which would result in a lot of contract releases.
Q: Do you believe that with attendance and viewership with Stick-and-Ball sports declining, that WWE can capitalize in terms of viewership? (Via Matt on Facebook)
A: I think WWE in the past few years has done a decent job getting themselves more out there in terms of mainstream sports appeal. In fact, this is probably the “coolest” pro wrestling has been since the Attitude Era. That said, if WWE wants to get more of an audience from mainstream sports, they need to focus more on the athletic side of their product and less on the soap opera side. 2017 WWE probably has some of the best athletes in the company’s history, so give them more time to do what they do best and cut back a bit on the sillier drama aspects, and you could really be onto something. Maybe we can re-evaluate this question in June 2020 and see what happens. They’re heading in the right direction, but I still don’t think they’ve gotten on the right road yet.
Chris O’Mealy is a former indy wrestling promoter, ring announcer, manager and referee. He is the founder and moderator of the Club Kayfabe Creative Community (http://www.ckcconline.com) and currently hosts three podcasts and writes for his own blog (http://comealy17.wordpress.com). He can be reached on Twitter @chrisomealy or emailed directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also contact him on Facebook, but if you wish to be his Facebook friend, you must ask him first.