Lucha Libre has never been able to garner much more than a novel interest within the English speaking wrestling world. WWE has never really been able to accommodate more than one ‘masked high flying wrestler’ at a time (unless they’re in a tag team!) and WCW, despite giving lucha stars a degree of exposure in the mid-to-late 90s, did everything they could possibly do to unravel that goodwill once Vince Russo started booking them in piñata-on-a-pole matches and other stereotypical gimmicks. With Lucha Underground, however, Robert Rodriguez and his El Rey network are showing that Lucha Libre isn’t just a viable product for English speaking fans – its possibly the best made program today.
The set up for Lucha Underground is a strange mixture of new and old – in the ring it’s all action – there are familiar faces such as the former John Morrison (now the copyright friendly ‘Johnny Mundo’) and Ezekiel Jackson (now called ‘Big Ryck’, because he’s big and his name is Ryck). However we also have a mix of high flying Mexican luchadores, El Santo-style ‘strongmen’ luchadores, and indy stars of all shapes and sizes. But what sets Lucha Underground apart more than anything else is its commitment to being a television programme. Anything not in the ring – interviews, backstage segments, vignettes – are presented with a sleek level of polish that’s more akin to one of Rodriguez’s films or a crime drama than a wrestling programme.
In terms of story, Lucha Underground starts with what’s familiar – Dario Cueto is a wealthy eccentric who started his own wrestling promotion to exhibit his love for battle and conquest. He’s the Hispanic Vince McMahon. You cross him and he’ll make your life a living hell. We’ve seen ‘evil rich authority figure’ played out in every wrestling promotion known to man – but Dario Cueto has enough unique character to set him apart. He also happens to have an affinity for Aztec culture and this can be seen everywhere on the show – from his frequent mentions of the ‘proud and noble heritage of the Aztec Warriors of old’, to the ‘Temple’ design of the studio where they shoot the show. This gives the show a clear identity – it is cartoonish at times, but it works more often than not – most of these wrestlers are vibrant masked personalities and setting them up against a backdrop such as this fits a lot better than merely having them wrestle in some bingo hall.
This leads to another useful storyline contrivance. So often when a promotion starts up, no reason is given for why any of the wrestlers are there – you can only see obviously inferior promotions refer to themselves as ‘the best wrestling promotion in the world today’ for so long before you realise that that really isn’t the case. Dario’s Million Dollar Man-esque persona is an extremely useful character trait because he’s a millionaire (possibly billionaire) weirdo who is paying the greatest athletes in the world to wrestle for him. Obviously, this is just a storyline, but it’s a convincing one – for months before Lucha Underground introduced a title belt the wrestlers in this promotion were literally wrestling for briefcases full of money. When Cueto says he’s assembling the greatest talent from across the world to wrestle without being held down by politics and bad writing teams, and then Ricochet (under a mask as ‘Prince Puma’) and the aforementioned Johnny Mundo have an undeniable barn burner – you believe that is the case.
The ability to effectively set up a storyline premise and follow through with something promotions like TNA and WWE have struggled with for years that Lucha Underground has been able to pull off from the start. The reasons why it can do this are plentiful but mainly, they keep things simple: matches mean something, but the meaning never becomes convoluted. Lucha Underground are able to present characters as being equals, but for different reasons; such a Big Ryck being huge but slow and Prince Puma being fast but small – so a match between the two will accentuate these points. The in-ring action is commented on by the encyclopedia-like Matt Striker and the much-better-that-expected Vampiro – they do not plug apps, they do not actively ignore the match to talk about God-know-what, they do not bury the wrestlers. They call the action, explain why matches are important and really get across why each character is noteworthy. WWE and TNA could learn a lot from these two; but considering WWE tossed Matt Striker aside, I’d say any lessons the former teacher could impart onto the WWE commentary team has been rejected.
This brings me to my next point about Lucha Underground: what they can do with the ingredients they are given is astounding. The roster has a big contingent of WWE (and to a lesser extent TNA) castaways – these are the guys who, for one reason or another, didn’t light the WWE on fire. From what Lucha Underground has been able to do with guys like John Morrison, Ezekiel Jackson and Chavo Guerrero, I’d be more inclined to believe that departures were more WWE creative dropping the ball on these talents than their own doing. Take Chavo Guerrero as an example – he started his Lucha Underground run with a loss to a masked luchadore called Blue Demon Jr. Lucha Underground has effortlessly framed this as being something that has broken Chavo – he’s not a ‘proud Mexican warrior’ anymore, he’s a guy that will backstab anyone and connive his way to getting what he wants – and its worked. He’s a heel and he’s made hitting someone with a chair significant again. Chavo Guerrero is now one of the most compelling wrestlers on television today, and its thanks to his ability (which was never lacking) and Lucha Underground’s ability to convey a story without getting caught up in a load of nonsense.
However, all of what I have described to this point has been window dressing. Without wrestling, Lucha Underground would be just a well-shot show about a rich guy and his roster muscular men in masks. The watches themselves in Lucha Underground are mostly stellar. There are some less amazing bouts presented to get characters over, but on the whole Lucha Underground’s in ring action seems like its dedicated to showing fans new things they haven’t seen done in a ring before. In WWE, any time we see a masked wrestler like Sin Cara or Kalisto, there are whispers that this is the next Rey Mysterio, but in Lucha Underground that’s an impossible claim to verify because there are simply so many ‘next Rey Mysterios’. As it stands, Fénix and Prince Puma are the frontrunners in ‘guys you really need to see to believe’, but as I’ve said, it’s not all about the high flyers – guys like Blue Demon Jr, Cage and Mil Muertes are having great matches while rarely leaving their feet. And then there are stars like Pentagón Jr. and Drago and King Cuerno whose meticulously crafted personas can be seen not just in their outfits but also in the way they wrestle. As an example, King Cuerno is presented a master hunter – so his wrestling style reflects this – he’s shown actively stalking his opponents and trying to outwit stronger or faster wrestlers. His bizarre pagan-esque antler-crown and pelt-cape introduce his character and his fighting style reinforces it. This all adds up to a thrilling conclusion – from all aspects, Lucha Underground is a meticulously crafted show, not just on the level of a TNA IMPACT or WWE RAW, but even compared to True Detective or Breaking Bad – the characters and story intertwine in a way that seems like an advancement of the product.
Prior to Lucha Underground, I’d have considered applying the standards of a television drama to a wrestling show to be actively destroying the product. There’s an infamous scene in the documentary ‘Beyond the Mat’ where Vince McMahon balks at the idea of his life’s work merely being seen as wrestling. “We make movies!” he smugly grins, as if to underline that wrestling, as a source of entertainment, can’t be raised to the standards of television or movies without making the product into something else entirely. Lucha Underground has proven that you can do it both – you can improve the quality of the product immensely whilst maintaining what it’s truly about: the wrestling. So why aren’t you watching Lucha Underground? The main reason probably – it doesn’t have a UK TV deal. And that’s a real shame.