Vince McMahon has always thrived on competition. The first WrestleMania was inarguably the most important, influential show in the history of the industry – yet it was also directly encouraged by Jim Crockett Promotions’ equally magnanimous Starrcade pay-per-view. The Attitude Era of the late Nineties is remembered as one of WWE’s most creatively fertile periods, but it was born out of serious financial struggles and the pressures asserted by a powerful new rival: Eric Bischoff’s WCW. McMahon does his best business when he’s under pressure. This is his legacy; he is an insane workaholic who will do everything he can to crush the competition.
For the most part, this has worked beautifully. In a few short months, WWE will take over AT&T Stadium in a bid for the biggest WrestleMania in history. Its multimedia tendrils stretch into movies, cartoons, comic books, a successful E! reality show and an innovative streaming service. For the past 15 years, the company has thrived without any worthy challengers, and while you can make the argument that its empire is large enough to contend with other, broader institutions like UFC and the NFL, it seems likely that nobody else in the wrestling business is going to be signing deals with Jerry Jones anytime soon.
However, over the past couple of years, it’s not a stretch to say WWE has gotten a little stagnant. The company still boasts one of the most diverse, well-stocked rosters in the industry, but the overall tone of the product has become frustratingly one-note. The top brass makes sure moneymakers like John Cena, Brock Lesnar and the Undertaker are all constantly involved in interesting, engaging storylines, but that prudence falls off completely when it comes to the rest of the roster. Adrian Neville is one of the most talented workers on earth, sporting a finishing move so flat-out bonkers it makes lifelong wrestling-truthers blush, yet he’s never been engaged in a meaningful feud the entire time he’s been on the main roster. WWE seems to believe that as long as Cena is drawing everything else is gravy, and unfortunately they might be right, which is disappointing news for conscious fans.
Meanwhile, in another quadrant of the wrestling galaxy – otherwise known as the last episode of Lucha Underground – we learned that Aero Star was a time traveler. Sorry, an alien time traveler. We opened on a crackling fire, “millennia ago” according to the on-screen caption, and a child informed viewers that seven Aztec nations were at war, and that the gods wouldn’t be back for another thousand years. Aero Star entered stage left, suited up in his usual Lite-Brite spacesuit, and casually muttered that he’ll “go there.” He then blasted off into the ancient night sky, dissipated into hyperspace and presumably reappeared in a wrestling ring somewhere in Los Angeles.
Stuff like this happens all the time in Lucha Underground (Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on the El Rey Network). Last season we were introduced to Drago, a reincarnated dragon that can also handle a pair of nunchaku, and Mil Muertes, the human embodiment of death who gains cosmic power from a mythical stone held by his valet, the curvaceous Catrina. There’s also Pentagón Jr, a skeleton ninja who breaks arms for his evil master, and Dario Cueto, the suave, on-screen proprietor of the promotion, and Matanza, his caged, deformed brother, who feeds on the poor souls who fail the administration.
It’s very weird, and very great; a welcome antidote to wrestling’s status quo. Ever since Lucha Underground debuted on El Rey in the fall of 2014, it was clear that the show had little interest in competing with WWE’s corporate largesse – or even existing in the same world. The characters on Raw and SmackDown sign contracts and cash in rematch clauses; on Lucha Underground they risk actual kayfabe death in coffin matches. It’s the mythology of pro wrestling – and the machismo of lucha libre – taken to the absolute extreme. The men and women who compete in the temple are not meant to exist in reality, the show does nothing to ground its fantastic world in legitimate competition, and after one too many hapless Reigns/Ambrose tag matches, that’s pretty refreshing.
This isn’t necessarily WWE’s fault. The company is beholden to advertisers, demographics and cross-promotional demands, which means we get stuff like Adam Rose shilling boozy iced tea in the middle of Raw. Lucha Underground has nothing to lose, which means they can feed their creative instincts without scaring off, say, the Make-A-Wish Foundation. And that freedom is crucial. Watching Lucha Underground reminds you that the trappings of pro wrestling can be used to tell wild, intelligent, outlandish stories. There’s absolutely no reason Neville can’t be a time-traveling alien, and while that background might not fit into the greater WWE canon, it’s certainly more development than a purple cape and a pose.
But not all hope is lost. Over the past few years, the most exciting developments in WWE have come from NXT, the company’s developmental promotion that has grown from a feeble blip into one of the best shows in the world. Current main roster stars like Seth Rollins, Big E and Kevin Owens cut their teeth there, and at NXT’s TakeOver: Brooklyn, Sasha Banks and Bayley wrestled easily the greatest women’s match in modern WWE history, culminating a combined 18 months of storytelling. It was cathartic, beautiful and alive – superlatives rarely used to describe WWE product. And like Lucha Underground, NXT’s home on the WWE Network allows it to remain unmoored from the commercial demands (and restraints) foisted upon Raw and SmackDown.
And as luck would have it, both Lucha Underground and NXT now go head-to-head at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday nights. It’s not exactly a reincarnation of the must-see, win-at-all-costs Monday Night War between WWE and WCW (the Network ensures episodes of NXT can be streamed whenever, while El Rey re-airs each installment of LU immediately after it premieres), but for long-suffering wrestling fans, it’s probably the next best thing. When you watch either show, you’re reminded that pro wrestling doesn’t have to be stupid. That belief has been instilled in us by years of bad storytelling and cookie-cutter characters; no promos, no foresight, no drama, just a bunch of wrestling matches and backstage skits that occasionally build to a PPV. It’s lazy, it insults your intelligence and it’s something you’d never see on Lucha Underground or NXT.
It’s hard to imagine this changing anytime soon. And you know what? That’s OK. Lucha Underground won’t become WCW, and NXT will always be a developmental program, but these two promotions have fast become a refuge for real wrestling obsessives, and Wednesday night is the oasis. They offer hope – and a platform – for indie wrestlers, and proof that this business is still capable of engaging and enthralling us. Twenty years ago, if you weren’t happy with the wrestling on TV you were stuck scribbling out mail-order forms for grubby VHS tapes, but now, with so many different means of distribution, alternatives can thrive.
Yes, it’s a shame that a promotion can’t put the creative pressure on Vince McMahon to be better, or that the face of wrestling will largely remain unchanged. But I don’t want to see Lucha Underground get big enough to sell out, or watch NXT work in integrations for Tex Mex Bacon Thickburgers. I prefer my world of Wednesday nights, where the wrestling is still wild and wonderful, the characters are compelling and the storylines are scintillating. Let it remain a secret forever; WWE may dominate 99 percent of the wrestling business, but for now, that other one percent is where the action is.