Lucha Underground’s Last Stand
It is April, I am standing inside a graffiti-covered warehouse in Boyle Heights, California, and the end is near.
I am watching Vampiro, a wrestler I recognize from his time in WCW during the late Nineties, reach beneath the ring and produce an armload of long fluorescent tube lights. He holds them aloft and the bloodthirsty audience, filling every seat, feverishly roars with approval. He is facing Pentagón Jr. – a masked high flyer who, over the course of their match, will suffer no shortage of hardships (chair shots, tacks and, ultimately, a flaming table), well-deserved payback for a recent rampage that saw him break the arms of several opponents.
Vampiro raises one of the fluorescent tubes over his head and brings it crashing down on Pentagón’s back, a toxic plume of powder billowing into the air. The impact also sends part of the tube zipping into the crowd, past a young girl’s head. The shard misses her face by inches, and in the seconds that follow, she sits there silently, attempting to process what has just happened. Then she starts sobbing. Her reaction is certainly understandable, and in a way, strangely fitting – if this really was the final taping of Lucha Underground, there were bound to be some tears.
It’s highly unlikely you’ll see that near tragedy during Wednesday’s two-hour season (and, quite possibly, series) finale of Lucha Underground on the El Rey Network – it airs at 8 p.m. ET/PT – but what you will see is the power and potential of the most exciting wrestling product on television. At the moment, there’s no guarantee that El Rey will renew it for another season, and producers are attempting to secure the additional funds necessary to continue putting on a show of its cinematic caliber. That uncertainty cast a pall over April’s tapings, and though it was barely noticeable during moments of supreme action or shocking violence, it was definitely present. Because as LU‘s small-but-loyal fanbase will certainly attest, if this show goes away, it will unquestionably be a bad thing for wrestling.
After all, it’s been nearly 15 years since Vince McMahon purchased – and subsequently buried – WCW, his chief competitor for squared-circle supremacy. That move cemented WWE’s dominance in sports entertainment, and while it’s not technically correct to call them the only show in town, well, you’d be hard pressed to find any real challengers to their crown. Total Nonstop Action has struggled for years to find an audience, despite a roster stocked with familiar names like Jeff Jarrett, the Dudley Boyz, Matt Hardy, Sting and even Hulk Hogan (he’s available). Their longtime deal with Spike TV got the axe, and they’ve since ended up on Destination America, which also airs Ring of Honor, though recent reports suggest the channel could be looking to get out of the wrestling business by the end of the year. There’s also New Japan Pro-Wrestling on AXS TV, though it appears to be a niche attraction, at most. In short, bereft of competition, WWE can do whatever it wants, whenever it wants – and if you don’t like it, tough. It’s not like you can flip over to TNT anymore.
And that’s what makes Lucha Underground so interesting. The brainchild of Mark Burnett and Robert Rodriguez (who launched El Rey in 2013), it strives to be more than just body slams and bad acting. Drawing from Rodriguez’s directorial flourishes, LU attempts to add a touch of Hollywood into the mix, and unlike some of its predecessors, that doesn’t mean giving the belt to David Arquette. Instead, with its mix of high production values, over-the-top wrestling, violence and fantastical storylines, Lucha Underground feels like a pulpy, professionally made film. As producer and on-air talent Chavo Guerrero Jr. explained late last year:
“If you look at any other wrestling show, they’re filming backstage segments and promos on video with one camera. We’re filming them like a movie. We have lighting, a props department, wardrobe. I think, and not just because I’m working there, that this is the best wrestling product on the market.”
To that point, during season one, Lucha Underground has given viewers outlandish characters like Drago, a dragon resurrected as a human being, and storylines that include Pentagón Jr.’s snapping of arms in the name of a nefarious master and a mysterious key necklace that may or may not contain the power of all the darkness in the universe. While WWE has gone out of their way to ground storylines in reality, Lucha Underground is straying even further into the surreal. Does that make them direct competition for McMahon? Probably not – but it most certainly has turned them into a compelling alternative.
When I talked to executive producer John Fogelman at the April taping, he was quick to point out the differences between their show and McMahon’s WWE universe. He describes Lucha Underground not as “a wrestling promotion,” but as “a drama about a wrestling promotion.” They aren’t trying to produce pay-per-views or sell out Staples Center, they’re just trying to create a compelling weekly drama for the small screen. And when talking to the talent involved in the show, it seems the long-standing tradition and credibility of wrestling (specifically lucha libre, which traces its history back to the 1860s), is just as important. This seems to be a detail occasionally overlooked by WWE, where it was only a decade ago that “The Mexicools” drove “Juan Deere” lawn mowers to the ring and claimed they were “no longer there to clean toilets.”
“Lucha Underground wants to change the way people see Latinos in this country. They want the world to see what we can really do, and that’s reason why I came here,” José Alberto Rodriguez, a four-time world champion in WWE as Alberto Del Rio, tells me. “I was getting better offers at other places, but I was miserable and I’m not making the same mistake twice.”
Besides a handful of wrestlers, other members of the Lucha Underground team have a history with WWE as well, and producers admit they’ve been learning on the fly, attempting to strike a balance between being a credible wrestling program and a scripted soap opera. Purists balked at the inclusion of mainstream talent like former WWE Superstars John Morrison (now Johnny Mundo) and Ezekiel Jackson (now known as Big Ryck), yet producers know casual fans still need those familiar faces to become invested.
That’s just one more challenge for the only wrestling show that takes inspiration from Lost, which Fogelman claims was a major influence when building the folklore of Lucha Underground. He noted that the graffiti sprayed across the walls of the warehouse – fans know it as impresario Dario Cueto’s Lucha Temple – is actually encrypted with hidden messages, detailing a much larger storyline, one producers hope to tell over multiple seasons. And as I saw during the taping of the finale, the layers of Lucha Underground went beyond the babyface/heel dynamic of yesteryear. There was revenge and romance, reunions and redemptions – the kind of stuff that would not feel out of place on a telenovela. And if I were to take the graffiti seriously, as Fogelman encouraged me to, I would assume the whole federation might have a more fantastical element at its core, involving magic and monsters on a larger scale. With this type of allure, Lucha Underground seems like a perfect fit for Netflix (or any other streaming service), where binge-watching is practically a prerequisite.
All of the pieces are in place for Lucha Underground, it’s just a matter of coming up with the money to make them fit. And then there’s the question of whether fans are willing to work to assemble the puzzle – especially when it’s far easier to sit back and let WWE do it for them. As I sat in the stands that April night, it was difficult to deny the appeal. Lucha Underground has created a wrestling show that dares to challenge its audience, to give them a product that is both riveting and ridiculous, often at the same time. Now all it needs is a chance to succeed. And let’s hope it does. It would be a shame if it passed us by, shining for only a moment, like a shard of glass in the night.
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