For those of you that are disenfranchised with the current WWE product, I encourage you to go out and find other brands that showcase the great art form of Professional Wrestling. Yes, WWE is the most recognizable wrestling brand in the world, but that doesn’t mean great wrestling is impossible to find. There are a myriad of independent promotions, and foreign products to seek out. From my personal experience, I have probably watched more Japanese wrestling in 2015 than I have in any other year since I’ve been a wrestling fan. Also, if you want to stick with WWE, their best show is NXT which has delivered with its slow build up to quarterly 2 hour specials.
\One other personal recommendation is a show that caught me by surprise, but I’ve been watching it since November 2014 and I could not possibly be happier with it. That show is Lucha Underground on the El Rey Network. The show has captured most of the aspects I love about pro wrestling while also presenting the show in a unique way that I never would have envisioned for a wrestling show.
If you haven’t seen Lucha Underground yet and need some convincing, allow me to take the time to sell you on this show.
1) The Show is Only an Hour Long
Most wrestling critics will cite both the addition of Thunder and the extension of Nitro to 3 hours in being contributing factors to the downfall of WCW. It overexposed the brand, and made it harder for the producers and writers to create material to fill the timeslots. In 2015, we have a WWE product that has 3 hour episodes of Raw that feel bloated and desperately stretch for time in addition to 2 hour Smackdowns, 1 hour episodes of Main Event & Superstars, and a monthly 3 hour PPV to build up to as well. To fill those blocks of time, guys are featured on every single episode without any breaks and rematches happening one show on top of the other. Feuds that should last at least a few months get worn out after a few weeks because you’ll see those guys face off in PPV matches, Raw rematches, Tag matches and everything else you can imagine and all of it in quick succession. The WWE brand is overexposed with too much content to fill week to week.
Part of what helps Lucha Underground stay exciting and fresh is the fact that it is just one hour of television on a weekly basis. The same guys are not featured every week, and with that in play, I can truthfully say that there is not one wrestler on the show I am sick of seeing. Prince Puma is the champion and it isn’t guaranteed that he will be featured on the show. Alberto El Patron (Alberto Del Rio) debuted on television in February and has only wrestled twice since then. By not overexposing the talents, it makes the show more exciting to watch when they actually do wrestle or even show up at all.
The one hour format also allows for an exciting time that goes by quickly and leaves me anticipating next week’s episode that much more. The anticipation is helped by the fact that it is a shorter show with no new material in between. It is easier to digest what I saw and imagine how they are going to follow up a week later.
2) The Action
As with any wrestling show, one of the important aspects of the product is what goes on inside the ring, and Lucha Underground delivers in abundance. The incorporation of the Lucha Libre style makes for exciting, high flying action, but there is also variety. You get big men, small men, brawlers, and everything else in between. If you are looking for exciting in ring action, then Lucha Underground is right before because you are guaranteed exciting matches just about every episode.
3) The Stories
The most important part of any television show is the storytelling. The same is true for wrestling shows. You need to be able to invest in the matches for them to have any kind of meaning and they have to have proper context and meaning. Lucha Underground has managed to have several ongoing storylines that has led to some intense grudge matches. Fenix Vs. Mil Muertes, Prince Puma Vs. Cage, Texano Vs. Alberto El Patron, and Johnny Mundo Vs. King Cuerno were all examples of feuds that had great build ups and culminated in big grudge matches. The Trios Championship Tournament was a great way to allow character development for Son of Havoc, Ivelisse, & Angelico. Also there have been ongoing story threads that were there from the very beginning with questions haven’t been answered yet. Unlike some wrestling storylines, it feels like the show does have a clear direction and plan in mind for their stories and more often than not, they are fun to follow.
4) The Temple
For years, TNA’s main venue was the Impact Zone, and to many viewers, it looked like a simple soundstage that was trying to look like WWE. It is also very difficult to keep an exciting atmosphere if you run out of the same venue for every single show. Somehow, Lucha Underground has managed to cultivate a home for their shows that not only has rabid and excited fans, but is so distinctive that it feels like it has a life of its own. The fans are always excited and loud, which certainly helps, but the look of the ringside area is so different and interesting to look at that it immediately sets Lucha Underground apart from other wrestling shows.
Not only does The Temple provide a unique look to the show that no other wrestling show has, but it is also enhanced by the backstage sets that have been created for it. Thus far in the show, we have seen the locker room area, a training area, dark hallways, and of course, promoter Dario Cueto’s office. The set pieces give off the impression that they belong in a crime drama or a comic book, and look nothing at all like the traditional wrestling backstage area. The dark & dingy rooms in this venue help enhance the show by providing atmosphere and great backdrops while the talents are on display. Whether it is inside the ring or behind the scenes, The Temple is a great stage for the performers to work their magic.
5) Trios Championship Division
Tag Team Wrestling is a beloved and celebrated portion of Pro Wrestling’s history, so it was only natural for Lucha Underground to create their own tag team division at some point. In the month of April 2015, Lucha Underground unveiled the Trios Championship wherein the championship team is made up of three competitors instead of two with the titles being defended in six person tag team matches. Trios Tag Team wrestling is a staple of Lucha Libre history, so there is a precedent and historical significance to doing tag team wrestling this way. It works because of that, but it is also a fresh way to present a tag team division to American audiences, so it also offers something unique as well. As far as the matches themselves, if the early Trios matches are any indication, the Trios Division will be filled with action packed matches involving their extensive roster.
6) The Match Outcomes Matter
Far too often in modern day Pro Wrestling, match outcomes are rendered meaningless. In the last few years, I have seen situations where guys can go on huge losing streaks and become a title holder within a couple of weeks (Most Money in the Bank Winners). I have seen champions lose non-title matches left and right, ultimately diminishing the moment when they actually drop the title (Wade Barrett earlier this year). Kane is somehow still considered a dangerous monster even though I’d be hard-pressed if I had to remember the last time I saw him win a match.
In Lucha Underground things are slightly different. While there is no official ranking system or anything of the like, there is a clear understanding that winners advance and losers move down the totem pole. Drago & Aero Star had a Best of Five Series with the clear understanding that the ultimate winner would receive a huge prize. Mill Muertes and Pentagon Jr. were established as monsters not only by acting creepy and weird, but showing that they could destroy their opponents and win a majority of their matches. Wins are used as character builders and are ultimately rewarded, and on the losing edge, we at least see frustration and anguish in the event of a loss and what that means to the wrestler’s personally. A loss in the very first episode was actually the genesis of Chavo Guerrero’s heel turn. It is nice to have that kind of logic in place. It was the reason I was in favor of TNA’s Bound for Glory Series, why I appreciate NXT having squash matches, and why the Razor Ramon/123 Kid feud from back in the day was so good. The best way to build up a wrestler is with victories, and any loss should be soul crushing to the characters like it would an athlete in any other sport.
7) The Presentation
Probably Lucha Underground’s most notable characteristic is the unique way it presents its show. Because WWE is the top wrestling brand in town, it is easy to think of their format as the standard, but there are several elements about their production that bug me. Let us look at the backstage segments WWE does, namely the ones done in Triple H & Stephanie’s office. Why does everyone awkwardly stand shoulder to shoulder? Why do they act like characters can’t be seen or heard unless they are in frame? I get that they want to keep everybody in frame, but it feels so unnatural and awkward because not many people would talk to another person while standing shoulder to shoulder. Also, why do the characters act like there is no camera there, yet the commentators & live audience clearly react and comment on the stuff that goes on backstage. So you have one group of characters (the wrestlers) that are completely unaware of the camera which is why they tell important secrets and talk about their evil master plans, yet the commentators and live audience can see all of this unfold. So why does one group of characters know there are cameras backstage and the other doesn’t?
The presentation of WWE’s backstage segments comes off so awkwardly that it caused me to think that all wrestling shows should move away from that and strive for a “real time” style of format. To give examples of what I am talking about, look at the Brian Pillman & Steve Austin gun incident where it looked like the events that were unfolding felt like something happening in real life with realistic coverage of that moment. The current approach of “show within a show” wasn’t working for me because of how WWE did it and it caused me to reject the idea of that style of format.
I am happy to say that Lucha Underground proved me wrong. It took the “show within a show” format and took it to the extreme. The behind the scenes actions in the show are cinematic and feel like events you’d see in a movie or TV show. The camera movements, background music, and even the acting of certain performers have contributed to this unique presentation and it works. The show has atmosphere and genuine intrigue and perfectly maintains the illusion of “show within a show”. It is truly unlike any other wrestling show I have ever seen and I believe we have Executive Producer Robert Rodriguez to thank for it. I also have to applaud the amazing vignette packages for their wrestlers which explain their back stories and personalities. Simply put, the show is well produced and captures the imagination of the audience.
8) The Characters
If you watched WCW’s Cruiserweight Division in the mid-1990s, you’d be forgiven if you got some of the masked Mexican wrestlers mixed up. Unless the guy was truly something special like Rey Mysterio Jr, it was easy to get lost in the shuffle and just be thought of as an interchangeable masked guy. Well Lucha Underground has more masked men than any roster in America right now and there is no possible way to confuse them all. They all look different and all have distinct characters and personalities. Prince Puma, Drago, Pentagon Jr, Fenix, Son of Havoc, King Cuerno, and many others all stand out and have carved their own identities within the company. Outside of wearing masks, they don’t have as much that much in common.
The show has even managed to take WWE & TNA castoffs and make them feel even more special than they did while they were with the WWE. The best example is probably Big Ryck, whom you may remember as Ezekiel Jackson from WWE’s revision of ECW. Is there anyone that can truthfully say they were invested in Big Zeke while he was with the WWE? He came across as just another muscled up big guy for them to use for a bit and then cast aside when they get bored with him. Well, as Big Ryck, he somehow managed to become a far more interesting character as he initially started out as the leader of his own gang and then ultimately as a revenge seeker. They found a way to promote the guy as someone worth watching and investing in, and that is commendable. And for those of you who remember Judas Messias from TNA, he is in Lucha Underground under the guise of Mil Muertes, a character that is legitimately threatening and imposing. Also, be sure to check out his back story which might be the best character background for any wrestling character since Kane in 1997. Actually, his valet Catrina was a former NXT performer and she is an important part of the Mil Muertes character. Also with the company are Johnny Mundo (John Morrison), Hernandez (from TNA’s LAX), and biggest of all, Alberto El Patron. It feels like Lucha Underground has found ways to rejuvenate these guys and give them a repackaging to fit them into their show, and it is great.
In the end, the diversity of personalities the show offers helps make it more enjoyable and fun.
9) The Women
With the recent talk of “Giving Divas a Chance”, it feels appropriate to mention Lucha Underground’s handling of their female performers. As of right now, the only female wrestlers have been Sexy Star and Ivelisse (with Angela Fong being set up in storylines). Rather than having a full-fledged women’s division, Lucha Underground has opted to break the barrier completely and just let the women performers wrestle the men.
Opinions on this from fans & critics alike have been mixed, but to be honest, I think of it as progressive. It allows Lucha Underground to present something different that nobody else is regularly doing and carve their own identity. Through doing this, Sexy Star has become a great underdog heroine for the show, and Ivelisse was allowed great interactions and development with her Trios Partners Angelico & Son of Havoc. I also give credit to the male performers for being willing to work and sell for them as it has allowed Sexy Star & Ivelisse to become important facets of the show. I read all the time about how fans want women’s wrestling, and presenting inter-gender matches as a regular part of the show is Lucha Underground’s way of doing that.
10) Dario Cueto
The evil boss trope has been done so often since the days of Austin Vs. McMahon that many younger wrestling fans can’t imagine a wrestling show without one. Personally, the act of an evil boss wore thin with me years ago as it became increasingly inane and meaningless. I felt like wrestling shows had gotten to a point where there was no rhyme or reason to the heel boss’ motivations anymore. They just had to be evil for the sake of it. Even Vince McMahon, the prime example of the corrupt authority figure, had been reduced to little more than a parody of himself. It became harder and harder to envision this trope ever working again.
Then along came Dario Cueto! This character is Lucha Underground’s owner and promoter and he can best be described as deliciously evil. His attitude and actions perfectly capture that of a slimy business man that is seeking to enhance the success of the brand he runs, and he’ll do anything to make sure his show is a success. The interactions he has with the wrestlers (thought the aforementioned cinematic behind the scenes moments) are expertly performed. He can be cowardly, egotistical, manipulative, and everything else on the spectrum. Dario can really do it all. A large part of that is that the character is played by a real actor named Luis Fernandez-Gil. His obvious ability as an actor allows him to come across more naturally than most wrestlers do, which is a great tool to use.
Not only is Dario a great authority figure character, but he really does hold the show together. A good number of the wrestlers do not speak. Prince Puma is the champion and has yet to say a single word. Because so many of the wrestlers don’t speak, it falls on the characters that do speak to help carry these scenes, and Dario is one of the ones that performers it beautifully. Most of the best parts of the show are the scenes that are set in his office. These are typically the best shot scenes in the show, and it is great seeing Dario acting supremely confident, manipulating somebody, or trying to talk himself out of a beating.
Dario Cueto is not only a perfect take on the heel authority figure, but he is also the backbone of the show and his presence only makes the show better.
In summary, Lucha Underground is a wrestling show that manages to offer a new and exciting presentation for the art form while also adhering to the classic wrestling techniques that make the matches and moments feel special. I can honestly say of all the weekly wrestling programs out there today, you will not find one as fresh, entertaining, and exciting as Lucha Underground. I could sit here and give you recommendations to matches & episodes, but to be honest, I feel like the show works best if you start at Episode 1 and work your way through. It actually does enhance the experience over simply picking and choosing certain matches and shows to watch.
Lucha Underground airs on the El Rey Network on Wednesday Nights at 8:00pm ET/PT.