LUCHA UNDERGROUND: Thunder in the Temple!

By Dr. Abner Mality

It is not much of a secret that professional wrestling in the United States is in a very static and stagnant condition. The long-time dominating behemoth of wrestling, the WWE, is extremely flat and unimaginative in its presentation, which resembles more and more a combat version of Disney On Ice or the Harlem and formulaic. There are many other wrestling organizations battling for the scraps the WWE leaves behind, but these also seem to conform to the same general parameters. The "indy leagues" more and more resemble each other in one big monochrome blur.

There needs to be a shot in the arm or a kick in the ass for pro wrestling. It happened in the early 90's when a bingo hall in Philadelphia suddenly became the epicenter of a revolution. That bingo hall became the home of ECW, which injected new life into a stale wrestling scene with outrageous violence, unapologetic crudeness and extreme competition. ECW was the little promotion that could, the brash little bantam that went after the big roosters. It was so successful that the "big boys" stole everything that made ECW great and finally put it out of business. And wrestling has been in a kind of downward spiral ever since.

Who, then, is going to be the new ECW and break the rules once more?

Well, amigo, your ship has come in and you need to head south of the border to find salvation. Say hello to Lucha Underground.

This program can be found on the revolutionary El Rey Network (more about them later) on Wednesday nights and in almost every way, it is different and more entertaining than the typical wrestling format. It's a combination of age-old and brand new entertainment ideas that uses pro wrestling as a foundation for a new type of serial program.

First, let's talk about "lucha libre", which translated into English literally means "free fight". This is the Mexican version of pro wrestling, with its own long history full of colorful masked men, more than human icons and high-flying action. If you're not really familiar with lucha libre, just understand that it's quite different than American pro wrestling. It's more mythic and full of mysterious masked luchadors representing good and evil. Unlike current American wrestling, where the line between good and evil has become so blurred as to be non-existent, the battle lines are very strictly drawn in Mexico between "tecnicos" (the "good guys" who always play by the rules) and "rudos" (the "heels" who are aggressive and will do anything to win). While the rudos have their fans, the rudos themselves never court the approval of the crowd (something which American heels like the N.W.O. always did). And the tecnicos will never take unfair advantage of their opponents.

The Mexican wrestlers are known as "luchadors" and they are just as much comic book superheroes as athletes. Americans really can't understand how supsterstar tecnicos like El Santo, Blue Demon and El Solitario are worshipped by the fans. El Santo was a national hero who appeared in movies, TV shows and comic books, usually fighting monsters like Dracula or aliens from outer space. In recent years, lucha libre has become more well known and popular in the US. But there has never been a real lucha libre promotion here.

Lucha Underground has wisely made use of the mythology and iconography of lucha libre. But they've given it a twist so it will appeal to more than just the hardcore lucha fans of the Latino community. The Lucha Underground TV show is set up like its own separate universe...not just another "indy" promotion that uses luchadors. It takes place in a fictional world with a rich history to it that unfolds like an ongoing drama.

Fans of Mexican TV will be familiar with the "telenovelas"...ongoing "soap operas" that have a darker feel than their US counterparts. All pro wrestling has been compared to a male "soap opera". In a lot of ways, the WWF and WCW took that "soap opera" concept to a new level. In Lucha Underground, the show is like a 35 episode "season" of a serial, a telenovela, but one that is based on what happens in the rings and locker rooms of LU. 

In the internet age, the old "kayfabe" concept of pro wrestling is dead. The WWE has been trying to kill kayfabe for decades and has finally succeeded. I personally feel that has been bad for wrestling, but Lucha Underground approaches things differently than the WWE. There is no question you are watching a "fictional story", but instead of treating the story in a campy or disrespectful way, LU dives into the story and takes it very seriously. In every episode, we get great wrestling matches, but also a lot of "backstage" vignettes which tell the story behind the matches. There are mysteries to be solved. Old characters can reinvent themselves and new characters can enter the story. You watch "The Walking Dead" or "The Flash" each week to see what happens to the characters. LU acknowledges this kind of storytelling and embraces it.

To describe Lucha Underground in the most basic way, imagine an ongoing TV series that combines risky and high flying lucha libre with athletic American pro wrestling along the lines of Ring of Honor. In addition to that hybrid style of wrestling, you get the larger than life stories of superhero comics and Mexican telenovelas.

To make this kind of show succeed, you need a great cast of characters and a unique setting for the story. And this is where Lucha Underground really takes off.

The matches all take place in what looks like an abandoned factory in the barrio of Boyle Heights, California, located in the heart of Latino Los Angeles. This building is called "The Temple" and it has an extremely cool vibe to it. Certain wrestling locations have become legendary for their atmosphere and history. I think of the unfortunately demolished Dallas Sportatorium where the great matches of World Class Championship Wrestling took place. And who can forget that old bingo hall in Philadelphia at Swanson and Rittner Streets, where the mayhem of Extreme Championship Wrestling took place?

The Temple has that kind of atmosphere. I understand that the building dates back to 1915 and has been totally refitted. It has that gritty old time industrial feel to it, but it has also been made to resemble an actual Aztec temple of old. There are no giant video screens or sleek ramps to the ring. Instead, the wrestlers must walk down the steps of the Temple right through the crowd and into the ring. The office of Lucha Underground promoter Dario Cueto is located mere feet from the ring. Decorations and designs bring Aztec culture to life...the emblem in the center of the ring itself is very much taken from Aztec roots. The history and culture of the Aztecs is integrated right in the ongoing story of Lucha Underground.

The Temple is its own separate universe. The action we see on the show takes place for the most part in just three locations...Dario Cueto's office, the locker rooms backstage and in the ring itself. The crowd at these events looks like somewhere around 500 to 600 people...just the right size. The fans themselves are reminiscent of the ones we used to see in ECW...enthusiastic, knowledgeable and rowdy. They are referred to as "The Believers".

So now we have our location. And how about our roster? This is where the success of any wrestling promotion lies. Honestly, I think Lucha Underground's roster is as unique and athletic as any in pro wrestling. The characters all have their own personalities and back stories. Some are wrestlers we recognize. Others have been "repackaged". But the LU roster is not just treated as a bunch of wrestlers from other promotions. Again, LU is its own universe, organic and self-contained.

A lot of the wrestlers are luchadors who come from the most popular promotion in Mexico, AAA. In Mexico, AAA is what WWE is in the States, in terms of power and popularity. If you follow AAA, then you will know wrestlers like Pentagon Jr, El Texano and Bengala. But if you don't, that's OK. In fact, it's more fun that way, because you will be learning about them and their stories for the first time. And some of the AAA guys have been "repackaged". King Cuerno, the "silent hunter", wrestles as El Hijo de Fantasma in AAA. If you know who he is, it shouldn't affect your enjoyment of the Lucha Underground story.

Lucha Underground does not just rely on Mexican luchadors. They spice things up by adding well known wrestlers from the American indy wrestling scene...guys who have tremendous potential or who maybe haven't had the chance to show what they can do. One such wrestler is "The Machine", Cage, a physically awesome specimen who has great agility in addition to an incredible physique. At one time, he was in the WWE "farm system" and why they would let an athlete like this go is beyond comprehension. Thankfully he's popped up in LU, where he is one of the most dangerous men on the roster. Another up-and-comer is The Mack, a stocky African-American guy who is one of the most exciting wrestlers in the US.  I saw him wrestle as Willie Mack in Championship Wrestling From Hollywood, where he was the most popular guy in the promotion. Don't be fooled by his pudgy exterior...this guy's moves are flat out AMAZING!

There are some guys with a history in bigger promotions. Alberto el Patron was one of the biggest heels in WWE under his former name of Alberto del Rio. He has a great background in lucha libre and also is an MMA trained athlete. The WWE's loss is Lucha Underground's gain...Alberto el Patron is easily the most popular athlete in LU. Think of a Mexican Ric Flair, only more athletic. From a similar background comes Johnny Mundo, an innovative high flyer once known as John Morrison in WWE. He's one of the most agile and graceful human beings I've ever seen in a wrestling ring and he has the look of a rock star. Another guy that WWE dropped the ball on, but who gets to cut loose with no restrictions in Lucha Underground.

It's a fabulously diverse and talented group of wrestlers. I could go over the whole bunch in great detail, but the best suggestion I can make is to check out a couple of episodes of the show to get a look at characters like Drago, The Crew, Mil Muertes and Big Ryck. They all have their own story to tell.

And what kind of stories are they? They fall into two distinct branches. First, there is the story told in the ring...the battles and rivalries of the luchadors. In Lucha Underground, we get few of the long-winded speeches that bring the action in WWE and TNA to a screeching halt. The wrestlers get to tell their stories in the ring. In those promotions I just mentioned, the grapplers were often told what moves they could and couldn't do. Some were just too "flashy" or "dangerous" or maybe they belonged exclusively to another wrestler. No such limits exist in LU. Guys like Johnny Mundo and Alberto el Patron get to cut loose with no restrictions on their style. AAA luchadors like Fenix and El Texano are already used to the more high flying style of lucha libre, but the American audience isn't quite as familiar with risky over the top rope dives and wild maneuvers.

When they aren't held back, wrestlers are really artists who use the ring as their canvas. In Lucha Underground, they get the time and structure to "paint" however they want. This already results in a much different product than is usually seen.

Then there is the "telenovela" story that goes on between the matches. A better combination of super hero adventure and soap opera would be hard to find. The straw that stirs the drink is the Lucha Underground "promoter", Dario Cueto. Yes, he's another "evil authority figure" in wrestling. This kind of character has become very tired and old hat, but Cueto puts his own twist on the cliche and makes it work. For one thing, he's a man of many secrets. One of those secrets he keeps locked up in the dark corners of the Temple...his own brother Matanza, who apparently has been transformed into some kind of bloodthirsty monster. I told you the Lucha Underground story is crazy and absurd, but you have to roll with it.

Dario is a manipulative sadist who puts his wrestlers through hell for his own nefarious purposes. A good example is how he played with the luchador Drago. Now's a good time to mention that Drago is probably my favorite character in the Lucha Underground universe. He literally looks like a human gargoyle, complete with long slithery tongue and horns on his mask. Drago has a great match with fellow luchador Aerostar (who comes "from the cosmos" and is dressed like a spaceman) and Cueto immediately orders Drago and Aerostar to have a best-of-five series. The winner will get a "unique opportunity" that Cueto offers.

These two wrestlers have an amazing series of competitive matches, full of aerial fireworks. In the end, Drago wins the series and gets the "opportunity". He now receives a shot at the LU champion Prince Puma. But there's a catch. If he fails to beat Puma and win the title, then he is banished from The Temple forever! Drago and Puma have yet another terrific filled with drama because of the stipulations. In the end, the honorable and extremely talented Prince Puma wins...and Drago must depart. He leaves to a hero's welcome and tells Cueto on his way out of the Temple that "we will meet again".

Drago does manage to find a way back into the Temple after running a gauntlet of Lucha Underground wrestlers. But he returns even more fearsome than before. His mask and ring gear were formerly blue, but now they are a dark black and Drago is also sporting bat wings. In fact, he is Lucha Underground's version of Batman!

That's an example of the imaginative storytelling going on behind the wrestling matches. Speaking of Dario Cueto, we also follow the story of a grim and sexy Asian lady named Black Lotus, who is looking to avenge the deaths of her parents at the hands of Cueto and his brother. She gets some help from a grizzled old luchador named Dragon Azteca, whose family has been feuding with the Cuetos since the days of the Aztecs!

This combinaton of over the top comic book storytelling...delivered straight, with no campy comedy...and outstanding athletic wrestling in a hybrid style is what makes Lucha Underground the most exciting promotion I've seen since the original ECW.

Special mention should also be made of the portrayal of women in the LU universe. There is not a large ladies division but the fairer sex is certainly not ignored. In fact, Lucha Underground has more straight up man vs woman wrestling action than any other promotion I've seen, including ECW. And it's brutal! In WWE and TNA, it's a kiss of death to even have a man strike a woman. Here, they do it frequently...and the women hit back just as hard. Queen of the luchadoras is the aptly named Sexy Star, a gorgeous blond who is athletic, tenacious and fearless. She goes after men and beats them. Another female is Ivelisse, who at one time was part of the WWE farm system. She calls herself the baddest bitch in the building and lives up to it. She is part of the wildly dysfunctional LU Trios champions along with masked biker Son of Havoc and South African high flyer Angelico. The twist is, these three all hate each other...but somehow they find a way to win together in the ring. Ivelisse is a great wrestler with an MMA background. Then there's the mysterious and evil Catrina, the sexy witch who manages the indestructible ghoul Mil Muertes and three masked fiends known as The Disciples of Death. Catrina doesn't get involved in the wrestling action, but she's definitely a woman to be feared!

I should also pay respect to the reigning champion of Lucha Underground, Prince Puma. I know who this man is under the mask...he's a big name in the American indy wrestling scene...but I respect him enough to NOT mention his name. He is an absolutely fantastic wrestler despite his lack of size, capable of mind boggling athletic feats. Somehow Rey Mysterio Jr. gets all the press when it comes to famous luchadors, but Rey couldn't hold Puma's jockstrap. Another interesting aspect of Puma is that he never speaks, Yet his body language and fighting spirit is so strong that the fans always rally behind him as he defends his title against enemies much bigger and more experienced than he is. Puma is managed by the legendary Mexican star Konnan. This results in a very complex and tense relationship, as Puma seems to be a very honorable tecnico but Konnan has the aspect of being a dirty  and ruthless mastermind. Somehow their relationship works...but I wouldn't be suprised at all to see them at odds in the future.

The first season of Lucha Underground is full of excellent wrestling matches, but there are three that you should go out of your way to see. The best in my opinion is the "Grave Consequences" match between Fenix and Mil Muertes. It's basically a casket match...but an unbelievably brutal and bloody one. I haven't seen such a dramatic match in many, many years. Another classic is the Iron Man match between Prince Puma and Johnny Mundo. This was one match that took an entire episode to capture! It starts scientifically and then mutates into a jaw-dropping hardcore match with a table spot that will make you stand up and yell. And from there it gets crazier! Also see if you can find the cage match between Mundo and King Cuerno...another total war! These three matches blow away anything that you'll ever see in American wrestling.

As I write this, the first season is just one episode away from concluding in a two hour spectacular called Ultima Lucha. Will there be a second season for this outstanding and innovative wrestling show? Critical response for Lucha Underground has been great, but the ratings are not what they should be. Many people don't have access to El Rey or even known about Lucha Underground. I'm hoping this article will help change that. I haven't even scratched the surface of all the little nuances that make the show so cool.

Don't settle for watching the same predictable American wrestling shows over and over and over again. Head to Boyle Heights, step inside The Temple and prepare for the next level!