Hmmm, how to go about this…
In my previous entry I talked about how I was enjoying reading about wrestling but not watching it. So now I’m watching wrestling! XD
But it’s not WWE. This time, it’s Lucha Underground.
So among wrestling fans, Lucha Underground is a name that is swapped around and recommended like it’s some sort of holy grail, a home for great wrestling that not everyone seems to know about. Several different people known within the wrestling community (whether they themselves are wrestlers or just the producer of Botchamania) do make references here and there and I had never come across criticism for it. Saying that, it’s not a name repeated as much with such passion and fervour like NXT (the so-called “developmental arm” of WWE), so when I first heard the name Lucha Underground, I just thought it was one of many small, indy (independent) promotions that had cropped up in recent years.
I was wrong…but I’ll get to that.
In my lifetime, there have been many interesting developments in the Professional Wrestling Industry: Professional Wrestling hit mainstream popularity in the UK, then-WWF owner Vince McMahon bought out WCW, his biggest rival at the time, The Rock became Wrestling’s biggest star thanks to his smooth transition to Hollywood, the Chris Benoit tragedy, plus the rise of the internet meant wrestlers were more willing to give interviews and in far larger quantities than before. Also, the WWE became a public company and has to have an investors’ meeting every year. Plus ‘most famous wrestler ever’ Hulk Hogan became a discredited punchline (in 2015 especially).
I suppose it’s for all of the above reasons that I partly started reading more facts, trivia and articles about Professional Wrestling because I was interested in the history. So I was amazed to discover, that it was not always the case that wrestlers tried to get into a major company or federation, covering USA and Canada. Once upon a time, there used to be a system known as the ‘Territories System’, meaning that each key area/region/group of states had a major promotion, with a few small ones dotting around between. Each major promotion was a member of the National Wrestling Association, so this helped give more legitimacy to each of the titles or championships (or belts). Apparently this worked pretty well, as well-known stars and title-holders could then travel to other territories temporarily and face off against stars in other places.
The rise of the WWF in the 80s meant that this territories system started to get systematically dismantled and destroyed, the last gasp being the existence and evolution of ECW. Obviously, I was blissfully unaware of any of this at the time; I just remember thinking that, once WWE got the monopoly, where else was a wrestler supposed to go? Some of them did travel to Japan or Mexico, then there were a few fledgeling promotions trying to get TV deals…I’m mainly thinking of TNA or ROH here. I was a big fan of TNA during 2005 and 2006, I tried to keep up in 2007-8 but then gave up, partly because watching wrestling over the internet was not so easy at the time, partly because I recognised TNA was making the same mistakes as WCW did before its crash-and-burn, but I definitely wasn’t going back to the WWE. I was done with wrestling, it seemed. But I did get a bit of insight into the indy scene of wrestling thanks to Botchamania. At first, it wasn’t appealing because of the low-quality recordings. However, with the internet becoming more accessible, easier to store videos on, along with better camera-work on people’s phones??? Suddenly, it seems a newer version of the territories had started to blossom: no longer were they constrained to specific areas or territories, these days, any wrestling promotion can go anywhere within financial sense and use the internet as their marketing tool!
Not to mention my surprise at Matt Hardy revealing he got good money off surfing the indies. Putting his money where his mouth is, his own Youtube channel has recordings of matches he has taken part in over the years, with different indy organisers, including his own local promotion. Back when I was reading about the Hardy Boyz in a magazine, roughly 15 years ago, I never imagined they would have their own channel on a video-sharing site, to share their matches, promos and musings with the world.
So along with CZW, Chikara, 5-Star Wrestling and whatever else, I figured Lucha Underground was just another one. Boy was I wrong.
What finally tipped me over the edge was a review by E-Rod, better known as the Blockbuster Buster. During the Winter months, he often stops tearing apart bad movies and talks about his honest feelings of certain movies, but then raves about TV shows, specials and even video games that he likes. So I was surprised when he decided to talk about Lucha Underground. He explained why he felt it a superior product to the WWE (without any malice or hipster-tone to his voice), so I thought…why not?
And I love it to bits!
I mean, the only way I can watch it is illegally, since there are no Lucha Underground episodes on iTunes and El Rey Network (the channel that produces and broadcasts it) doesn’t have an available online portal. But credit to the folks who uploaded the videos, the majority of episodes have been very high-quality and clear. Part of the reason Lucha Underground is very easy to watch is that it’s presented like a scripted TV show, much more than WWE is, which is ironic since the meteoric rise of the WWF, then WCW, then wrestling in general followed by WWE in its aftermath, really did see the theatrics and pantomime tricks of wrestling give way to scripted television, with vignettes, scenes, acted-out segments and just scripts in general. Mind you, WWE still tries to hold on to the idea that it is recreating the feel of a "real sports event".
One aspect of Lucha Underground made very clear in E-Rod's review, was that they don't even bother trying to tell you it's a real sporting event. All the scripted "backstage" segments are highly stylised gangland or noir-styled sequences (wouldn't expect anything less since Robert Rodrigues is the Executive Producer). One thing that's very jarring about the WWE is that if there isn't an "announcer" in the vicinity holding a microphone, everyone acts as if there isn't a camera pointed at them and following their every move. This did happen once or twice when I first got into wrestling, but if the current dirt-sheets are to be believed, it's happening more now.
Anyways, Lucha Underground as a TV show, is styled as a sort of ongoing televised drama, set in an underground fighting arena, something like you would see in Bloodsport. However, the drama shows numerous characters, with multiple relationships and rivalries set up, more akin to something like Game of Thrones than most wrestling shows. In some ways, this is the natural conclusion of the direction that televised wrestling had been going in for some time. So when running with the idea that we, the audience, are watching a staged underground fight club, there is also an extra mythos and nuance set up. The arena resembles Aztec temples, with a real Aztec religious symbol painted onto the ring mat. The idea is that "the temple" (with fans being nicknamed "the believers") is paying homage to the culture of Mexican Lucha Libre and paying tribute to the ancient warrior culture of the Aztec tribes. It's effective, since it provides a cultural insight for those (like me) who know little of Mexico. It's also a tongue-in-cheek way of explaining some of the more ludicrous characters: Drago is not really a dragon and Mil Muertes is not really the Grim Reaper, they are real men portraying characters that contribute to their art form and they don't bother telling any other version of this story.
Dario Cueto, the owner and promoter for Lucha Underground (I'm obviously talking about the character here) is an interesting authority figure. If there is one facet of 90s wrestling that everyone is getting tired of, it's the evil or jerkass authority figure. Dario is shades of this, but in his speeches and acting sequences, it's made obvious that he has a great respect for the Lucha Libre culture and the great legacy of the Aztecs. It's just a shame that he seeks to make a butt-ton of money by screwing certain people and making enemies of others! (The fact that his beloved temple is really a run-down warehouse in a rough ghetto of Los Angeles doesn't help either! Yes, the show is recorded in Los Angeles.) But hey, like he reminds us, he's a businessman and does work hard to entertain the live audience and give them what they want...sometimes. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that it's nice the authority figure isn't straight-up evil for once.
So, what's it like watching Lucha Underground? Most of the time, the show feels like I'm watching a video game brought to life, like Tekken or an underground arena version of Twisted Metal. Seriously, you see the characters enter the ring - sorry, the temple - and you watch them duke it out. Then you get a cut scene - sorry, acting sequence showing the backstage, then the action continues.
This entry has gone on long enough, and so far, I have only seen about 8 episodes of this show. There are a lot more to go, so I will continue my thoughts on Lucha Underground next time.