Can Lucha Underground Start a New Era in Wrestling?
By Dan Murphy
For the first time in almost 15 years, WWE has some competition.
I’m not talking about Jeff Jarrett’s latest vanity project, the much-ballyhooed Global Force Wrestling. And I’m not talking about TNA’s recent move to Destination America, a subsidiary of Discovery Communications.
I’m talking about Lucha Underground.
The lucha libre-themed show has aired four episodes on the El Rey Network, and I like what I see. Each episode is one hour long – a refreshing length in an era of bloated three-hour editions of Raw and clunky two-hour editions of Smackdown and Impact. It features fresh talent with flashy movesets and unique match-ups.
It also presents lucha libre in a historical context. It provide insight into the legacy of lucha in Mexico and presents each match as – how’s this for a novel approach – an actual athletic competition. Matt Striker is a wonderful play-by-play announcer, and could by the best play-by-play man in the U.S. today. Vampiro provides a wrestler’s insight – both on the matches and the lucha libre culture – on color.
Every episode has featured at least one remarkable match. It has positioned Prince Puma (also known to indy fans as Richochet) as a megastar, developed Chavo Guerrero into an unpredictable, violent loose cannon, and introduced American fans to Sexy Star a super-heroine whose goal is to be a role model to young women.
Every match is fast-paced with an amazing mix of lucha, puroresu, and traditional American wrestling styles. No one is mailing it in; we’re not seeing cookie-cutter matches week in and week out.
Since WCW and ECW closed their doors, several start-up promotions have tried to cast themselves as “an alternative to WWE.” TNA and Ring of Honor have managed to survive for more than a decade, which is damn impressive, but both have only managed to attract niche followings, compared to the universal reach of WWE.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t expect Lucha Underground to survive for 10 years. I don’t expect it to become a nationally touring promotion or to ever draw a fraction of the fans for a live event as WWE will for a basic house show. But I think Lucha Underground has a chance to do what no “alternative” promotion has been able to do since Paul Heyman ran a group of outcasts in a Bingo hall in South Philadelphia … I think Lucha Underground can affect WWE.
There is some serious money invested in Lucha Underground. Mark Burnett, one of the most successful television producers in the U.S. (the man behind Survivor, The Apprentice, and The Voice), is an executive producer. Award-winning director and auteur Robert Rodriguez (the man behind the films Desperado, From Dusk till Dawn, and Sin City) is another executive producer. For the first time since Ted Turner handed over the reigns of WCW, media moguls with more clout than Vince McMahon are in the “rasslin” game.
Unlike other promotions that have tried to mimic WWE, Lucha Underground is forging its own identity. Each episode includes three or four matches, as well as slick, impressive promo packages. They also merge elements of the telenovelas (Mexican soap operas) into the production. It’s a bit that requires a tad of suspension of disbelief, but evil owner Dario Cueto appears with talent in multiple-camera backstage vignettes. For example, the former John Morrison (billed as Johnny Mundo) lays out two goons outside Cueto’s office, then kicks in the door, where the shot cuts to a camera inside Cueto’s office shooting the door being kicked in.
It’s a departure from WWE’s standard one-camera (and equally silly) vignettes, where wrestlers furtively plot, seemingly oblivious of the TV camera directly in front of them. Both techniques break “the fourth wall,” so to speak, but Lucha Underground’s style feels like an action movie … once you make the adjustment as a viewer, it seems to flow naturally.
For the first time, possibly ever, there is a wrestling show that may be more visually impressive than WWE. There is a show where wrestlers are arguably flashier than many WWE superstars, and in some cases, more athletic than their WWE counterparts. The women’s matches aren’t based on Kardashian-styled manufactured-reality storylines, but on athleticism and a message of empowerment.
“You can’t get away with doing the same moves here every match,” Striker said in one episode, taking a barely-veiled dig at WWE, where most matches these days feel like color-by-numbers templates.
In the late 1990s, ECW showed fans a new style of wrestling. The fans were hungry for something new, and ECW captured a devoted following. The fans’ tastes changed, and WWE’s Attitude Era began.
Lucha Underground might just be able to have a similar effect.
On the El Rey Network, there is a wrestling show that features thrilling young international talents with different styles of wrestling; not “graduates of developmental” who have all been re-conditioned in the so-called “WWE style.” There is a wrestling show where the announcers treat the matches as sport, and don’t shill subscription networks or hokey catch-phrases. There is a wrestling show that has moved away from the “man yelling into a microphone” promo style that started back in the 1950s. There is a wrestling show that attempts to educate viewers about the rich history of the sport, a show that breaks new ground instead of trodding the old beaten path.
There is finally a true alternative, one you can see on Wednesday nights on the El Rey Network.
I expect WWE will be watching, too.
— Dan Murphy