This is not an introduction to Lucha Underground. Our own Coiré McCrystall did a great job on that, and you can read it here. No, this is a small piece on why I love lucha libre and why I love Lucha Underground.
Lucha libre translates from Spanish into English as free fight but don’t get bogged down in that. It’s Mexican for wrestling, and that’s all you need to know.
Like most wrestling fans my age – at least those outside Mexico and the south western United States – my first introduction to the crazy world of Mexican wrestling was the results and news pages of the kayfabed American wrestling magazines. There we could read about insane, blood-soaked brawls between masked men, kung fu masters, evil doctors, Nazis, and clowns, with difficult-to-pronounce names and horribly-scarred foreheads.
If we wanted to actually see these titans clashing, there was a slight chance you might come across some on one of the German channels hidden on the satellite, with that extra translation barrier and the risk of encountering “erotic” gameshows thrown in. Other than that, we had to wait until WCW started to import them regularly in the mid-90s, using them at the bottom end to increase the match quality of their shows, while the top end was stuffed with past-it and disinterested “stars”.
The likes of Rey Mysterio Jr and Juventud Guerrera, part of the fresh generation of young luchadores that broke through when AAA formed out of a split with CMLL in 1992, thrilled us with their aerial acrobatics, gravity-defying exploits. Later, with tape-trading exploding due to the spread of the internet, we were able to watch them in their natural habitat – a beer-soaked arena in Mexico – where rabid fans picked their favourite tecnicos (good guys), and even the rudos (bad guys) had their own cheering section. Later still, wonderful innovations like YouTube meant we were able to watch videos of these incredibly strange wrestlers without making any effort at all.
Lucha libre is its own little world. It has its own traditions and its own rules that have not translated into mainstream professional wrestling, no matter how much their moves have been borrowed by non-Mexicans. The rudo referee who allows rulebreaking but punishes any transgressions by the tecnicos, the captain’s fall, and the relevos increibles, where a tecnico pairs with a rudo against a tecnico and rudo, have never made inroads into the US or European scene, but remain fundamentals of lucha libre.
And this – along with the incredible aerial and technical prowess of the Mexicans – is why lucha libre is so irresistible. It’s different. It’s wrestling, but not as you know it. And, yes, it requires a huge dollop of suspension of disbelief, but if you can pretend what you’re watching is real when you watch an action or sci-fi show, why not wrestling? It’s a sacrifice that brings huge returns – believe that a caveman or a demon have found themselves in a crazy world of competitive fighting and you will be rewarded with some incredible action.
There are two major lucha libre promotions down Mexico way. CMLL – known as La Empressa – celebrated its eightieth anniversary last year (making it the oldest existent promotion in the world), while AAA is a little over twenty years old. If you can believe it, AAA began as an even more extreme and cartoonish form of the art, although there is little to differentiate the two promotions today, after decades of talent-trading, save for AAA being a little more storyline-focussed.
Lucha Underground is a sister promotion to AAA. The luchadores you see entering the Temple are either directly transferred from AAA, or repackaged versions of AAA fighters. Drago, Pentagon Jr, and Fenix can be seen kicking and flying on AAA’s Sin Limite TV show. So can King Cuerno and Mil Muertes, but under the names el Hijo del Fantasma and Mesias, respectively.
But Lucha Underground is not just AAA in America. It has thrown in its own flavour to the lucha libre mix, with the backstage telenovela (a wildly-popular form of Mexican soap opera) skits as much a part of the show as any in-ring action. The feel of the show – that of a 1970s exploitation movie, kicked into the present day – is unique in the wrestling world.
An hour spent watching Lucha Underground is a wild ride, with storyline owner Dario Cueto – ably played by Spanish actor Luis Fernandez Gil – barely steering the ship, as his cast of Hollywood superstars, barrio gangstas, supernatural bogeymen, and lucha libre veterans battle for the ultimate prize, the Lucha Underground championship.
Although it falls down on the traditional model of using TV to build to a big weekly, monthly, quarterly show, Lucha Underground skips along like the telenovelas it apes, the plotlines unfolding as quickly or slowly as the story demands.
It has certainly found an audience. Hidden away on Roberto Rodriguez’s El Rey network, which has poor national coverage, it is doing respectable ratings in comparison with other shows on the channel, and the Spanish language version, on Unimas, is also pulling healthy numbers. In addition, the internet buzz for the show, which seems to be watched by as many viewers who don’t get El Rey (such as those of us in the UK) in one form or another, is matched only by WWE’s development show, NXT. With that show consistently knocking it out of the park, this is high praise indeed.
Lucha Underground is so easy to watch because it’s so easy to watch. It requires some of the suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoy lucha libre, but peppers it with a hot crowd – demand for tickets is crazy – and an intangible cool. Rodriguez, the man behind El Mariachi, Desperado, and From Dusk Til Dawn, is the Mexican-American Tarantino, and his ultrahip flavour is spotted throughout the shows on his network. Lucha Underground is no exception.
Although Lucha Underground doesn’t show in the UK (yet), it’s out there if you look hard enough, and it’s a rewarding search. If you haven’t yet joined us on our journey with Prince Puma, Johnny Mundo, Big Ryck, and Black Lotus, it’s not too late to jump on. You won’t regret it. And your friends will think you’re cool.