Friday, April 24, 2015

The LU

You probably haven't heard about Lucha Underground, or as I like to call it, the LU. And why would you have; for one, it's a professional wrestling promotion, and wrestling is historically looked at the same way Principal Snyder looked at Xander Harris. Unless you are involved with Vince McMahon's WWE, being a promoter or even a wrestler isn't exactly living the high life. Lucha Underground aims to change that, while also aiming to misbehave, Malcolm Reynolds style. Not even a year old and armed with three mega backers and a roster full of WWE rejects and unknown Mexican stars, the upstart promotion has become a cult sensation, a punk rock alternative to WWE's mainstream pop. Producers of the LU have described it as part wrestling, part Fight Club. Aside from Edward Norton missing in action, that's exactly the case.

Lucha Underground Champion Prince Puma

In order to survive in the pro wrestling landscape these days, there has to be people with money to keep the show afloat. WWE has always had one McMahon or another providing funds, while the now defunct World Championship Wrestling (WCW) had media mogul Ted Turner. Lucha Underground is backed by two people and one entity; filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, reality TV super producer Mark Burnett, and Asistencia Asesoría y Administración (AAA), one of Mexico's two top wrestling promotions (the other, CMLL, isn't involved unfortunately). Some partnerships are strange, but nothing beats this threesome; would anyone have ever expected a lucha libre promotion, the man who created Survivor and the director of Machete, Sin City and The Faculty (all great, by the way) to team up to start a wrestling promotion? Surprisingly, it actually makes sense. AAA has spent years trying to make inroads into the United States market, and Burnett, a man who has never been afraid to take risks, provided the perfect monetary partner for them. From there, all that was needed was a television station, and Rodriguez's brand new El Rey Network, a smorgasbord of kung fu/grindhouse/western movies and Dark Angel reruns, was a no brainer choice. It also helps that Rodriguez is an apparent fan, a harder find with TV execs these days than Salsa Doritos.

Why did you need to know this? Because the LU's weird, unconventional origin story only serves to highlight its weird, unconventional existence. There has never been a wrestling promotion quite like it. For starters, the Lucha Underground arena, called The Temple by onscreen owner Dario Cueto, isn't even an arena; it's a broken down warehouse located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, California that barely fits 300 plus people. Not exactly Madison Square Garden. On top of that, showrunner Eric Van Wagenen (a long time co-producer with Burnett) and his crew have done away with traditional backstage interviews. Instead, the talent appear in segments that are shot like movie scenes, almost as if they were going to be used for Rodriguez' next film. It's almost unprecedented in wrestling, but it's was as risky a decision as it was bold. Historically, wrestling is as opposed to change as MTV is to good music these days. In order to succeed with a product that looks and feels like a low budget B movie, your product has to be top notch. And that is the rub that the LU has working in its favor. Observe.

What you have just watched is a 27 year old South African wrestler named Angelico (real name Adam Bridle) jump a good 20 to 30 feet (while getting as high as 20 to 30 feet in the air) from the top of an office to the ring below, taking out his opponents Bael and Cortez Castro (indy star Ricky Reyes). If you have the urge to watch that again, you should. Angelico's leap, which took place in a battle for Lucha Underground's Trios Tag Team Championships (another thing unique about the LU, as most promotions don't have a Six Man Tag Team Title) is easily the best wrestling spot of the year, a glorious combination of risk taking, athleticism and balls of solid rock. And yet, it's not an uncommon occurrence in the Temple. Even before his unbelievable leap this past week, Angelico has been amazing audiences with crazy, high risk moves almost every week. One of his partners, Son of Havoc (popular indy star Matt Cross), is equally impressive, and if not for Angelico's leap would've likely had the highlight of the night with a moonsault from the crowd. The rest of the roster is no slouch either; the talent remaining includes the LU World Champion Prince Puma (indy star Ricochet playing the role of an Aztecan descendant from Boyle Heights), former WWE stars Johnny Mundo, Mexican stars Fenix, Mil Muertes and Pentagon Jr, and Alberto El Patron, the current AAA World Champion, a former WWE Champion and the LU's top star. And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the roster. 

It's also what separates the LU from everyone else in wrestling. Like I said, you can have a certain look and feel to a promotion, but without the onscreen product, it means less than an Orlando Bloom performance. Lucha Underground has all three, thanks to their excellent roster and their unbelievable creative staff. You will see any and every possible story told while watching the first 24 episodes. One week, you'll see Angelico jumping off the roof of Cueto's office (yes, that's actually his office. Great stuff right?), risking life and limb to get victory for him and his teammates, teammates he at first didn't even like. Another week you'll see the young Fenix fight for his life in a coffin match against Mil Muertes, a brutal, bloody affair that is one of the best wrestling matches of the past two years. One show was dedicated entirely to crowning the first ever Lucha Underground World Champion, a twenty man battle royal that was called Aztec Warfare. And perhaps the most brave decision made by the LU, women and men fight each other, an idea that looks bad on paper but is unbelievably pulled off. One of the female stars, Ivelisse, is the third part of the Trios Champions, and wrestled that match and the preceeding match with a broken foot. Meanwhile, Sexy Star regularly wrestles and beats the men, and is one of the most popular wrestlers in the Temple. You can't find that kind of in ring action anywhere else.

You also can't find the LU's type of storytelling anywhere else. Seriously, would WWE dare to tell the story of an Asian woman learning the art of lucha libre in order to get revenge against a mysterious monster locked in the basement of it's main arena? Something like that shouldn't work. But Van Wagenen and his crew wisely do something not even Vince McMahon does these days; take things seriously, but not too seriously. By embracing wrestling's B movie qualities instead of pushing them away, the LU allows itself to be in on the joke. In Lucha Underground, wrestling may be fake, but it can be fun, it can be funny, it can be dark, it can be can be anything you want. It's what separates them from everyone else.

Whether that matters in the end or not is the question. Money is a great concern for Lucha Underground; some sources say that the LU has spent more than $15 million in production thus far (although some of those sources also said former WWE writer Vince Russo was going to be hired, which proved incorrect). As good of a home El Rey is for the promotion, the network is still young and doesn't reach nearly as many homes as USA, WWE's primary network, does, limiting potential viewership. Perhaps most alarming is the fact that a second season has yet to be confirmed. In order to save money, Lucha Underground filmed the first 39 episodes over the course of a seven month span, with each episode being shown well after they were taped (historically, live TV has always cost more than taped). That now means the LU will be on a several month hiatus from doing shows, and that's if they are able to find enough sponsors and revenue for a second season. I'm confident they will, and reportedly, talent and fans were told there would be a season two at the end of the last tapings (set to be released in late July/early August), a great sign. But even the most optimistic person knows there is no guarantee, nor is there any realistic thinking that Lucha Underground can compete with WWE in the foreseeable future.

But so what. I learned a long time ago that getting disappointed in something not reaching unbelievable heights is a waste of time. What matters is that you enjoy what you're seeing, what you're doing. I enjoy Lucha Underground, more than I've enjoyed any wrestling related thing since WCW died. It's storytelling is sublime. The high flying, lucha libre action is something I have hardly seen before in the American wrestling landscape. It's unbelievably unique, unbelievably original, and worthy of its Underground title. Most importantly, the LU has made me feel like wrestling has mattered again. I've always bemoaned the loss of Mick Foley from wrestling so soon due to numerous injury. Watching Angelico fly through the air two nights ago brought up similar feelings I had watching Mick Foley fall off Hell in a Cell so many years ago. It wasn't just that I thought Angelico was crazy like Foley (although he most definitely is), but that like Foley, Angelico was willing to risk life and limb to put on a good show for the fans. That, more than anything, was Foley's gift to wrestling; the ability to go to limits no one had ever gone to in order to entertain someone. Lucha Underground has wonderfully carried on that legacy, and the legacy of lucha libre greats like El Santo, Blue Demon (whose son occasionally wrestles in the LU) and Patron's uncle Mil Mascaras. These people care about wrestling, they care about putting on a good show, and most importantly, they care about the fans. That's why I watch the LU. It's why you should too.

Let's take a look at that dive one last time alright?

Please change disks to continue...

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