In Defense of Cinematic Wrestling - Part 3: Holding It Down for the Underground

Whereas the oft-panned Vince Russo has been decried for making wrestling less Gerald Brisco and more Jerry Springer, injecting a bit of so-called reality TV sensibility into the sport of kings certainly left its mark. Beginning as a launch series on Robert Rodriguez’ (yes, that Robert Rodriguez) proprietary El Rey Network, Lucha Underground was a lucha libre-styled promotion that presented its program as less of a sporting event and more of a serial drama. Aside from the involvement of Rodriguez, Mark Burnett, seasoned TV producer best known for creating the reality competition show with Survivor, served as an executive producer, adding a more legitimate dramatic edge to the series.

Bolstered by a working relationship with Mexico’s AAA promotion, Lucha Underground featured a cutthroat businessman at the helm, the bloodthirsty Dario Cueto. He uses money and opportunity as a motivator, from episode 1’s $100,000 winner’s purse to the Gift of the Gods Championship. Money and championship gold are nothing new as far as motivations for storylines in wrestling, but with the dastardly Cueto pulling the strings, things always felt a little more sinister, and the stakes felt just a little higher. Add to this his initial promo from the series premiere, in which he proclaims that the promotion is about “courage, honor, and my personal favorite, violence,” and you get about everything you need to know about Cueto before the first match bell even rings.

Backstage promos for the promotion are done very differently than what your other mainstream federations offer. Take, for example, this clip from season one, of Cueto negotiating with Alberto El Patron (formerly Alberto Del Rio in WWE). Promos in, say, WWE or AEW are shot with a single camera, rarely using multiple takes or cuts. At most, you’d get a tracking shot, if something happens out of frame. Here, we get a two-shot, and it feels like a natural conversation that just happens to have a cameraman (or multiple cameramen) around. It’s cinematic in presentation, and feels like more of a drama, dare I say a telenovela, and makes it just a little less sports-entertainment and a little more… well, entertainment.

The camera work during the matches stands out from the wrestling crowd as well. While wrestling fans are used to a hard cam, Lucha Underground tends to shoot their matches in a more, for lack of a better word, cinematic fashion. The matches look more like an action-thriller than the dizzying crash zoom style we’ve grown so accustomed to, right from the staircase the wrestlers enter in through to the end of the intense contests.

The Gift of the Gods Championship, the de facto midcard title, required collecting seven medals to construct the belt in its entirety. Based on the seven Aztec tribes of old, the medallions were fought over in multi-man melees. The fatal five-way matches that WWE loved to trot out for a while there were nothing compared to the seven-way matches with medallions at stake. Finally, at Ultima Lucha, the promotion’s big supercard, the holders of the medallions would fight it out to complete the title belt, becoming champion.

Once the belt was whole, its holder would earn the right to challenge for the Lucha Underground Championship at their own discretion, by giving up the title and dispersing the seven medals. It could be seen as being inspired by both WWE’s Money in the Bank gimmick (a briefcase entitling the bearer a world title match at their own convenience) and TNA/Impact’s Option C (the abdication of the X Division Championship for a chance at the World Heavyweight Championship), though the Gift of the Gods title once required a one-week waiting period between cash-in and title opportunity, for the sake of marketing the title challenge.

Further, the show toyed with the supernatural in characters, such as Mil Muertes. The early days of the character saw him echo the first year of The Undertaker, an unshakeable bogeyman impervious to pain, to borrow the phrase from Gorilla Monsoon. In the series premiere, Chavo Guerrero is warned that “a thousand deaths may be coming for us all,” and sure enough, the menacing Muertes debuts in episode two’s main event, handily beating Blue Demon Jr. Accompanied by the sultry Catrina, Muertes, formerly Judas Mesias in TNA, was a force to be reckoned with.

In episode nineteen of season one, Muertes was ultimately bested by Fenix in a Grave Consequences Match, a casket match inspired by Dia de los Muertos. In the ring announcements, Muertes is referred to as “The Man of a Thousand Deaths,” a literal translation of his ring name, and Fenix established as the antithesis as “The Man of a Thousand Lives.” Even though his face is bloodied and his mask torn, Fenix prevails over the fearsome Muertes, a win that would build up plenty of momentum, leading to his claiming the inaugural Gift of the Gods title at the season 1 finale, Ultima Lucha.

After being resurrected by Catrina, Muertes would get a measure of revenge on Fenix in a wild death match in episode twenty-nine, before eventually paving his way to winning the Lucha Underground Championship at part two of Ultima Lucha. So you know, good for him and all.

Two points that have more to do with the wrestling than the presentation were the intergender matches and the talent agreements. Intergender wrestling is such a tricky thing, especially in modern times, but in LU, this was the norm. In episode one, luchadora Sexy Star took on Son of Havoc. Further down the line in season one, the Trios Championship was introduced, promoting three-person teams as opposed to the standard two on two tag matches. Ivelisse, who as of this printing has made some waves in AEW, was part of the first-ever Trios Champion team, along with Angelico and Son of Havoc. Sexy Star would later even lay claim to the world title, winning the gold at Aztec Warfare III.

As for the talent agreements, the predominant one was with AAA, with the bulk of their talent coming from the Mexico-based promotion. The AAA Mega Championship was also defended in episode twenty of season one, as Alberto El Patron defended the title against Texano in a bull rope match. Later, agreements with Canada’s International Wrestling Syndicate, Impact Wrestling, and Ring of Honor would be reached, bringing some of the biggest, most direct competition with WWE together. Even if this went nowhere, it gave appearances by stars like Rey Mysterio, arguably the most universally popular luchador of all time, and introduced American audiences to stars such as Pentagon Jr, Taya Valkyrie, and even future NXT Women’s Champion Kairi Sane, who wrestled as Doku in season three.

Though the promotion has allegedly folded, with commentator and legendary wrestler Vampiro asserting that “the company is split,” the stars of the promotion have been able to use LU as a launching-off point. Vamp himself said in an interview with Chris Van Vliet that “90% of the roster is in AEW, the other 10% is in WWE,” and those estimates aren’t far off. Wrestlers such as Brian Cage, Pentagon Jr (Pentagon Dark), Sonny Kiss (XO Lishus) and Rey Fenix have landed in All Elite Wrestling, while producer Chavo Guerrero Jr. serves as fight coordinator for the Netflix series GLOW.

Johnny Mundo has resurfaced in WWE under his John Morrison name, but not before hitting his stride as Johnny Impact, winning the Impact World Championship and the AAA Mega Championship. First Lucha Underground Champion Prince Puma took the wrestling world by storm as the quasi-superhero and flippy shit extraordinaire Ricochet, notching NXT North American and WWE United States gold along the way. Taya Valkyrie is one of the major players in Impact’s Knockouts Division, while Willie Mack, known simply as “The Mack” in LU, is a former Impact X Division Champion. Multiple time Trios Champion Son of Havoc also starred in the wonderful wrestling horror-thriller Powerbomb under his Matt Cross persona, and wrestles on the independent scene regularly.

There’s entirely too much to go over, as even though the promotion only lasted for a few years, there were over 100 episodes across four seasons. As of this initial printing, the show is available on Tubi for free (with ads, but hey), and several segments and matches are available on the El Rey Network’s YouTube channel, so if you feel the current cinematic wrestling boom has jumped the shark, do yourself a favor and check out Lucha Underground. At the very least, with the promotion appearing to be done for, you can go at your own pace and not feel pressured to catch up before the season premiere.

Even if the project wound up folding after a few years, it was something different. It was a drastic change of pace from what WWE, Impact, or Ring of Honor were offering at the time, and teaming up with the latter two at least kept them interesting, if not competitive. There was enough solid wrestling to keep the wrestling fans interested, not to mention the sheer star power on hand, and the cinematic, dramatic delivery of the product was captivating. Could it have stood up to WWE in the long run, or to AEW had it lasted that long? Maybe not. But it was interesting, and deserves to be remembered as such. And while this segment was less about the wrestling and more about the promotion, with so many of LU’s top talent being in the two big companies now, not giving a nod or recognition to Cueto and Co. feels like an oversight.

Next time, we will examine the madness, the batshit craziness, and the broken brilliance of Matt Hardy and the Broken / Woken Universe. There is simply too much to cover, so that will need its own entry, not to mention it’s still ongoing.

And before you ask, yes, it will indeed be WONDERFUL!


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