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Who is winning the Wednesday Night Wars? Part Four: Lucha Underground

In 2014, famed television producer Mark Burnett partnered with the Asistencia Asesoria y Aministracion (AAA) in Mexico, United Artists, and Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network to bring a new vision of pro wrestling to air. The result was Lucha: Underground.

The starting roster featured five luchadores from AAA along with talent gleaned from various independent promotions, including former WWE talent Johnny Mundo (Johnny Nitro/ John Morrison) and Big Ryck (Ezekial Jackson).

The show is innovative in a number of ways, and shows a pointed determination to stand out from all other current promotions. While other companies have been tending towards realistic characters and believable conflicts, Lucha is mired with mystery, magic and the supernatural. While TNA employs shaky, hand-held backstage camerawork, Lucha’s vignettes are highly stylized and cinematic. Aside from these innovations, it stands alone as the only modern showcase of lucha libre on television.

Since its inception, Lucha has been gaining popularity and credibility, and could even potentially earn itself a Prime-Time Emmy Award nomination in 2015. How does it stack up against more established wrestling promotions?

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Lucha: Underground
8 E/P on El Rey Network
commentary team: Matt Striker and Vampiro
running time: 46 mins
first aired: October 2014

Episode Summary:

  • Special edition of the show, in which Lucha: Underground Champion Prince Puma and Johnny Mundo go head to head in an iron man match lasting the entire show. Johnny Mundo leads for the majority of the contest, and is set to win four falls to three until Alberto El Patron attacks Mundo. Prince Puma lands a six-thirty splash from the top to pin Mundo one last time with less than five seconds on the clock, winning the match and retaining the title five falls to four.

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What the show does well:

  • Commentary. Matt Striker is undoubtedly one of the best pro wrestling commentators calling matches today. With a master’s degree in educational psychology, he is intelligent and highly knowledgeable on not only the finer points of professional wrestling, but also on the mechanics of mixed martial arts and submissions fighting. After giving up wrestling full-time, he amassed an extensive announce resume, acting as colour commentary for Raw, Smackdown, Superstars, ECW, and host of NXT Wrestling. Vampiro counters his astute verboseness with earthy street jargon and unapologetic candor. The result is a team whose primary focus is calling the action as it happens and getting over story, and wastes little time bickering with each other or distracting the viewer with peripheral subject matter.

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  • Cinematography. Thanks to the producers and studios backing the show, no expense was spared in giving the program a slick and stylish look and feel. The production design is textured and gritty. The venue, known simply as “The Temple”, has the appearance of a warehouse converted into a boxing gym in an industrial neighbourhood on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The camera work is smooth, the colour palette vibrant and visceral. The vignettes from backstage are staged like those between the levels in a modern video game, employing slow motion, intense close-ups, and an atmospheric soundtrack. The effect is undeniably unique and attractive.

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  • Fast-paced action. Lucha libre is a style of wrestling distinguished by fast-flow chain grappling, flashy acrobatics, high risk spots and melodrama. For those who grow weary of matches dragged down by repeated rest-holds and long-winded segments of characters cutting promos back and forth, Lucha offers respite. The show offers fast action and multitudes of high spots designed to thrill hungry, impatient audiences and wastes a bare minimum amount of time on talking.

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What the show does not do well:

  • Staged fighting sequences. It is strangely ironic that professional wrestlers, a class of performer specializing in choreographed violence, would produce cinematic fight scenes almost laughably bad. Performing live for audiences is radically different from performing up close and personal for a camera, as competent wrestlers such as Alberto El Patron and Chavo Guerrero show us on Lucha. The scenes are ambitious, but they may do more damage than good unless the directors can find a way to make them a bit more effective.

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  • Character. The essence of building a luchadore in the traditional manner is to make a superhero. The most famous Mexican wrestlers wear masks. This counters the current trend in North America of making wrestlers more human, more complex and believable characters. Lucha: Underground carries on the lucha libre tradition, and fills its roster with, among others: a man who cannot die, a man from outer space, a man who is a dragon, a hired mercenary, a hunter and a monster. The top star in the promotion at the moment, the Heavyweight Champion Prince Puma, is virtually a mystery, though his in-ring ability earns all the adulation needed. This inability to connect on a human level may not work with American audiences.

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  • Ring psychology. The flashy lucha libre style which attracts certain types of fan will alienate others. Those who relish rich ring psychology and slow-burn character development will be turned off by the break-neck pace of Lucha. The characters, which already suffer from a lack of complexity, offer audiences only rare opportunities to become emotionally invested in their well-being.

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Conclusions:

Lucha: Underground is a bold experiment, and its future is uncertain. The appeal of the show is irresistible to some, repelent to others. There are some who may see the promotion as the face of originality which will breathe new life into the sports entertainment industry, bringing on a new era and opening the door for ambitious imitators. There are others who conceivably view the endeavour as mocking the very essence of modern professional wrestling while simultaneously disrespecting its traditions.

It is important to remember that the show is primarily meant for Mexican audiences, and uses the standards of lucha libre to form its foundation. Although it pays proper respect to the traditions of AAA and other organizations of its ilk, it is entirely possible that American audiences may be cool to accept Lucha into their homes.

Regardless of whether it will ever become as large as WWE or as respected on the indie scene as ROH, Lucha: Underground’s contribution to the sports entertainment scene is clear and present: it offers a vacation from rigid convention when formula becomes stagnant. This makes the show appealing both to viewers new to professional wrestling, and to long-time fans in need of something new.

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