I wouldn’t exactly say that I’m in the market for a WWE alternative. There’s so much wrestling in the world, most of it available on demand, that any time I want something different than what Vince McMahon, Triple H, and the rest of the gang at World Wrestling Entertainment are doing, I can watch New Japan Pro Wrestling instead. Or CHIKARA. Or Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Ring of Honor, and Absolute Intense Wrestling. Or over 100 years of wrestling that has been filmed and dumped on YouTube, both legally and extra-legally, that is streets ahead of anything being produced this decade. It’s easy. Easier, at least, than watching an episode of Total Non-Stop Action Wrestling’s Impact Wrestling for its occasional glimpses of brilliance, or tuning in to whatever cable network, buried deep in a subscription package I can’t afford, has decided to tape their answer to WWE. Lucha Underground is the latest attempt at that second brand, and boy is it buried deep, playing on Robert Rodriguez’s El Ray Network, which, as I understand it, is available to DirecTV, Comcast, and Time Warner Cable subscribers only. I cut the cable a long time ago and I’m not likely to go back, so I should admit, up front, that I am part of the problem faced by most WWE competitors: I’m an interested wrestling fan without the means necessary to pay much more for wrestling than the $9.99 I’m already paying to tune out the current product that’s disenchanted me.
Despite all that, Lucha Underground gained my attention very quickly. Its opening video package, which veers from the ridiculous to the informative and has its foot on the gas pedal the entire time, lays everything out thusly: Luchadores are, in effect, superheroes whose heritage extends all the way back to the Aztec empire. One saves a kid from being beaten up in a back alley, then asks him to help save lucha libre, likely from the clutches of Dario Cuteo, a smooth-talking Spaniard who invaded AAA’s TripleMania event (the WrestleMania of Mexico) to throw his money around ala Vince McMahon, offering the best wrestlers in the world a chance to prove themselves in the United States of America. Cuteo is obviously a villain, but he walks to the ring to kick off the first episode of Lucha Underground, offering $100,000 to the man or woman who impresses him the most. Without delving into the action (which I’ll get to shortly), here’s what you know five minutes into the show:
- That, beyond the world of kayfabe, Lucha Underground is backed by AAA, which is one of the biggest wrestling promotions in the world.
- That Lucha Underground takes place, as many attempted third wrestling brands have (including WWE’s relaunch of ECW), in a faux-dirty, Hollywood disgusting industrial wasteland. Cuteo calls this his temple, but if that’s how he really felt he probably could have afforded some clean ring mats.
- That a briefcase full of money is no substitute for a good looking championship belt.
- That the camera work is going to be slick in ways that might hinder the presentation. There’s a camera directly above the ring and a foggy, fisheye camera in the announce desk, ostensibly so that the editing team can present the action in the ring with a minimum of in-ring goofs. Still, I think wrestling is best shot using a hard camera and one or two camera operators ringside. Nobody sane demands absolute perfection from wrestlers, because to do so is unreasonable. Nobody is requesting shots of Matt Stryker and Vampiro (the commentary duo) during matches, either.
- That in 2014, we still live in a post-Montreal Screwjob world. The next televised wrestling promotion to debut without an evil Vince McMahon surrogate will automatically be my favorite promotion ever.
Since I’m getting into the flow of Lucha Underground‘s universe, I’m going to review the first two episodes at once, match by match. An overall rating for both episodes can be found at the end of the recap.
Chavo Guerrero Jr. vs. Blue Demon Jr.: After Dario Cueto introduces himself and the concept that the best fighter on his roster will receive $100,000, the first match leaves aside all of Lucha Underground‘s high-flying Fight Club aspersions by getting down to the fundamentals of lucha libre: Masked luchadores and prestigious family bloodlines. Blue Demon Jr. just looks like a luchadore, thick and barrel-chested, and Chavo Guerrero Jr., of course, has wrestled on nationally televised promotions for years, plying his trade in World Championship Wrestling, WWE, and TNA. Chavo Jr. has always been an under-the-radar favorite of mine. When I was a child, he was tremendous playing the role of Eddie Guerrero’s deranged nephew, finally snapped after months of humiliation and heartbreak. His career has largely been spent in Eddie’s shadow, understandable considering that his uncle was probably the best wrestler in the world from 1995-1998, reclaimed that status late in his WWE career, and died tragically. When Vampiro mentions the Guerreros here, it’s not to garner Chavo any sympathy, but to mention that the family has mostly been hated by lucha libre fans, a pack of liars, cheaters, and thieves in a tradition that holds honor as its highest virtue. Demon and Guerrero work a pretty good opening contest, testing each other with the ol’ Greco-Roman knucklelock that goes through a few permutations while Matt Stryker and Vampiro point out for the fans some of the differences between American wrestling and lucha libre. Nine minutes into the first show, and I’m already not a fan of a lot of the camera work: The overhead camera above the ring is disorienting, as is the pan-and-zoom into the crowd during a Guerrero headlock. Fan reactions are important, but you cut to those while wrestlers are selling big maneuvers, not during the action itself. The progression of cuts from camera to camera is too fast, actually exacerbating things that it is trying to cover up, like a Blue Demon Jr. headscissors that Chavo Guerrero Jr. has to finish for his older opponent. Demon’s got some nice-sounding slaps that Vampiro is quick to point out are “nice, because they’re not closed fists,” because the rules of wrestling still matter. Blue Demon Jr. sells his knee before going for a top rope senton, “a move made famous by his pops,” and Chavo has more than enough time to roll out of the ring, so he does and gets a two count. Guerrero goes for a top-rope hurricanrana, but Demon counters it into a powerbomb, which isn’t enough to put Guerrero away. Demon quickly transitions into his sharpshooter variation, El Pulpo, and Guerrero quickly taps out. Rating: B-
In a pre-taped segment, Dario Cuteo tries to align himself with Mexican wrestling legend Konnan. At one time, Konnan was considered the Hulk Hogan of Mexico. Then he signed with WCW, where the Hulk Hogans of Everywhere Else were made to bow down to Hulk Hogan himself, and he became the Mexican gangster character that every Mexican gangster character since has tried, unsuccessfully, to mimic. His WCW work hasn’t aged particularly well since I grew up and stopped being charmed by sing-song rhyming catchphrases, but he has a natural charisma that comes across in this segment, where he’s playing an aged fighter-turned-trainer who has found a protege who might change everything for lucha libre. Cuteo says that he has a new signing, Johnny Mundo, who used to go by a different name. One of those names, of course, was John Morrison, he of a billion abs and a style that leaned a little on his parkour training routine. Cuteo wants Konnan’s guy to make an example out of the cocky, fame-hungry Mundo, and Konnan nods significantly. They show Mundo doing pull-ups on this weird pull-up bar, then introduce his opponent, Prince Puma. Puma is better known to indie wrestling enthusiasts as Ricochet, but in Lucha Underground he’s wearing Aztec jungle cat gear and is billed by Konnan as a kind of Aztec champion. The way Konnan talks and the slow-motion effect applied to Puma’s kicks put everything over huge. It’s the first show, but it’s pretty clear that Lucha Underground knows how to promote the wrestlers it sees as stars.
Son of Havoc vs. Sexy Star: Son of Havoc is Matt Cross, a contestant on the WWE’s revamped Tough Enough who has had about as interesting a career as someone can have without wrestling for a major promotion. Cross is in tremendous shape and has a distinct look, so of course he’s wearing pants, a vest, and a terrible luchadore mask to cover all of that up. Sexy Star is a fixture in Mexico, a legitimate star with a great look who I am mostly unfamiliar with. The assumption here is that most people watching are like me, so they play a video where Sexy Star introduces herself. It’s really good, given that English is Star’s second language. She talks about how lucha libre saved her life from a world of abuse, and how she trains and fights so that women might know they are capable of the same. So of course, Son of Havoc beats her with a roll-up, and even though Stryker says, in post, that he had the tights, he didn’t have them convincingly. It’s a shame, too, because everything was built for this really great angle. Intergender wrestling is still rare on television, but Star and Havoc are a good match, of similar builds for those mutants out there on the realism train, and Havoc cuts a promo in this Son of Shockmaster voice about how he’s not going to waste his time fighting a woman, so she may as well quit. She doesn’t, of course, but the match isn’t long enough to do what Vampiro and Stryker keep insisting it does, which is to put over that Star is capable of going toe-to-toe with men. There are some good exchanges back and forth between the two, but the match is about the length of an average Diva’s match on Raw, and they should have re-shot the finish to make the pulled tights look like something that’d actually be advantageous in a pinning combination. Rating: C-
Dario Cueto finds Chavo Guerrero Jr. backstage to tell poor Chavo that his family is probably going to be upset that he lost to Blue Demon Jr. earlier in the night. He says that he wanted Chavo to be the one to put Blue Demon Jr. out of the industry for good, but that since he couldn’t, he’s bringing in someone who can. And with him, “1,000 deaths might be coming for us all.” 1,000 is a number of deaths I’m into, and I’m in for whatever that means for the next episode.
Johnny Mundo vs. Prince Puma: They bill this as Mundo’s first match in three years, which it isn’t, but at least you know that the universe Lucha Underground is in only concerns itself with the kind of wrestling everybody in the world is familiar with. So to that extent, Prince Puma is a complete unknown, the buzz about him being that Konnan discovered him in a Los Angeles bario and thinks the world of his potential. Puma plays the SoCal crowd like a fiddle, as if they all know who he is. (They do.) There’s no better main event for a project like this, as it puts in stark relief what this promotion will be doing with its television time in comparison to WWE and TNA. Puma has an argument for being one of the best wrestlers in the world, and Mundo, three years removed from a WWE run that had many thinking he had the potential to be a legit main event star, has matured into the kind of wrestler who actually fits that bill. Puma and Mundo chain wrestle for a bit, drawing baffling comparisons to Dynamite Kid and World of Sport (I mean, sure, they are masters of chain wrestling and innovative escapes, but the next time I see a Dynamite Kid or Rollerball Rocco match where they reverse a wristlock by doing a standing backflip will be the first), but instead of explaining their references, Stryker encourages you to stop watching Lucha Underground and watch some other stuff on YouTube. Puma and Mundo have an array of impressive kip ups and flips, and they put them to use early and often.
The crowd give Prince Puma a standing ovation for his athletic skills and start a “THIS IS AWESOME” chant, which is something that needs to be retired. Mundo’s parkour comes into play, first with a kick that’s, if anything, a glancing blow (a problem that has dogged Morrison since he began his ascent in WWE—his moves often look like they connect with a feather’s impact), then with the sequence above at the announce table, which is what marked him as a breakout star. The fans at the taping react to it all like they’re seeing a great main event, which they are. Vampiro calls this a Match of the Year Candidate, which is often said of matches that have no prayer of being considered for that honor, but Raw has matches this good maybe three or four times a year, and it’s rarer still when they feel like they’re building towards something more than a temporary talking point. It’s the kind of stuff instant replay was made to showcase, but Lucha Underground has no time for the past and keeps things moving forward as quickly as possible. Knowing that it’s been three years since the average wrestling fan last saw Mundo, they do a good job teasing his spectacular finishing manuver, The End of the World (formerly known as the Starship Pain). Puma counters with a roll up, by rolling out way and hitting him with a springboard double knee, but takes too long setting up for a springboard 450 splash and succumbs to Mundo’s third attempt. Rating: B+
The crowd and announcers give Johnny Mundo and Prince Puma a standing ovation as they celebrate with each other in the spirit of sportsmanship. Dario Cueto comes out with his briefcase and congratulates Mundo, but he plays keepaway long enough to allow a pair of unnamed gangster types and former WWE wrestler Ezekiel Jackson (“I know that face,” Stryker says, inadvertently cheapening the moment) to hit the ring and beat down our heroes. Jackson hits Mundo with a chokeslam, and the first episode ends with Cueto declaring that neither Mundo nor Prince Puma will be receiving $100,000, as he’s paid these three men with that money, instead. Seeing as he’s paid three wrestlers instead of one, I guess you have to laud the guy for creative financing, even if what he’s bought is a half-ass New World Order. All of that segues easily enough into…
…where Cueto’s gangsters introduce themselves as Big Ryck (Jackson), Cortez Castro (Rickey Reyes), and Cisco (‘Lil Cholo), which, along with Son of Havoc, are some of the worst gimmick names this side of Kassius Ohno. As a unit, they look and sound more generic than impressive, but I guess with a show like this you take what you’re given. They’re here to beat people up and take their money and, in Cisco’s case, probably look real sad when people start humming “The Thong Song” at his expense. Jackson puts a lot of emphasis on his new Big Ryck moniker to stop people from chanting his WWE-owned one before they start (which wasn’t going to be an issue, dude), but before he can bring out a chalkboard and write out a pronunciation key for it, Johnny Mundo hits the ring and starts beating up on his buddies. Big Ryck leaves the ring like the boss that he is (and, really, I love GIGANTIC DUDES who play the role of coward heel), leaving Castro and Cisco (The C+C Wrestling Factory) to face Mundo’s well-chiseled wrath. It’s a decent enough wrestling brawl, but again, the camera work is suspect. I think the point of the overhead camera is to show the wrestlers running across the ring, with the entire ring in the plane of vision. The problem with that theory is that it only takes three steps to cross the ring from rope to rope, four from turnbuckle to turnbuckle, and a dude like Mundo can do it pretty quickly. Moves do not look good from the overhead cam, and there is little precedence in wrestling for a hard cut from an overhead perspective to one in the ring. Lucha Underground might be attempting to retrain the eye of its viewers, but I’ve been watching wrestling for most of my life, and that is unlikely to happen. The C+C Wrestling Factory escape from the ring and grab some hilariously old-school wooden chairs, which prompts the arrival of Prince Puma. Dario Cuteo asks for an official and declares that Puma and Mundo will take on Cortez and Cisco right now, and Big Ryck smokes a cigar indoors because he’s a goddamn deviant.
Johnny Mundo and Prince Puma vs. Cortez Castro and Cisco: Lucha Underground‘s first tag team match keeps the story from last week going, pitting two white meat babyfaces against mean gangsters. The match gets off to a fast start, as Puma hits a few variations of the hurricanrana on both members of C+C. Puma and Mundo work together as a team, scoring with a double enziguri before Mundo takes over. It’s early, but Vampiro continues to talk about Konnan as a corrupting influence upon Prince Puma, which is interesting. Stryker says that Cisco told him that he wrestled “prison shower style, holmes,” which a) did not happen and b) is the kind of stupid bullshit I’m used to Matt Stryker saying into a live microphone. Cisco, believe it or not, does not wrestle like he’s trying to rape somebody, but he’s a pretty solid hand. Cortez Castro and Cisco get some decent looking stuff in, but this match is all about Mundo and Puma, their coup and their future respectively. Prince Puma is an absolute joy to watch, and Mundo definitely seems to have found some of the focus that eluded him in WWE. Sadly, the camera is out of position to catch a crazy bump by Mundo to the outside, but it’s thankfully there to see Puma do a handspring moonsault over the ropes and to the floor. The heels don’t stand a prayer and are finished off from there by stereo 450 splashes in short order. Rating: B
The SoCal hipsters in attendance cheer on their favorites while Big Ryck glowers and stalks away. In the back, Konnan says that he was right about Prince Puma, but that he needs to stay away from Johnny Mundo. He’s a sage adviser, like Mick from Rocky if Mick was once a member of nWo Wolfpac. The backstage angles in Lucha Underground are actually pretty entertaining because they’re coupled with serious, soap operatic music, and the wrestlers are all doing their best to act like they’re trapped in a telenovela, which I suppose they are. Puma and Konnan leave the artfully gritty locker room, and Stryker and Vampiro introduce a video for Mil Muertes, the 1,000 deaths Dario Cueto threatened to unleash upon the world in episode one. Mil Muertes, of course, sounds much cooler than 1,000 deaths, and beneath that mask (sorry to ruin any illusion that Muertes is some old rival of Mil Masceras’) is Rickey Banderas, perhaps better known as Judas Mesias. I’m vaguely familiar with him from Wrestling Society X and his brief time in TNA, but not enough to comment on anything beyond what Lucha Underground gives us, which is quite fantastic. He is seconded by former WWE Diva Maxine, now going by the name Catrina, who talks about how Mil Muertes is is actually worse than 1,000 deaths. Mil Muertes appears and, with the aid of post-production, roars like a lion, and we’ve got our main event attraction.
Son of Havoc and Ivelisse vs. Chavo Guerrero Jr. and Sexy Star: Picking up from where last week’s slight storyline debacle took off, Son of Havoc returns to the ring flanked by former WWE Tough Enough contestant Ivelisse Vélez, who is among the most positively buzzed about women on the independents today. It’s too bad that they put Cross under a mask, because in Absolute Intense Wrestling this year he started displaying the kind of charisma he was often accused of not having. Chavo Guerrero Jr. and Sexy Star get star entrances and reactions while Matt Stryker plugs Chris Jericho’s Talk Is Jericho podcast and talks about how different things are, as this mixed tag team match won’t adhere to the usual man vs. man, woman vs. woman rules. As one of the people behind Wrestling Fashion, let me just say that I love Sexy Star’s entrance cape. Son of Havoc gets to show off more than he did during the first episode of Lucha Underground and is dragged around the ring by his beard by Guerrero. Immediately, Ivelisse gets involved by kicking Guerrero in the back, and she gets into the ring and puts the boots to Guerrero. The intergender stuff, which I am a huge proponent of, would come across so much better if the announcers (all announcers, not just Vampiro and Stryker) stopped putting so much emphasis on how disadvantaged women are in the ring against men. When a small dude is in the ring with a huge man, they talk about size differences. Here, two women are in the ring with two men of roughly equal size, and the women are proving to the world that they can hang with men or whatever. I just want to watch Ivelisse kick the shit out of a third generation Guerrero. Don’t stick me with your gender hang-ups, okay? Chavo tags in to Sexy Star, who comes into the ring with retribution on her mind. Son of Havoc drills her with an elbow, though, which causes Chavo to wince in his corner. Matt Stryker, who once went on a rant about how unfortunately liberal America had become on an episode of ECW on SyFy, says that in 2014, women are on the same exact level as men, “some would say above men in many professions,” and between his tenuous understanding of gender politics and his belief in the humor of prison rape jokes, he can pretty much go fuck himself. Star and Ivelisse go at each other with punches and kicks, managing, quite easily, to put together one of the more enjoyable sequences two women wrestlers have had on free television in 2014. Son of Havoc continues playing the chauvinist dirtbag rubbing his heel into Star’s face. Naturally, being a scumbag costs him, as Sexy Star gets her knees up when Son of Havoc goes for a standing moonsault. She tags Chavo Guerrero Jr. in, Guerrero takes him out with a Jushin Liger capo kick, and everything breaks down. The woman fight to the outside, Chavo takes Son of Havoc out with a frog splash, and Sexy Star tags in to take the win with a roll-up. The chivalry aspect of the finish isn’t nearly as satisfying as Star straight up defeating Havoc would have been, but this match does a better job all around of showcasing her skills, Havoc’s, and introducing us to the idea of a Lucha Underground women’s division that won’t suffer the same stagnation their peers on WWE television are often subject to. Rating: B
Blue Demon Jr. is shown preparing for his match with Mil Muertes when the aforementioned Catrina shows up to distract him. I don’t have many memories of Maxine’s matches in WWE, as NXT was a never-ending procession of awkward gimmicks and matches before it became a cult phenomena, but I do remember that she and Derrick Bateman were a pretty effective unit, or at least a memorable one, as the two frequently engaged in Pro-Wrestling Make Out Sessions every time they were on camera. Her gimmick here, it seems, is to plant wrestlers with the Kiss of Death. Straight wrestling fans probably swooned all over the place when they heard this. She says that Mil Muertes has sent her with a message and licks Blue Demon Jr., which, I dunno. When one man’s message to another man is delivered via tongue, that message comes with some strong homosexual undertones. I don’t care whose tongue he’s sexting with. Then Konnan appears to talk more about the horrible barrio he found Prince Puma in. It’s good, but Konnan doesn’t lick anybody.
Blue Demon Jr. vs. Mil Muertes: Blue Demon Jr. gets an early-90s jobber entrance, and we get our first real look at Mil Muertes. He and Catrina look fantastic together, a pair of pulpy villains looking to stick their knives straight into the heart of a stalwart technico. Stryker, one of the worst human beings in the world when it comes to talking about women, says that Catrina exudes “some type of dark seduction.” Honestly, I prefer Vampiro just saying that he finds women hot. It’s more flattering than Stryker trying to be the most eligible brony on OKCupid. Muertes and Catrina have a mysterious, maroon handkerchief that they pass back and forth to each other, and this, too, is fantastic, because Lucha Underground is doing in a few minutes what the WWE often struggles to accomplish given months and a much higher budget, which is to imbue their new characters with as much purpose and personality as the ones we’re already familiar with. Muertes kisses Catrina and immediately goes on the attack, taking Blue Demon Jr. down and dominating from there. Vampiro mentions that Mil Muertes looks like something Blue Demon Jr.’s father and uncles would have seen in the science fiction films they once starred in, and he’s not wrong. It’s a great detail to pull out, and Vampiro, it seems, is a natural to calling a show like this, with one eye on the history of the genre and the other on the target demographic. The match is two stocky dudes gone a’clubbering all over each other, old school and enjoyable. Catrina, too, fits the old school aesthetic, distracting Blue Demon Jr. and attacking him when the referee’s back is turned. Demon’s slaps really pop off of Muertes’ massive chest, and Muertes’ spear look more like a football tackle than most iterations of that move. Mil Muertes hits Blue Demon Jr. with a flatliner, which makes sense but is a terrible finishing maneuver in 2014, and gets the win. Rating: B
After the match, Mil Muertes continues pressing the advantage until Chavo Guerrero Jr. hits the ring with a chair. Muertes exits the ring and Demon gets up… and Chavo hits him right between the eyes with the chair! Guerrero takes out the referees as the crowd chants “WHY CHAVO WHY,” and every luchadore who comes down to the ring to stop him gets brained as well. Sexy Star rushes to the ring to calm her tag team partner down, but Chavo takes her out, too!
The show ends with Chavo in full-blown Guerrero bastard mode, and it is a welcome sight. If, next week, Chavo goes up to the top rope for the frog splash before leaping down and refusing to pay tribute to his uncle Eddie, I will lose my mind. Chavo prevents the EMTs from taking Blue Demon Jr. out on a stretcher, taunts the crowd, and the fans in the sweatbox warehouse give Guerrero hell because he deserves it. In two episodes, Lucha Underground has established a fairly compelling new world and introduced a limited number of familiar faces into it. It’s established two new characters, Prince Puma and Mil Muertes, as forces to be reckoned with within that world. With a few hiccups, it’s managed to credibly integrate women wrestlers with the men, and it featured one of the better heel turns of the year. I’m not yet won over by the idea of yet another evil authority figure, and I think it’ll be a good five years or so before a faction comes along that doesn’t remind me, for good or for ill, of the nWo, but this is a solid foundation for a new brand, the cliffhangers from episode one were paid off well in episode two, and the final, melodramatic shot of the chair dented over Blue Demon Jr. and Sexy Star’s head has me wanting to tune in to see what happens next. As a wrestling fan, that’s all I can ask for.