The line outside the temple in Boyle Heights stretched almost the entire length of the parking lot. Devotees and acolytes milled energetically on the asphalt, buzzing about the passionate displays they were about to witness, and wearing the familiar stark outfit of the true believer: T-shirts, jeans, sneakers. It was a young crowd, a masculine crowd, but a cultish crowd, filled with testosterone and excitement, chanting the names of their heroes and damning those of their enemies. (Jim Cornette would have been especially unwelcome.) They bided their time talking about fallen idols and past glories, the modern myths of the warriors of today, while inside the temple unassuming men and women prepared to transform into larger than life figures that regularly defied not just death but the laws of physics. Violence awaited inside the temple, and that violence would work the worshippers in attendance into an ever-increasing fervor throughout the lengthy afternoon service.
The temple, of course, isn’t a real temple. It just plays one on TV. The century-old Los Angeles warehouse that houses the set of Lucha Underground is still a place of worship, though. It’s where the faithful followers of an oft-maligned and misunderstood cultural footnote congregate to witness something unique within the annals of pop culture. It’s the home of a wrestling show that combines Mexican lucha libre with American pro wrestling, comic book story logic and grindhouse production values to create one of the most idiosyncratic programs on television today. Produced by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez and reality show king Mark Burnett, it’s a cross-cultural, pan-generational, trash-art spectacle that somehow elevates both wrestling and B-movies while subverting their traditions and expectations. It’s maybe the hottest show in wrestling today, and along with New Japan and the resurgent indie scene in America and England, it’s proving there’s still life left in the tattered world of pro wrestling.
Many say Lucha Underground isn’t a wrestling show—it’s a TV show about wrestling. It’s only halfway through its second season, but that observation is already a cliché. It’s how fans have explained it since the first season started in 2014, and how the producers have pitched it since before it even premiered. As played out as it is, there’s a lot of truth in that cliché. Lucha Underground has carved its own unique niche within the century-old artform of professional wrestling, and it’s done so by looking to the medium that’s kept wrestling alive for the last 60 years: television.
I visited the Lucha Underground set earlier this year to see in person how differently it’s planned and produced than the wrestling I’ve been obsessed with for my entire life. It wasn’t just an opportunity to peer backstage and ask the wrestlers themselves how Lucha Underground is different—it was, at the time, probably the easiest way for me to actually watch Lucha Underground. Although it’s now available on iTunes, my cable provider (and the providers of many would-be fans) doesn’t carry El Rey, the network that airs it. This rarity lends an almost mythical quality to a show whose fiction is already steeped in myth and folklore, making it feel like an apparition that only a lucky few can glimpse. Before heading to the temple, I had only seen clips on Youtube and read reports on wrestling sites. After leaving the temple, I couldn’t stop raving about Lucha Underground to everybody I spoke to. You probably have to be a wrestling fan to truly love the show, but anybody who enjoys melodrama, soap operas or self-consciously cheesy action films can probably get into its storyline vignettes, which feel like a telenovela directed by Robert Rodriguez. Pro wrestling is regularly called a soap opera for men, and that’s never been truer than with Lucha Underground.
According to Lucha Underground’s executive producer Eric Van Wagenen, the show’s unique appeal grows out of one specific guiding principle. “Our philosophy is we have to compete in ways that the WWE can’t compete,” he tells me inside a dingy gym that’s part TV set, part actual weight room. “We have to find ways to do things differently. We don’t try to do what they do—we do what we do, and try to go where they’re not.”
Since buying WCW and ECW in 2001, Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment has effectively monopolized the wrestling industry when it comes to mainstream attention in America. Ring of Honor might thrive with the most devoted wrestling fans, and the perennially mismanaged TNA had a prime cable timeslot on Spike for almost a decade, but for the most part WWE has been the alpha and omega of American pro wrestling for 15 years. If you’re going to enter a market that has one thoroughly dominant leader, it makes sense to be as different from them as possible, and that’s what Burnett and Rodriguez’s teams focused on when coming up with Lucha Underground.
WWE shows are taped in different arenas every week. Lucha Underground is set entirely within one warehouse, which houses the ring, the bleachers and a handful of other sets that would be familiar to anybody who watches the show. WWE tells its stories almost entirely within the ring, including its promos, which, for main event talent, can often drag on for up to 20 minutes. Lucha Underground rarely has in-ring promos, even from its talent that speaks English, and when they happen they’re kept short. Most of the storytelling occurs in pretaped vignettes that look and feel like movies. WWE tries to keep at least the barest semblance of reality, despite the occasional match featuring supernatural cartoon characters like the Undertaker or Kane. Lucha Underground has made a mockery of the notion of kayfabe from day one, with characters that travel through time, turn into dragons, teleport at will, die in storyline, and then return from the grave. WWE storylines are heavily scripted by a team of television writers, but barely sketched out in terms of logic or motivation, with only a handful of wrestlers on its massive roster having a clear direction at any given moment. Lucha Underground has a clear-cut concept, with on-screen character Dario Cueto (played by the prolific actor Luis-Fernandez Gil, who has 77 IMDB credits to his name) holding underground lucha matches in his temple to satiate his frenzied love of violence, and well-defined roles and characters for almost all of its performers. WWE doesn’t have an off-season, running new shows for several hours a week every week of the year, with at least one major Sunday night show every month. Lucha Underground runs like a TV show, with a single hour-long episode each week and a distinct seasons and off-season, and builds up to a season finale that is the company’s de facto version of Wrestlemania. Perhaps most importantly, WWE seems incapable or unwilling to make new stars or give the fans what they want, leading to now-regular fan revolts over the constant focus on overpushed would-be stars like Roman Reigns and the marginalization of fan favorites like the now-retired Daniel Bryan. Lucha Underground is usually a tightly booked wrestling show that knows how to properly push talent and that retains an internal logic despite its outlandish milieu. For long-time fans struggling to maintain interest in the bloated, boring WWE and its often antagonistic relationship with its audience, Lucha Underground can feel almost revolutionary.
“The first thing I was told was never do things because that’s the way it’s done,” Van Wagenen continues. “Robert Rodriguez would rather have you fail in trying to be different than succeed by copying somebody else. So when you have marching orders like that, it actually frees up your creative process.
“For the first month when we were working this out, we would look at [everything]” to make sure it wasn’t too similar to the WWE, he says. “We did reshoots on the vignettes three or four times for the first few episodes. We’d say if that felt too WWE, yeah, we’d go in another direction. ‘That guy just had a catchphrase, that feels too WWE, let’s do something differently.’ They would never shoot their [vignettes] with multiple cameras, they’d never put a score under the thing. It was really a process.”
Rey Mysterio, the Mexican superstar and living legend who joined Lucha Underground for its second season, knows better than anybody how the show contrasts with the major American promotions. He’s been the most successful luchador in American wrestling for the last few decades, and perhaps ever, having worked for WCW and WWE for almost 20 years before becoming a free agent in 2015. He was even entrusted with one of WWE’s world championships on two different occasions. “The cool thing about Lucha Underground is they shoot [the same scene] several times at different angles,” Mysterio says, wearing a mask and street clothes an hour or so before the taping begins, in a small storage room to the side of the gym room set. “You don’t know which one they’re going to use. So the editing and the final product comes out and you watch it on TV, you’re like ‘wow,’ we did so many shots and look at how they place everything and it looks incredible.”
Although ratings have been modest on the relatively unknown El Rey network, Lucha Underground is a sensation within the wrestling industry, and season two debuted earlier this year to the show’s best numbers yet. WWE is currently in expansion mode, signing away some of the top talent from Japan and the indies, and despite Lucha Underground’s standard TV-style contracts quickly gaining notoriety within wrestling circles for their seven-year length and supposed restrictions on outside bookings, WWE is known to have contacted some of Lucha Underground’s roster. Lucha Underground writer Chris DeJoseph, a former WWE employee, caused an online ruckus earlier this year when he hyperbolically stated that WWE was trying to sign the company’s entire roster in order to shut them down. “There was some hyperbole there,” Van Wagenen explains. “They didn’t want to hire every single member of our roster. But [it was] well-publicized, three of our main guys, and lesser publicized, at least another four guys that I know were approached. Men and women. So it wasn’t the entire roster, because they’re never going to hire somebody who doesn’t speak English, I don’t think, but there was, from what I understand, from what people tell us, and from what our cast tells us, there was an outreach to probably about 7 to 10 of our top people. Of course [that makes us feel like we’re doing something right.] Those are uptown problems.”
That roster offers perhaps the most consistently diverse combination of wrestling of any show since the mid-’90’s heydays of ECW and WCW. WWE has a tremendous roster of world-class talent, but they generally stick to a recognizable formula that’s resulted in steadily decreasing dividends. A superstar like A.J. Styles, perhaps the best wrestler in the world today, joined WWE in January and his matches already feel too formulaic, too constricted, like his natural, almost peerless ability to construct a match is being suffocated by WWE’s bad booking and familiar match layouts. In Lucha Underground you can watch some of the best luchadors in the world put on the type of high-flying, heavily acrobatic matches Mexico is known for, and then you can immediately see a slightly more mat-based exhibition featuring some of the American wrestlers, followed by a crazy brawl with copious weapon shots and wrestlers diving off the stands and the roof of Dario Cueto’s office.
King Cuerno, one of Lucha Underground’s top stars, who also wrestles for the Mexican promotion AAA as El Hijo del Fantasma, relishes the opportunity to work with performers with different backgrounds. “It’s a clash of styles,” he says from behind his red and black mask. “You have the Mexican style, or Mexican lucha, but you also have guys like Morrison [Johnny Mundo] or Prince Puma, Son of Havoc, that have the American style. Sometimes you have to face them and you have to adapt your style. I like it. It’s challenging. Every time I go out there I try to improve my technique and people like it.”
Fake cocaine within Dario Cueto’s office
It’s not always smart to do something simply because your competition doesn’t do it, though. Lucha Underground has caused some controversy within the wrestling industry for bringing back two facets of the business that had largely faded away over the last decade. Its small cadre of woman wrestlers regularly face men in the ring, which can hurt the legitimacy of the men but more importantly lead to uncomfortable moments of man-on-woman violence. Some liken it to Buffy fighting bad guys on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but there can be a psychological difference between watching a TV show or a movie and watching a wrestling show, even one as blissfully unrealistic as Lucha Underground. Even though the show’s vignettes use logic straight out of comic books and videogames, the matches still look like wrestling matches, which historically have blurred the lines between fact and fiction. The violence perpetrated on women by men makes some viewers understandably uneasy, including Dave Meltzer, the journalist behind the Wrestling Observer, the industry’s preeminent journal. Meltzer regularly takes issue with this aspect of Lucha Underground, a show he otherwise usually enjoys, and his points are hard to disagree with.
Perhaps more egregiously, Lucha Underground whole-heartedly embraces the kind of hardcore carnage that typified “extreme” wrestling in the 1990s. Blood is one thing—it has a long-standing history within wrestling, almost always spikes the drama when used judiciously, and is relatively safe as long as the participants are tested and clean. As a guy who grew up with Southern wrestling, a little bit of blood doesn’t necessarily bother me. What does is when a wrestler takes an unprotected chair shot to the head, which happened during the taping I attended in January. With what we now know about concussions and CTE, it’s irresponsible and inexcusable for any wrestling promotion to allow unprotected head shots. It momentarily cast a pall over what was an otherwise exciting brawl during the taping I was at.
Despite Dario Cueto’s unwavering love of violence, a word he dramatically draws out whenever he says it, those hardcore brawls don’t happen with great regularity in Lucha Underground. The show’s bread and butter is lucha libre, as practiced by top stars like Cuerno, Fenix, Mil Muertes and Pentagon Jr., wrapped up in a low-rent action movie with comic book fantasy elements. It caters to wrestling fans and dovetails with the mainstream dominance of nerd-appeasing pop culture, but most important it’s a vibrant outgrowth of Latino culture, shot in LA’s Latino-heavy Boyle Heights, and focused squarely on the Latino market. Before the taping at the temple I talked to a handful of fans in the audience, most of whom were young Southern California natives of Latino descent who spoke English as a first language. Two locals, one 19, one 21, friends and Lucha Underground regulars, praised the show for its chaotic nature, for its creativity, and for the fact that it recreated the classic atmosphere of ECW, a legendary but long-gone cult promotion they were too young to experience, with the feel of a telenovela, a format they’re intimately familiar with. This is Lucha Underground’s core audience, the badass Latino teens who don’t discriminate between Mexican and American pop culture, combining the two into a new culture of their own without necessarily even realizing it. That’s who Lucha Underground is for, and also what it does itself. You can hear it in the band that plays the taping, Mariachi El Bronx, a group of energetic and heavily tattooed punks with lucha masks who string together medleys of Mexicanized pop and rock hits, flowing seamlessly from Daft Punk to “Take On Me” to Devo, all sung in Spanish and with a mariachi beat. You can see it in the ring, as Ohio-raised Son of Havoc does lucha moves in perfect choreography with Mexico’s best wrestlers. You can see it in the company’s name itself, a confluence of Mexican tradition and a variety of underground cult obsessions, uniting to create something new and exciting. As Van Wagenen says inside that fake gym, its walls covered in removable graffiti, “It’s really a generational thing. Young people today embrace the Comic Con culture, the superhero culture, the supernatural and science fiction and comic book culture, and there’s also in Los Angeles and much of American an embrace of Latino culture. So we try and wrap it all up in an entertaining one hour show.” And not a wrestling show—but a TV show about wrestling.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.