wrestling / Columns

Lucha Underground is Poised for Success

October 19, 2014 | Posted by Wyatt Beougher
Lucha Underground, Azteca Underground

Introduction: In last week’s 411 Fact or Fiction Wrestling column, one the statements that Sean Garmer and I were asked to respond to was in regards to the upcoming premiere of Lucha Underground. And while I had heard of the promotion prior to participating in that column, the promo video in question (which is posted below) was my first real exposure to it, and the video was enough to get me thinking about the potential of this promotion, and why I think it will be successful.

Before we begin, I think I should start by pointing out that this column may have similarities to the column that I wrote about how Jeff Jarrett’s Global Force Wrestling promotion can be successful, it will largely be different because Lucha Underground is already an actual promotion with a roster, a television deal, and a set of tapings already in the can. As such, rather than offering my thoughts on what I think they need to do to become successful, as I did for GFW, I am going to focus on the things that Lucha Underground already has going for them that I think will help them to be successful (as well a few fears that I have based on what I’ve seen). As promised, though, here’s the teaser video that initially motivated me to write this column:

Pretty solid, right? Sure, there were a few things that I didn’t like – Dario Cueto is playing the evil boss character at its most basic level without any of the subtlety of the Authority’s “best for business”, Johnny Mundo namedropped a bunch of WWE wrestlers, and I am leery of anything involving Konnan in 2014 (for the simple fact that I am not sure that someone so jaded with the business in general can be an asset in an on-air role). I will address those issues more later, but first, I would like to focus on what Lucha Underground has done right to this point.

The Building Blocks

From the El Rey network’s page dedicated to Lucha Underground, the promotion “introduces U.S. audiences to the high-flying, explosive moves of Lucha Libre. An ancient combat tradition, watch as good and evil wage war in a gritty battleground called ‘The Temple’.” I think what speaks to me the most about this is that there is no reference to competing with other established wrestling promotions, nor are there any claims about revolutionizing the world of professional wrestling that have become so commonplace whenever a new promotion is set to debut. So long as Lucha Underground remains true to these goals and looks to carve out their own niche in the wrestling industry while avoiding the pitfalls of becoming overambitious, they should find a fair amount of success.

To help them achieve that success, look at the foundation of the promotion – it’s an English-language offshoot of Asistencia Asesoria y Administracion (AAA), currently the top Mexican promotion, which gives them access to both the braintrust of a promotion that’s grown steadily over the past twenty years and an entire roster of talent that are established in Mexico. Because this is their first real venture into English language programming, they enlisted Mark Burnett as executive producer, and his production track record speaks for itself: Survivor, The Apprentice, The Voice, The Shark Tank, and The People’s Choice Awards. He and wife Roma Downey also produced the ten-hour drama The Bible for the History Channel last year, so his experience isn’t limited strictly to reality television.

Among the wrestling talents selected to participate in Lucha Underground from AAA are Blue Demon, Jr, the adopted son of the first Blue Demon and the first Mexican wrestler and first masked luchador to hold the NWA World Heavyweight Championship (who is also something of a national hero and crossover star); Drago, a former Mixed Tag Team Champion in AAA; El Hijo del Fantasma, son of legendary luchador El Fantasma and current AAA World Cruiserweight Champion; and Fenix and Pentagon Jr, both sons of luchador Fuego, the former has toured with Pro Wrestling NOAH, while the latter was the “evil twin” of current NXT talent Kalisto when he was playing Octagon Jr in AAA. Also featured in the promotional video is Sexy Star, Pentagon Jr’s mixed tag team partner (they are the current AAA Mixed Tag Team Champions, having won the titles from Drago and his partner Faby Apache in a three-way match that also included the team of Dark Cuevo and Mari Apache) and a two-time Reina de Reinas (“Queen of Queens”) champion, a title that she didn’t lose the second time, but had to vacate due to her pregnancy.

Because the goal of Lucha Underground is to introduce a wider American audience to the lucha libre style, they have wisely chosen to supplement their AAA talent with a handful of recognizable American wrestlers. Among them are former WWE talents Johnny Mundo (John Morrison/Johnny Nitro), Chavo Guerrero Jr, Aaron Aguilera (Jesus, Carlito’s henchman who “stabbed” John Cena), Big Ryck (Ezekiel Jackson in the WWE and Big Ryck in a short-lived stint in TNA earlier this year), Catrina (Maxine during her time on NXT Season 3 and NXT Redemption) and Ivelisse Velez (a competitor on the most recent Tough Enough and former developmental Diva in FCW and NXT as Sofia Cortez, who also had a handful of performances using her real name in TNA), as well as former TNA performers Shawn Hernandez (Hernandez) and Brian Cage (who appeared as a Gut Check contestant and again at Destination X earlier this summer and is a regular in PWG). There is also another wrestler on the roster familiar to TNA fans, but he’s under a mask and using a new name this time around. In addition to Cage, several other independent talents are represented, most notably Prince Puma, who is better known as Ricochet in Dragon’s Gate, PWG, and DGUSA, as well as Helios in Chikara. He also won this year’s New Japan Pro Wrestling Best of the Super Juniors tournament.

Overall, Lucha Underground has assembled a very solid roster full of talent who fit the vision of what the promotion wants to achieve, and with the backing of AAA, they not only gain over twenty years of promotional experience, but also solid financial backing from a company whose primary interest is in promoting professional wrestling and a producer with a handful of successful shows under his belt. This combination should allow Lucha Underground to quickly find their stride and introduce a larger audience to lucha libre’s flair for the dramatic in both in-ring product and in storylines. But as TNA’s recent improvement has all-too-clearly illustrated, none of that will matter if their network partner isn’t on board.

Network Synergy

And that’s the final component to the foundation of Lucha Underground’s foundation that leads me to believe that it will be successful – they have found the perfect partner in the El Rey Network. Founded by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez (yes, that Robert Rodriguez) in 2013, El Rey has the backing of both Univision and Comcast. Rodriguez has stated that his goal with El Rey is to give second and third generation Latinos “something to identify with” while appealing to a mass audience. Rodriguez, father of five children, said that they are bilingual but that English is their primary language, and that “they couldn’t find anything on television that represented who they are in this country.” And while new shows like Cristela and Black-ish certainly seem to speak to a desire of the major networks to diversify their offerings, what Rodriguez is postulating certainly rings true if you look at the vast majority of primetime network programming. And while Univision sometimes comes in ahead of the CW in weekly network rankings, the fact that its content is exclusively in Spanish could also alienate the second and third generation, English-speaking Latinos that Rodriguez is looking to target.

As such, El Rey is looking to be Univision’s English-language counterpart, while also satisfying a commitment made by Comcast Corporation to carry several minority-owned channels as part of their majority acquisition of NBC Universal. What this means is that both Univision and Comcast have a vested interest in seeing El Rey succeed, which means it is significantly less likely that either entity will rush to pull the plug on the network in the near future, regardless of how it performs.

El Rey’s goal is to “mix reality, scripted and animated series, movies, documentaries, news, music, comedy and sports programming.” El Rey has already had success on the scripted television front, with their first premiere drama From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series being largely well-reviewed when it premiered earlier this year, and doing well enough for the network that a longer second season order was made before the first season was even halfway through airing. Rodriguez also recently signed a deal to air 255 of the Shaw Brothers’ classic kung fu movies on the network, which has already shown a commitment to Rodriguez’ beloved grindhouse style in its logo and bumpers.

And that’s where Lucha Underground would seem to fit perfectly with this network – the video embedded at the beginning of this column had a distinct grindhouse feel to it, and there is a huge amount of crossover between fans of professional wrestling and fans of grindhouse movies and classic kung fu films. Not only that, but the majority of the video was in English, as the promotion is slated to be, but it still respects and highlights Latino heritages and features enough Spanish that Rodriguez’ target audience should not feel alienated. Just as Univision and Comcast are unlikely to harshly judge the early performance of the El Rey network, El Rey’s producers will be more likely to give Lucha Underground time to establish itself and find its audience, especially with a television heavyweight like Mark Burnett on their side. With the program seemingly a natural fit for the goals of the network and its targeted audience, I honestly do not think it will take it very long to find that audience.

The Drawbacks

The first, and most obvious, drawback to Lucha Underground, is the recycling of the evil owner trope that seemingly every wrestling promotion has attempted at some point since Austin/McMahon became a legitimate success for the WWF. At this point, it’s been widely lambasted by wrestling fans and critics, and based solely on what was in the promotional video, it certainly does not appear as though Dario Cueto is going to be bringing anything new to the role. As I mentioned, his ham-fisted approach (briefcase full of cash, a stable of mercenary wrestlers hired to back him up, and even claiming to own the talent on display in the company) lacks any of the subtlety that made the Authority’s constant undercutting of Daniel Bryan’s title aspirations such compelling television. Of course, I could be completely wrong on that count, but the earliest we will be able to ascertain that will be October 29th, when Lucha Underground actually debuts.

Of secondary concern is the promotion’s plan to add monthly and quarterly specials and even live PPVs to the weekly pre-taped episodes. This is less of a concern to me simply because I don’t know the specifics or the timeline for introducing these specials. If they choose to go the route that NXT has gone, with quarterly live specials that give them a longer event to blow off feuds and wrap up storylines, then I think it could easily be a positive for the promotion, but I’m afraid that a monthly live special could be too taxing financially to the nascent promotion because of travel expenses for their roster and the extra production costs that live television incurs over the pre-taped format.

Live PPV events are even more troubling, as pay-per-view in the United States has become an increasingly difficult stream of revenue for all but the largest, most established promotions (WWE in sports entertainment, the UFC in MMA, and big-name boxers). Major pay-per-view like those three entities put on is a cost-prohibitive market to enter, and both the WWE and the UFC have seen diminishing buyrates over the past couple of years to boot, to the point where the WWE opted to put their monthly specials on the WWE Network, even knowing that it would alienate some of their PPV partners. The smaller iPPV options are often plagued by both buffering and production issues, to the point that upstart women’s MMA promotion Invicta opted to sign a deal to have their events exclusively broadcast on the UFC’s Fight Pass network earlier this year and independent wrestling powerhouse Ring of Honor left iPPV altogether and made the jump to traditional PPV. I suppose UStream could be a viable option for Lucha Underground, considering they’ve had a pretty successful track record with promotions like New Japan Pro Wrestling and Dragon’s Gate.

However, with NJPW suddenly pulling out of uStream on October 13th with little warning or explanation given, I’m less than confident in any of Lucha Underground’s pay-per-view options, either traditional or internet-based. My colleague here at 411, Mike Hammerlock, just wrote a pretty compelling piece on why TNA needs to give up on PPV and he outlines why pay-per-view is a dying medium, advice I’d urge Lucha Underground to heed, especially since they have what amounts to a nearly perfect television deal in place.

Compared to those two hurdles, my other concerns for Lucha Underground are minor ones, with one being little more than superstition. In spite of how well I think the El Rey deal works for both El Rey and Lucha Underground, the failure of Lucha Libre USA to capture an audience on MTV2, which led to its eventual cancellation, weighs heavily on me. It seems like Lucha Underground is going an entirely different route and, on paper, they have better minds behind the scenes, but I would remiss not to mention the last attempt at bringing lucha libre to the unwashed American masses.

Another issue that I mentioned in passing earlier is Johnny Mundo namedropping a bunch of WWE wrestlers in that promotional video, which appears to have come from a promo he cut during the initial tapings for the promotion. This is likely just a matter of personal preference, but that sort of thing has left a bad taste in my mouth ever since Tony Schiavone’s infamously sarcastic “That’ll put butts in the seats”. While it often worked for both WCW and the WWF to mention their competitor during the Monday Night Wars, the WWE has since put a stop to that practice, and, as a result, any time a wrestler in a smaller promotion does it, it just makes the promotion feel bush league. Mundo doing that, even in the context of that video, feels the same way, especially since he didn’t choose to leave the WWE for Lucha Underground. This is the type of thing that makes it all too easy for WWE fans who aren’t fans of professional wrestling as a whole to make the default “lolwwereject” comments.

And finally, my least important and most superstitious issue with Lucha Underground? Gilbert Cosme is on the roster of a promotion that tapes in the greater Los Angeles, California, area. The last time that happened, the promotion, Wrestling Society X, did not even complete its ten-episode first season before being cancelled. Unlike with my fears regarding Lucha Libre USA’s short life, this one is probably totally unfounded, but it was the first thing that popped into my head when I saw Cosme was on the roster.

Fortunately, none of these concerns are enough to prevent me from thinking that Lucha Underground is going to be a success, and I sincerely hope that they prove me wrong with regards to Dario Cueto’s character and their live specials/PPVs. Should Lucha Underground catch on and become the success that I think that it is poised to be, it will benefit fans of professional wrestling (and especially those of lucha libre), so if you count yourself among that number, make sure you check out the debut show. And even if you aren’t a fan of lucha libre and only watch the WWE, I strongly urge you to give Lucha Underground a shot when they debut October 29th at 8 pm ET/PT. You might be surprised at how much good wrestling is out there.

Wyatt Beougher is a lifelong fan of professional wrestling who has been writing for 411 for over three years and currently hosts MMA Fact or Fiction and reviews Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

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Lucha Underground, Wyatt Beougher