wrestling / Columns

Lucha Underground: Wrestling + D&D

May 5, 2016 | Posted by J. Onwuka
Jeff Cobb Lucha Underground Matanza Cueto

Hello party people and 411maniards, my name is J Onwuka and I am the advocate of BARACK LESNAR. I’ve been gone for a little minute, personal screw-ups and overall bum-living laziness really. No excuses given. But I’ve got a new bit for you here about everybody’s favorite subway, the Lucha Underground.

Read on after the banner that the whole world knows and loves:

I’m not telling you anything new by saying that Lucha Underground has been like a lightning bolt through the ranks of American pro wrestling. It’s an incredibly ambitious project that, like all such things, doesn’t seem to be that concerned with an immediate return. That leaves it free to explore a whole lot of things that ‘conventional’ pro wrestling probably couldn’t. Lucha Underground gets a lot of mileage out of its scripted stuff and they have a heavy magical/mythological element that, to my knowledge, has only ever been attempted before by CHIKARA. It’s got almost universal praise for its entire production, from the in-ring to the viginettes to the music selection. Most see it as a triumph. At least one person does not. That’d be the famously ornery, often imitated but never replicated Jim Cornette.

Summarizing what Cornette said, LU to him is a goddamn mess of a promotion, completely unrealistic, unable to be bought into by anyone serious, killing the business, etc. The reaction to what Cornette said is just as typical as his comments: he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he’s just bitter that he never made it, whatever. Both sides have their points here. Lucha Underground certainly does stretch people’s suspension of disbelief and, in a game where most viewers are already skeptical of the product, that may be a big downside. On the other hand, Cornette has been on the wrong side of Steen and the Young Bucks, two acts who have been over pretty much everywhere and praised for it, as well as Colt Cabana in one of the most egregious wastes of talent that I’ve ever seen. There may be some truth to the statement that he is ‘out of touch’.

Those of you who know me a bit will probably remember that I’m a big fan of Cornette’s mindset. That’s not to say that I agree with him 100% of the time, but I certainly do appreciate that he thinks things through, he explains his position, and he has a clear focus. For that reason, when Cornette made his comments about Lucha Underground it got me to thinking. This isn’t the first time that a ‘limited series’ project has been attempted: Jeff Katz’s never-released Wrestling Retribution Project had a similar idea behind it and also had a ton of buzz (and, thinking back, was the first time I had ever seen a picture of Timothy Thatcher, years before him in EVOLVE). So what I started to think about was whether the ‘limited series’ idea had any relevance at all to pro wrestling, whether even despite Lucha Underground’s buzz it would eventually prove to be a dead concept. After all: one of the major metrics for wrestling is how many paying customers a show draws, something that Lucha Underground has really never had to contend with.

One thing that’s made it a little tricky for me to get into LU is that I really don’t get lucha. I don’t understand why nobody seems to sell anything and I’ve never felt pulled into the story of a lucha match. I appreciate the athleticism and performance but it doesn’t really click for me. I mention this mostly to say that there may be a level of LU that I will never really understand. That said, LU does work a more American indy style and I have enjoyed some of their matches. I’m not trying to knock their efforts, just to explain that there could be a barrier in my appreciation of it. But my focus here is gonna be on other production aspects of their show. The in-ring stuff is good but it’s not what makes Lucha Underground unique.

THE STORYLINES

There’s a heavy use of backstage segments in LU in a way that doesn’t pop up on WWE much except for specific people (Kane and Taker especially). The way WWE and most promotions use them are as pretty forgettable backdrop to the matches. In my opinion this is the ideal: when I turn on wrestling, I wanna see wrestling. Lucha Underground flips that on it’s head. It asks you to pay attention not just to the wrestling but also to what happens behind the scenes. LU has created a lot of visually-stimulating behind-the-scenes areas where the constantly-shifting alliances of the roster can play out. It’s actually important who talks to who backstage, as opposed to us just waiting for things to be confirmed in the ring. This is how most television works, demanding that you watch scene-by-scene and take it all in.

The question becomes ‘Is this the best way to do things?’ Pro wrestling has often compared itself and been compared to ‘traditional’ film & TV so, on that level, it seems natural. But I don’t think that it is like traditional film & TV. I feel that when I watch a match I want to get the whole story from announcements to the ending bell, not that I’ve missed something essential. Those kinds of matches are the ones that really grab me. In Lucha Underground, though, you don’t really get what’s happening unless you are watching everything minutely. The storyline of Dario Cueto‘s return, for instance, is pretty intricate for a wrestling story and it’s not something that you will understand just by flipping the show on. It’s not that fans don’t get this but you are losing some of the immediacy that pro wrestling typically works on.

Personally, I feel that Lucha Underground is too complicated. Again, it’s not too complicated for a fan to understand if they want to, but there are so many moving parts that it seems alien to the simple focuses of a wrestling promotion. There’s the main title and the trios title, then we have the seven Aztec medallions which ‘activate’ the Gift of the Gods title, whatever that means. I’m not sure if the GotG is higher than the main belt: it seems like it should be cause you gotta go through so much more for it. Add onto that the fact that seemingly everybody has a storyline and pretty much none are going in the same direction, you get a product that can be very confusing to someone just diving in. There’s definitely a class of wrestling fan that enjoys the fact that you can just flip it on and watch, even if you’ve been gone years. When I watch Lucha Underground I really feel that I have missed something; not necessarily in the sense that ‘I need to see it’, just that I am lacking information.

This may be a new model for pro wrestling, though. It’s possible that Lucha Underground will streamline itself while holding onto its penchant for backstage development. I do prefer to see things happen in the ring but I’m not against LU’s idea totally. My feeling is primarily that I wish LU would do a better job of telling these stories in the ring rather than relying on the backstage stuff to sell it. You gotta think of it the way that old-school bookers thought of towns: if you put a big match on in X town, you probably are gonna wait until you get back to X town to really continue that story cause those fans are the ones who will be most engaged. You could say that ‘X town’ for LU is their broadcast audience (who are as present for the backstage stuff as they are for the in-ring), but then again, why isn’t it Boyle Heights? Why don’t they put the stories right in front of the live fans?

I do think Lucha Underground is popular in the area it films, but I’m not sure that it draws people in for specific storylines or characters. The vibe I get from watching the crowd is that it’s very WWE-ish. Not in preferences but in reasons for watching. If you go to see ROH or EVOLVE my feeling is that most likely you’re a big fan of a few guys and you’d go to see them no matter the banner. Lucha Underground seems more like an entire brand that people latch onto, rather than a showcase for top talents. Depending on how you look at it, this could be very far from a bad thing. At the same time, though, I feel that LU doesn’t put enough focus on gripping the crowd in the arena. They put on a fun way to waste a few hours, not the kind of super heat that we associate with the big-time wrestling feuds like Flair/Steamboat or Rock/Austin. That’s entirely because all the important story beats happen backstage and are usually not replicated in the ring. The crowd doesn’t really feel the energy of the story elements because they’re not directly connected to them.

THE MYTHOS

More than anything I think the mythological background is what ticked Cornette off, just gauging from his reaction to the product. Everything having to do with magic, organized crime, implied murders, ancestors, etc is a gigantic load of hokum. I am a fan of fantasy, both scientific and historical, and most every fantasy fan or writer will tell you that one of the biggest and earliest hurdles you find with fantasy is that people refuse to suspend disbelief. If you’ve ever known a friend who ‘hates sci-fi’ or whatever, that is the reason. So it makes sense that Cornette would see the very heavy emphasis throughout Lucha Underground on half-baked ‘Aztec legends’ as a huge problem for it.

Now I do think that the LU mythos is pretty damn hokey. For one thing, lucha libre is between 150 and 80 years old (as I covered in a recent World Champions Podcast), not thousands as Vampiro claims all the time. The whole resurrection of the Aztecs and all their ancient magic is pretty hard to stomach as well. Sure, nobody’s yet thrown a lightning bolt that I’ve seen, but I wouldn’t be surprised if figuring that tech out was top of the agenda in their writers’ room. There was Black Lotus who was locked in a basement for much of the 1st season seemingly just to intro Matanza, a reveal that really didn’t need an entire season’s worth of build-up and which presumably kept a key storyline talent (Lotus) out of the ring for that time.

However, their mythos is very internally consistent, and that’s the major thing in any storyline. That’s what separates a well-done fantasy from a crappy one. You can create whatever rules you want as long as you make sure to play by them from start to finish. In this area, Lucha Underground does very well. Regardless of how I feel about the elements themselves, I don’t think that their mythological story approach is a weight on how well LU can do. Sure, fantasy is a bit tougher to suspend disbelief for, but LU actually hasn’t done much crazy stuff. Nobody teleports, no one casts like a love spell, there’s really not much overt magic: it’s just the backdrop, which is more than fine. There will always be those who can’t stomach something outside ‘the real’ (which makes you wonder how they can enjoy any art at all…) but Lucha Underground’s backstory is probably the least of their worries. If nothing else, it sets LU apart from everybody else and, for a group like them, that can only be a good thing.

THE VERDICT

At the end of the day, I like Lucha Underground alright. They’ve got some really good talent, including some lucha guys that I’d love to see working more of an American style. I have a lot of problems with what they do but, then again, I have problems with what everybody does. It’s just how I think. I don’t think Jim Cornette’s prognostication about Lucha Underground’s future success or effect on the wrestling industry is correct. I do think that he makes a series of valid criticisms of the product that deserve to be brought out.

It isn’t a traditional wrestling product, just like Colt Cabana, Kevin Steen, and the Bucks are not your traditional wrestlers. But there are certain beats, certain traits, that are represented in all effective stories. I think a lot of ‘old school’ guys, not just in wrestling but in everything, are resistant to the idea that an innovation can be made in good faith and with foresight because they had done it a specific way that worked for so long. On the other hand, a lot of ‘new school’ people are very quick to toss out any criticism from an older generation as being outdated and useless. If people can understand that the older generation knows the basics and the form while the newer generation is looking at it with new eyes and new hearts, I think the gap can be bridged. Lucha Underground is probably the most innovative company to come around in a while, but that said, they could use an old soul in the back to keep their production grounded.


Check out the latest World Champions Podcast and hear about the nitty-gritty backroom fracas that wracked the National Wrestling Alliance throughout the 50s. Even though they had a very successful run in the ring with Lou Thesz as their champion, behind the scenes the NWA was set upon almost immediately by lawsuits, disgruntled opponents, and the United States government. Promotional ‘wars’ erupted in the Pacific Northwest, in Texas, and in southern California, all of them challenging the Alliance’s dominance. The NWA did survive these trials but not without a lot of heartache and a lot of loss. The question really is: how much did the NWA manage to save despite this all-around attack?

Check out episode #15 Red Letters at worldchampionspodcast.com or subscribe via iTunes or Stitcher.

Subscribe on iTunes
Subscribe on Stitcher

You can also follow me on Twitter @_nearzone and on Medium.

If you’ve got a comment or a question, leave it below. Thanks to all you Super J readers, I plan to be back earlier for my next piece so keep your eye on 411wrestling.com.

Peace.
J.