Tomorrow (July 29, 2015) is when El Rey Network’s Lucha Underground will begin the two-part extravaganza that is known as Ultima Lucha and when reflecting on the trajectory of Lucha Underground over the past few months it is difficult to not note just how great of a show it is. There is a lot of competition out there for professional wrestling right now, obviously WWE sits at the top of that mountain with Raw, Smackdown and more recently the internet darling that is NXT on the WWE Network. TNA still exists somehow -- and some people even watch it -- and ROH is syndicated in some places where people live (myself not included) while also kind of on Destination America. Yet Lucha Underground not only perseveres, but has been the better weekly show for a long time now.
There is a lot of professional wrestling on TV and I’m not even taking into account that AXS TV runs an hour-long New Japan Pro Wrestling show that outdraws ROH on Destination America as well here. Pro wrestling isn’t in a golden age of viewership but thanks to the internet and the passion of pro wrestling fans there is more to watch now than ever. That is what makes it difficult to definitively say that one show or product is "better" than another. This is what makes Lucha Underground so special, though: Lucha Underground is better than all of these other shows.
Does that sound a bit bold? It should. WWE is a billion dollar, publicly traded company that has the market on lockdown and has for years. TNA has been a strange money-loser that has existed since the death of WCW and while it terrifies a lot of us, has had a loyal fanbase for years. What Lucha Underground did was both a step back and a step forward with how they present professional wrestling, which has been refreshing. Lucha Underground is both reinventing the wheel and sticking to tried and true methods in what might seem like a dizzying mix of concepts to some, but when you see it in motion it is beautiful.
The idea behind Lucha Underground was to present some of the Mexican culture of Lucha Libre to audiences but to mix it with American professional wrestling and to meet somewhere in the middle. At first it felt a bit sloppy and for the first few episodes there weren’t that many actual luchadores involved in the show due to visa issues and a frantic last minute rewrite. In hindsight, though, it helped to endear fans to Prince Puma and to establish Johnny Mundo as a legitimate top star by quickly creating a buzz online over how good some of the matches were. The wrestling on Lucha Underground can vary from pretty good to very good and is a strange amalgamation of styles that you’d expect by taking top independent stars in the US and mixing them together with top luchadores from AAA.
What makes Lucha Underground truly special is not the wrestling, though. The wrestling can indeed be good, but other times it can be a bit tedious if you aren’t hyper into the more spotty types of wrestling that you are prone to see in some of the undercard matches on Lucha Underground. What makes them special is their attention to detail and presentation. Right away when you watch an episode you’ll notice that the camera angles are different, the production style is more polished and that their backstage vignettes are filmed in a cinematic styles that blows away anything else that wrestling has ever done. Some of the stories are goofier than others, like Dario Cueto’s "monster" of a brother being locked in a cage and a female ninja looking to gain her revenge, but it actually doesn’t feel insulting like a lot of "bad" wrestling angles do. Instead it feels like you are watching a pulpy movie where you know that it’s ridiculous at times, but it’s enjoyable, not embarrassing.
Lucha Underground features a large, diverse roster of wrestlers and the ones that are appearing regularly on the show all have a clear, defined character. On top of that, they all have clear, defined character motivations and when they are involved in a story that story is logical, thought out and is followed through to its conclusion. When a wrestler comes down to the ring the fans know exactly why they are there, what brought them there and where they want to go. It’s a minor detail that you’ll see in fiction all of the time but is often overlooked in professional wrestling.
There are obviously huge story arcs involved in this first season of Lucha Underground, like the rise of Prince Puma, the "local hero" that Konnan brought into the organization who won the title and has proven himself throughout the season to be a worthy champion, even if he’s undersized. He’s had feuds with Johnny Mundo, Cage, Hernandez and defended his title a multitude of times all while never saying a damned word. Konnan has been the maestro pulling the strings which has helped to build Puma as a babyface who might be involved with some chicanery at times, but it’s never his fault. To say that there is a build up for him turning on Konnan at some point is definitely an understatement, as well.
The contrast to the rise of Prince Puma would have to be the destructive power that is Mil Muertes. Somehow tossing a guy that has been pretty well known as Ricky Banderas and El Mesias into a mask and giving him a less cartoony Undertaker gimmick has become nothing short of amazing. Mil Muertes has been established as a pretty scary dude who not only beats his opponents, but annihilates them. His story felt more about establishing how destructive of a force that he was and when he finally turned his focus on winning the title it all became clear how well thought out this story was. Mil Muertes is the unstoppable monster, the unrelenting evil and the main villain of Lucha Underground and of course served as a perfect foil to the young, plucky upstart that is the champion, Prince Puma.
The best part is that their feud is the culmination of a whole season worth of build. They didn’t face down each other until the last part of the season, instead they were involved with the supporting characters throughout, each one having their own, defined roles and character motivations that weren’t forgotten after falling to each respective wrestler. Among these supporting characters are King Cuerno, Fenix, Sexy Star, Big Ryck and many, many more. Each character on the Lucha Underground roster has their own strengths, weaknesses and reasons for you to care about them. Even wrestlers who didn’t make it onto the scene until later like Killshot or Marty the Moth have been given their due.
What I’m saying here is that everything gelled from the get-go and while the first couple of episodes might have seemed a bit rough around the edges it quickly became clear that Lucha Underground was something special. Lucha Underground takes everything that a studio wrestling used to be and blended it together with a hyper-athletic style of wrestling with clear, concise storytelling. The end result is a show that is worth watching every week. Every week might not have a blow away professional wrestling match on it, but the show is worth watching just the same because a few stories are going to progress no matter what and missing that would be a shame.
That is what makes it different than everything else on the market now. I might tune into Raw hoping that I get another great 20+ minute Cesaro match, but I’m not tuning in to see how his character develops or where his story goes because he has no story. He’s just a cool guy who has an injured tag partner who has randomly gotten a push. NXT was having a long stretch of greatness before they discovered that just popping the fans with big matches created a huge buzz for them online. They quickly turned their attention from building up future stars and creating a solid hour of studio wrestling to trying to make it a standalone pro wrestling show featuring indy stars and greener-than-green upstarts who can’t work the style that the top of the card is doing.
Good pro wrestling matches are great and the reason why most of us older fans (by that I mean not kids) sit down each and every week and dedicate so much time to pro wrestling, but Lucha Underground has shown that there is more to life than star ratings tacked onto wrestling matches. Lucha Underground has shown that wrestling can deliver in more than disconnected moments and four-week long stories, that wrestling can have genuine thought and intent behind it. I’m anxiously awaiting getting to see Pentagon Jr. square off with his spurned master, Vampiro, just like I can’t wait to see Drago once again prove himself as a fan favorite by taking on the dastardly Hernandez. I can’t wait to see the dysfunctional trios team of Ivelisse, Son of Havoc and the death defying Angelico take on the Disciples of Death and hell, every single match is important in its own way.
Stop and think about that. That is why Lucha Underground is the best weekly wrestling show on TV.
Dave Walsh is a novelist and combat sports writer best known for his work with the sport of professional kickboxing. His second novel, Terminus Cycle, is available now.