In my last column I wrote at length about the reborn Latino World Order. In case you missed it, the LWO was resurrected in the run up to WrestleMania as backup for Rey Mysterio in his feud against son Dominik and the rest of the Judgment Day. This version of the LWO did more than even the odds in Mysterio’s program, it gave a higher profile to Legado del Fantasma and made the LWO itself more representative. In its first incarnation the LWO was an inside joke and a means of giving WCW’s Mexican wrestling contingent something to do on-screen. They often went unnoticed despite their history and talent. WWE’s LWO includes Zelina Vega, who recently challenged Rhea Ripley for the SmackDown Women’s championship. It also assumes a broader Latinx identity, which got them over huge at the Backlash pay-per-view held in Puerto Rico.
I lamented that with few exceptions (Rey Mysterio being one), in the biggest US promotions most Latin talent struggles to break out of a mold set by alleged language barriers, stereotypical presentations and size differentials versus established performers. LWO notwithstanding, the fact that talent from different countries and traditions would be lumped together because of shared language or ethnicity or last names feels like lazy booking at best and something more sinister at worst. The virtual non-presence of Humberto Carrillo and Angel Garza in an Intercontinental Championship Contender’s battle royal on Raw supports my point. That said, so far, the new LWO has done better, even if its resident tag team seems to fade into the background in favor of bigger names like Mysterio, Escobar and Vega.
Which brings me to this week’s idea. With a host of Latin talent finding homes in WWE, AEW (and it’s now-sister brand ROH) and Impact, maybe it’s time for a bigger resurrection. Maybe it’s time to bring back Lucha Underground (LU) so all these wrestlers get the U.S. platform they deserve.
I came to LU ready to be a fan. I was, and still am a casual lucha libre fan. I first encountered AAA and CMLL as a kid, watching the broadcasts that aired randomly on Telelatino or CHIN (Toronto’s multicultural network) on weekends. I was immediately taken by the acrobatics, the emphasis on improbable submission holds, the colorful costumes and the wanton disregard for intellectual property law when La Parka entered the ring to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. I don’t speak Spanish, but the energy of the promos was exciting. Even better, this new kind of pro wrestling drew discussion between generations of Schwartz. For those who grew up on Rocca and Perez, the flips and dives and tagless tag team matches all felt a bridge too far in the suspension of disbelief. I wasn’t bothered by that. After all, if the cartoon physics of an Irish whip work in the ring and not the schoolyard, why should I be offended by a hurricanrana or tope con hilo. Heck, I’m a grown man and I still love saying “tope con hilo” and “Los Rudos Los Rudos Los Rudos”.
LU promised a version of lucha libre that was more accessible to me as a fan almost a continent away. It was broadcast in English, for one, and boasted the production savvy of Survivor producer Mark Burnett and movie director Robert Rodriguez. The latter was particularly exciting. Before Rodriguez started churning out terrible kids movies like Spy Kids (which my kids watched on rotation during COVID, so at least there’s some public service there), he had a string of incredibly fun, grindhouse-influenced grown up films, including El Mariachi, Desperado and my favourite, From Dusk ‘Till Dawn. Rodriguez’ involvement promised a more adult approach to the stories told in the wrestling ring. Even better, in Toronto LU aired as part of a Rodriguez double bill, alongside a serialized version of From Dusk ‘Till Dawn borrowed from Rodriguez’ El Rey network in the States. LU’s first episode aired in October, 2014 and ran until November, 2018. True to Rodriguez’ oeuvre, it borrowed liberally from horror and science fiction and in vignettes that included wrestlers spontaneously combusting, presaged the COVID-era reliance on cinematic presentation.
I appreciated many of LU’s production decisions. It was set in Boyle Heights and Downtown Los Angeles, California in a small venue, often with live music playing. The atmosphere was raucous and engaging, and as a fan you felt drawn into something bigger than yourself, but small enough to still feel a bit dangerous. I think wrestling is best suited to these kinds of venues. ECW’s bingo hall, Monday Night Raw’s early Manhattan Centre residency, Wrestling at the Chase’s Khorassan Ballroom and Dallas’ Sportatorium all gave their broadcasts a similar sense of place, and made the crowd feel like regulars. In LU’s case, the close quarters emphasized that LU took place in its own universe, unbound by other pro wrestling tropes. The lucha-forward action belied any ‘real’ fighting style and the promos and storylines eschewed traditional wrestling logic.
Casting was sometimes eerily prescient: a pre-cancellation Joey Ryan began his descent into sleaze playing a corrupt wrestling cop. WWE alum Matt Striker provided play-by-play with AAA veteran Vampiro offering color commentary. I’m biased, but I thought they were great. Striker’s analytical approach and knowledge of actual holds felt out of place in WWE, especially in their ECW reboot (I’ll get back to that) but was essential to help explain the action to an American audience. Vampiro’s contributions were often less coherent, but as an English-speaking Canadian who had immersed himself in Lucha Libre for decades, he was an ideal conduit for fan’s emotions. Vampiro would occasionally be written into storylines as well, which helped give a voice to storylines where there might otherwise be a language barrier. Like I said, I was a fan before LU, but my exposure was limited, and WCW rarely paid attention to its wealth of lucha talent. At points LU would collaborate with the Montreal-based International Wrestling Syndicate and Impact Wrestling, where several stars like Brian Cage, Penta and Fenix, and Willie Mack would end up until signed by AEW.
LU was founded in 2014 by United Artists Media Group. Mexican wrestling giant AAA also owned a share and offered up many of its talents for the broadcast. The weekly show saw matches between AAA and American and Mexican independent wrestlers, and offered a neat mix of established American talent-often using new names (like Ezekiel Jackson’s turn as Big Ryck, John Hennigan’s Johnny Mundo, Alberto del Rio as Alberto el Patron or Wade Barrett as the Lord), indie darlings like Ricochet, Swerve Strickland, AR Fox (who’s finally getting his due in AEW), Jeff Cobb, Sami Callahan or Matt Cross-all of whom could keep up with their innovative and athletic luchador counterparts, plus a good chunk of OG lucha goodness with performers like Pentagon Jr, Rey Fenix, Mil Muertes, Drago and Daga. LU worked best when it put the action front and center, but like most wrestling promotions it couldn’t resist the occasional bout of nostalgia. Legendary luchadores like Dr. Wagner, Jr. and Blue Demon Jr, would appear, but they had shorter runs before an unfamiliar audience. This wasn’t your dad’s lucha libre.
LU offered a rare showcase for smaller performers where they could be taken seriously. In matches against each other next-level talents like Strickland, Cross or Ricochet could have competitive, dizzylingly creative contests. LU made smaller wrestlers look great and by extension, bigger wrestlers looked like monsters. While current big men like Luchasaurus and Karrion Kross got early exposure in LU, Cage and Cobb in particular would manhandle their smallest opponents. They were athletic enough themselves to work through even the most challenging sequences of moves. As LU ‘owner’ Dario Cuerto’s deranged masked brother Matanza, Cobb in particular took a role that could have just been a knockoff Kane and turned him into an actual killer. Seriously. He killed another wrestler in a segment that helped set LU apart. Fast forward a few years and Cobb has had success in Ring of Honor and New Japan, plus a stint or two in AEW, but he hasn’t been the focus of a promotion partly because he’s well under six feet tall. Cage is billed at six feet, but that feels exaggerated-he’s also had successful runs as Impact World Champion and the first FTW titlist in AEW, but without a host of smaller, more agile men to bump enthusiastically both men seem lost in the shuffle.
One of the biggest early stars was female wrestler Sexy Star. LU was unique at the time for regularly showing intergender matches and booking Star (and others) strong against male wrestlers. WWE and AEW still occasionally tease these kinds of matches, but unless the female wrestler is physically exceptional like Chyna, they’ve been very hesitant to pull the trigger (WWE saw the 24/7 Championship change hands between men and women, but always with a minimum of contact-a roll up pin out of nowhere, and that title was created as comic relief). I dislike the idea of intergender matches. I don’t think there’s anything entertaining ever about men hitting women, even if it is pretend. I’m aware that defenders of these matches will point to the fact that it’s just a show-a line that I use here often-but I don’t think that TV shows should normalize violence against women. If you think I’m being too sensitive, think about the “Don’t Try This At Home” warnings that air before every show and often on returning from commercials. Then think about how many times you tried wrestling at home. I rest my case. But then, I never said I had to like everything they did.
Like many things in life, LU ended badly in a flurry of lawsuits. After the fourth season concluded, it was revealed that further seasons were unlikely due to significant budget concerns. I’ve never seen an official cancellation notice, but with no new season in 2019 and a 2020 interview in which Vampiro stated that the series was effectively cancelled, it was time to move on. Or-it would have been but for the fact that many LU talent, including the current Santos Escobar, who had portrayed the villainous King Cuerno, Ivelisse Velez, Joey Ryan and Kobra Moon had started a class action suit against the El Rey Network and LU’s production company, alleging that their contracts “illegally restricted” the wrestlers from working for other promotions-a significant problem since their contracts bound them exclusively to LU for five year on a per-show payment schedule, and there would be no fifth year shows. This case was settled in the wrestlers’ favour.
If you’re a wrestling fan with a head for trivia it’s often fun to play “where are they now”. LU stars have emerged in WWE and AEW and Impact, with varying degrees of success. A SmackDown match between Santos Escobar and Ricochet drew a knowing murmur from a live crowd that remembered Prince Puma vs. King Cuerno. Pentagon and Rey Fenix have held the Impact, AEW and now ROH tag team championships, and Pentagon enjoyed a cup of coffee with the Impact World Championship. Rey Mysterio had a brief LU run, and I think he’s still doing OK. Alberto del Rio left WWE, appeared briefly with LU and was swiftly re-signed by WWE, only for things to fall apart in short order. If any of the allegations since made against him are true, good riddance.
Some might argue that LU has a current spiritual successor. In October, 2020 Major League Wrestling introduced the Azteca Underground stable; an unsanctioned offshoot of the original promotion. Azteca Underground is ‘led’ by the actor who played LU’s Dario Cueto and now goes by Cesar Duran and featured several former LU wrestlers including the King “Mil” Muertes, Jeff “Matanza Cueto” Cobb, and Swerve “Killshot” Strickland. The concept would lead to a pay per view in 2022 and various attempts to introduce a hybrid lucha themed promotion, but so far nothing more concrete has emerged.
I’m admittedly wary of promotional reboots. They’re great as one-off events (like WWE’s first ECW One Night Stand pay per view), but the challenge of recreating the magic that happens organically between bookers, performers and audience over time and across different platforms or corporate parents can just ruin a good thing (WWE’s weekly ECW show, which eventually turned into NXT, which has had its own share of trouble finding and maintaining a tone that pleases grown up fans). WWE’s abortive relaunch of WCW did that brand no favors-and WCW had eroded most of its audience’s goodwill well before Shane-o-Mac appeared on the last Monday Nitro.
David McLane has tried repeatedly to get Women of Wrestling (WOW) off the ground. He founded WOW in 2000 and after several false starts reanimated it in 2014 on-line. WOW would find a new weekly home on AXS TV (currently home to Impact Wrestling) in 2019, and in 2021 Paramount Global reached a distribution agreement for syndication on 160 CBS and CW affiliates in the US owned by Viacom or Sinclair Broadcast Group (Ring of Honor’s former owners). WOW has yet to find a solid audience. It felt dated in terms of match quality and character work back when wrestling was hot in the 1990s. This may be understandable. Before WOW, McLane promoted the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW) promotion, which was cheesy even by the standards of the day. It’s what he knows. McLane’s attempt to foist the same product on an audience 30 years later may impress money mark and “executive producer” Jeanie Buss, but it hasn’t put behinds in seats (it also didn’t impress KISS frontman Gene Simmons).
The late Howard Brody remounted his Ring Warriors promotion for a pay-to-play run on WGN in 2018. The promotion got its start in the early 1990s when Brody teamed with Florida wrestling stalwart Hiro Matsuda in an attempt to adapt New Japan’s TV for American audiences. That was the first Ring Warriors, and it actually sold internationally. The original Ring Warriors ran its course after 26 episodes and Matsuda’s death. Brody would carry on, but without Matsuda’s insider savvy his efforts rarely went far. Ring Warriors would become the first television show broadcast on the internet in 1997, when six episodes of a reconstituted version aired. Brody would try again in 2011, when a third version was founded as a member of the National Wrestling Alliance. Following a restructuring Ring Warriors would tape another set of shows in 2015 but would close by the next year. Most recently we saw the 2019 revival. It was even more hopeful, coming at a time when new promotions seemed to be popping up by the week, and before the market started consolidating. This version would cease operations by the end of 2018. I have to admit, although he could be confrontational in person and on social media I always hoped Howard would succeed-he struck me as someone who loved pro wrestling way more than it loved him.
I’ve written before about the NWA’s many incarnations, and how it went from its earliest incarnation as an anti-competitive juggernaut in the world of staged fighting to a single promotion helmed by Billy Corgan. I admire Corgan’s dedication and his desire to preserve some elements of the pro wrestling we grew up on, but trading the likes of Lou Thesz, Harley Race or Ric Flair for Tyrus says more about the current NWA’s place in pro wrestling’s hierarchy than it’s rich, if controversial history. The NWA was founded in 1948, although it claims a championship lineage going back to the 1900s. Until the 1960s it was THE governing body for most pro wrestling and retained its influence until the 1980s, when the breakaway WWF started running wild. The original NWA unofficially died in 1993, when the former Jim Crockett Promotions (renamed World Championship Wrestling under Ted Turner’s ownership) seceded. It continued with a much lower profile, with its’ titles bouncing between independent performers until the Jarretts swooped in with TNA in 2002. That arrangement would last until 2007, when the NWA would retreat to the indie scene once again. With only it’s history to its name, the NWA switched its business model to one based on licensing rather than memberships in 2012, before changing course again in 2017 and becoming the single promotion we know and…know today.
So when I call for a LU reboot I’m aware of the risks involved. It’s just that past a point I don’t care. I loved LU in its original incarnation and would hope that whoever catches on to its intellectual property capitalizes on what I felt worked about the promotion: an acrobatic and athletic ring style; a mix of familiar stars from bigger promotions who could still go, and new, exciting talents I’d never seen; an intimate venue with passionate fans to engage me and make me feel ‘in the know’; a clever approach to breaking many of American pro wrestling’s rules and a disregard for tropes; a commitment to gonzo storytelling that hews to its internal logic, no matter how bizarre from an outsider’s perspective; commentators with actual wrestling knowledge who call the match in front of them rather than spewing infomercial copy.
I get that part of what made LU special may have been its’ short run. At four years and 127 episodes, LU ended right around the time that most mainstream television shows get stale. Perhaps LU told all the stories that it needed to tell, and if it were still around I’d find it as repetitive and predictable as RAW or SmackDown can be.
But if someone were willing to take that chance; to invest in contracts for original performers as they come up, and the multitude of stars since who have incorporated lucha libre into their performances (a group as varied as Mustafa Ali, Malakai Black, Chris Bey and Ace Austin, to name a few), forge new relationships with international promotions (using the LWO as a model, how great would a border-free version of LU be?) and capitalize on the insanity and intimacy of the original, I’d definitely tune in.
Freddie Prinze, Jr. the ball is in your court (and I don’t mean Bauer).