There was a lot of mystery surrounding the debut of Lucha Underground, which is (kinda sorta) the long awaited AAA U.S. television expansion that we’ve been hearing about since (no lie) 1994.
As opposed to dozens of other failed wrestling projects that have sprung up over the years, the involvement of Mark Burnett, one of televisions heaviest hitters, guaranteed that the project would be treated as serious business (Although by no means guaranteed a hit, as even super producer Burnett has a pretty hearty list of failures on his resume. Does anybody remember Combat Missions or My Dad is Better Than Your Dad?). On the flip side, the involvement of Burnett was also a cause for concern, with fears that the project would drift too far from wrestling and resemble something closer to a reality show. A preview video released a week before the debut produced plenty of eye rolls, due to being centered around the ol’ heel authority figure, which is the most tired, overdone modern wrestling trope this side of backstage segments with dopey wrestlers somehow not aware of the ubiquitous camera.
Heel authority figure aside (an evil rich guy who goes by the name “Dario Cueto”), the presentation ended up being a pleasant surprise, at least from the perspective of being a well produced and very unique looking production. The cinematic movie style cutaways featuring Cueto walk the line of being hokey, but never cross it. What helps tremendously, is that they hired a professional actor to portray Cueto, and he comes off far more polished than your run of the mill wrestling lifer mixing recited lines that somebody else wrote with wacky over-the-top wrestling promo delivery. The cut scenes introducing the wrestlers were arguably the highlight of the show, and did a great job getting over who the wrestlers are and where their motivations lie.
The in ring action, for obvious reasons, is drawing comparisons to Wrestling Society X. The only similarity is the overall look of the venue and the planted fans. If I were starting up a wrestling promotion and shooting a television show, I would use the same strategy. While not ideal, a small sound studio or warehouse filled with “fans” comes off much better on television than a low rent, badly light, half full local armory or high school school gym with the dreaded visible basketball hoops. This show already looks more major league than ROH, even without the big budget cut scenes. As far as the matches themselves, WSX was essentially an edited down collection of flashy highspots crammed into 30 hyper short attention spanned MTV minutes. The LU matches here were edited at points, but totally came off as fully fleshed out bouts. WSX was a parody of wrestling aimed to catch the attention of Mountain Dew chugging, weed smoking, “I’m taking a year off before I go to college” types who were leaving their TV’s tuned to MTV whether Room Raiders or Wrestle Society X or whatever spinoff of Jackass was on the screen (which was the correct tact to take for an MTV show in that era, fwiw). Lucha Underground is at attempt at an actual wrestling show geared towards attracting wrestling fans. The comparisons between the two should stop at the dingy fight club atmosphere.
Through one episode, I’m already prepared to call the commentary the best in the business. Admittedly, this is a very low bar to clear, as wrestling commentary has never been worse than it is right now. The WWE teams are over produced and taught to “tell stories”, and the flagship show features the two worst commentators in wrestling history, JBL and Jerry Lawler. In TNA, Mike Tenay stopped caring many years ago, and Taz is a check collector. ROH commentary is dry as sand. The newly motivated Matt Striker, who was flat out awesome in his early WWE days before he had the confidence beaten out of him, was tremendous here. Combined with his brief analyst work earlier this year in Championship Wrestling from Hollywood, he is easily my pick for best television commentator in 2014. Striker comes off as a guy who clearly loves wrestling, and did shockingly well as a play-by-play man, which is an entirely different beast than analyst. Calling moves comes off as such a refreshing change of pace in this era, and Striker’s delivery is smooth and balanced, getting excited at the right times and never screaming at the viewer or pounding home overdone narratives. Vampiro wasn’t nearly as good as Striker, but he wasn’t offensive either and he was roughly a thousand times better here than he was calling TripleMania (which he openly admitted/complained that he wasn’t properly prepared for). I liked how even though he isn’t doing a heel shtick, Vampiro still called out Konnan, a babyface, and questioned whether he could be trusted. I try to stay away from spoilers, so he may have been planting seeds for an angle, but either way this was refreshing, because I hate cookie cutter tropes and prefer my wrestling personalities to behave like real people, as opposed to taking good guy/bad guy sides like programmed robots.
The show was an easy watch, and it left me looking forward to next week. The lack of HD is frustrating, but to be fair it was shot that way, and the issue here is El Rey not being available in HD on most cable/sat systems (I was watching on DirecTV). Word on the street (or in this case, word pounded home by nearly every person involved who has spoken publicly) is that this was actually the weakest episode of the lot, which is very encouraging, because the pilot wasn’t bad at all. There was some criticism being tossed around that there wasn’t enough authentic lucha talent for a lucha based show (Blue Demon Jr and Sexy Star were the only two “true” luchadores on this episode), but that seems to have been taken care of at future taping with more AAA talent being added to the mix.
Blue Demon Jr vs Chavo Guerrero Jr – There was legitimate fear based on reports from the tapings that the promotion would be built around Chavo, who is a complete charisma void. That fear seems to have been quelled, but I guess we’ll see. Blue Demon Jr wouldn’t be any lucha connoisseurs choice for the veteran traditional luchadore role, but he was fine here. The weird overhead camera shots probably need to go, but they appear to be using that angle for ring introductions on the Spanish language version on the show (to hide the fact that the ring announcer isn’t speaking Spanish), so since that camera likely isn’t going anywhere, they’ll probably keep using action shots from it. It’s not a huge distraction, but I don’t like it. Blue Demon Jr won this, and Chavo to his credit did a really good job of selling the idea that the loss was devastating. This was a perfectly acceptable television match. **1/2
Sexy Star vs Son of Havok – Sexy Star received the cinematic promo video treatment, and she came off as a much bigger deal because of it. Really well done. Son of Havok is indie veteran Matt Capiccioni, aka Matt Cross/M-Dogg 20, a super talented guy who both WWE and TNA missed the boat on (you may recall “Matt” being an early elimination on the Steve Austin season of WWE Tough Enough, in a gut wrenching scene where he pleaded with Austin that he could show him things he’d never seen before). SoH cut a promo saying he wasn’t going to wrestle a woman, and had a weird overdubbed Nailz like voice, which came off pretty cringy. The fake voice that is, not the misogyny angle.
The story here will obviously be Sexy Star eventually vanquishing the male chauvinist pig and proving that the ladies can go to to toe with the men, so the promo and the match result (SoH won) were fine. I personally can do without the intergender matches and angles (and the future minis vs men & minis vs women stuff planned on later episodes), but that’s a topic for another article. I would much rather see SoH wrestle other men, and Sexy Star wrestle other women, as the “women can hang with the men!” narrative is not something i’m into at all as a storyline here or in wrestling in general. Anyway, don’t let the star rating fool you. The match itself was fine for what it was trying to accomplish, and the work was fine, but it was too short (about 90 seconds) to really get going or be anything other than mediocre. *3/4
Johnny Mundo vs Prince Puma – Mundo is the former John Morrison, who is doing the exact same routine and even calling himself “The Wednesday Night Delight”. Striker said this was his return to the ring after three years, which isn’t true at all. Mudo has been wrestling all over the world since his late 2011 WWE release. Puma, of course, is Ricochet, the hottest wrestler on the indie scene, a star in two different promotions in Japan, and a legitimate Wrestler of the Year candidate. He’s being pushed as the protege of Konnan, with the gimmick of being a descendant of Aztec warriors. In his promo video, Konnan proudly declared that “Puma’s spirit animal, is you guessed it, the jaguar!”. I would have guessed “puma”, but ok. He’s being positioned as the star of the promotion.
This was one hell of a match, and while not at the MOTY level or anything, it would probably qualify as the best match on most of this years RAW’s, just about any Impact, and half of this years ROH on Sinclair offerings. Mundo, who I always felt was underrated and is perfect for this promotion with his smooth, creative, and innovative flying & springboard moves, had great chemistry with Puma, who continued his great year across roughly a half dozen promotions. Puma did more flying here than he has recently in other places, and even worked in some traditional lucha spots, which he obviously should do because of the gimmick and promotion. Mundo picked up the win, which was the correct result, as he is being pushed as a veteran threat (they aren’t pretending he isn’t who he is), while Puma is being portrayed as a rookie prodigy (he’s being pushed as a newcomer, as no mention is being made of who is under the mask or his history).
I suspect Puma beating Mundo at some point will be pushed as his big “arrival” moment, but this loss did nothing to hurt him at all, thanks to the commentary team putting him over so strong, and looking so great in the match. A show long angle featured Cueto promising $100,000 to the best fighter on the show (I love that he refers to the wrestlers as fighters). Cueto swerved Mundo, and a gang that included Cotez Castro (Ricky Reyes) & Big Ryck (Rycklon Stephens, aka the former WWE Intercontinental champion you always forget ever held the title, Ezekial Jackson) laid out the two faces as Cueto gave Big Ryck the money to close out the show. Lucha Underground released the match, which you can watch below, but there is also an unedited version floating around that is said to be better than what actually aired. ***3/4