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When Lucha Underground was first announced as a project, it sounded like a promotion that had some promise and a lot of question marks. A new promotion with a TV deal in the United States is always going to get some buzz, and it was going to offer something different in its brand of wrestling. But it was also being produced by an unknown quantity and while good lucha libre can be entertaining, bad lucha libre (see Triplemania 23) can be god awful.
A couple episodes into Lucha Underground, it was apparent that the promotion was going to be different. The differences in Lucha Underground and every other promotion on television is evident from the very first time you watch it, and that is the top selling point for the company. Before we get into what has actually made Lucha Underground successful, it should be pointed out how remarkable it is that Lucha Underground has been able to form their own identity in such a brief period of time.
Take for example another company that has recently launched, Global Force Wrestling. Despite a lot of hype about GFW being an alternative product and being a game changer in the wrestling industry, GFW has so far proved to be nothing but a cheap imitation of Jeff Jarrett's former promotion, TNA. In an industry where every booker and creative director seems to get second, third, fourth and fifth chances, that result is very common. GFW hasn't offered anything new or interesting to the American wrestling landscape, they are just another outlet for more of the same. Lucha Underground HAS managed to add something fresh and invigorating to American wrestling. While all companies talk a big game and hype being an "alternative" to the mainstream, very few actually deliver on that promise.
Fortunately for Lucha Underground, they have received the backing of heavy hitters in the television industry, a rarity for a professional wrestling program. In addition to El Rey Network founder Robert Rodriguez, the executive producer for Lucha Underground is Mark Burnett, whose executive producing credits include such reality hits as Survivor, The Apprentice and The Voice. El Rey Netowrk as a whole has the financial backing of cable giant Comcast, who has a vested interested in seeing the network succeed. Because of that Lucha Underground has production values that rival those of WWE's and they present their product in a unique way.
The setting for Lucha Underground, "The Temple", is a big part of the distinctiveness that makes Lucha Underground so much fun. Between a hardcore audience, a live band that plays all the entrance music, and a unique building area that has daredevils like Prince Puma and Angelico bouncing all over the arena. The six man ladder match at Lucha Underground: Shoots and Ladders, was probably the best example of this.
Lucha Underground has also done a very good job integrating simple, yet effective storylines. The creative directors for the company seem to understand that they don't need to reinvent the wheel to have an interesting product. All you really need to do is to come up with a few decent ideas and if you stay consistent with your storyline and character development, the in-ring action will take care of the rest. I particularly liked the booking of Mil Muertes, whose dominance and eventual rise to Lucha Underground champion felt very organic. The shows storylines have been aided by the brilliant acting performance of Luis Fernandez-Gil and his Dario Cueto character, a character that answers the question "What would it be like if Michael Corleone ran his own wrestling promotion?"
Another key move that has propelled Lucha Underground to success is it's amassing of quality talent. Lucha Underground has keenly put together a very deep roster consisting of three types of talent: Former WWE Stars, Independent Wrestlers and Lucha Libre Stars. The last two need the first group to add some legitimacy to the product and the first group needs the last two to keep the product fresh. Lucha Underground has done a good job bringing in WWE talent that fans felt like never really got a fair chance at success in the company, particularly Johnny Mundo/John Morrison. Then there are the Lucha Libre stars who may be very popular in Mexico, but are relatively unknown in the United States. Getting the Mexican stars over with the American audience is a big step forward for the industry, Triplemania 23 probably doesn't get broadcasted in English if it wasn't for Lucha Underground.
Lastly, there are the independent wrestlers, who have proven to be huge assets to the company. Before Lucha Underground aired its first show they made the decision to build the company around Prince Puma (known outside of Lucha Underground as Ricochet), a tremendous performer who has somehow avoided being signed by WWE. The only question mark with Puma was his mic skills, and by giving him a gimmick and aligning him with Konnan they were able to clear that hurdle and let his in-ring ability speak for itself. Puma is billed as the descendent of real Aztec warriors, and while I doubt the Aztec's ever made it to Paducah, it has given Puma a good connection with the heavily Latin-American audience. In the ring, Puma has delivered as well as anybody else in the world, engaging in very good matches with Muertes, Mundo, Drago and Fenix. Other independent wrestlers such as Brian Cage, Willie Mack and Jack Evans have also had a solid impact in the company.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Lucha Underground, the one that might launch it into the next tier and cease becoming just an alternative and more of direct competition, is its obvious commitment to serving the Latin-American audience. The growing Latino audience is a demographic that every business in America is trying to target and wrestling is no different. Unfortunately, WWE hasn't really done a good job of representing Latino's in their company, mainly restricting them as "undersized superheroes aka Rey Mysterio" or reducing them to generic ethnic heroes. Lucha Underground on the other hand, has a majority Latino roster and represents Latino's in a confident and respectable manner. Lucha Underground will probably never steal enough general fans from WWE to make them worry, but they can greatly affect their Latino demographic, which could give them some concern.
The future of Lucha Underground is currently up in the air, with El Rey executives expressing interest in filming a second season and fans clamoring for more but no formal announcement yet. In a way, that might actually help Lucha Underground. Wrestling fans are conditioned to watching new programming every single week, unlike pretty much any other form of programming, there is no off-season. Because of that, characters have a reduced shelf life and fans demand constant changes in order to hold their attention and keep them tuned in. By having a more traditional television season, Lucha Underground is creating more anticipation for their premiere while also giving fans a break, which will inherently give their characters and storylines a much needed break. Even so, wrestling fans don't want Lucha Underground to be gone for too long, because they deserve a well-funded, well executed alternative to the main stream that Lucha Underground has proven to be.
You can follow Jesse Collings on Twitter@JesseCollings