Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Whither Lucha Underground

Big Ryck and Johnny Mundo are two of LU's biggest success stories
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Lucha Underground's first season is winding to a close into the two-hour season finale extravaganza, Ultima Lucha. The buzz around the show is palpable and rightfully so. If the regular television episodes could produce such memorable matches such as Aztec Warfare, GRAVE CONSEQUENCES, the Trios Championship Tournament Finals, and the hour-long Ironman match between Johnny Mundo and Prince Puma, then it should follow that the supershow ought to blow all of that away. Additionally, trademarks have been filed for several names and match types going forward. Even though no official announcement has been made for a second season, the trademarks plus the fact that its return is listed on the Univision website as a placeholder shows great promise for the future of the edgy, American arm of Asistencia Asesoría y Administración.

But the nagging feeling that Ultima Lucha could be a series finale still lingers in the air. The lack of an official announcement is worrisome, but coupled with the office telling wrestlers that they can and probably should seek other bookings is downright frightening. The show's survival may hinge on getting wider Spanish-language distribution, and if it can't make the jump from Unimas to Univision, then it could spell doom for its finances, regardless of how well or poorly it's doing on the English-language El Rey Network.

Speculating about the future of the company seems like an exercise in creating anxiety reflux at this point. However, whether or not the arm comes back, it's fair to reflect on how much of an impact the show has had on the wrestling landscape. Even if it only does last for one season, it will and most definitely should be remembered as at least one of the most artistically successful promotions ever. It will take years to gauge how much influence it really had, but at least in the short term, it made a ton of waves.

Most importantly, it showed that a wrestling show could be more entertainment than sport and still be a viable program that keeps within the spirit of the grand art. While even WWE, let alone companies like Ring of Honor, strains to create a sporting atmosphere, Lucha Underground does not even attempt to hide its fantastical, almost science fiction-like atmosphere. Even the backstage segments play as different than in other companies, in that they truly are shot like they are not supposed to be seen by the audience. It's a total reversal of expectation and shooting than what is found in companies like WWE and TNA. And those more "realistic" companies would never think of presenting a wrestler as if he were a real dragon. In fact, the only other American company that has even thought of doing that has been Chikara.

Speaking of that aforementioned wrestler, guys like Drago now have new arenas opened up to them thanks to being featured on American television. Last year, few American indies would have even thought to book a guy like Drago or his peers like Aerostar, Pentagón, Jr., Fenix, or Angelico. Now, they're getting bookings in Chikara, All-American Wrestling, and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. Even Jack Evans' American resurgence can be partially credited to his appearance on the show. Regardless of what anyone might think, this infusion of new, fresh, different talent is a godsend for an indie scene that right now is being pillaged by WWE and NXT. Without LU, this influx doesn't happen.

And that doesn't even begin to cover how LU has either rehabbed some ex-WWE wrestlers or given indie guys a bigger stage to shine. Prince Puma, better known as Ricochet without his mask on, has been given a godfather platform as the ace and focus of the promotion. He already came in with the hype and the talent resume a mile long, but his underexposure in America has been criminal. Thanks to LU, he's gotten a bigger stage.

Still, he's not the biggest success story. John Morrison/Hennigan, Ezekiel Jackson, and Maxine left WWE as damaged goods. They reappeared in LU revitalized and in a way, vastly improved. As Johnny Mundo, Hennigan has not only found a niche that appreciated his oeuvre and talents, but he found a place where he could be more comfortable doing his thing in the ring. The difference between the solo run he had in WWE after his tag team with The Miz broke up and his work in LU to date has been night and day. Jackson, as Big Ryck, has found a place where his biggest strengths, i.e. working as a canvas for smaller wrestlers to bounce off and bump from, are cultivated rather than hidden. Plus, he was given a whole new look and a character, which is more than anyone can say for his WWE run. The result was that hey, maybe that dude does have worth. And even though Maxine didn't come to LU to be a wrestler, as Catrina, she is one of the most compelling characters and story movers not only on the show but in all of wrestling.

The other apparent impacts that LU has had on the scene are numerous. It provides a palatable entry into the world of lucha libre, an art that was misinterpreted (albeit to entertaining and visually pleasing results) by World Championship Wrestling and still may not be understood fully without watching. It was the best representation of an episodic, seasonal wrestling show, better than Wrestling Society X and actually tangible unlike Wrestling Retribution Project (WHERE'S THE PRODUCT, JEFF KATZ?). It has helped make Wednesday nights the new mecca for wrestling. It has brought women to the mainstream and ostensibly normalized intergender wrestling as something that maybe should just be viewed as wrestling and not as something with a bunch of qualifiers.

Even if Ultima Lucha is the last gasp for the series, Lucha Underground is absolutely better for having existed than not. Even if it doesn't get renewed, it will have been better for having even that one season than not having been aired at all. Its impact will be felt for years to come, and in the short term, it will provide binge watching material (provided it gets uploaded to something like Netflix, which it absolutely should). Of course, I hope beyond hope that this concept lasts for as long as professional wrestling is a thing in America. But even if it isn't, it would have been well worth the time it has taken to watch, experience, and enjoy.