If you've heard of Robert Rodriguez's fledgling El Rey Network, it's probably in the context of their two original series that have gained attention over the last year, From Dusk Til Dawn and Matador. Their newest offering, Lucha Underground, premieres Wednesday, October 29. This series—an attempt to bring lucha libre (a high-flying style of Mexican professional wrestling known for masked wrestlers) to the United States—illustrates the conflicting forces and challenges that'll determine the long-term success of the nearly year-old network. The goal of Lucha Underground, and El Rey, is to court America's growing young, male Latino audience, one that still lacks representation on television. That much is clear. What isn't clear is exactly how it will succeed in accomplishing that. Lucha Underground, led by reality TV titan Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Voice), is carefully designed to pummel its target Latino audience into submission.
The problem is that, in carefully aiming every facet of the show at the target demo, there's the sense that Lucha Underground may be spreading itself too thin. By trying to hit the Latino audience from all angles, the show doesn't establish a clear identity. There are two ways of adapting lucha libre for Americans, and Lucha Underground tries to juggle them both. One approach is transplanting lucha libre onto American television without changing much of the source material, with the hope that Mexican ex-pats and their relatives tune in for an authentic taste of home. The other strategy is Americanizing the program, creating a sort of Mexican fusion wrestling, and hoping the audience is interested in the wrestling equivalent of Chipotle. Lucha Underground has imported stars, traditions, and themes from Mexican professional wrestling to pass the authenticity test with Mexican-American fans. Legends of Mexican wrestling, Chavo Guerrero Jr. and Konnan, were brought in to lend to project credibility with Latino audiences.
Guerrero is part of a storied wrestling family that's successful in both the Mexican and American ends of the business. He speaks with the charm and clarity of a practiced politician—his careful responses are exactly the kind you would expect from the scion of the first family of Mexican wrestling. "The demographic of the United States is getting more and more Latino," he says, regarding El Rey's potential with Latino audiences. "There's nothing for us Latino Americans, the Hispanics. This network reflects the demographic of the nation... It's catering to the majority."
Konnan is a legendary wrestler and trainer who's been called the Hulk Hogan of lucha libre. "I broke in hard," he says. He's wrestled professionally since the 90s, including runs in WCW, WWF, TNA, and ECW. "I'm old school. I don't want to be the grizzled bitter veteran, but I guarantee you that 80 percent of the guys couldn't handle [the industry] back then." And he isn't worried about Lucha's bigger and much more popular competitors. "WWE and the others, they don't specialize in and lucha. They've brought wrestlers who've wrestled in Mexico, or know the lucha style, and they've incorporated it into WWE style. It's kind of diluted. This is pretty raw lucha libre straight from Mexico, as it should be."
As much as these wrestlers say that Lucha Underground isn't going to be like the WWE, a look at the rest of the roster tells a different story. The current stars of Lucha Underground are Prince Puma—a young, exciting wrestler known as Ricochet on the Japanese circuit—and Johnny Mundo, who American wrestling fans will remember as Johnny Nitro. These two stars make Lucha Underground look like minor league WWE. Mundo is a former big league stalwart a few years past his prime. Puma is the up-and-comer you suspect could get plucked by the WWE if things fall his way. Mundo is seasoned, and it shows when I ask him how much lucha libre style differs from his days in WWE. "American pro wrestling has a certain style to it, Japanese has a certain style to it, lucha libre has a style all its own," he explains. "European wrestling's got a style to it to now, specifically the style of wrestling William Regal learned growing up. In Blackpool England and Newscastle, that's a different style too."
But to him, moving from the WWE to lucha libre didn't cause him to make any big changes. "I'm the token white guy. I'm me. I've been a pro wrestler for the last 12 years. I'll be a pro wrestler until I can't do it anymore."
Staying loyal to Mexican traditions while appealing to American audiences is also reflected in the women of Lucha Underground. The two featured female performers are Catrina and Sexy Star. Catrina is a former WWE Diva (she worked under the name Maxine), who fills the traditional American diva role of looking attractive ringside while exhibiting a fine taste in push-up bras. Sexy Star is a seasoned Mexican wrestler who's trained in kickboxing and Muay Thai, who's wrestled men and women for years in the AAA (Asistencia Asesoría y Administración).
I thought that watching a few matches might clear up the muddled vision I had of the show. Instead, the two dueling missions of the show continued to be at odds. Konnan promised "quicker, more high-flying, more exciting matches" in Lucha Underground. He wasn't wrong. High-flying masked wrestlers were the centerpiece of the show. Fenix, Puma, and Mundo, offered up the aerial somersaults and flying scissors rarely seen in American wrestling programming outside of Rey Mysterio, Jr.
Yet, there were moments that felt cribbed straight from the WWE playbook, mixed with lucha action. There was a ladder match culminating in having to grab a briefcase suspended above the ring, previously seen in the WWE. There was a battle royale with rules similar to Royal Rumble. There was the removing of turnbuckles and cheap shots that happened behind the ref's back. Lording over it all was the fictional manager of Lucha Underground, Dario Cueto, clearly styled as a telenovelified Vince McMahon, down to his slicked back hair and bravado-spewing cadence. His role on the show is to put the heroes through a gauntlet by wielding his wealth and influence with reckless abandon. It was hard not to see the presence of McMahon and Ted DiBiase in Cueto's greedy CEO.
There are some uncomfortable stereotypes that punctuated the show that further complicated the show's vision. Big Ryck is the largest wrestler on Lucha Underground, and also the only black wrestler on the roster. He is presented as Cueto's henchman, and generally only lasts a few minutes on his feet before a group of luchadores (some Latino, some white) beat him to a pulp. The woman who accompanied El Mariachi Loco to the ring is a parody of a white American woman: the blonde-wigged valet is whiny, weak, and duplicitous, compared to the strong Latinas Catrina and Sexy Star. After Dario Cueto was knocked out by Johnny Mundo, a homophobic gag where a referee reluctantly performed CPR on Cueto served as the comic tag to the evening. Broad stereotypes aren't remarkable for pro wrestling. If you were a fan of 90s WWF, you probably remember Yokozuna (a sumo wrestler), Tatanka (a Native American), and Kamala (an African tribal caricature).
What is remarkable is that these offensive bits function as another part of Lucha Underground's odd multi-pronged attack on Latino audiences, an attempt at appealing to perceived Latino biases. Yet, the way these stereotypes are employed feels like yet another page ripped from the WWE's playbook. It's hard to imagine Lucha Underground becoming a smashing success as it is now. It's hard to imagine that anyone who comes for From Dusk Til Dawn is staying for Lucha Underground, and it's equally hard to imagine that Lucha Underground will catch on with big-time wrestling fans. It wasn't so long ago that ECW grabbed a good chunk of the WWE audience. But, ECW understood that hardcore wrestling fans wanted something edgier, tougher, and more dangerous than WWE. They had a clear, focused vision.
Wrestling journalists I spoke to at the event complained that the non-lucha libre wrestlers couldn't keep up with the acrobatics of the Mexican stars and that many of the Mexican imports lacked the showmanship of a seasoned American grappler. They felt on a technical level what I felt on a creative level. Lucha Underground is trying to do a little bit of everything, and as such, it's hard to tell exactly what Lucha Underground wants to be.
Brenden Gallagher is a contributing writer. He tweets here.