Nov 3, 2014 3:38 PM
Mexican wrestling, reimagined, comes to weekly TV
The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (AP) It was a meltingly hot October day outside the East Los Angeles warehouse converted to a wrestling ring. Inside, things were about to get equally torrid.
In match after match, as about 400 fans cheered and whooped, heavily muscled men executed high-flying leaps to slam their opponents to the floor. Some wore fearsome disguises to conceal their identities. In one match, the male wrestlers competed shockingly! with a woman.
But this was far from a neighborhood event done on the fly. It was a taping of the ambitious 39-episode TV series "Lucha Underground," a reimagined version of Mexico's grand tradition of lucha libre wrestling that's airing on filmmaker Robert Rodriguez's El Rey network (8 p.m. EST Wednesday).
Lucha fans on hand that day knew to expect the fast-paced, aerial action and florid drama that the sport with often-masked competitors delivers. They also applauded a group contest featuring a guy decked out in a pink leotard and a bouffant of red curls and a little person competing against far bigger rivals, part of lucha libre's comedic edge.
All this in the raw, unfinished interior of a vast warehouse converted to a studio, its walls covered with atmospheric graffiti and bold paintings of ancient icons of Mexico's pre-Colombian Aztec and other cultures a Rodriguez film come to life, as one wrestler happily observed.
Rodriguez, whose movies include the gritty "Sin City" and "From Dusk Till Dawn" as well as the charming "Spy Kids," sounds almost like a delighted kid himself when he talks about "Lucha Underground."
"For fans of lucha from Mexico, we're adding to it, making it even more mythical and exciting than it's ever been presented before," he said in a phone call from his Austin, Texas, offices. "And for new fans it will feel like a new thing as well."
The series combines wrestling matches, slices of backstage conflict and a story arc (about a plot to destroy the pre-eminent lucha libre franchise in Mexico) that connects the action, with pro wrestlers plucked from North America and Mexico as its stars.
The series' home, El Rey, is a hybrid itself. Rodriguez founded the fledgling network to address the lack of English-language programming with a Latino sensibility, but it's aimed at a general audience with young men and what Rodriguez has called "kick-ass females" especially welcome.
The luchadores of "Lucha Underground" include Blue Demon Jr., Fenix and female wrestler Sexy Star from Mexico's Lucha Libre AAA franchise, as well as American wrestlers such as John Hennigan, whose U.S. ring names include Johnny Nitro but on the show is billed as Johnny Mundo.
Chavo Guerrero Jr., with family roots in Mexican wrestling stretching back to his famed grandfather, Gory Guerrero, said he wouldn't have joined the production if it didn't honor the artistry, athleticism and entertainment of the Lucha tradition.
"We're creating something different and new for wrestling fans and non-wrestling" viewers, and both get their money's worth, said Guerrero, who deems that a Lucha obligation.
"Other (wrestling) organizations, the TV shows propel their live events," with the emphasis on the box-office receipts for the next match, he said. "This is a TV show, propelling our next episode and next episode after that. It's a different concept."
For "Lucha Underground," Rodriguez joined with what seems at first glance an unlikely partner: producer Mark Burnett of "Survivor," ''The Voice" and "The Bible" fame.
The TV veteran "brought a lot of enthusiasm to it," Rodriguez said. "Viewers get a real action-packed ride and really classy production so it looks as big as the sport should be."
But Burnett is also looking beyond the TV screen and an East LA warehouse to stadiums and a U.S. Lucha league.
"This is to build a sport, a bona fide sport, within America," he told reporters early this year. "And this is a long term big play for us, with Lucha Libre AAA in Mexico, our partners."
Lucha libre has struggled to get a broader U.S. foothold, to the dismay of fan Chris Goldrup. The 43-year-old wrestling devotee discovered it when he moved from Maine to Los Angeles in the mid-1990s.
"There's a different rhythm to it; the masks, the way the wrestling is staged versus the North American style. It's incredibly interesting," said Goldrup, as he waited patiently in line for a "Lucha Underground" taping.
But he's failed to get his buddies who already follow wrestling to recognize its appeal. Does he think the TV show can be a game-changer?
"I just don't see it, but I would love for it to catch on. I've got my fingers crossed," Goldrup said.
Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lynnelber .