Can Lucha Underground Make Mexican Wrestling a Crossover Hit?
It's 90 degrees in Huntington Park and Hulk Hogan is on the radio. Here in my air-conditioned car parked outside the Wrestling Guy Store, the Hulkster is cutting a promo for something called Loan Mart, the ad presumably recorded before he was awarded $115 million in his headline-grabbing lawsuit against Gawker. A speaker near the door of the modest shop lures in potential customers with the siren song of wrestlers' themes — the Undertaker's gong resonates throughout the parking lot, followed by a looping guitar riff signaling the ascendant Irish fighter Finn Bálor. This Southeast L.A. store seems the ideal arena to meet two professional wrestlers, neither of whom was recently the recipient of a Hulkmania-sized cash settlement.
Johnny Mundo and Taya both perform on the TV show Lucha Underground, whose third season begins Sept. 7 on Robert Rodriguez's El Rey Network. The scrappy upstart is filmed at a warehouse in nearby Boyle Heights.
Lucha Underground's executive producer and showrunner, Eric Van Wagenen, shows up to the Wrestling Guy Store before Mundo (real name John Hennigan) and Taya (Kira Forster) to offer behind-the-scenes insights on the show's philosophy — and, as it turns out, a Boyle Heights history lesson. Van Wagenen tells me that the L.A. County coroner is in the same neighborhood as their warehouse. "If you die in the city of Los Angeles," he explains, "there's a good chance your earthly remains will pass through Boyle Heights on your way to parts unknown."
East L.A. seemed like a natural fit for the show, and the Temple, as the warehouse is known in the show, melds mythology and pulp. Lucha Underground's connection runs deep with its host city, Van Wagenen says, reminding us that L.A.'s Spanish and Mexican roots still burgeon here today. "L.A. has become a character in the story," he says, "especially in the mythology that the show is rooted in, in that this particular piece of America was once part of the Aztec empire." Of course, L.A. wasn't ever Aztec, but Lucha Underground just runs with it, conjuring up the mythos that was popular during the early Chicano movement.
But reality has never mattered much in pro wrestling — it's all part of kayfabe, the narrative plotlines, rivalries and tensions that make lucha libre (masked Mexican wrestling) akin to an over-the-top telenovela. Lucha Underground's storyline falls right in line with any plot of Robert Rodriguez's outlandish films. The show purports to be the brainchild of Dario Cueto (Luis Fernandez-Gil), a wealthy, violence-obsessed entrepreneur who runs an off-the-books fighting ring to satisfy his own bloodlust; performers compete over medallions of Aztec gold in order to secure championship bouts.
Gritty and even working-class in its aesthetic, the Temple resembles the kind of place where Jean-Claude Van Damme would end up having a climactic showdown with an '80s baddie. Much of the action takes place not in the ring but in backstage vignettes overseen by Skip Chaisson, a revered figure in the world of movie trailers. These sequences run the gamut from typical scheming to unlucky underlings literally having their hearts ripped out of their chest.
Lucha libre's origins extend as far back as 1863, though it didn't gain national prominence until the Empresa Mexicana de Lucha Libre (Mexican Wrestling Enterprise) was founded in the 1930s. El Santo, a folk hero who transcended the squared circle and became a movie star in the '50s, is lucha libre's Muhammad Ali, its Michael Jordan — except his adoring fans saw his face only once, when he unmasked a week before his death from a heart attack. (He was even buried in his famous all-silver mask.) Many of today's luchadores, including several in Lucha Underground, follow in his footsteps by never revealing their faces or true identities; in general, the rules of kayfabe are honored and revered beyond what most American viewers might be familiar with.
Vampiro (Ian Hodgkinson), one half of Lucha Underground's commentary team and an accomplished grappler in his own right, explained to KPCC public radio's Take Two last year that lucha libre first made its way to L.A. via the films of El Santo and other wrestlers-turned-actors. "Latinos who lived in Los Angeles in that era wanted something from their homeland that was from their youth," he said.
Then there's Pentagón Jr, the wrestler with the slightly samurai-meets–black metal attire, who says the show is lucha libre's gateway drug for American audiences. Reached via email and speaking through a translator, the masked competitor — who's so compelling a character that his penchant for fake-breaking foes' arms made him a fan favorite — says, "I'm truly grateful to Lucha Underground, because it has taken me to a new level, and through that I now have fans all over the U.S." Pentagón (whose real name is not publicly known) unsuccessfully challenged for the Lucha Underground Championship on the show's Ultima Lucha Dos season-two finale; he also looks to factor prominently in the upcoming season.
Van Wagenen is a lifelong Angeleno, and he was approached three years ago by famed TV producer Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Voice) about guiding the production. It was envisioned as an American version of lucha libre — the second-most popular "sport" in Mexico after soccer, Van Wagenen is quick to point out — that could potentially serve as the crown jewel of El Rey. A group of Mexican investors who helped formulate the idea figured that they could carve out a niche, especially among Latino viewers, if they "took the product, updated it, made it a little more current and gave it a [Robert] Rodriguez edge," Van Wagenen says.
That touches on a key aspect of what differentiates Lucha Underground from the likes of WWE, TNA Wrestling and New Japan Pro-Wrestling: It isn't a wrestling promotion that happens to air a weekly TV show but a TV show that happens to be about wrestling — or, in Van Wagenen's words, "an alternate universe where these Latino superheroes exist."
That concept, outlandish though it often is, manages to revere the institution of which it's a part without being self-serious. "If you look at our scenes," Van Wagenen says, "they're comic books. The characters feel like comic book characters." Among those characters are a time traveler, an undead dragon and the swaggering heel Mundo.
This is frequently over the top, but, as Van Wagenen puts it, "doesn't have to make sense if it's super cool." That may be the highest truth in pro wrestling.
Courtesy El Rey Network
Mundo and Taya have just arrived at the Wrestling Guy Store, which is wall to wall with Lucha Underground T-shirts, WWE-branded toothbrushes and signed murals. The appeal to the super cool is apparent. "The world is very intact," Mundo says of Lucha Underground's heightened reality. "It's crazy, but its rules are held up." This is true: The series is the most compelling thing to hit the wrestling world in years, which may sound like faint praise to nonfans but has been a welcome change of pace for marks everywhere.
Mundo, whose grappling experience dates back to his days as captain of the wrestling team at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, is what you'd call a specimen. Billed at 6 foot 1 inch and 220 pounds, he was known by the nickname Prince of Parkour during his nine-year tenure in WWE. "I believe in such a thing as a physical intelligence, like aerial coordination and balance stability — just an awareness of where your body is in space," he says. "The better you get at that, the more you minimize your impact and your risk."
Wrestlers don't always have long shelf lives, and those working for WWE especially endure a taxing routine. The company has no offseason, its touring act literally never-ending. Mundo, long a part of that act, appreciates the way his reduced schedule with Lucha Underground allows him to take care of himself.
"After you learn how to spread the impact throughout your body, then you can start playing and having fun with the idea that it's always gonna a hurt a little bit, but if you do it perfectly, it's not gonna kill you and you'll be able to get up from it," he says. "If you keep your risk minimized, you'll be able to have more longevity."
Still, Mundo adds, "There are times where you up your level of risk for a show like Lucha Underground, where the bar is so high, and also the people are so loud that you stand up and you're like, 'Should I do something really stupid now?'?"
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Taya, the "Canadian Queen of lucha libre" and the "guera loca of the Temple," is likewise imposing. She trained under Lance Storm — widely regarded as one of the most technically sound performers of his generation, and another multiple-title holder in WWE — and was plucked, like many on Lucha Underground's roster, from Mexico's Asistencia Asesoría y Administración (AAA). I make a joke about one of them body-slamming me through the table we're sitting around, and she seems even more excited by the prospect than Mundo. "I'm a table expert," she assures me.
The two are onscreen partners as part of the Worldwide Underground faction — "She's the sizzle, I'm the steak," Mundo says — though it wasn't always so. The first round of talent brought to Lucha Underground from AAA was all Mexican, Van Wagenen says. But the first time he saw Taya, her nose was broken so badly during her match that it looked as it if it had been "removed from her face. She finished the match, stuck some stuff up her nose to control the bleeding, said, 'Hi, nice to meet you,' and started chatting away." He immediately knew he had to sign her.
For those not under the WWE umbrella, pro wrestling is the gig economy taken to its physical extreme. Lucha Underground is "not quite full-time," Mundo says — filming for the upcoming 40-episode season took place roughly every other weekend between January and June — but, for those with his or Taya's drawing power, it's a solid foundation to build upon. It has allowed Taya to move from Mexico City to L.A., and she describes it as her "home base."
Now that production on season three has wrapped, most of the Mexican talent is back home. Mundo and Taya are on their way to an indie show in San Diego after our interview, and Mundo mentions in passing how he recently landed the lead in a low-budget movie about Sinbad (the pirate, not the comic) being made by the same production company for which he starred in 2014's Hercules Reborn.
All of which seems to suit Van Wagenen fine. He says he's glad Mundo and others can "work for us on the weekend, then go and audition and be in movies during the week. For a lot of people, especially guys who don't want the grind and the tour of WWE, coming to L.A. every other weekend is a good way to have a nice life outside of wrestling."
Mundo adds that "TV is powerful" as a means of gaining exposure and extracurricular opportunities. "The autonomy that we have working for Lucha Underground is so much more valuable than being on that [WWE] 200-, 250-show schedule. You only have a certain amount of bumps on your bump card, so to speak, and it's important to use them where they count."
That term, "bump card," is a staple among veteran grapplers, referring to serious slams they take to the mat. Every wrestler has a finite number of physical traumas, aka "bumps," they can take in their career, before their body gives out. Performing in a way that allows them to choose their "bumps" is crucial not only to Mundo's and Taya's careers but to their long-term health, too.
"A lot of people think it's easy," Taya says of the physical toll this lifestyle takes on those who choose it. Her early training regimen was five days a week, four hours a day. She spent four and a half years in Mexico, working in "stiff rings, boxing rings, dirt floors — all level of training facilities," before getting her break on Lucha Underground.
Lucha Underground isn't the only under-the-radar show in town with street cred. Pro Wrestling Guerrilla's Battle of Los Angeles 2016 has been running the round-robin tournament out of a veteran's hall in Reseda every Labor Day weekend since 2005, and this year a half-dozen denizens of the Temple will be pulling double duty, Mundo included.
Together, Lucha Underground and PWG are helping to make Los Angeles something it's never been: an indie-wrestling hotbed. While PWG's under-the-radar bona fides are indisputable, El Rey's reconquista is especially impressive for how quickly it's come about and the visible influence its cinematic style has already had on WWE and others.
As we end our conversation at the Wrestling Guy Store, the theme song for former PWG standout–turned–WWE star Kevin Owens blares from the speaker. Then Mundo and Taya pack up and prepare to brave the 405 on their way to San Diego, where a Saturday night crowd and paycheck await.
Whether it's moonlighting as a Loan Mart spokesman or a straight-to-video Sinbad, wrestlers in our gig economy all need a side hustle to survive the bumps of the business.
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