Ask weary WWE viewers to identify why the professional wrestling titan’s creative direction has gone so stagnant and you’ll hear one answer time and again: lack of competition. It’s no coincidence that the company’s late-'90s heyday ran concurrent with the rise of Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, which at one point bested Vince McMahon’s flagship Monday Night Raw in the Nielsen ratings for 84 consecutive weeks. Its back against the wall, the then-WWF had no choice but to take risks and innovate. Since buying out his bitter rival in 2001, however, McMahon has been able to sail smoothly as the undisputed champion of “sports entertainment” — a forced attempt at branding never uttered out loud by anyone who isn’t contractually bound to use it.
Even taken collectively, the few other companies that actually have television deals — TNA, New Japan Pro Wrestling, Ring of Honor — don’t come close to providing WCW's level of competition. But they do offer an alternative, the most compelling of which is Lucha Underground. An upstart airing Wednesday nights on Robert Rodriguez’s burgeoning El Rey Network, the show is akin to a Mortal Kombat telenovela: Much of the drama unfolds via cinematic vignettes featuring subtitled Spanish dialogue, and supernatural powers abound. The writers even “kill off” some grapplers for good, exits that usually come at the hands (or teeth) of a monster named Matanza, whom we recently got our first real glimpse of after more than a season’s worth of sporadic offscreen deaths.
Some of this creative freedom has to do with the fact that Lucha Underground isn’t, strictly speaking, in the wrestling business. It doesn’t tour or put on live shows — though it did just host a one-off event at South by Southwest — and, in contrast to Raw’s never-ending weekly grind, its series is divided into seasons. Like WWE, the show revolves around jacked dudes settling their differences with choreographed grappling, but Lucha Underground offers an even more heightened reality. The ever-important backstage segments aren’t presented as interviewers asking athletes questions about their performance but as behind-the-scenes glimpses that look more like something we’d see on an AMC drama than a sports broadcast.
There's also the fact that everyone on the roster appears in other companies, often under different names: Prince Puma is known elsewhere as Ricochet, Johnny Mundo is the former John Morrison. Twenty of these men and women will compete in this week’s Aztec Warfare match, a free-for-all that should provide as comprehensive an entrée for the curious as any episode yet.
The array of characters set to be featured is as diverse as it is over the top. King Cuerno walks to the ring wearing a taxidermied deer headdress like a crown. Aerostar is a mystical time traveler on a mission from the future (or past?). Mil Muertes, in accordance with the literal translation of his name, has died a thousand deaths. Joey Ryan is the embodiment of sleaze, as well as an undercover detective in a police-procedural subplot involving a wrestler who got killed off last season. Drago is a dead dragon who’s come back to life in human form. Famous B is … a used-car salesman.
Many of these competitors are sourced from Asistencia Asesoría y Administración (AAA), one of Mexico’s two largest promoters, but others are WWE defectors. Mundo is one of these, as is PJ Black. One of the roster’s latest additions, the South African competed under the name Justin Gabriel for several years before asking for his release in early 2015. Black, a high-flyer whose real-life affinity for skydiving and other extreme sports informs his onscreen persona, mostly toiled in WWE’s undercard and was rarely featured prominently. As soon as he arrived in the Temple, however, the self-described “darewolf” (read: daredevil + werewolf) immediately seemed like a bigger deal than he ever had in McMahon's flagship. (This, despite — or, more likely, because of — the fact that there’s a chance Black will at some point be revealed as an actual werewolf.)
But no one embodies the best of Lucha Underground like Pentagon Jr., easily the most evocative character on the roster — and possibly any other. With Día de los Muertos–inspired facepaint under a black-and-white mask, arms covered in tattoos and an instantly recognizable catchphrase/hand-gesture combo (“Cero miedo,” or “zero fear”), he made a name for himself throughout the first season by breaking people’s arms as a blood sacrifice to his unseen Master. (The reveal of said mentor, in the Ultima Lucha season finale, so far stands as the series' highlight.) You might think this would make him a villain — or heel, in wrestling parlance — but, by virtue of how fully he commits to his persona, Pentagon has emerged as the show’s most transcendent star.
He’s also a great reminder that, by not only embracing but amplifying the ridiculousness inherent in pro wrestling, Lucha Underground outshines WWE in terms of pure audacity. Its mythos is quite possibly the silliest of its ilk — no small feat, when you remember that the Undertaker is an undead mortician who can control lightning — but it’s also presented with the utmost seriousness. There isn't a trace of self-reflexive irony to the show’s allusions to Aztec gold or the monster residing below the Temple in Boyle Heights, where this bloodsport takes place. The in-ring action is high-paced and consistently excellent, but there’d be little reason to get invested in these contests were the pageantry they’re rooted in not so pulpy and fully realized.
As fantastical as it can be, Lucha Underground is also the most with-the-times show of its kind, its female characters displaying more agency than most “Divas” in WWE are ever allowed. The recently dethroned champion, Mil Muertes, is shown to be in the thrall of Catrina, a femme fatale who pulls the backstage strings and has been known to teleport; his brawn is beyond question, but hers is the brain guiding it to success. Another ongoing storyline involves the forced captivity and eventual escape of a luchadora named Sexy Star; before her Buffalo Bill–like captor’s most recent match, the crowd chanted “No means no!” at him — quite possibly the most progressive thing a group of wrestling fans has ever shouted in unison.
She and several other women are presented as serious competitors on par with their male counterparts, as when, during January’s season-two debut, Ivelisse beat two men for the right to face Mil Muertes in a championship bout later that night. The main-event match didn’t end well for her — despite having the crowd firmly in her corner, she lost decisively to her behemoth of a foe and had to be saved from his and Catrina’s antics by Prince Puma — but small victories are small victories. (Pentagon snuck up on Mil after it was all over and broke his arm, as is his wont.)
Though its ratings have been fluctuating, rumors of Lucha Underground’s demise have temporarily ceased with the recent announcement of a third season. Even so, its back remains against the wall in a way that WWE’s hasn’t been in more than 15 years — a threat that inspires ever more derring-do, both inside the ring and out.