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    Thursday, April 30, 2020

    #ThrowbackThursday: Welcome (Back) to the Temple

    It’s been a while since I’ve written for Smark Henry, so allow me to reintroduce myself—my name is Anthony Cuello, and I used to write the weekly Lucha Underground review and some local wrestling show reviews. Nowadays, I mainly do behind-the-scenes stuff for the site, helping things run. Oh, and I put together our annual roundtable on the Netflix wrestling drama GLOW, which probably isn’t airing anytime soon because of the shitstorm the world is in right now.

    So, why am I writing again? One, it’s Smark Henry’s fifth anniversary, and birthdays should always be celebrated. Two, the vast majority of us are stuck at home in the ECQ Era, and all this time that we aren't going out is making us binge content whether old or new. With live wrestling shows being in a weird place right now, we figured that we ought to reintroduce some to a wrestling show streets ahead of anything when it came out: the El Rey classic, Lucha Underground.

    For the next twelve or so weeks, I’ll be watching the entirety of Lucha Underground, from season one to four, starting with the first nine episodes here. We’ll look back on the major storylines, wrestler debuts, and moments, and pick out some of the show’s greatest matches. My goal is to convince anyone reading this that hasn’t watched Lucha Underground to do so (or if you already have, rewatch it a second time).

    What, Exactly, is Lucha Underground?

    Before we get to it, a quick introduction.

    Lucha Underground was a wrestling show that aired on the El Rey Network starting in 2014, eventually ending with its fourth season in 2018. Set in an old warehouse called the Temple in Boyle Heights, California, the show revolved around the namesake promotion and the lives of the various characters that worked in the promotion. Your usual wrestling tropes of violence, championship matches, and death-defying moves are here, but there’s more to it than that. The show also features dragons, zombies, world-ending prophecies, a rabbit-worshipping death cult, and human sacrifice. It’s basically Game of Thrones, but instead of being set in Westeros, it’s in a dingy, dilapidated underground fight club.

    Story Beats

    Full disclosure—my love of Lucha Underground largely stems from the show’s vast feature of deep Aztec mythology and rich storytelling. At its peak, Lucha Underground seamlessly blended fantasy and professional wrestling, two things that we didn’t really see come together until this show. As someone who is a fan of both those things, this instantly became one of my favorite shows. Why would I care about RAW or Smackdown when I could get the same wrestling fix and more watching Lucha Underground?

    Having said that, it’s jarring for me to rewatch these early episodes because that fantastical element isn’t established yet. The focus is on introducing Dario Cueto’s wrestling promotion and his ethos of honor, courage, and violence. Lucha Underground’s first feuds were stories such as Johnny Mundo and Big Ryck fighting over some money, Prince Puma trying to prove that he’s the next big thing, Sexy Star standing up to bullies, and Chavo Guerrero lying, cheating, and stealing.

    In other words, these are storylines that you wouldn’t find out of place on your typical wrestling show. Deeper mythological elements such as the ancient Aztec tribes and Mil Muertes’s backstory are mentioned, but only in passing, with much of the focus being on the more realistic plot points. Nevertheless, you still see bits and pieces of that fantasy world set up, and it’ll be a fun ride watching the show’s focus gradually grow into something a little more out of this world.

    Even the way the show is framed from the start makes it look like your typical wrestling show, only with a dingier, grittier setting. Vampiro does some interviews to explain feuds, and there are hype videos and vignettes as we meet the wrestlers. In an early episode, Dario Cueto and Konnan talk about bringing in hot free agents—a line William Regal has said countless times in NXT. For a show that eventually evolves into a telenovela featuring human sacrifice and reptile people, these first few episodes just seem a little too down-to-earth.

    Notable Debuts & Appearances

    Because this is the beginning, a significant amount of the show’s mainstays are introduced in this opening batch of episodes. Temple mainstays like Prince Puma, Johnny Mundo, Mil Muertes, Fenix, Pentagon Jr., and Sexy Star made their debuts in these episodes, and all these names eventually won the Lucha Underground Championship at some point in the show’s run. We’re also introduced to guys like Drago, Chavo Guerrero, and King Cuerno, who all play significant roles in the Temple throughout the show. Then there’s a bunch of guys who show up to get wrecked, but some of them do get their share of the spotlight later. I got so used to watching Famous B as a manager that I forgot that he started as a wrestler!

    While most of these guys feature prominently throughout the show, there’s a couple of guys worth mentioning because they never really made that much of a mark like the guys above. Foremost among these is Big Ryck—introduced as the show’s first big bad, the former Ezekiel Jackson started out strong but would later give way to other big guys like Mil Muertes and Cage in the spotlight. He eventually gets killed offscreen because they needed some skulls to make a throne.

    Blue Demon Jr. is another notable footnote in the annals of Lucha Underground—he shows up, fights Chavo a couple of times, gets a match at Ultima Lucha, the show's equivalent of WrestleMania, which also serves as a season finale, and is never seen in the Temple again. For someone with as much lucha libre history as him, I thought he’d be a main feature of the show. He never was, but it’s not as if this show needed him in the first place.

    The Fave Five

    With each batch of episodes we look back on, I’m picking five matches that I think are worth watching, especially if you haven’t watched the show yet. These are the matches that I believe stood out from the rest for various reasons—they can be five-star spectacles, pivotal story moments, or just plain bundles of fun. I’ll try to feature a varied mix of wrestlers, but I’ll probably end up featuring some guys more than others. Hey, I have favorites too, you know.

    The wonderful thing about this is that Lucha Underground has a lot of full matches from the first two seasons uploaded on YouTube, so you don’t have to go out of your way to look for them! Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot for the rest of the show, but let’s cross that bridge when we get there.

    1. Johnny Mundo vs. Prince Puma (Episode 1) – The show’s first main event featured two guys that are pretty much the heart and soul of this show. This was our first look at Prince Puma, and he dukes it out with a face familiar to many wrestling fans in Johnny Mundo. This is far from their best match, but it’s the first step in a long, storied rivalry.

    2. Fenix vs. Pentagon Jr. vs. Drago (Episode 3) – When I watched the show for the first time, this was the match that solidified my interest in the show. It’s a fun spectacle from start to finish, featuring a trio of luchadors billed as imported talent from AAA. It also featured the first “holy shit!” moment with Fenix leaping off the office rooftop onto his opponents below. Get used to that spot and get used to these guys—they’re all going to play huge parts in Lucha Underground.

    3. Mil Muertes vs. Drago (Episode 5) – There isn’t much of a reason behind this match, but it was a solid bout to open a show with. It’s Muertes’s power against Drago’s speed, which always makes for a nice clash of styles.

    4. Johnny Mundo vs. Prince Puma vs. Big Ryck in a Ladder Match (Episode 7) – Johnny Mundo picks up his $100,000 and a win over rivals Prince Puma and Big Ryck in this high stakes match. There are ladders and people falling off of them, what’s not to like?

    5. The First Aztec Warfare (Episode 9) – If you watched the show from the start, this is a satisfying payoff in Prince Puma’s struggle for that breakout win and becoming the first Lucha Underground Champion. I remember being so impressed with Lucha Underground’s take on Royal Rumble variants because eliminations weren’t done via tossing someone over the top rope. It gave the match a much more grueling tone because wrestlers had to outlast the competition and not rely on moments of sheer luck. There’s a lot to unpack in the match itself, but this was Prince Puma’s star-making moment.

    That's all we have for this week—next week, we talk about some very grave consequences.

    Photos from Lucha Underground
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    Item Reviewed: #ThrowbackThursday: Welcome (Back) to the Temple Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Anthony Cuello
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