Our correspondent Joseph Palreiro was present at the LUCHA UNDERGROUND press day on Saturday, October 4, in downtown Los Angeles. He had a tour of the facilities where tapings are held and got to meet the players behind the show. The following is his story.
On the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles, tucked away in a bleak industrial area, sits a warehouse that appears to have housed any number victims from the “Saw” franchise. Following the train tracks that disappear at its entrance, however, reveals something quite different.
LUCHA UNDERGROUND, under the watchful eye of executive producer Mark Burnett of “Survivor” fame, has begun taping the first of what will be an initial commitment of 39 hour-long episodes for the Robert Rodriguez’ (“From Dusk ‘Til Dawn”, “Spy Kids”) fledgling El Rey network.
Executive Producer Eric Van Wagenen (WWE Network’s “Legends House” and the Steve Austin-hosted revival of “Tough Enough”) took me on a tour of the warehouse, which has been largely untouched, including the aforementioned train tracks, which run through the center of the 97-year old building. Aside from the VIP and crew dining areas, this place seems to be pretty much in its original state of cleanliness, or lack thereof.
There is, however, a nearly seamless transition from the dust of the warehouse as we pass beneath the raised stage (on which “some of the most popular Latin bands in the world” provide live music before the show and during production breaks) and into the bright yet purposely-worn arena. I am immediately reminded of the set of MTV’s “Wrestling Society X”, which, although separated by nearly a decade, shares some onscreen talent with this production.
I asked Van Wagenen about the similarities, and whether they were intentional:
[blockquote style=”2″]I’d never seen Wrestling Society X until I saw it on the blogs. I look at it on YouTube, and the production values…I’d see how you see similarities, but when you see the actual product on air, there’s really no comparison. I’ve done shows for MTV and I know they didn’t get much of a chance with that. We’ve been given pretty much free reign. [/blockquote]
One end of the arena features wooden bleachers and a concrete staircase, down which most of the wrestlers descend on their way to the ring. The occasional featured performer enters from the opposite side on the ground level, sometimes accompanied by a thick bank of fog. The other seated section are raised off the floor, which should lessen any liability concerns. The ring is flanked by the announce table, manned by Matt Striker and longtime WCW and AAA wrestler, Vampiro, and the owner’s office. I was told that Chavo Guerrero had described the office as “exactly like his grandfather’s”, which is impressive once you learn that the office was already part of the original building.
Backstage segments are shot in the “training area”, which features another ring and a weight/locker room. You’ll see that ring featured in parts of the show’s most recent sizzle reel (linked below). Van Wagenen explained the design and function of the backstage area:
[blockquote style=”2″](The practice ring) gives us a lot more flexibility with lighting and creating a cool, edgy vibe…Everything sort of serves two purposes. It’s functional and at the same time, it looks like a great set. There’s not a bad angle when you’re shooting here. We obviously shoot a lot in here (the locker room). We did most of the artwork on the edges. There was some art that existed already. We put a facing on it. We have a consultant that’s a PhD in ancient Mesoamerican history who gave us some of the (idolatry) and iconography from his research…the mandalas (Aztec calendars) were a starting point, then we brought in some local Boyle Heights graffiti artists to come in and add a couple extra layers on it. That’s kind of the vibe we’re going with for the show. [/blockquote]
Ah yes, the show. LUCHA UNDERGROUND is a character-driven program, with some familiar faces sporting new names and, in some cases, new faces, thanks to a mask.
The primary players include:
DARIO CUETO: The owner/promoter of LUCHA UNDERGROUND. As a child, Cueto was awed by lucha libre and “vowed if he ever had a chance, (he’d) open up a fight league to pit the world’s best fighters against each other” for his entertainment. He teases he’ll award a briefcase full of cash to the fighter who “impresses” him the most, further flaunting the prize with a key that hangs conspicuously around his next.
JOHNNY MUNDO: Formerly (and sometimes currently) known as “John Morrison”, Johnny “Don’t Call Me Tele-” Mundo brings his parkour stylings to the ring. The California-born sports entertainment superstar is taking a break from Hollywood in order to reclaim his past glory.
[blockquote style=”2″]Dario Cueto might own the arena and Lucha Underground, but nobody can own the moment when you’re in the ring with Johnny Mundo.[/blockquote]
PRINCE PUMA: Hailing from Boyle Heights, CA (the location of the Lucha Underground arena) is the masked man that independent wrestling fans will recognize immediately as the high-flying “Ricochet”. He’s a man of few words, but he doesn’t really need them, having been paired with:
KONNAN: Renown as one of the original architects of Mexico’s AAA (“Asistencia Asesoría y Administración”) promotion, Konnan is Puma’s mentor and trainer. He has also been the point person for bringing in talent from across the border. I asked if there was a backlog of AAA performers hoping to work with LUCHA UNDERGROUND:
[blockquote style=”2″]Everybody wants to come down here because they want to experience the El Rey experience. I think within the next few months, just about the whole roster of AAA will come through here in some form or another.[/blockquote]
and whether there’s a chance of taking Prince Puma to Mexico to integrate him into AAA:
[blockquote style=”2″]Yes…We’re looking at him. We’re looking at (John) Morrison, Brian Cage, Ivelisse…There will be a talent exchange. [/blockquote]
The original five AAA wrestlers booked for the show (Blue Demon, Jr., Drago, Fenix, Pentagon, Jr. and Sexy Star) have all seen action during the first month of tapings, as have Shawn Hernandez (most recently of TNA), Son of Havoc (Matt Cross), Big Ryk (WWE’s Ezekiel Jackson) Mil Muertes (Ricky Banderas), AAA “mini” Mascarita Sagrada and Chavo Guerrero, Jr., who is also working backstage as a trainer and as a producer of the program.
The show is also utilizing a number of Southern California wrestlers, both on TV and for dark matches, including Brian Cage, Ricky Mandel, Ricky Reyes and Lil’ Cholo.
The action for the opening weekend was slower than expected, perhaps even tentative. The most likely culprit being the fact that contracts and AAA talent paperwork were still being finalized, along with a crowd that may not have known quite how to interact with the performance. I’ve been to three sets of the initial tapings, and I’ve noticed that the comfort level is now much higher, the crowd interaction is more spontaneous, and the in-ring work is much more polished.
Since the live crowd only sees that week’s matches and usually one in-ring promo, it’s impossible to pass judgment without seeing the fully-assembled product. That said, given what I’ve seen so far, the show should find its audience with a decent programming lead-in from El Rey, as long as the story line can keep up with the talent in the ring.
LUCHA UNDERGROUND premieres Wednesday, October 29 at 8:00PM ET/PT.
Joseph Palreiro is a long-time wrestling fan, aspiring part-time filmmaker and occasional contributor to the online wrestling community. You can follow him on Twitter @wrestlingisreal and/or follow his soon-to-be revamped blog at wrestlingisreal.tumblr.com
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