Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Opinion: Lucha Underground Season Dos or It's the End de la Mundo and I feel Multa

So I'd like to start by just saying thank you for making my last article looking at WCPW one of the highest viewed articles of all time on ATPW. I'd also like to confirm that I will be checking in again with WCPW from time-to-time. I won't be doing weekly coverage because unlike our beloved James Marston (or indeed, Lucha Underground favourite, Cage) I am not a machine. Still, I hope you enjoyed that article and this one as you're reading it already. 

No one was ever the first person to do anything. Ken Shamrock wrestled in the Hart Dungeon, Stone Cold ambushed and attacked Booker T in a supermarket, the Four Horsemen drove off to a car park and beat up Dusty Rhodes, sometimes wrestling goes off-reservation. Recently, I don't think anyone reading this doesn't know that TNA became witness to The Final Deletion and just last week, The New Day went to The Wyatt's compound. Both of these segments pay dividends not just to previous segments but also to cult cinema in a way that could easily fill another article but really this is my long way of saying that TNA and WWE fans must recognise that in terms of modern wrestling television, only one company is using behind-the-scenes cinematic to the fullest extent of the art-form and that is Lucha Underground.

Lucha Underground, for those who aren't initiated, is basically what would have happened had Tyler Durden and Sebastian had set up Fight Club in the basement of The Titty Twister (The bar from From Dusk Till Dawn for the uninitiated). It is a piece of art that in a move that probably made Jim Cornette throw up with disgust but made Max Landis do the same with excitement, it is a horror movie, a thriller, an undercover cop drama, a buddy comedy, a time travel sci-fi movie, an underdog story, the tale of a demonic possession and so much more. In fact, the only thing it isn't, is a wrestling show. Also there's a man who dresses as a dragon who might actually be a dragon, it's not clear. It's probably easier to explain it if you just read Lily's piece from earlier this year about LU as an introduction. Basically it's mad but it's fucking tops and over the last three weeks, it's had four hours of premium content that when put together make up LU's Wrestlemania, the insanity that has been Ultima Lucha Dos.

So I'm going to leave a little warning here, this next section will feature a lot of spoilers for Ultima Lucha Dos so if you want to avoid them but still have a read, just scroll down to the video of Johnny Mundo and Angelico doing some nice flipdeedoos and when it's done, we can discuss the season as a whole.

I think the most important question going into Ultima Lucha Dos was could they top season one? They found an ingenious way to answer it - by repeating the same opening match of Ultima Lucha Uno but doing it even better. When a show opens with one of Dario's 'Unique Opportunities' being promised to the winner of a small tournament between The (Willie) Mack and (Brian) Cage, (El) Texano (Jr.) and Son of Havoc, you know you're off to a good start. All four of these guys are incredibly over in the Temple: Son of Havoc (Matt Cross) for his incredible athleticism, The Mack for his mix of lucha libre and Stone Cold Stunners, Cage for his pre-preemptive firing by the WWE for possible wellness policy violations (and frequent looking like he might murder people) and El Texano for his use of a bullwhip. So the tournament consisted of two Falls Count Anywhere matches and a Bar Room Brawl which is like a Good Housekeeping Match but instead of Chyna slamming Jeff Jarrett's face into a bowl of eggs, El Texano gets put through a bar table; bottles and all. 

This first hour of UL:D was quite insanely overbooked. So the Mack and Cage are about to have a standard match when Dario turns it into a Falls count anywhere which the Mack wins via roll-up, then Son of Havoc and El Texano have the aforementioned Bar room Brawl which Son of Havoc won, then there was a final between Havoc and Mack which was also FCA rules, Havoc won, the crowd went mental, Dario came out and offered Havoc two briefcases, one with $250,000 and the other with a contract for a main event match at Ultima Lucha: Tres, Havoc takes the second option but in order to win this briefcase, he has to face off against another opponent who if he wins gets the money, out comes The Famous B and the Beautiful Brenda with their new client, no sadly it's not Mascarita Dorada but the lucha legend Dr. Wagner Jr., who bests Havoc with the Doctor-driver to take home the briefcase. You get all that.

There is no way to really explain how the storyline of night one was meant to track, it did seem a bit like a few weeks before Dos, they realised that four of their most important people didn't have a match so they just threw some stuff at a wall, waited for it to stick and then hoped that the sheer talent in the ring would cover the cracks. Somehow, it does with the opening encounter between Mack and Cage showing their fantastic chemistry, these two are truly the Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn of LU. Son of Havoc can just somersault everywhere and make me happy but top marks to Matt Striker (words I didn't think I'd say) for really selling the story of Havoc as a plucky underdog and hero to the bullied persevering against the odds. The Doctor Wagner twist only really worked because he's already a name so when he entered the temple, the place lost their minds (and because damn he looks good for fifty). It also helped build on what we already knew which is Dario is a dickhead who knows how to make the fans hate him.

Night two was all about two matches: the seven way elimination gift of the gods title match and a death match between King Cuerno (El Hijo del Fantasma) and Mil Muertes (AAA's El Mesias). The gift of the gods match was the first big coronation of Sexy Star but that doesn't mean that others weren't given a chance to shine with Killshot (Shane Strickland) and the debuting Nightclaw (Dragon Gate's Flamita) looking particularly impressive (Nightclaw pulling off a moonsault from the audience balcony was insanely good). No one seems to be particularly hurried in providing any kind of stakes to whatever the story is with Kobra Moon and Daga but it was more to get him out of the way so the story could really just focus on Killshot, Sexy Star, The Mariposa (Cheerleader Melissa) and Marty 'The Moth' Mcf... Martinez. (Tristan Gallo) Marty Martinez has really settled into his lower midcard heel role and managed to actually generate some near falls where for a moment I thought Sexy might not win. But of course she did because the audience love her too much for it not to happen. It's a relief to see though that while they played up Sexy Star the first LU female champion, there was no disbelief about her win. El Sinestro de la Muerte (El Mariachi Loco) was also in this match.

King Cuerno and Mil Muertes tried to murder each other. That is what happened next. Two of the stiffest guys in Boyle Heights just kept hitting each other really hard until King Cuerno tried to put Katrina through a table. This was a match that was deserving of the entire season that has built up to it with Cuerno playing defacto Technico against the larger Muertes, taking out his anger over Katrina screwing him out of his title shot against Muertes to protect her boy. If this match had one problem, it's that is told a very similar story to the match we'll get to between Matanza and Pentagon jr but also for a Death Match, it never felt quite as potent as watching Murder pope Vampiro and Pentagon try and hit each other with as many filament bulbs as possible last year. That said it did have some lovely sequences including of course Cuerno's now trademark Arrow from the Depths of Hell looking like he turned into an actual arrow for a second shooting Muertes and the finish to the match with Muertes hitting a deadly looking Tombstone before Cuerno was carried off on a stretcher was gruesome, visceral and high operatic in the way that the best of LU often is.

So for the final night we had a stacked card with Drago, Aerostar and Fenix taking on The Worldwide Underground (Jack Evans, Johnny Mundo (John Morrison) and PJ Black (Justin Gabriel), who has somehow morphed into X-Pac's more handsome younger brother) for the trios titles, El Dragon Azteca (Rey Horus) taking on Black Lotus (Angela), Pentagon [Jr.] Dark vs Monster Matanza Cueto (Jeff Cobb) for the LU title, Taya [Valkyrie] vs Ivelisse and finally the dream match of Rey Mysterio Jr. vs Prince Puma (NJPW's Ricochet). Of these matches only one really disappointed and that was Dragon Azteca vs Black Lotus as the match provided no real closure or furtherance of their arc, Black Lotus looked quite visibly nervous in her match and it didn't help that Dragon Azteca is hardly  veteran enough to guide her through the match up. It felt like both of them were just running the ropes till Pentagon could invade, break all the arms and call out Matanza to have the match there and then. Luckily, they had one hell of a match, only hurt by having a faint anticlimax. Pentagon, instead of playing the smaller guy in trouble, went for the technical expert schooling the newcomer as he battered Matanza around the ring. It was interesting to see the David and Goliath narrative reversed, it would be like watching Neville dominate Brock Lesnar physically but with more armbars. Matanza (who is sure to be a highlight of this year's BOLA) has quickly proven a valuable assett to the company capable of big, stiff strikes, giant suplexes and standing shooting star presses and Pentagon Jr. has frequently shown he could possibly be the best all-rounder that Mexico has. It's a shame then that the match had to end with a distraction involving Vampiro, Dario and a cousin of Mick Foley's beloved Barbie leading to Pentagon nearly breaking Dario's arm till Matanza hits him with the bat, hits his Reverse Spin-scoop Powerslam finisher for a clean-ish pin. The in-ring finish to the show with Pentagon superkicking Matt Striker before dragging Vampiro to the ring for some good old fashioned barbed wire induced facial stigmata was appropriately gruesome a way to continue this storyline and I wouldn't  be surprised if by this time next year, Pengtagon Jr, sorry, Pentagon Dark has had a lovely, brutal title reign of his own.

Taya and Ivelisse had a lovely little encounter with Matt Striker once again putting over that Ivelisse has an MMA background and Taya trained with Lance Storm to the point where I hope Wade Barrett joins season four just to hear Matt Striker never shut up about his bareknuckle boxing past and he NEVER SHOULD! It was nice to see an encounter between two women on LU that ended after interference from a third woman, Catrina without any involvement of Johnny Mundo, Son of Havoc or Mil Muertes. This was the women's division beginning to truly come into their own and prove that they can not just hold their own with the men but actually do better without them with Ivelisse's MMA background (did you know she has an MMA background?) coming into play with some particularly stiff kicks and smooth transitions into holds. It's also worth noting her spiky trousers make her kicks look even more effective because part of me chooses to believe it's like she has tacks strapped to her legs. That said, another match ending in distraction finish? I thought we went through this with WCPW, you need at least some solid wins or else it doesn't really feel like a satisfying ending to the season.

The Trios title match was exactly what you'd expect it would be, it was six high flyers, flying high. It wasn't as psychologically impressive as some of the other matches on the card but for pure spotfestery, it possibly outdid the GotG match. I love the way that without anyone noticing, The Worldwide Underground have somehow become an even better nWo parody than The Bullet Club with their exaggerated heel antics and playing air guitar on the title belts (including a little shredding sound effect suggesting that they are actually able to play the guitar on the belts?!?). This match had the most effective bits of screwery of the night as the referee took a bump allowing for the champs to take their belt and deliver a triple belt shot to Fenix. The match would eventually end when Angelico would return, presumably because one member of the team of him, Havoc and Ivelisse has to be on crutches at any time, in order to provide enough of a distraction for the technicos to get a win and Fenix to become the first LU Triple Crown Champion. Now I was always going to love this match because Mundo is one of my top ten favourites on the current scene but even with the talent involved, there was a feeling that they weren't given enough time to really do what they wanted to do. If they had moved Dragon Azteca vs Black Lotus or Taya vs Ivelisse to another night of UL:D, they might have been given more time to breathe and string together the different spots more satisfyingly. I also still can't fully understand the full love that Drago gets as yes, I've noticed he's a dragon but he just looks sloppy. I know, he can pull off a moonsault but this is Lucha Underground, I think the only person who couldn't pull off a moonsault was Ezekiel Jackson and they killed his character off. Overall a fun encounter with some strong heel work but maybe just slightly less than the sum of its parts.

Luckily the last match of the night was basically perfection. El Rey vs The Prince, the king of Lucha vs one half of the current 'it' pairing of the indie scene (along with Mr. Super Juniors Will Ospreay). Much like the Ospreay-Ricochet encounter, this match could be accused of occasionally not quite selling moves to their full extent but that just served the story. Mysterio played the role of the elder statesman trying to prove he could still hang tight and Puma worked as the cocky upstart trying to prove he could beat a legend. Here's a thing I've been trying to say since my first article for the website (which you can still find if you go through the tag for my name at the bottom of the page), if a match is good enough, it doesn't need to matter who wins. When we get such fast action that it's hard to even comment on it while it's happening, it puts both competitors on an even playing field. Even if in a storyline term, it confirms that Mysterio truly is El Rey, it doesn't make Puma look any worse in losing because they put on one hell of a match. Even with my warning that this segment would contain spoilers, I don't want to talk about some of the great moments in this match because it's easier to just say watch it. It's the best Rey's looked in years as well as being something of a torch passing especially in the ending sequence which can only be referred to as 'the 619 meets the 323'. Once again to mention the stellar job that Striker and Vampiro did on this match, Striker making reference to Puma setting up Rey for a 630 Senton as an 'I'm sorry, I love you' moment shouldn't have worked and probably wouldn't without Vampiro's big kid enthusiasm but much like a lot of things with LU, it takes something ridiculous and overly-smarky and makes it work through sheer love for the craft. If rumours are to be believed and after the next season of LU, Ricochet will be headed to Conneticut, then hopefully they look at this match and see quite how special a talent he is, able to subtly rudo it up as the fans are supporting Rey while still being impressive enough to keep the audience chanting his name on side, anyone who says his matches lack psychology is probably just someone who thinks psychology means constant chains and rest holds. This is high-flying, wrestling and storytelling at its finest.

Now weren't those nice flipdeedoos? It's worth mentioning here that LU isn't, for my money, a wrestling show, it's not NJPW, it doesn't pretend to be a sport. What LU is, is the purest expression of that whole 'sports entertainment' term. Yes it's very clearly not 'real' but who cares when you can watch Jack Evans and PJ Black have a nunchuck match with a dragon and a spaceman. They are creating a season of a television show. Every individual match, as near classic as some of them can debatably be, are all in service of the greater plotline. Every storyline is given a reasonably chartable through-line where you can see the seeds planted in episode one and though they pay off in smaller ways, it is all linked together by Ultima Lucha Dos. But even more importantly, it didn't just wrap up plots but left some dangling questions for next season. Sure I'm not going to be on tenterhooks waiting to find out if Killshot ever fully gets revenge for the thievery of his dogtags but certainly the subtle mirroring of the last shots of season one suggest a creative team fully aware of the impact of every little move they make.  There is some impressive continuity at play. Watch the way that even though he's playing De facto 'technico' against Matanza, Melissa Santos still refuses to excitedly announce Petagon Jr. after the time he tried to break her arm in Season One.

The most fascinating aspect about Season Two is that possibly better than anywhere else I've seen, they've managed to craft compelling Rudo v Rudo singles matches. There is often considered an issue with having two rudos face off because if they're doing their job, the crowd should boo them but how do you keep them interested if they shouldn't root for either competitor? The answer it turns out was simple - who cares, just watch these two guys punch the bejeezus out of each other. Because that's what wrestling is meant to be. Every time the hardcore 'we loved the Attitude Era' attack dogs of the internet come out to attack LU or the New Day or The Young Bucks, there is one simple reminder to them that I feel it is now my place to join in with giving them: you were a child then, this is entertaining to some of us as adults, imagine how you would feel watching this as a child. I know that as much as I love LU, imagine how much 13 year old Joe would have loved this. The sheer brilliance of LU is that not everything about it works but despite the almost ridiculous amount of high concept fuckery that happens, it feels exactly like something happening in a warehouse in the middle of LA. It pulses with the energy of a group of people at the peak of their powers making something that pays tribute to its past and its influences but also seems to be entirely guided by the thought 'what if we did something really fucking dumb but really fucking cool?'

But it works. Where 'The Wyatt Compound Fracture' as I believe it's being called, failed because of its sincere attempts to make a low-budget horror sequence being constantly hampered by an overly choppy editing style that made the entire thing competent but partially incomprehensible and The Final Deletion, I still can't tell if it's the Room of Pro-Wrestling or The obnoxious Room parody of Pro-Wrestling. What LU does so well is to weave in the backstage elements but also, in a nice touch that differentiates it from other products, it is played as if Matt Striker and Vampiro have no idea what's going on backstage when they're in the arena. It makes those segments feel more special because they are a secret between us, the TV audience and the programme. Also in terms of production values, whoever had the idea to always put an over the shoulder crane shot for any time Son of Havoc or Prince Puma go top rope, they deserve all the raises. It's a somewhat flashy aesthetic they've created but it is also a rare genuine article of something that is nothing like else in the same market, it's very rare that you can find a wrestling product that anyone compliments the cinematography for. The last moments of the strobing lights over the slowly raising grin of Cueto were so artfully constructed it may as well have been guest direction from David Lynch and that's something no other wrestling promotions can claim. No one else is doing this,  Mexico isn't doing this, CMLL isn't doing this, Even AAA doesn't do this, in fact especially AAA for anyone who tried to power through the godawful stream of Triplemania this year. Plus to my knowledge, AAA doesn't have Joey Ryan (The King of Dong Style himself) as an Undercover Cop and all things need that, even if they just don't know it yet.

Written content: Jozef Raczka 
Media Content: James Marston & Jozef Raczka 

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