Of all the memories of my late grandmother I carry with me, perhaps the fondest involves her favorite pastime: “rasslin’”—that distinct blend of athletic competition and theatrical drama that has captivated audiences the world over with intricate storylines weaving together tales of heroism, treachery, ambition, and redemption. Over the decades, wrestling promotions have framed these narratives in ways that resonate with people, subtly blurring the lines between fiction and reality. And to my grandmother, there was nothing more real or exciting than a whoopin’ dished out on Friday Night SmackDown.
Through the years, my interest in this particular brand of “sports entertainment” has ebbed and flowed. I would never characterize myself as a die-hard fan, yet I suspect I know more than the average person. I have read a couple of books (Wrestling for My Life comes to mind) and watched a few documentaries (Beyond the Mat stands out). I catch clips here and there on YouTube, and Chris Jericho on a mic is still grade-A humor to me.
But few promotions have managed to capture the imagination like Lucha Underground (2014 – 2018). A unique entity, this short-lived program revolutionized the medium’s traditional storytelling format with a cinematic approach and mythological undertones. In the digital age, where “kayfabe” (the convention of presenting staged and scripted performances as genuine and authentic) has become much thinner and less important, Lucha Underground doubled down on the fictitious and the fantastical to present viewers with a world in which masked heroes and villains collided in an underground temple located in Boyle Heights, California.
My grandmother’s idea of “rasslin’,” this was not—nevertheless, I think she would have loved it.
Lucha libre, or “free fight,” has its origins in Mexico and can be traced back to the early twentieth century. Characterized by colorful masks, high-flying maneuvers, and a rich tradition of honor and spectacle, lucha libre offers a recognizably different experience when compared to its American and Japanese counterparts. While American wrestling often emphasizes character-driven promos and storylines, and Japanese wrestling (puroresu) leans more towards the portrayal of wrestling as a legitimate sport, lucha libre thrives on its cultural heritage, with wrestlers (referred to as “luchadores”) frequently inheriting their personas and masks from preceding generations.
Emerging from this cultural backdrop, Lucha Underground sought to innovate and transform. Launched in 2014, the promotion was a fusion of traditional lucha libre and Hollywood-style storytelling. With a remarkable narrative depth, it incorporated supernatural elements, complex and involved backstories, and movielike production qualities rarely seen in the wrestling industry. Lucha Underground did not just intend to present wrestling matches; rather, it aimed to construct a captivating universe, an immersive world where Aztec mythology met modern-day warriors. Nor did the show merely target conventional wrestling fans, instead aiming to entice viewers who were more accustomed to hour-long television dramas and mythological epics.
The series was rooted in mythic conventions, an original feature that separated it quite clearly from other promotions. From ancient Mesoamerican legends to the symbolic representations of animalistic deities, the show weaved in themes that tended to transcend the usual wrestling storylines. The grudges between wrestlers—however scripted—were deeper here by virtue of the fact that the show had a mythology, courtesy of writers and producers such as Chris Roach and Chris DeJoseph. So, when wrestlers met in the ring for the matches that were taped in front of live audiences, it was less about sweat and muscles and tights, and more about ancient rivalries and the battle between good and evil. Characters on Lucha Underground were not just wrestling for a flashy belt inlaid with gold but were often positioned as champions of a larger cosmic conflict that worked itself out in the bowels of this forbidden temple.
Take, for example, the narrative surrounding the “Gift of the Gods Championship.” This title, represented by seven Aztec medallions, conjures up the mythic idea of destiny. The individuals who possessed the medallions were “chosen,” suggesting a higher purpose. It was not necessarily the better competitor who won the match, but the one whose story was guided by the hand of fate. This added dimension lent a breadth and scope to the story that belied the grungy look and feel of the series.
Sacrifices, both metaphorical and sometimes alarmingly literal, were also prevalent during the show’s run. In the storylines, characters actually died. Forget being carried out on a stretcher, only to reappear the next week perfectly healthy—when wrestlers were defeated by being thrown into a casket and carted off, this was an in-universe death. That character was gone, until a complex ritual resurrected them—often with unforeseen consequences that frequently resulted in previously heroic characters (called “faces” in industry lingo, or técnicos in lucha libre) turning into villains (“heels,” or rudos), because the forces of darkness were not to be trifled with.
The show’s “secret sauce” was undoubtedly its characters—the scheming Dario Cueto (Luis Fernandez-Gil), the owner and proprietor of the underground temple; the heroic Prince Puma (Trevor Mann), the descendant of an ancient Aztec tribe and the closest thing the show had to a true protagonist; the otherworldly Mil Muertes (Gilbert Cosme), a hulking brute controlled by the sultry seductress, Catrina (Karlee Leilani Perez). These are but a handful of the colorful figures that entertained audiences week after week.
Yet, it was not merely these vibrant personalities that made Lucha Underground stand out from the competition. It was the intricate way the characters’ arcs intertwined, collided, and unraveled that showcased the promotion’s storytelling prowess. Dario Cueto, with his Machiavellian tendencies, was hardly a one-dimensional villain. His insatiable thirst for power and control was underscored by his vulnerability and connection to his monstrous brother, Matanza (Jeffrey Cobb). The underground temple was more than just an arena; it was a manifestation of Cueto’s vision, ambition, and, in many ways, his prison. He was as much a tragic figure as he was a villainous one.
Prince Puma, on the other hand, had a much more traditional hero’s journey arc, complete with a sage-like mentor in the form of Konnan, a legendary luchador who rose to prominence in the 1990s. With a backstory deeply tied to the show’s historical and mythological tapestry, Puma struggled to honor his lineage while also contending with the modern, brutal realities of the underground temple. Rivals like Johnny Mundo (John Hennigan), Mil Muertes, and eventually Pentagon Dark (Pentagon Jr.) all acted as foils for his character while sinister forces worked to manipulate him from the shadows.
Then there’s Mil Muertes, a character who personified death, and whose backstory was tinged with a haunting irony. As a child, he was said to have survived a natural disaster that resulted in the deaths of his family members. Mil grew to become an embodiment of destruction himself and was virtually unkillable, always brought back from the grave by the calculating Catrina. His greatest rivalry in the underground temple was with Fénix, the man of a thousand lives who, like his namesake, rose and rose again to meet every challenge—a fascinating dance between death and rebirth unfolded every time the two rivals came to blows.
But perhaps no character experienced a more intriguing arc than Pentagon Dark. Starting out as the most ruthless luchador on the roster, the slow reveal that Pentagon was nothing more than a pawn in a much larger game orchestrated by his “master,” the iconic Vampiro (Ian Hodgkinson), garnered him no small amount of sympathy. As Puma and Fenix, arguably the show’s two biggest heroes, were corrupted by the powers of darkness, Pentagon stepped into the boots of the anti-hero, reflecting the show’s movement from a clear black-and-white morality to a more nuanced one.
By the time the series was unceremoniously canceled after its fourth season, Pentagon had effectively become the face of the promotion, though not a hero in the traditional sense. He thrived in the realm of complicated morality, becoming a kind of Batman to Puma’s Superman. His trademark “Cero Miedo” (Zero Fear) attitude, coupled with the intense emotional depth of his storylines and his desire for both acceptance and guidance, humanized him in ways that fans could understand and relate to, resulting in one of professional wrestling’s most complex and memorable characters.
In an industry often fraught with controversies and debates about authenticity, Lucha Underground managed to carve out a niche that separated it from the typical wrestling fare. Dario Cueto’s underground temple moved the focus from simple matches and feuds to ancient traditions, rich histories, and complicated relationships. Every wrestler was not just a fighter, but a character—each possessing a history and an ethos.
My late grandmother’s fondness for “rasslin’” always struck me as a testament to the power of a medium that managed to blend raw physicality and storytelling together into such a visceral package. To her, the stories, however embellished, were real and tangible in ways that even movies were not. It was a kind of strange fantasy world that was a few degrees removed from the shamelessness and gaudiness of reality television, grounded by the athleticism of the performers.
What’s even more interesting to me is the fact that my grandmother was a committed Christian. Sunday mornings always found her in church, and a lazy afternoon might have found her in a rocking chair on the front porch softly humming the tune of the classic hymn, “The Sweet By-and-By.” She died mere miles from where she was born in the rugged Appalachian Mountains, having never laid eyes on an ocean, or traveled beyond the farmlands of the Ohio River Valley. To someone content to live a life as small and as insular as hers, “rasslin’” can form a kind of folk mythology as complex and memorable as Tolkien’s.
I have long been intrigued by the connection between faith and this industry (so have others, too, apparently). Some of professional wrestling’s biggest names are professing Christians, who have spoken at length about their faith: Shawn Michaels, Sting (Steve Borden), Chris Jericho, and Hulk Hogan, just to name a few. Without commenting one way or another on the authenticity of their testimonies, it is nevertheless fascinating to consider the role faith plays in an industry that thrives on scripted drama and larger-than-life personas. When done well, professional wrestling can speak to the deepest human impulses: to triumph, to fight, to rise after a fall, to seek retribution, to overcome insurmountable odds. The best narratives tend to reflect the archetypal tales of heroes and villains, loss and redemption, the kinds of characters and themes that are prominent in mythic storytelling.
Perhaps this is what drew my grandmother to “rasslin’.” To her, there might not have been so wide a chasm between her Sunday sermons and the epic confrontations on her television screen. Both spoke of perseverance, retribution, and redemption. Both told stories of heroes rising after a fall and villains seeking repentance. Her faith informed her perspective on life, and wrestling, in its own flamboyant way, mirrored that perspective, reinforcing those ideas.
While she may never have watched an episode of Lucha Underground, the spirit and ethos of the show would likely have resonated with her deeply. The series represented a grand experiment. The blending of traditional lucha libre with a cinematic, almost mythological form of storytelling was something novel, bold, and refreshingly original. It may have been shorter-lived than many would have liked, but its influence on the industry remains indelible.
In the end, just like my grandmother with her SmackDown, I found a world in Lucha Underground that felt raw and evocative, as compelling as any comic book or modern mythology. The series aired while I was an undergraduate student at a Bible college and continued through my transition to seminary. During that time, I spent countless hours dissecting ancient texts and thinking through theological constructs, immersing myself in Scripture’s grand narrative of faith, hope, and redemption. And for a few weeks out of the year, Lucha Underground became an unexpected retreat, a space where I found those same themes reflected, albeit through a different, more fantastical lens.
It was hardly the squared circle or the high-flying maneuvers that captivated me, but the tales of valor, treachery, and sacrifice that somehow seemed closer, more visceral, than movies or other television shows, because the performers were real. There was no CGI, no stuntmen, just the raw story told through sheer physicality and athleticism. There was an element of genuine danger that required an entirely different kind of suspension of disbelief, not unlike theater. The series was an acoustic rendition of theatrical mythopoeia, unplugged and stripped down and laid bare, and it tapped a more primal storytelling vein than I could have ever anticipated.
I often wonder if that particular pulse is what my grandmother managed to find and keep her finger on. Or maybe she just got a kick out of walking into the Church of Christ on Sunday morning and telling the “biddies” about Friday night’s slobberknocker of a match.
Either way, I can relate. After all, three hours of discussing psychosomatic unity with someone who thinks that heaven is a cloud castle and that we all get wings when we die is enough to make me want to DDT somebody through a table.