Examining the Kayfabe of Lucha Underground and WWE


WWE and Lucha Underground are two very distinct pro wrestling products, and their handling of kayfabe largely informs their differences.

When it comes to examples of WWE’s aggressively inconsistent, hair-pullingly confused booking, look no further than the string of events that put Shane McMahon in charge of Monday Night Raw. After losing a bruising Hell in a Cell match at WrestleMania Star that would have given Shane-o-Mac control of WWE’s flagship show had he won, the next night, WWE Chairman Vince McMahon, refusing to be upstaged by his apologizing son…let him run the show anyway. To be fair, the storyline conceit of Shane mixing things up by throwing fresh faces in the main event picture and setting up a #1 contender tag team tournament has resulted in two of the best episodes of Raw in at least a year. But when it comes to how we got to these shows, Vince’s reversal–his character’s colossal ego notwithstanding–is a WTF moment of Spider-Man deal with the devil proportions.

It’s par for the course, though, for WWE in the so-called “Reality Era,” where the storylines behind the scenes are as instrumental to getting fans invested in WWE programming as the stories on screen. The rise of World Heavyweight Champion Roman Reigns is equally a story about fan response to the champ’s status as Vinnie Mac’s “chosen one” as it is one about a skilled athlete’s rise to prominence in his chosen profession. Does it matter whether fans are more invested in Reigns’ heel status than they are with his on-screen feuds, as long as people are watching, posting on social media, and buying merch?

More wwe: 30 Greatest Gimmick Match Types in WWE History

This is how kayfabe–the conceit that pro wrestling is a legitimate athletic contest and that wrestlers are required to maintain that facade in their daily lives–has evolved over nearly three decades of WWF/WWE product. We may be in the Reality Era now, but its seeds were planted in 1989 when Vince McMahon admitted to the New Jersey State Athletic Commission that professional wrestling is predetermined. The advent of the Internet compounded events like the kayfabe-breaking Montreal Screwjob (the outcome of which was speculated about online for weeks, word having leaked on the Internet that Bret Hart had given his notice and was heading for WCW), ushering in an Attitude Era that blurred character and reality like no other period in the business’ history.

Echoes of that boom period were heard in CM Punk’s famous “pipe bomb” promo of June 2011, a “worked shoot” that in many people’s eyes signaled the start of the Reality Era. Punk, pointedly wearing a Stone Cold Steve Austin t-shirt in an homage to the kayfabe-bending Attitude Era he was about to reenact, seamlessly blended his real-life “shoot” company grievances with the “work” of promoting an upcoming pay-per-view match. This blending of real life and kayfabe has been the hallmark of Reality Era booking in WWE, to the point where the blending itself has become kayfabe. The only problem is that, with the exception of the brilliant booking behind Daniel Bryan vs. the Authority between SummerSlam 2013 and WrestleMania XXX, WWE hasn’t quite figured out how to make this new meta-kayfabe work with consistent story arcs, character development, and, well, a minimum of nonsensical booking. (If you’re reading this and thinking that the booking behind WrestleMania XXX wasn’t brilliant so much as WWE succeeding despite its self-sabotaging efforts to hold down Bryan as the “B+ player” they initially thought he was, you may be right, and we’ll probably never know the truth. But that also serves to prove the point that reality has blended with storytelling just. that. much.)

More from Wrestling News

In March 2015, Max Landis released Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling, a short film examining the appeal of pro wrestling through the prism of Triple H’s 20-year character arc, onto an unsuspecting YouTube audience. The short became a viral hit by answering the age-old rube-spoken question “you know it’s fake, right?” by examining WWE as how it perceives itself: a “weekly episodic program” that follows a fictionalized sport and its combatants. “Wrestling is melodrama. Wrestling is mythology. Wrestling is action. Wrestling is comic books,” says Landis in his closing statement. “The only thing wrestling isn’t–is wrestling.” And while he’s not wrong, and the film is brilliantly made, he ignores the muddled morass that often results from WWE’s now-regular attempts to fold reality into those comic book stories. There’s nothing thrilling or melodramatic about Shane McMahon’s takeover of RAW; it’s just straight-up confounding. But story-wise, it’s also led to two of the best editions of Raw in a year, so what’s the real story here? Is it Shane’s rise to power, or is it how Shane’s rise to power was booked?

So it’s notable that the promotion that has taken Landis’ notion of a “show about an imaginary sport” and doubled down on it isn’t the one he examined, but rather El Rey Network’s Lucha Underground.

As a young product in only its second year, Lucha Underground is free of much of the baggage that has shaped WWE’s notion of kayfabe in 2016. It’s not a multi-million dollar, publicly held corporation with a decades-old business model built around regularly-touring live shows, nor does the promotion have an old-school history based on fooling “marks” into believing its legitimacy. Rather, it actually is an episodic television drama about an imaginary underground fight club/wrestling promotion. While its roster was built largely through borrowed talent from AAA, arguably Mexico’s top wrestling promotion, LU takes an equal number of cues from the classically gonzo plotlines of Lucha Libre b-movies starring El Santo, Mil Mascaras, and Blue Demon. The people behind Lucha Underground aren’t carnies–they’re movie producers. As such, they’re free to throw away the notion of kayfabe as a manufactured reality and focus simply on telling ridiculous stories about Aztec gods, demons, and resurrected monsters from beyond the grave who return with mystical powers.

This notion of pro wrestling as pure fiction with no pretense to reality is, in many ways, a logical evolution of Lucha Libre as a performance art, given its history–just like the WWE’s Reality Era is that company’s logical progression. While WWE has melded social media and dirt sheet speculation into its ever more internet-based product, Lucha Underground has taken the live arena show of Lucha Libre and dropped it into one of its own b-movies to thrilling effect. And while some American promoters–namely, Southern wrestling manager/promoter legend Jim Cornette–have been, shall we say, reluctant to embrace the product LU offers (“heinous” was one of the few printable words Cornette used to recently describe LU), it’s a sound business choice for a fledgling wrestling product with limited budget, viewership, and resources for supporting an ongoing touring product (their recent SXSW excursion notwithstanding).

Related Story: Is Shane McMahon the Savior of WWE?

Do the dirt sheets and internet smarks spend as much time speculating about the backstage mechanics of Lucha Underground? Sure, but in different ways. No one’s necessarily complaining about the booking of Son of Havoc or gnashing their teeth at Matanza Cueto going over on the more established Fenix to win the LU title, because concepts like “indie cred” and “work rate” don’t factor into Lucha Underground’s universe. It’s pure show and a complete disregard of the notion that there’s anything “earned” about winning a wrestling championship.

More from Wrestling News

If anything, the internet speculates which of these characters will be gobbled up by WWE and inserted into their universe, where fans (often to WWE’s consternation) still affix meaning to the number of brass rings grabbed by its talent. To the fans of WWE, who is chosen to represent the company as its champions is a measure of that talent’s hard work, charisma, and overall quality as a performer. In LU, who holds the title is determined merely by what serves the story.

WWE would, of course, be foolish to completely follow LU’s lead. Lucha Underground’s approach isn’t necessarily better or worse than WWE’s–it’s simply a different take on an entertainment genre. That being said, nearly the entire wrestling world (Cornette’s of the world excepted) agrees that Lucha Underground is currently beating the pants off WWE with regard to consistent, compelling storytelling and high-flying, bonkers in-ring action. But LU is simply playing to its strengths. Because the show isn’t taken on the road, an entire season can be filmed in the space of a few weeks, allowing writers to plan detailed scripts months in advance, and crucially, allows the wrestlers an off-period in order to heal up before the next round of filming.

WWE, with its constant touring schedule and lack of an off-season, does not have this luxury, and a sudden and unexpected rash of wrestler injuries can often disrupt months of advance booking (as was painfully evident in this year’s WrestleMania). Does this mean WWE should abandon its business model? Not necessarily–it just means they need writers who are better at rolling with the punches.

More from Daily DDT

WWE and Lucha Underground are two distinct products that have taken the concept of kayfabe as it pertains to professional wrestling, and tweaked it to serve their own ends. Kayfabe in WWE is no longer a simple artifice keeping fans blind to the real nature of the “fake” sport. Instead, reality is blended into their characters through their Twitter and Instagram accounts, as well as the endless speculation about what hot rumors from the home office in Stamford can be believed (and which were purposely leaked to whip the smarks into a frenzy). Trying to figure out what’s “real” and what isn’t remains as much part of the fun as it did back when the curtain had yet to be pulled open on the business. Lucha Underground’s take on kayfabe is that it’s simply another word for “in character.” The wrestlers are actors playing a role. (What this means for the future of pro wrestlers as potential members of the Screen Actors Guild is unclear but could also pose some fascinating questions for the definition of pro wrestler as on-screen talent with regard to unionization in the near future.)

In both promotion’s cases, their respective approaches’ success hinges on their writers’ ability to create in the framework they’ve been provided. LU’s approach is certainly cleaner and simpler, but that doesn’t make WWE’s any less fascinating or addictive. Let’s just hope WWE can recapture what made lighting-in-a-bottle stories like CM Punk’s pipe bomb or Daniel Bryan’s march to WrestleMania XXX so special and achieve the storytelling heights Lucha Underground is nailing on a consistent basis.

More wwe: 5 Best WWE Retirement Matches

What’s your take on the differences in WWE and LU’s concepts of kayfabe?