Fans of Lucha Underground have been nicknamed “The Believers” by announcer Matt Striker, and truly these devotees will have to believe harder to keep this indie league alive. Speculation about contract kerfuffles and production nightmares have been circulating around the internet for a while, suggesting that the Robert Rodriguez-produced television series may not make it through a full fourth season. As if that wasn’t enough, WWE’s recently-announced Women’s Tournament could be big trouble for a little promotion, one that has consistently showcased female talent throughout its run.
For the uninitiated: Lucha Underground is a Mexican-influenced wrestling telenovela, currently airing on El Rey network. Think of the show as “WWE set over the backdrop of an impending apocalypse,” with production design and art direction inspired by grindhouse cinema a la Quentin Tarantino. While WWE has edged closer to being the American Idol of professional wrestling, Lucha Underground is pure punk rock: more brutal, inventive, flashy, and spirited.
Among its many selling points, one of LU’s biggest appeals is its consistent showcasing of beyond-capable women, who wrestle in inter-gender matches alongside and against male competitors–whereas WWE keeps the women’s and men’s divisions totally separate and unequal; until rather recently, the women were not seen as even remotely close to the men in terms of importance and screen time.
Which brings us to the Women’s Tournament. As part of WWE’s attempts to remedy their history of putting women on the sidelines, and following the success of spin-off tourneys like the Cruiserweight Classic and the United Kingdom Championship Tournament, the company officially announced that they would be holding a stand-alone Women’s Tournament this summer, with new female brawlers from around the globe.
The show is also expected to spin off into a weekly series, exclusive to the WWE Network, similar to the cruiserweights-only 205 Live. Those who have been carefully following WWE’s behind-the-scenes machinations had seen this coming from a mile away, and have already clocked a handful of the potential fighters.
The tournament will be a mixed bag for wrestling fans, both hardcore and casual. First, the good news: WWE is seriously stepping their game up and signing mega-talented women from indie leagues and high-profile associations alike. The bad news, then, follows suit: it looks like they’re poaching stars of competitors for the purposes of putting their smaller rivals out of business.
Following this logic: at least two of Lucha Underground’s biggest names are rumored to have been signed on for the Women’s Tournament. That might not sound like much, but considering the relatively small size of LU’s roster, this puts some serious hurt on a brand already flailing.
Those two women in question are Kairi Hojo and Io Shirai; both are widely considered among the best living wrestlers (male or female) in the world. Although the WWE has been keeping tight-lipped about their signings, Reddit’s infamous bunch of hardcore super-sleuths have already deduced that Hojo’s contract is a done deal. They similarly detected that Shirai, often thought of as the better of the two, had appeared on the WWE’s website in photos, but those shots were quickly removed and her name was scrubbed completely from the site.
Does this mean that negotiations broke down… or that she’s being kept as a surprise for the tournament? Hard to tell. Either way: Shirai and Hojo had only just appeared on Lucha Underground as members of The Black Lotus Triad, a vaguely Orientalist yet impeccably-styled female assassination squad who took out Pentagon Dark in one of the series’ greatest matches to date. The Black Lotus Triad gauntlet match had been built up for two and a half seasons; to see two key players of this plot line leaving means that it will be nearly impossible for writers to properly end this saga.
As for the other Lucha Underground women, no one really knows what their plans are–they aren’t often listed amongst the rumored Women’s Tournament participants–but the WWE has plenty of motivation to at least attempt to seduce them. If not now, then eventually.
Ivelisse, an early heel of Lucha Underground, had previously competed on WWE’s Tough Enough series but had to drop out due to injury. She also participated in the early format of NXT, Florida Championship Wrestling, before leaving among rumors that she was treated poorly by since-fired head trainer Bill DeMott.
Ivelisse’s performance in the temple of Lucha has shown what a potential star she could have been, especially her legendary match with Mil Muertes–who she convincingly demolished before outside interferences stole the win for Muertes. If WWE wanted to poach her back, it could be seen as correcting a mistake they made by letting her walk away in the first place.
Then there’s Cheerleader Melissa, reinvented as the psychotic Mariposa for Lucha Underground, an internationally renowned talent who has put on one of the bloodiest matches in the series’ history. With the WWE recently snatching indie darlings like Heidi Lovelace and Kimber Lee, it’s not implausible they have their eyes on Melissa as well. Taya is another enticing option for the Women’s Tournament: a Canadian-born bruiser who came up in Mexico, her multi-national appeal is obvious, especially as WWE attempts to court markets outside of the USA.
All of this is without mentioning the biggest cross-over female star in the company: Sexy Star.. Despite her name–which, admittedly, sounds far more misogynistic than it plays out in practice–Sexy Star (née Dulce Garcia Rivas) has become the masked babyface darling of LU, almost singlehandedly carrying numerous storylines at a time, becoming an unlikely feminist icon and national treasure along the way. Rivas was the first female champion on the show, as she emerged victorious from the third Aztec Warfare match (the Lucha Underground equivalent of a Royal Rumble). Rivas has also held numerous championships in Mexico’s AAA, so her championship pedigree is stellar.
However, all signs at the moment point to her retiring from Lucha Underground and professional wrestling writ large, including the fact that she’s been more recently working as an unmasked boxer. That being said, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the WWE attempt to change her mind, probably with money unlike anything she’s seen before.
While Lucha Underground has, in fact, been greenlit for season 4, a more stable contract with the world’s biggest promotion is probably more enticing for its performers. Even if the aforementioned wrestlers are overlooked for this particular tournament, the fact that Lucha Underground has been nothing if not unstable since its inception will give wrestlers pause before committing to the El Rey show. Furthermore: noting WWE’s attempt at world domination, it would make sense for them to attempt to snatch some of Lucha Underground’s talent, successfully cutting them off at the knees before they get to be any bigger of a threat.
The possibility of WWE poaching Lucha Underground’s top female stars makes this summer’s Women’s Tournament all the more exciting–it’d be great to see these women celebrated at the highest level–but the talent raid on the horizon could finally spell the end of the little promotion that could.