Lucha In Translation: On Mexican Wrestling’s Spread To US Television

By Arturo R. García

Poster for Lucha Libre AAA show “Rey De Reyes 2013.” Image via Facebook.

As it is with many fandoms, my relationship to Lucha Libre has changed over the years. Which made my ears perk up a bit last week when Lucha Libre AAA–the Mexican promotion, not the American car club–had reached an agreement to be broadcast on American television sometime next year.

It was even more interesting to see the news make its way through not only the lucha community, but the regular entertainment press as well. Because what separates this deal between AAA and FactoryMade Ventures is the stature of FactoryMade’s main players, co-CEOs John Fogelman and Cristina Patwa:

The two have previously worked with corporate brands Telefonica and JCP; and helped grow Hasbro’s film and TV business, which has resulted in the “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe” franchises, as well as The Hub kids cabler, with Discovery Communications. They also developed a digital gaming and commerce platform with HSN called HSN Arcade.

Lucha Libre becomes the latest Latin-themed venture in FactoryMade’s portfolio after partnering on Tres Pistoleros Studios and the El Rey Network, an English-language U.S. cable channel, with Robert Rodriguez, that’s backed by Comcast Corp and which launches Jan. 1, 2014.

The promotion itself, formally known as Asistencia Asesoría y Administración, is one of the two biggest in Mexico. While it has made some brief inroads in America since its inception in 1992, the deal represents the biggest move by a lucha in the US marketplace. And, as The Week reported, the deal hinges on the proposition that AAA can follow in the footsteps of not only its US counterparts, but other sports, as well:

Combat sports are an increasingly popular — and increasingly profitable — form of entertainment.

The WWE posted nearly $484 million in net revenue last year. That huge sum came from events and TV deals, but also from music, movies, and the licensing of WWE characters in the form of toys and other merchandise.

For a league like Lucha Libre AAA, which boasts 250 vivid characters — all of whom are covered by the new partnership deal — licensing could be a very lucrative future venture.

For the licensing aspect of this to work, however, those characters will have to be made to “translate” to this new market. Which makes me wonder what aspects of lucha will be incorporated into its American presentation.

Clip from “El Santo (L) y Blue Demon en la Atlantida” (1969).

At this point, that could mean an uphill battle against the image lucha conjures up for many modern viewers: random masked men in ever-outlandish movies that asked audiences to accept that not only were their battles with vampire women and Atlantean invaders life-and-death issues, so were the matches themselves.

Pro wrestling thrives on over-the-top conflict, but in presenting what WWE has defined as “sports entertainment,” Lucha’s presentation typically emphasizes the former over the latter. Take this interview segment filmed last year promoting TripleMania, the promotion’s centerpiece show, with one of the participants in the main event, Máscara Año 2000 Jr.:

The “promo,” as it’s called in wrestling parlance, is still delivered in character. But note the lack of hysterics or random insults. Máscara dedicates the match to his cousin, El Hijo De Cien Caras (real name: Eustacio “Tacho” Jiménez Ibarra) who was murdered in 2010. But even when the opponent, Dr. Wagner, Jr., interrupts the interview, nobody throws punches, or even raises their voice. It’s downright gentlemanly.

Máscara Año 2000, Jr. is revealed as Ángel Omar Reyes after a 2012 match with Dr. Wagner Jr.

The story in the ring that night was less civilized, of course, and the ending had Máscara losing his mask to Wagner, which is still a major plot point for any luchador. But even in defeat, the audience was allowed to see that even in character, Ángel Omar Reyes–the person under the mask–retained some humanity.

A partial transcript from the interview:

Reyes: You saw I had everything I needed to win, but it’s over.
Interviewer: Were you aware that you were about to be hit with a bottle? Do you remember anything after you got hit?
Reyes: No. I don’t remember anything. I wasn’t ready for this. We got careless. It was a mistake by my father and I, and mistakes are costly. I got overconfident, but I don’t count this as a victory for Wagner, because it wasn’t.

Reyes: It hurts. It hurts a lot to have let failed Tacho. [Tearfully] I didn’t lose. I didn’t lose.
Interviewer: What do you have to say to the people who supported you?
Reyes: That Máscara 2000, Jr. is born again. I feel bad because I failed. But I’ll leave that to you.

If AAA is looking for something to set it apart from the pro wrestling U.S. audiences are used to, this kind of storytelling might be what does the trick. After all, many of the people El Rey probably wants to reach have shown they’re willing to care about villains when allowed to see the method behind their misanthropy. Why should a literal mask be more of an obstacle for them than an emotional one?