The-Mountain-Goats-Beat-The-Champ-608x608IF YOU’VE COME far enough to read this, you probably know that I’m a fan of professional wrestling. If I’m not spending time with my wife and kids, the odds are good that you might find me watching pro wrestling or watching, reading, or listening to something related to the genre.

While I’ve actually made a number of friends and acquaintances based solely on our mutual love for the squared circle and its inhabitants, that love can also be a lightning rod for criticism. I’ve been accused of advocating misogyny, bullying, violence, and all-around stupidity for my interest in the form. These criticisms generally come from those who have a limited understanding of pro wrestling or who’ve encountered a very small sample size, usually skewed to make the genre look as bad as possible.

It is true that many aspects of pro wrestling are legitimately grotesque, but the same can be said for elements of Goya’s paintings, Lynch’s films, O’Connor’s stories, and so forth. Art, one hopes, is not an easily digestible handbook of moral piety, but rather that “ice ax to break the sea frozen inside us.” And I say that because, at its core, pro wrestling is undeniably an art form. In fact, when done well, it is art of the highest order, a performance art that’s literally been known to consume the mind, body, and souls of its performers, and it is this intensity that cultivates such loyalty and emotional connection from its fans.

In the past, when trying to make this argument to others, I’ve cited Roland Barthes’ “The World of Wrestling” as the yardstick for explaining what wrestling means to me and my connection to it. Today though, I’ve had the fortune of being acquainted with a much more succinct and poignant treatise on the subject: the new track “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” by the band The Mountain Goats.

The Mountain Goats are an indie act centering around vocalist/guitarist John Darnielle. I’ve been marginally aware of him/them for years, but a local musician forwarded me this track due its wrestling connection, and I was blown away.

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Turns out, John Darnielle was a pro wrestling fan as a kid, and his favorite wrestler was Chavo Guerrero of the legendary Guerrero Family. Son of Gory and brother to Mando, Hector, and Eddie, Chavo was a fixture on the West Coast wrestling scene in the 1970’s, before making a comeback in 2004 as “Chavo Classic” alongside his son Chavo Guerrero Jr. in the WWE.

“The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” is a simple, folksy tune, but a great deal unfolds in its brisk three minutes.

“Born down in El Paso where the tumbleweeds blow/To the middle-weight champ of all of Mexico,” the song opens, “Dad fought many bloody battles, raised four sons/Chavo was the oldest one.”

Here the Guerreros are introduced as a sort of Abrahamic lineage wandering the wilderness, an implied grimness circling their fate, a grimness which would indeed descend years later in the loss of beloved Eddie, the most famous of the Guerreros, his death ostensibly linked to the rigors of the business.

“Old Man Gory could pop like a live grenade,” the lyrics continue, “Raised his boys in the way of the trade/Hector, Mando, young Eddie G/Chavo meant the most to me.”

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Again, the Guerrero family is elevated to folk hero status, but more importantly, in saying that Chavo meant the most to him, Darnielle establishes the emotional connection a fan forms with a performer, a connection that is the hallmark of wrestling fandom.

The song moves on a bit more before really getting to the core of what it is to be a wrestling fan, and how that fandom is intertwined with the performance in the ring or on the television set.

The narrator sings: “Before a black and white TV in the middle of the night/I’m lying on the floor I’m bathed in blue light/With the telecast in Spanish, I can understand some/And I need justice in my life, here it comes.”

And then the chorus: “Look high/It’s my last hope/Chavo Guerrero/Coming off the top rope.”

For people in their 30’s or 40’s who are still fans of pro wrestling, we typically had our formative experiences with the genre as children. Whether in the 1970’s like Darnielle, or in the 1980’s like myself, we first saw these performance artists who were a larger than life hybrid of super heroes and rock stars at a time when our imagination was at its most suggestible, its most unguarded.

It was also at a time when many of us felt at our most helpless, subject to the caprices and whims of a strange, adult world. But here was an otherworldly spectacle that somehow made sense. There were heroes, and there were villians, and regardless of which we sided with and how their allegiances might change, they conformed to an internally consistent pattern of behavior appropriate to whichever sphere they occupied at the time. They were unbendingly reliable, and they only let us down if it was in their character to do so.

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And they were real! Unlike the super hero in the comic book who can’t come off the page, or the actor on the movie screen who walks away from his role when he leaves the set, wrestlers were and are who they are in the ring even after they leave the arena. No one stops “Roderick Toombs” to ask for a picture or an autograph, or to stab him. They ask for Roddy Piper. It is a kind of gritty, visceral reality that doesn’t exist in any other form of performance art I can think of.

It is this strange combination of internally consistent pro wrestling logic and the blurred lines between act and actuality that made such a mark on me as a child, and I imagine made a mark on others as well.  And it is that very marking, taking place in the blue-light bath of the black and white television, that Darnielle describes in his song.

Darnielle sings: “He was my hero back when I was a kid/You let me down but Chavo never once did/You called him names to try to get beneath my skin/Now your ashes are scattered on the wind.”

Who is this “you?” An abusive parent? An unjust adult authority figure? A playground tormentor? We all had some sort of “you” in our childhood, didn’t we? I did. And like Darnielle, I looked to wrestling (and other forms of art) as a promise of something better. A time when those ashes, either figuratively or literally, would be scattered on the wind.

Apparently “The Legend of Eddie Guerrero” will be featured on an album titled “Beat the Champ,” which has a general wrestling theme. Per stereogum.com, Darnielle writes:

Beat the Champ is about professional wrestling, which was an avenue of escape for me when I was a kid. Wrestling was low-budget working class entertainment back then, strictly UHF material. It was cheap theater. You had to bring your imagination to the proceedings and you got paid back double. I wrote these songs to re-immerse myself in the blood and fire of the visions that spoke to me as a child, and to see what more there might be in them now that I’m grown.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a better assessment of the pro wrestling genre than in Darnielle’s claim that, “[Y]ou bring your imagination to the proceedings and you [get] paid back double.” That’s what sucked me in when I read my first Scholastic Book Order book about Hulk Hogan in 1986, and it is what keeps me coming back for more almost 30 years later. I’m thankful to John Darnielle for reacquainting me with my own visions that spoke to me as a child, and reaffirming the clarity with which I see them now.

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THERE’S A SAYING that goes: “In America professional wrestling is a joke, in Canada it’s a tradition, in Japan it’s a sport, and in Mexico it’s a religion.”

As an American I grew up in on the joke, I became familiar with the tradition by way of Canada’s Hart family, and I came to love the sport through the gateway drug of Jushin “Thunder” Liger, but in the case of Mexico’s religion of masks and the avataristic powers they bestow, I’ve always felt like an appreciative outsider looking in.

It’s never been due to a lack of interest in Mexican professional wrestling, but more due to the fact that I’ve had my hands full elsewhere. While I’ve certainly appreciated the odd Triplemania or Anniversario show here and there, not to mention the Mexican wrestlers who made such an impact in ECW and WCW during the 1990’s, lucha libre has always been the cultural form of pro wrestling that’s remained the most opaque to me.

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But now, thanks to the El Rey Network, for the first time ever, non-Spanish speaking fans and/or those who didn’t grow up with/know all the ins and outs of the lucha world have a chance to get in on the ground floor of a lucha product with the one-hour, weekly television show Lucha Underground.

Coming from someone who’s watched pro wrestling in a variety of forms for decades, Lucha Underground is one of the more refreshing, innovative, and accessible approaches to the genre I’ve seen in some time. Lucha Underground has the wrestling cred necessary to appeal to hardcore wrestling fans, but brings new bells and whistles to that table that make it stand out from the usual televised wrestling fare.

Pro wrestling TV shows typically present themselves as the result of a real world pro wrestling promotion putting on a televised event, but Lucha Underground is decidedly a TV show about a fictional pro wrestling promotion. Lucha Underground’s creators have established an internally consistent, intensely stylized world in which a dingy Boyle Heights warehouse has been commandeered by a shadowy, Spanish promoter and turned into a temple of lucha libre.

The storyline of Lucha Underground revolves around said promoter, the weasely Dario Cueto (depicted by actor Luis Fernandez-Gil) as he gathers the best fighters from around the world to compete with one another, Enter the Dragon style, and attempts to manipulate the outcomes from his position of authority.

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While the “evil authority figure” has been a played out meme in pro wrestling ever since the success of the Mr. McMahon character in the 1990’s, it works here in a way it hasn’t elsewhere. Dario Cueto is such a unique and nuanced wrestling villain that he brings none of the usual comparisons to Mr. McMahon, and stands alone as a vital component of Lucha Underground.

Calculating, but sometimes overreaching, domineering, but sometimes vulnerable, Dario Cueto keeps the viewer wondering what his ultimate motives are, what the key he wears around his neck unlocks, and who the caged figure he’s sometimes seen speaking to actually is.

All of this is aided and abetted by the phenomenal quality and production of Lucha Libre’s backstage/between-match promos and vignettes. As befitting a venture boasting executive producer credits from Mark Burnett and Robert Rodriguez, Lucha Underground’s cinematic scenes are top-notch.

Whether it’s Dario Cueto cutting backroom deals in his office, wrestling legend Konnan training his protege Prince Puma (Ricochet, of Dragon Gate fame), or origin stories of the various luchadores who’ve thrown their hat into the ring to compete, Lucha Underground’s cinematic scenes are a brilliant mashup of grindhouse films, telenovellas, Ryū ga Gotoku (Yakuza) video game cutscenes, super hero comics, and the original Japanese Iron Chef tv show.

That isn’t to say Lucha Underground doesn’t offer a compelling in-ring wrestling product as well. For the first eight weeks of the program we’ve been served a steady diet of wrestlers from Mexico’s Asistencia Asesoría y Administración (AAA) promotion, alongside some familiar faces from the American indies and the WWE. Each of these wrestlers are given a simple, succinct, and effective origin story/reason for fighting in the temple prior to their debut, and thus far have then been placed in feuds that make sense and progress logically from week to week.

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In the case of former WWE wrestlers John Morrison and Ezekiel Jackson (known respectively as Johnny Mundo and Big Ryck in Lucha Underground), both performers have already come across as exponentially bigger stars than they were in the WWE, not as a result of Lucha Underground’s smaller stage, but because of Lucha Underground’s much more effective form of presentation and story progression.

Lucha Underground has been on hiatus for the last two weeks due to holiday programming, but returns tonight with an episode that will see the inaugural crowning of the promotion’s champion by way of a 20-man, “Aztec Warrior” battle royal. Do yourself a favor and tune in. It’s one of the best hours of programming currently on cable TV, and I hope to see it stick around.

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As a postscript, it’s worth noting that Lucha Underground’s airing on/being a product of the El Rey Network made me familiar with the network as a whole. The El Rey Network needs a post of it’s own, but for now let me say that it’s a Robert Rodriguez conceived channel airing kung fu movies, grindhouse flicks, kaiju, stylized TV shows (Dark Angel, Miami Vice), and interviews between Rodriguez and directors like John Carpenter and Guillermo del Toro. And Lucha Underground. Basically, it’s the best network ever. Check it out if you’re inclined toward any of the above.