Wrestling Society X: The Prototype Lucha Underground

Ten years ago, MTV attempted to cut into the world of pro wrestling. It had a short life, but it was far too weird to simply forget.

Lucha Underground is finally on Netflix, giving the public a viable, mainstream way to check out its first two seasons without either hitting a show-specific pay wall or having to find a cable station that not enough people have. Lucha Underground is a very different show, playing up the more over-the-top aspects of professional wrestling while most of televised wrestling tries to stay down to earth in a world that looks more like a fake sport.

But Lucha Underground is kind of the successor of another outlandish wrestling experiment that had its cup of coffee on national television. Ten years ago, we had Wrestling Society X, MTV’s failed attempt to get into the pro wrestling TV game.

It was a disappointing time for wrestling. The echoes of the Attitude Era/Monday Night Wars had long fallen silent. WWE was in a holding pattern where Batista was always either champion, #1 contender, or injured at any given moment. Cena backlash was at an all-time high and the company had a hard time building up new stars, as they’d hit their heads on the glass ceiling. They also reintroduced ECW as its own brand and show, which was widely considered a failure at the time despite ultimately existing as what NXT is now.

Things weren’t any better with their competition at TNA. They just had their most successful money match of all time with Kurt Angle vs. Samoa Joe, but the hiring of Vince Russo as the head booker and the iffy handling of their big money-making feud showed that they weren’t going to get a leg up on WWE after all. Meanwhile, Ring of Honor didn’t even have a TV deal in place yet despite their quality.

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In early 2006, Kevin Kleinrock and Houston Curtis put together a pilot for MTV. It was going to be a wrestling show with a unique flavor. Something that would feature the kind of talent from the indies who regularly wouldn’t be on WWE’s radar, for one reason or another. Guys like Human Tornado, Teddy Hart, Jack Evans, and Scorpio Sky.

In the ensuing years, some members of the roster would get a brief stay in WWE. One wrestler would shine for a couple years and even get a tag title reign out of it. One wrestler would become one of WWE’s writers. One would become a trainer for the NXT Women’s division. And then there’s one tag-team wrestler from Wrestling Society X who would go on to stand tall as WWE World Heavyweight Champion at the end of WrestleMania.

Though there are some notable names who almost made the cut and didn’t, such as Terry Funk, Neville, Delirious, and Austin Aries. Though to be fair, Aries’ omission was less about things not lining up and more of him saying, “You want me to be on a team with Teddy Hart? Hahaha! Thanks, but no thanks!”

The show was filmed on a sound stage made up to look like an underground fight club with a worn-out wrestling ring in the center and random bits of graffiti. Before filming started, we got the first taste of the oil-and-water situation that would make the show so awkward. Taping took place in the middle of the week, in the middle of the day, which is not optimal for getting a bunch of wrestling fans to check out your show. To fill up the WSX Bunker, they sent out a bunch of ads in the area asking for extras. Namely, attractive extras.

When wrestling fans found this and let it loose on the internet, many laughs were had at what already appeared to be a hollow parody of their pastime.

The pilot featured a dark match that would be used for WSXtra, as well as two televised matches. The opener featured Matt Sydal (otherwise known as Evan Bourne) vs. Jack Evans in what was supposed to be a show-defining first look that used two dynamic performers putting on a high-flying clinic. And sure, it’s a feast for the eyes, but it falls short due to one of the show’s biggest issues.

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Namely, Wrestling Society X was a half-hour show. Once you take out the commercials, opening and closing credits, and the guest musical segments, you’re down to roughly 15 minutes of total ring time. That means matches have to be as short as possible and even then, they get cut to pieces to fit the format. Sydal vs. Evans loses snippets here and there with various overacted audience shots tossed in to hide the editing.

So yes, it’s pretty good, but it’s also a borderline highlight reel at times.

Then the main event arrived and showed the promise of the show. The WSX Rumble was a chaotic ten-man Royal Rumble with hazards littered around ringside. Once the final entry arrived, two contracts would be suspended above the ring. The first two finalists to grab the contracts would face each other in the second episode to crown the first WSX Champion. All the while, wrestlers would fall onto certain hazards where they’d get electrocuted and blown up in the hammiest way possible.

The match ended with veterans 6-Pac (Syxx/X-Pac/1-2-3 Kid) and Vampiro each grabbing a contract and the show immediately cutting to the credits because, again, half-hour format. What was funny about this episode was that even though it was strong enough for MTV to agree to pick it up and have them tape nine more episodes nine months later, only six of the ten men in that main event actually returned!

Justin Credible, meant to be a major player, opted to sign with WWE for their ECW revival and was already released by the time Wrestling Society X started airing. Puma – whose only TV appearance was a clip of him entering and being eliminated during the commercial break – was asked not to return due to feeling miserable about the experience. Chris Hamrick and New Jack didn’t return and one of the major reasons probably had to do with MTV’s issues with violence.

In the WSX Rumble, New Jack unleashed a wooden guitar and broke it over an opponent’s head, as he’s wont to do. When it aired, the sound suddenly muted on impact. MTV, as it turns out, had a rule against blunt objects hitting people in the head. Considering “blunt objects hitting people in the head” is 95% of New Jack’s offense, he wasn’t going to fit in. The idea of keeping the shot in but turning off the sound was a compromise.

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The show premiered on MTV on January 30, 2007, airing at 10:30pm ET to compete against WWE’s ECW. It did a 1.00 rating, which is respectable, all things considered. It was certainly better than what ratings would become in the month and a half that followed.

As a promotion, WSX was essentially two shows. One was, of course, the MTV series Wrestling Society X, a rushed wrestling show that featured guest musical performances from the likes of Three 6 Mafia, Good Charlotte, and Pitbull. After performing, the band members would join commentary for the rest of the episode. Quiznos would occasionally get product placement at the most questionable of times.

Then there was WSXtra, a companion show that appeared online. If Wrestling Society X made your blood boil with its rapid cuts and production gimmicks, WSXtra might calm you back down with what was essentially a solid wrestling show. They no longer had to edit their matches into oblivion, so you had a place where you could watch Ruckus matches in full and take the time to enjoy them.

It was a great place to enjoy WSX’s tag-team scene because say what you will about all the MTV nonsense, Wrestling Society X had a totally solid tag division. They had a total of ten teams with very distinct gimmicks and personalities. Everything from 70s-obsessed sleazebags to an emo odd couple to career convicts to Japanese dudes who get kidnapped and reprogrammed by the yakuza midway through the series.

WSXtra also seemed to be the only place where you could see the likes of Matt Classic and the Trailer Park Boyz. Sure, they had some vignettes on the main show, but they never actually wrestled. Matt Classic – an anachronistic masked grappler from the 1930s – was a gimmick played by Colt Cabana and was so beloved by fans despite his lack of exposure that he’d regularly reprise the character in CHIKARA, Absolute Intense Wrestling, and Premiere Wrestling Xperience (where he took on Jerry Lawler). He even released a “shoot interview” for the character which is as bizarre as you’d expect.

Anyway, Wrestling Society X continued on for the next few weeks. Each episode would be introduced by the obnoxious Fabian Kaelin, a hype-filled announcer who gradually transformed into a carnival barker while conjuring up lightning bolts and multiple pyres of flame. Even with the show long dead, he was able to keep the spirit of that character alive years after by being that old-timey announcer guy who introduced the Vaudevillains before they petered out.

It wasn’t just the multiple pyres of hype flames or the over-the-top explosions that gave Wrestling Society X its aesthetic. Other outlandish quirks appeared here and there, like adding special filters to wrestlers during backstage promos. Matt Sydal and his girlfriend Lizzy Valentine would have a pink heart filter while Jimmy Jacobs and Tyler Black would talk it out while overlaid with images of flowers. Whenever the 400 pound Vic Grimes hit a move with any semblance of impact, the camera would shake.

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One of the more entertaining visuals was a bout between Keepin’ It Gangsta and That 70s Team, where they used a “blinged out ladder.” That meant that whenever said ladder was on camera, a bunch of cartoony sparkle effects would appear over it to play up the diamonds encrusted in it.

But the king of ridiculous special effects would happen at the end of the fourth episode. It would also be the moment that cut down anything resembling momentum and killed the series. By that I mean the infamous Vampiro fireball spot.

The end of Episode 4 had WSX Champion Vampiro confront 6-Pac, only to be interrupted by newcomer and blood-vomiting enthusiast Ricky Banderas. The storyline was that Vampiro horribly scarred Banderas with an exploding casket back when they fought in Puerto Rico. Sporting a badass burn scar over much of his face (inspired by how much of a letdown it was when Kane unmasked and had a normal face), Banderas showed up by destroying Vampiro and throwing a fireball into his face.

Fireballs are nothing new to the wrestling world. Light a piece or two of flash paper, flick it, and you have a cool visual, in theory. Unfortunately, MTV didn’t see it like that. Much like how they dropped the hammer on Beavis and Butt-head, fire was off the menu due to fear of viewers copying that behavior. And no, muting the flame wouldn’t work this time. The February 20 release of that episode was delayed for a week, meaning the series was already showing reruns within a month of beginning.

When the episode finally aired, the editors added a shockwave of distortion to make it look less like a conventional fire and more like something thrown by a Dragonball Z character. It’s so stupid yet circles around into being a work of art.

The writing was unfortunately already on the wall and MTV decided to cancel the series. Shows may get cancelled all the time, but MTV certainly went about it in a weird way. They skipped the following week and instead spent 11pm to 1:30am of the Tuesday night after that marathoning episodes 5-9. I should note that Wrestling Society X had ten episodes. For some reason, MTV decided to never air the final episode. MTV, the network that aired 35 episodes of The Brothers Grunt, didn’t think that Wrestling Society X Episode 10 was worth airing at 1:30am on a Tuesday night.

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And so, on March 14, 2007, Wrestling Society X ended in its incomplete form. Luckily, the whole series was released on a four-disc DVD set called Wrestling Society X: The Complete First (and Last) Season. For understandable reasons, all of the musical performances were omitted for the release, meaning that there’s a New Found Glory performance in the WSX Bunker that will sadly (?) never see the light of day.

As for how the promotion ended, Ricky Banderas defeated Vampiro for the WSX Championship in the eighth episode, which was Banderas’ only match. The finale had a Piranha Tank Tag Team Match featuring The Cartel and Los Pochos Guapos as well as an Exploding Cage Tag Team Match between Team Dragon Gate and The Filth and the Fury. The latter of which featured a massive explosion that was in no way added in post production and meant having to evacuate the audience immediately afterwards.

There were plenty of plans for stuff that never came to be. The Cartel and Team Dragon Gate were going to feud over turf and drugs. Vampiro vs. Ricky Banderas would expand into a stable war and lead to an Exploding Ring Match down the line. New Jack would return and mentor Scorpio Sky. There would maybe be a pay-per-view event. They would start up a new tag title and a counterpart to the X-Division Championship. Colt Cabana would be repackaged with a fraternity gimmick and feud with Matt Sydal. Teddy Hart would feud with his Filth and Fury partner M-Dogg 20. Had it gone to a third season, there would have been a “Chix” division for the women.

Instead, Wrestling Society X became a near-forgotten novelty buried in wrestling history. Which is a shame in my eyes, since although the main show was a chopped-up sprint to get a wrestling show over and done with, the WSXtra web stuff really complemented it all and turned it into a unique alternative with potential.

But the wrestling business is a strange bird sometimes. Much like TNA came to fruition to fill the void left from WCW’s demise, Lucha Underground appeared years later to try and succeed where Wrestling Society X failed. Once again, it was an off-the-wall wrestling TV show that nestled itself in how larger than life and silly it all ultimately is while featuring some of the same talent and taking place inside an underground fight club. The first season even ended with Ricky Banderas (under the gimmick Mil Muertes) holding the championship as a monster heel.

While a second season was in question for a long while, Lucha Underground showed that it would indeed go further than its spiritual predecessor. Now it’s in the middle of the third season with plans for more, all while the Netflix-viewing audience will have a chance to get caught up.

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Now if they could only get around to having an Exploding Cage Tag Team Match already.

Gavin Jasper would like to note that two WSX alums were part of Daniel Bryan and Kane’s anger management class. Wrestling is weird sometimes. Follow Gavin on Twitter!