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With Mark Burnett at helm, 'Lucha Underground' ready to take off

| Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Prince Puma delivering a dropkick to Pentagon Jr.
Univision
Mark Burnett (right) with co-executive producer of Lucha Underground, Robert Rodriguez
Fenix diving over the tope rope on King Cuerno in a Last Luchador Standing match
Pentagon Jr. about to cut off Prince Puma's aerial assault with a dropkick to the face
Johnny Mundo delivering his high-flying offense in a match against Killshot
Fenix diving back off the ropes hitting King Cuerno with an elbow
The Disciples of Death outnumbering Prince Puma in the second episode of the second season of Lucha Underground

Whatever fans think they know about professional wrestling likely will be forgotten after watching “Lucha Underground.”

The show takes the sport and turns it on its head, with high-flying feats of athleticism narrated with a cinematic sense of storytelling. Its success is due, in large part, to executive producer Mark Burnett, the man behind hit shows like CBS's long-running “Survivor” and ABC's “Shark Tank.”

“Lucha Underground” just finished filming for Season 2, which airs Wednesdays on the El Rey Network. Burnett confirmed filming for Season 3 will begin in March and air in January 2017. The El Rey Network was started by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, who directed “From Dusk to Dawn,” “Sin City” and “Machete.”

“ ‘Lucha Underground' clearly is wrestling but has an extra level of acrobatics. It's got a really great level of backstory and mystery with the masked wrestler,” Burnett says. “These backstories with these wrestlers are of the historical Aztec Mexican heritage that are fighting in America in East Los Angeles.”

That East Los Angeles location is an old rustic warehouse surrounded by many others like it, all used for shooting action scenes for Hollywood movies. This particular warehouse serves as the setting for “Lucha Underground” and is referred to in the show as “the temple.” It's a gritty, fight-club environment where the action, plus the excitement of a live audience composed largely of residents from nearby neighborhoods, is captured on eight cameras.

Professional wrestling, including industry leader WWE, functions like a traveling circus occupying arenas worldwide and filming much of their weekly content live. Whereas WWE operates like a wrestling company shooting a TV show, “Lucha Underground” runs like a drama that happens to feature wrestling.

“The backstory and cool vignettes make it feel like you're in a movie, and then there's real wrestling in the ring,” Burnett says.

In traditional professional wrestling, “stories” unfold through performers talking smack and foreshadowing upcoming matches to the camera. In “Lucha Underground,” stories are conveyed more through movie scenes, complete with multiple camera angles and accompanying soundtracks.

It's a new concept developed by Burnett, a man who has had the midas touch as an executive producer. He acknowledges there is luck in what he does, but he also attributes a simple formula to his success.

“All the shows I've made — the hits — I really like,” Burnett says. “When ‘Lucha Underground' came along, I thought, ‘I really like this, and I could enthusiastically put some focus in this.' ”

Burnett already was familiar with professional wrestling, given its ubiquitous presence in pop culture. He did more research on the history of Lucha libre, the style that influences the Lucha Underground concept.

“I realized how huge Lucha was in Mexico and how long they've been around,” Burnett says. “It's the No. 2 sport in the country behind soccer.”

The style of Lucha libre wrestling originated in Mexico and is famous for its fast pace sequence of moves. Many of the Lucha libre wrestlers are known for their colorful masks that hold a lot of significance to them and their family history. Masks get handed down to subsequent generations, and wrestlers go to great lengths never to be seen in public without them.

Rey Mysterio Jr. is considered to be the most famous Lucha libre performer with success in Mexico and then the United States performing for WWE. His uncle wrestled as Rey Mysterio Sr., trained him and handed down the family name. Mysterio Jr. joined “Lucha Underground” in the second season.

“When I saw the product for the first time live, I was fascinated,” Mysterio Jr. says. “It brought me back to my roots. Then down the road I got to see the first season on TV. The editing and final production was just incredible.”

The show has a strong appeal to Latino audiences but provides characters and stories for other audiences to relate to with several prominent American and Canadian performers featured in the first two seasons. A widespread underground buzz has been generated to wrestling fans, even if they're unable to view it on their television provider.

The El Rey Network's primary demographic is Latino audiences. It's in about 40 million households in the United States — in Pittsburgh, it's available only on DirecTV and Dish.

“We're going to get this distributed on a second window going back to the first episode so it will be much more available,” Burnett says. “We've got many people who want it. We just want to get the most eyeballs possible. Therefore, the only way to do it is to make it available and easy to find.”

The viewership demand is also a priority for those who want to witness it live. Burnett noted on filming days, typically always on the weekends, they turn away up to a 1,000 fans because there isn't room. That demand has led to plans to take the action of “Lucha Underground” on the road.

“We also are going to start putting together big live events, go beyond television, do more ‘Lucha Underground' for the public,” Burnett says. “The demand is there. We owe it to the fans and the sport.”

Justin LaBar is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jlabar@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JustinLaBar.

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