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The Absurd And Feminist Genius Of ‘Lucha Underground’ Wrestling

Photo courtesy of Ivelisse

By Graham Isador

During wrestling’s boom period in the ’80s and‘90s — there remains controversy as to what decade boasted the most devotion — millions of fans tuned in each week to watch their favorite superstars chokeslam and piledrive their sworn enemies, all clad in spandex and swagger.

It was a bizarre and beautiful world.

The WWE and WCW were ratings juggernauts boasting performers like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan. Wrestlers didn’t shirk from the spotlight; they demanded it. Amid this arguably odd pomp and prestige, female wrestlers were slated into a troubling — if classic — trifecta of misogyny, presented as shrews, sex objects, or victims.

While there were standout athletes like Alundra Blaze and Bull Nakano, and later performers like Molly Holly and Lita Raw — who showcased obvious acrobatic talent in the ring — their characters had little autonomy over their own actions and were largely there to react to the men on the show. Over the past few years, however, the major wrestling federations have made strides to present their female performers in a more progressive light, showcasing their swagger and showmanship.

One of the most promising and radical federations to put women at the forefront of their product is the Robert Rodriguez-produced supernatural wrestling telenovela Lucha Underground — an episodic, 60-minute wrestling program that blends in-ring action with elements of police procedurals and sci-fi, all while paying homage to the traditional lucha libre style. If that seems like a lot to take in, try explaining the plot of Westworld and see if you feel any less ridiculous.

Since Lucha Underground’s premiere on the El Rey network — launched by Rodriguez in 2014 — it has revolutionized the world of professional wrestling. The show is one part B-movie horror, one part Fight Club, and one very juicy part Days of Our Lives. Lucha Underground is truly groundbreaking, and not just for the wrestling realm; it’s actively reimagining what a television genre can be.

Rather than being shot like a sporting event, Lucha Underground cuts between neo-noir film vignettes and in-ring action, all driven by a linear plot predicated on its own mythology. And at the crux of that mythology is the strength, tenacity, and front-and-center presence of women, including the characters of Catrina, the immortal personification of death, and Captain Vasquez, her no-nonsense police chief sister.

These characters, alongside a handful of other female performers including international sensation Sexy Star, are driving influences on the show. And while Lucha Underground occasionally falls into old wrestling tropes — scorned girlfriends and merciless sex pots rear their heads — it remains one of the few shows on American TV with a constant representation of strong, independent, Latina women.

In short? On Lucha Underground, women are treated as equals. They frequently take up arms against their male counterparts, have their own plot-lines, and are given a chance to showcase their brawn and physical prowess.

Recently I had the chance to sit down with Lucha Underground star Ivelisse Velez. Velez is a former Lucha Underground trios champion — the show’s equivalent of the tag team titles — and a two-time champion of the Shine wrestling promotion (which boasts “the finest female wrestlers in the world”). She had a brief stint in WWE’s NXT and has performed in rings across the globe.

On Lucha Undergound, Velez is presented with a relentlessly outspoken demeanour; she’s quick to point out her goals and ambitions, is always looking to steal the show, and is ready to scrap with anyone who stands in her way. During our conversation, it was clear that Velez’s wrestling gimmick isn’t an act, but rather her natural personality turned up a few notches. To an 11 perhaps.

Here’s what Ivelisse had to say to The Establishment.

Graham Isador: You grew up “on the top of a mountain” in Puerto Rico. Can you tell me a bit about your upbringing and background? What was your childhood like?

Ivelisse Velez: It was very hard for me to be literally away from civilization. I am a very active, ambitious individual, so being in this type of environment had a big impact on me. But I left my home once I graduated from high school — despite my mother’s wishes — and embarked on this journey to follow the life I imagined looking out into the horizon of the Caribbean. This severed my relationship with my mother for some time — it was so hard — but I needed to follow my dreams.

Graham: You’ve said that you became interested in wrestling through your brother. Is he what actually drew you to the sport?

Ivelisse: I was always playing sports. I tried a lot of different things, from running and basketball to volleyball — I’ve always been an athlete. My brother was always a superfan of wrestling, along with my uncles. This passion for it rubbed off on me, and the fact that I was an athlete made me view it differently. I said to myself: I could do this. Why not? And against all odds — literally all — I made the decision to go for it.

Graham: You’ve said that you began your wrestling career at 15. Can you tell us how you started training — what were those first bouts in the ring like?

Ivelisse: The training was exciting and a bit scary at first all together. But I loved learning then and I still love learning now. My first experiences in actual locker rooms working were honestly quite uncomfortable. I would just go in, do my job, and leave. I felt very out of place. I never let anyone mess with me, though. I am sure many misunderstood my demeanor, but that wasn’t my concern. My concern was to do my job and not get in anyone’s way. I was very innocent, serious, and focused, and lacked a good amount of social skills due to the fact that I had lived such a secluded life.

Graham: During the time period when you began wrestling, the roles for females were more limited. The majority of women who were on WWE TV had two-dimensional characters, at best — the focus was more on their appearances as opposed to their athletic ability. Did that make breaking into the business more difficult for you?

Ivelisse: It sure did. Especially because of the fact that that particular aspect of this profession has never really been a priority to me. It sure was frustrating, but I held my ground. And because I refused to allow myself to be molded into that stereotype in and out of the ring, I was released (from the WWE), unfortunately. Politics have never been a strong suit of mine. I cherish honesty and integrity in my work. Too many people get away with a lot when placed in position of power, and that phenomenon occurs a lot in the game of politics. They always say: Play the game. But I’m not here to play games. I’m here to work, make an impact, and make a difference.

Graham: The current role of women in mainstream wrestling is fundamentally shifting. What do you think about the change, and what do you attribute this to?

Ivelisse: I think it’s awesome. It makes me happy to see change. It is not as fast as I’d like, but as long as there is progress, we are on the right track. My contribution is through my work. Strive for quality in your work. Be true to yourself, believe in yourself, and stand up for yourself — strive to be the best that you can be.

Graham: Do you think representation is important in wrestling? What do you think representation does for female fans watching the show, especially younger fans?

Ivelisse: Presentation is everything to me. The whole world is watching. I want to make a difference and show the world to have the courage to follow your heart and fight for what you believe in. Because representation means so much to me, it is very difficult for me to relinquish that control to bookers, writers, etc.

Graham: One of the reasons I love watching Lucha Underground is because of the character development. Your storyline started out as a controlling girlfriend, but over the course of the last two seasons we’ve watched you grow into a dominant and independent performer. How have you felt about your character’s growth?

Ivelisse: Honestly, I am not entirely ecstatic about portraying a “girlfriend role” — it’s definitely something I look forward to staying away from, but I made as much of it as I could. I don’t quite feel that my character has been able to do so solidly yet, but I’m sure it will soon. I do indeed look forward to that.

Ivelisse goes spider-monkey style.

Graham: Lucha Underground has also dealt with some complex and painful plot lines. One of the things that I was surprised about was portraying Sexy Star as a survivor of domestic abuse. How did you feel about that narrative?

Ivelisse: I am not entirely 100% sure on how personally true that may be about Sexy Star herself, but I’ve endured numerous encounters of domestic abuse. I never speak of it, but it definitely has an immense impact — not just on your physical health, but emotionally and mentally.

Graham: You’re often facing off against the male talent. This is a big difference between Lucha Underground and other wrestling promotions. I know you began training with male wrestlers, but how does it feel to fight them?

Ivelisse: Is it gratifying that the women are portrayed as equal fighters? I think its great! It makes LU standout from other products. Although, I feel it should be done with reality in mind — as well as when the matches are put together — but that’s just me. I am a “protect the art form” type of performer. On that note, I feel there should be — at least — a more attainable title for smaller fighters, like a Speed Title or something. Smaller fighters are the perpetual underdogs to the bigger fighters and that limits the complexity and diversity of our work from a performer’s standpoint/perspective.

Graham: Are you ever worried that the male-on-female fighting might be difficult to watch?

Ivelisse: I know to this day it is difficult for some and thrilling for others to watch. But I love it, if it’s done right! But again, I feel it should always be put together with a good balance of make-believe and reality. That’s my opinion.

Graham: What would you like to see more of in women’s wrestling? What is your ultimate goal as a performer?

Ivelisse: I would like to see more women focusing on the actual art form of wrestling, which is psychology. The entire point of what we do is to make people believe what they are watching is actually real. Everything about it. That’s what pro wrestling is. Or at least started out to be . . . you can be athletic and still keep that in mind!

My ultimate goal is to continue to contribute to women’s wrestling in a positive light and to inspire girls, boys, women, men, etc., and to be passionate about their interests and dreams! It doesn’t matter where you start or come from, with enough hard work and relentless courage, you can take yourself wherever you want to go! It will be one lonely road . . . but it will all be worth it when you reach your dreams. And after that, create some more dreams to reach and so on. That is the ultimate goal.