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Late last night WWE decided to grant the release of one Andrade, aka La Sombra. I’d imagine this was by design; you don’t announce a release at 11 p.m. in the evening because you’re looking for much fanfare. Alas the lucha libre community doesn’t sleep and the next thing you knew fans were celebrating the news as if the Galactic Empire had just been defeated. There were parties on the Forest Moon of Endor and everything! From the outside looking in you may be wondering why people would react with joy over a luchador, or anyone really, losing their job with the biggest wrestling promotion in the world especially during the pandemic. Allow me to tell you why.
For as long as I can remember WWE has been chasing after that fabled “Latino Star”, their big draw for the Hispanic market. Once a year we get a report or two about how the promotion is on the hunt for “the next Eddy Guerrero, the next Rey Mysterio” and how so and so is the new candidate. It’s a spot that could be filled by anyone of Hispanic descent but generally a luchador from Mexico is considered the ideal candidate. La Sombra was that most recent candidate. He was labeled as such the moment Atlantis took his mask at the 82nd CMLL Aniversario in 2015, just weeks before his signing with WWE was made official. He had the skill, he had the charisma, he had the youth and I’m pretty sure the phrase “that is a beautiful man” was designed specifically because of him. Over the next few days you’ll see people use those traits to describe Sombra as a “can’t miss prospect”, a talent that Vince McMahon should’ve gotten right and somehow didn’t. And I’ll just be sitting over here laughing. Why? Because like Thanos, last night’s release was inevitable. We were always going to wind up here, La Sombra basking in the sweet glow of freedom on one side while others wondered what went wrong on the other side. And the answer was always going to be the same; that when it comes to lucha libre, WWE is like Warner Brothers juggling the DC Cinematic Universe.
It would take forever and a day to determine just how many luchadors have passed through WWE’s doors over the last thirty years, let alone their entire history. A quick ten minute search however will show that it’s been some of the best talents in lucha libre history. For starters there was Konnan, who worked for WWE in the early 90’s during a period when he was the biggest star lucha libre had seen since El Santo. A few years later, just before the dawn of the Attitude Era, WWE reached a working agreement with AAA, which saw lucha libre legends like Hector Garza, Cibernetico, Abismo Negro, Heavy Metal, X-Fly, Mascarita Sagrada, Pantera, Jerry Estrada and Perro Aguayo Sr. and Jr. work shows. In 1999 El Hijo del Santo and Negro Casas, two of the greatest luchadores to walk the face of the earth, wrestled matches for the promotion. Mr. Aguila, a young talented high flyer from CMLL, was also brought in as Essa Rios around the same time.
The mid 2000’s saw WWE sign Juventud Guerrera, Psicosis and Super Crazy, three luchadores who wowed fans in WCW and ECW only a few years earlier. Between 2010 and 2011 WWE doubled down on the search for their next big Hispanic star when they signed Alberto Del Rio and Caristico (aka the first Mistico, aka the first Sin Cara). The former was CMLL’s top heavyweight and lucha libre royalty (the son of Dos Caras and the nephew of former WWE star Mil Mascaras). The latter, another CMLL alumni, had spent the previous decade as lucha libre’s biggest star, a mixture of Konnan’s box office and Rey Mysterio’s thrills. Finally, in the past decade alone WWE has signed the likes of Sombra, Gran Metalik (Mascara Dorada), Kalisto, Hunico (Sin Cara II), Lince Dorado, TJ Perkins, Santos Escobar (El Hijo del Fantasma), Raul Mendoza (Ronnie “Jinzo” Mendoza), Angel Garza, Humberto Carillo (Ultimo Ninja), Joaquin Wilde (DJZ) and Dominik Mysterio, among others. You do the math; it adds up to a whole lot of talent.
So how many of those guys became big time stars for WWE? Surely a few of them had to right? Try zero. I’ll say it again in bold letters; ZERO! At the height of his powers Vince decided that the best use of Konnan was to make him a cyborg called Maxx Moon; the mega star lasted under the gimmick for a hot minute before deciding to stick with AAA full time. Speaking of AAA, their deal with WWE in 1997 didn’t even last as long as Firefly. Within months it was dead, with WWE choosing not to pick up any of the talent (Bruce Prichard would later claim only Hector Gaza stood out among them. He naturally never worked for WWE again). Santo and Casas made appearances on WWE’s Super Astro program and nowhere else. As Rios, Aguila was paired with Lita, dumped by Lita and then sent to undercard purgatory before being fired. At least he lasted a year and a half; Juvy and Psicosis didn’t even get that long, lasting a year or a half a year respectively before getting bounced. Super Crazy managed a longer run, though it basically involved him taking pins and wasting his talent till he was quietly let go in 2008.
None of these busts quite compared to Caristico. As the first Sin Cara, his three year tenure in WWE was filled with botches as he failed to adapt his style and a refusal to learn English. It was a run so bad that it ultimately killed his stock and turned a Hall of Fame career into a cautionary tale. And then there’s the current crop. Sombra is gone. Perkins is now wrestling in Impact, New Japan and MLW. Hunico is now back in Mexico as Cinta de Oro. Metalik and Dorado have transitioned from a trio with Kalisto going nowhere fast to a tag team going nowhere fast. Like his uncle Hector, Garza was initially beloved by WWE management only to now find himself unable to get TV time. At least he’s not his brother Carillo, an afterthought of such proportions you’d be forgiven if you forgot he was still employed. Of the current crop only Escobar, Mendoza, Wilde and Dominik could be categorized as being used well; of course Mendoza and Wilde are portrayed as lackeys and Dominik is a rookie in the shadow of his legendary father.
What of Rey Mysterio you may ask? Surely he stands out from the rest? You’d be right; in the past thirty years Mysterio, Eddy Guerrero and Del Rio are the only luchadores to become world champions in WWE. That’s right; a grand total of three luchadores out of dozens and dozens have made it to the top! As lame as that is it somehow isn’t half as lame as how WWE booked all three as champions. Del Rio, the WWE luchador least deserving of a push who got one, because of course he did, had four world title reigns. I guess it’s quite accomplishment for Del Rio and WWE when I say each reign somehow topped the previous one in lack of interest. Guerrero, who was framed as a mid-carder most of his career, despite WWE’s retrospective claims they always valued him, won his world title only when fans forced WWE’s hand; he lost it a few months later after being blamed for declining ratings.
Now we get to Mysterio, one of the most influential performers in wrestling history and arguably the best pushed Hispanic star in WWE over the last thirty years. It’s not saying much. For the longest time Rey was presented the same as he was in WCW; an exciting cruiserweight who wasn’t rising above that level. It was only after Guerrero’s tragic death and pressure from the writing team that Vince McMahon went kicking and screaming into giving him a title run. And what a title run it was. We watched Rey lose every non title match he was put in for months on end before he lost the title to King Booker. All that for him to enter a mid-card feud with Guerrero’s nephew, Chavo Guerrero Jr. Rey has had two more world title reigns since; I can’t tell you a thing about the second reign and the third lasted less than two hours. Despite being a great worker even into his mid 40’s, he has spent the bulk of his WWE runs below his level of skill and in the past year has been thrown off buildings and had his eye plucked out (and then put back in because…because). And remember; he’s probably the best booked luchador in WWE history.
To be clear, not all failures are the same and not everything was WWE’s fault. Talents like Juvy, Psicosis, Del Rio and Caristico all shoulder responsibility for why their runs didn’t work, whether it was legal issues, an unwillingness to adapt or in Del Rio’s case being a Grade A asshole. But if you take away those issues I’m not sure anything changes. Del Rio being a nice guy instead of whatever he is these days doesn’t suddenly mean WWE figures out how to make him interesting. Caristico learning English and Americanizing wouldn’t have suddenly expanded his 5’7 frame and made him more than 180 lbs soaking wet. The point is that you could find the best luchador in the world who is the nicest, least problematic dude in the world and it still wouldn’t change the fact that he’s booked by 75 year old white man (with help from a 58 year old white man who believes lucha libre is beneath him) who don’t get it. There is no cure for that disease.
La Sombra’s six year run in WWE highlights that pretty well I think. It’s funny too because, due to the standards of WWE’s booking being so low, Sombra is probably one of the five best booked luchadores in WWE. Only Guerrero, Mysterio and Del Rio have been booked better. And sure, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Sombra’s run as NXT Champion was a strong one, and the famed Takeover: Philadelphia match against Johnny Gargano remains one of the best things in WWE history (I’m also certain it broke Gargano; he’s been nowhere near as good since!). He found the perfect partner (onscreen) for him in Thea Trinidad (Zelina Vega), another Hispanic talent WWE dropped the ball on. On the main roster he got to have several amazing matches with Mysterio, easily among the best work Rey’s been involved in since his return. Oh, and there’s the fact that Sombra met his future wife Charlotte Flair (for those of you who are several streets behind). Without a doubt there was some good to go with the bad.
But once you remove all of that, it’s not hard to see that the bulk of his six years in WWE were a waste. His debut as what appeared to be a salsa style stripper bombed and his well received heel turn months later went nowhere till he was paired with Trinidad. Taking out the Mysterio matches, his main roster run was full of start and stop pushes. Remember his US Title run? That was most notable for the thirty days he missed due to a Wellness Suspension. How about that tag team with Garza, a team put together because in WWE luchadores can only team with other luchadores? That did so much for both that Garza now spends RAW tapings searching to see if Ninja is still employed while Sombra is at home deciding between AEW, ROH, New Japan, AAA and CMLL.
For over 80% of this run La Sombra, despite being touted as the next big Latino star and a can’t miss prospect, had nothing worthwhile to do unless he was backed by Triple H or Paul Heyman. The moment his fate was left into the hands of Vince and Prichard, the writing was on the wall. And it’s not like this was a secret; almost every six months there were reports of him being unhappy and considering going back to Mexico. We’ve even had reports of him telling friends and fellow luchadores Rush and Dragon Lee not to come to WWE due to how miserable he was. For those outside the lucha libre bubble it may have seemed like no big deal; just another wrestler talking tough who’d then fall back in line when the zeroes were added to the contract. But for all of us, myself included, the question was never if it would become too much for Sombra but when. As it turns out, the when was a week ago.
And so here we are, another otherworldly luchador wasted by WWE. As you have seen La Sombra isn’t the first and I can offer a personal guarantee he won’t be the last. Short of Vince and Prichard deciding to retire tomorrow you have likely seen as good as it will get for the likes of Metalik, Dorado, Kalisto, Garza, Carillo and even Mendoza and Wilde. Mysterio will for sure always have his spot and Dominik benefits from being his son, but as we’ve seen there’s only so much WWE will push them. Only Escobar has a chance to break through due to his ability to speak English without an accent (another Vince requirement), and even then trusting WWE to do the right thing is doing so at your own peril. We know the score; we know the story. This is what WWE has done for thirty years; they have had some of the best lucha talent in the world, squandering all but a handful and then not done enough with said handful. It’s a shame, but in the end La Sombra was just the latest in a long line. Will it serve as a warning to other Hispanic talents? Or will they take the “I’m too good; that won’t happen to me” attitude so many take when taking the leap? Only time will tell.
For now WWE’s search for the fabled top Latino star continues. And the explanation for why they can’t find that star remains in plain sight.
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RELATED NOTE: WWE releases Andrade from his contract