Willie Mack's journey to Lucha Underground stardom not without hardship

Johnny Mundo and The Mack square off as Lucha Underground returns (1:12)

An "All Night Long" match for the Lucha Underground championship between Johnny Mundo and The Mack headlines the first episode of the second half of Season 3. (1:12)

Lucha Underground's "Temple" is simply an old warehouse in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood in Los Angeles, but it's responsible for as much of the show's unique persona as anything or anyone else. The 300-400 rabid fans known as "believers" pack into the Temple, unafraid to express who they love, who they hate, or who they don't even care about. The believers are as important to Lucha Underground's identity as the rowdy Philly fans were to ECW in the 1990s. A performer's path to success in the Temple starts with the believers. No one has formed a connection with the believers quite like Los Angeles native Willie Mack.

"That's because everybody who goes to the shows pretty much knows me around California and all the other places because I represent L.A. every time I go to a different city or country," Mack said in an interview with ESPN.com. "Everybody knows who Willie Mack is. I used to be a fan myself. I think a lot of people connect with me because I used to be in the crowd. Like every wrestling show around California, you'll see me in the crowd. You look at old videos and those people used to hang out with me. I guess they're like, 'Man, that's one of our friends. Somebody we know personally in that ring making us look good and proud.'"

From the moment ring announcer Melissa Santos announces, "from South Central, Los Angeles," the Temple erupts into "Mack" chants as he makes his way to the ring. Mack walks out in his exotic-colored trunks that make for an interesting visual paired with his heavy-set build and Afro. Witnessing his mouthguard-filled smile and easygoing demeanor, it's almost impossible to imagine the hardships Mack had to endure to reach this point.

"Well, my story is kind of weird because when I was 3 months old, my biological mom was in a house fire because she was high on some drugs when she had me," Mack said. "One of my older sisters kicked the door in and got us out. I ended up in foster care from it."

The life-changing experience sent Mack down a difficult path. He would be taken in by a foster mother from the time he was 3 months old until he was 14 when she passed away. Mack avoided contact with his sister due to her drug and alcohol problems and also rarely communicated with his biological mother. Although it took some time, Mack's father would come back into his life.

"He was around me a lot, but I didn't know who he was because I was just a little kid floating around until 1996 I figured out he was my pops 'cause he told me," Mack said. "My biological mom ended up coming around every once in awhile. She'd see me on the streets and be like, 'You know I'm your mama,' and stuff like that, so I knew she was my biological mom and not the foster mom who took care of me and raised me my whole life. It was good having him there to support me because without him and my foster mom, I probably wouldn't be doing any of this stuff. I probably would've gave up a long time ago."

With the support of his father and foster mom, Mack pursued a career in wrestling right out of high school. His father would continue to help him along his journey until he passed away in September 2012.

"He supported me," Mack said. "He knew I was wrestling, so he said, 'Whatever you do, make sure you do it to your best ability,' and I took that and ran with it."

Mack's athletic background in football, baseball, basketball, volleyball, track and field and karate helped him become a natural in the ring. He has far from the typical look of a professional wrestler with his potbelly and modest height, but his shocking agility and aerial repertoire for his size quickly made people look past his nontraditional appearance.

"I was always an active kid," Mack said. "Even though I was heavier, I always liked to play basketball or do gymnastics stuff, so it carried on when I got heavier and older.

"I developed [my style] because I started off training in lucha libre wrestling, and then I transitioned over to American wrestling and mixed the two together so I could have my own style. And I mix in the hard-hitting Japanese style 'cause I don't want to be the typical big dude, like as soon as people see me they think I'm going to be like a tank and slow the show down. But I could move as fast as the little dudes, if not quicker, and pull stuff off that people haven't seen before from a bigger dude. That's what I want to be. I don't want to be a typical big guy."

Mack made a name for himself on the independent scene with the help of Los Angeles-based promotion PWG. So much so that the WWE reached out and signed him to a developmental deal in 2014. However, the deal was short-lived as WWE doctors were worried about Mack's blood pressure and knee, forcing them to let him go after just six months. A phone call from Chris DeJoseph, a former WWE writer and lead writer for Lucha Underground, would give Mack a second chance.

"Chris DeJoseph contacted me on the phone after [WWE fell through] and said, 'Hey, we heard what happened, and we want to start you at Lucha Underground,' and I'm like 'All right,'" Mack said. "The WWE thing left me homeless for awhile, and once I took the Lucha Underground deal, it helped me out and put me back on my feet."

Mack debuted for Lucha Underground as "The Mack," being described as Big Ryck's cousin (former WWE wrestler Ezekiel Jackson). Mack spent weeks playing a complementary on-screen role until Big Ryck suddenly departed from the company. Mack was then given the opportunity to feud with a similarly multifaceted big man in Brian Cage. The two displayed instant chemistry with their rivalry culminating in the kickoff match of Ultima Lucha, the show's season finale and biggest card of the year.

The match, which was a falls count anywhere contest, lasted less than eight minutes, but two years later it's the match fans remember most from the three-hour special. The brawl included weapons such as a fire extinguisher, steel chair, stop sign, two-by-four, glass bottle and most notably a cooler filled with Miller Lite. Mack, who grew up as a Stone Cold fan, downed a couple beers and stunnered Cage in Steve Austin-style to the delight of the believers. The rest of the card had a tough act to follow.

"It seemed like everything clicked and worked and the crowd was into it," said Mack, who would face Cage once again at Ultima Lucha Dos. "It was fun. It was beautiful. I knew it was going to be that. We knew it was the biggest show of the year, and they put us on first, so it was like, 'All right this is the time. We're the ones who need to set the pace for the rest of the show and give the people something to remember.' A lot of matches you'll go outthere and forget about them as soon as the next match comes out, but a lot of people still talk about our matches even though it was the first match to start off both Ultima Luchas -- people still remember those."

Mack has blossomed into a featured star on Lucha Underground during the third season, earning a shot at the Lucha Underground championship after winning the Battle of the Bulls tournament. However, Mack has had to wait four-and-a-half months longer than expected for that title shot to air after the show took an unplanned hiatus. The wait will finally be over when he faces Johnny Mundo in Lucha Underground's second-ever All Night Long match on Wednesday's Season 3 return. The iron man match will last for the entire episode. Mack can't wait to finally see his work.

"It's kind of tough 'cause you're used to seeing it every Wednesday, and then we took that break," Mack said. "It's like 'Oh no,' 'cause you know what's next 'cause you was there, but then when the show's on hold you're like, 'No, I want to see it now.' But the wait is almost over.

"You can expect a lot of fun and a lot of hard-hitting action and entertainment 'cause we're going to give it everything we got in the whole episode -- an hour long. You're going to be in for a treat."

The exposure Mack has received at Lucha Underground has not been lost on him. Three years removed from being at one the lowest points in his life after missing out on an opportunity with the biggest wrestling promotion on the planet, Mack has now found a home at the Temple. The larger-than-life nature of the show fits his personality and skill set better than WWE ever could. For that reason, he plans to stay loyal to Lucha Underground and the believers, even if other companies show interest.

"If Lucha Underground keeps me, yeah, I'll stay with Lucha Underground," Mack said. "If other companies come up, probably not, because [Lucha Underground] put money and time into me, and it seems like they're taking more to make me a star, besides like the other places have me there and I get lost in the shuffle. Yeah, I want to do this as long as my body holds up and as long as the people want me to."