TNA – Great Expectations

2001 was a pivotal year for pro wrestling in North America. On March 23rd, World Wrestling Entertainment purchased what remained of World Championship Wrestling. The cause of the once giant WCW’s demise is a whole different story for a whole other time, but the fact remained that the second largest wrestling promotion in the USA had ceased to exist. Less than two weeks later, on April 4th 2001, Extreme Championship Wrestling filed for bankruptcy. The Philadelphia outfit, as small as it was, would have at least provided sanctuary for many of the WCW wrestlers who had lost their jobs. Now though, with both companies gone and if you didn’t fancy trying your luck in Japan or Mexico, you had to get in line for a chance with the WWE. For those of us who remember those crazy few weeks over seven years ago, it was an extraordinary turn of events. At one time, it had seemed that Vince McMahon and the WWE would collapse under the pressure that WCW has heaping upon them. Now, he ruled supreme and if he didn’t want you on his roster, your chances of carving out a successful wrestling career in North America seemed very slim indeed.

In Tennessee however, former WWE/WCW talent Jeff Jarrett and his father Jerry were hoping to change all that. In May 2002, they formed NWA Total Nonstop Action, a new wrestling company founded under the premise of producing weekly pay-per-view events. The first broadcast hit the airwaves on June 19th 2002, in Huntsville, Alabama and ranged from excellent (Jerry Lynn, AJ Styles and Low Ki Vs Jorge Estrada, Sonny Saikai and Jimmy Yang) to abysmal (Teo Vs Hollywood in a midget match). It was a mixed bag of a show, but a small step in the right direction. On that day just over six years ago, the father and son team began a journey to become an established and successful operation and, most of all, the number two wrestling promotion in the USA, hoping to fill the huge chasm left after the demise of WCW and ECW. The Jarretts have certainly come along way in that time. Today, TNA can proudly boast their own branded World championships (they split totally from the NWA in May 2007), a weekly two hour television show recorded inside Soundstage 21 at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida and monthly pay-per-view events. They have international distribution for their programming and a soon to be released multi-format video game. It’s a case of ‘so far, so good’. But it would seem that for the majority of wrestling fans, not quite good enough…

The problem that Jeff Jarrett’s promotion currently has is one of public image, and in the eyes of many it does have its problems. TNA’s choice to employ the six-sided ring seems to have alienated many potential fans. Mike Tenay is a knowledgeable and entertaining Play-by-Play Announcer, but Don West’s bellowing can often become annoying after about 47 seconds, and the lack of a traditional ‘heel’ Colour Commentator often leaves the commentary unbalanced. Occasionally, the backstage skits can come across as decidedly second rate, as do some of the gimmicks; Black Reign, Shark Boy and Curry Man have ‘low budget’ written all over them and their ring attire looks like I’ve knocked it up in my garage. As good as the wrestlers are who portray these characters, and in Curry Man (Daniel Covell) they have an excellent one, the TNA creative department must realise that these gimmicks would never see the light of day in the WWE and only add to the notion that the Nashville promotion is small time. ‘Ultimate X’ is one of the most exciting stipulation bouts around, but some of the gimmick matches that TNA serve up leave a lot to be desired (the baffling Electrified Steel Cage match and the Fish Market Street Fight have Vince Russo’s fingerprints all over them), and the Jarretts are occasionally gulity of being over reliant on celebrity involvement to try and drum up interest in their product. When the majority of viewers tune into Impact, they expect to see a programme that can hold its own against Raw and Smackdown, but the lack of a ‘live’ broadcast, coupled with below par pyro/lighting/stage effects and a small crowd (just under 1,000 every time) seems to be a handicap for TNA. The WWE tour takes Raw and Smackdown to a different city and new arena every week, in front of sizeable audiences, adding to its aura of being a truly international operation. The pay-per-view’s are the same; WrestleMania, SummerSlam and The Royal Rumble out class Victory Road, Slammiversary and Bound For Glory in nearly every way.

The general consenses out there appears to be that TNA is a poor mans WWE, but I believe that this is a deeply unfair judgement. We must remind ourselves that Vince McMahon has had over 25 years to mould the company he bought from his father into his own vision. TNA has been active for just over six years, so maybe we should wait until 2027 and then compare notes on the two promotions (I’ll be going into my 50’s…gulp…) If most wrestling fans can keep an open mind, then TNA has so much to offer. The X-Divison has picked up the slack where the original WCW Cruiserweight league left off. After the WWE decided that it could do without the Cruiserweights, and methodically decimated the group week by week, TNA became the place to get a shot of high flying entertainment. The X Division has provided so many thrilling matches and moments that I couldn’t possibly list them all here. But one bout stands out above them all; at the Unbreakable pay-per-view in 2005, the X-Divison Champion Christopher Daniels battled AJ Styles and Samoa Joe in a Triple Threat Match, with the gold on the line. For those who haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you by saying who emerges as the winner but, in my opinion, this is the greatest wrestling match that either TNA or the WWE has produced this decade. No tables, no barbed wire, no steel chairs and no brawling in the crowd; just three incredible wrestlers doing what they do best. This 20 plus minute classic warrants multiple viewings and has set down a marker that the WWE will have trouble beating.

TNA’s talent pool is decent; Kaz, Jay Lethal, Rhino, James Storm and The Motor City Machine Guns (Alex Shelley and Chris Sabin) provide an exciting and refreshing mid-card and give ample support to a main event roster of Kurt Angle, Booker T, Sting, Christian Cage and Samoa Joe. The crowds who attend TNA events appreciate quality wrestling, which always generates a great atmosphere. And the Knockouts division beats the WWE Divas hands down; no sleazy and unseemly Lingerie or Pillow Fight matches here. The likes of Awesome Kong and Gail Kim are more then capable of producing a decent contest. TNA has the ability to cater for every taste, and this can only be good for their business.

In the mid 1990’s, WCW overtook the WWE as the number one promotion in the USA. As someone who was watching at the time, it was easy to understand why. History may not have been to kind to him, but I’ll always defend Eric Bischoff to the hilt, because he was the man behind the best wrestling programme ever made. WCW Nitro beat WWE Raw every Monday night, because it offered up a perfectly balanced show. Take a look at February 24th 1997, for example. On that evenings edition of Nitro was; Rey Misterio Jr Vs Juventud Guerrera, Ultimo Dragon Vs Dean Makenko, The Public Enemy Vs Jeff Jarrett and Steve McMichael and angles involving The NWO, Lex Luger, The Giant and Harlem Heat. It was a great mix of exciting new talent and major superstars, engaging in appealing storylines and having entertaining matches. Over on WWE Raw however, it was The Blackjacks Vs The Godwinns, The Road Warriors Vs The Headbangers, The Undertaker Vs Faarooq and angles involving Jerry Lawler, Savio Vega and Crush. Not very inspiring stuff and the result was another ratings victory for WCW over their bitter rivals. Its not hard to see why WCW had the edge; when given a choice between The Godwins and Ultimo Dragon, you can call me a wrestling snob, but I’ll take the masked man from Japan every time. TNA should follow this lead and attempt to produce a fresh and exciting wrestling show that will appeal to all tastes. With the roster they have, TNA could realistically establish Impact as the place to see ‘high-flying’ X-Division action, hardcore brawls for the disenchanted ‘original’ ECW fans, innovative gimmick matches and, of course, some wonderful wrestling action from the likes of Kurt Angle, Samoa Joe and Booker T. Most wrestling fans don’t want TNA to be a carbon copy of the WWE. We want to see something different, something that challenges the worn-out philosophy that Vince McMahon currently employs. WWE didn’t agree with Paul Heyman’s beliefs regarding the revival of ECW, so they got shot of him. The Cruiserweights? We don’t want anything to upstage John Cena or Triple H, so get rid of them as well. TNA can become a valuable alternative to the WWE by offering the fans what Vince McMahon isn’t

The future looks pretty good for TNA; the ratings are steady, the national exposure is taking its pay-per-views to bigger arenas with larger crowds and the recent UK tour was a great success. So successful in fact, that TNA President Dixie Carter recently made a very encouraging announcement. In January 2009, TNA will return to the UK for a four date tour. What’s impressive is the venues they have chosen; The Braehead Arena in Glasgow, Wembley Arena in London, The NIA in Birmingham and The MEN Arena in Manchester. The latter is the most exciting, as The MEN holds the title of ‘Worlds Busiest Arena’ (yes, even busier then Madison Square Garden) and could hold nearly 20,000 spectators for a wrestling event. If TNA can fill that place, and film an edition of Global Impact at the same time to be shown back home in the US, that will be a pretty bold statement as to the direction they are going.

The wrestling business badly needs TNA to continue to be a success, if only to break the monopoly that the WWE currently has. And the support of all wrestling fans is imperative. For the non-believers, just forget any pre-conceived ideas you may have and don’t approach TNA expecting WWE-lite.

Just see it for what it is and for what it one day could be.