Second Rate or Second Best?

AJ Styles and Abyss have been mainstays on the TNA roster

As we head towards its biggest show of the year, Andrew Riche and Greg Phillips discuss the strengths and weaknesses of TNA Wrestling throughout its history

It is pretty incredible in today’s business model of overhyped start-ups and lightning-fast cancellations that Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, despite its predicted demise at almost every turn since it debuted in 2002, is still alive and kicking. In fact, president Dixie Carter (whose father Bob of Panda Energy is the majority owner) claims that despite a rash of budget cuts this year and an upcoming decision to halt their travel schedule and settle in one single location once again in 2014, TNA is in a better financial standing today than it ever has been. Let’s put it this way: Just last year, TNA celebrated its 10-year anniversary, having now lapped the run of the original ECW. Obviously Paul Heyman’s Philadelphia-based promotion is much more beloved in the hearts and minds of modern wrestling fans than TNA, which originated from the Asylum in Nashville, probably ever will be. But to completely and utterly ignore the many highlights (and, to the amusement of cynics, the lowlights) that have come about at TNA would be a severe case of missing out on the fun.

World Wrestling Entertainment will always be the most adored and prosperous wrestling company in the United States, likely until the end of days. But although TNA will never challenge the WWE’s number spot and sits at a distant second place, being runner-up in the dog-eat-dog business of professional wrestling is not a bad consolation prize. It is never a bad thing to be a hard-line WWE fan unless you become a zombified hater of everything not touched by the golden fingers of Vince McMahon (as Jordan Duncan illustrated in this hilarious article), and the focus of that pro-WWE vitriol usually lands in the direction of TNA. Sure, the company has misfired on specific signings, business ventures, storyline directions, and just plain bad matches to go along with all the good that it has produced in its 11-year history. All of this has occurred under the microscopic eye of overtly judgmental fans who are either big time marks for alternative wrestling and desperately want to see the WWE unseated from its throne (which will never happen) or WWE loyalists who would take delight in watching competition like TNA or Ring of Honor fall apart.

TNA and Ring of Honor are obviously very different in their business approaches, with TNA deliberately aping the style of programming that WWE uses in certain ways as an attempt to replicate their success, which is usually met with mixed reception. That is why you see so many familiar faces like Hulk Hogan, Eric Bischoff, and Kurt Angle  from the WWE Universe hovering around the Asylum, the old IMPACT zone in Orlando, or out on the road for their biggest show of the year, Bound for Glory. However, as PTB staffer and all-around good guy Ben Morse mentioned to me in a recent conversation (read Ben’s great TNA piece here), what has set TNA apart from the WWE palette is its firm emphasis on styles and forms of wrestling that Vince McMahon has blatantly disregarded in the past decade. TNA has been smart enough over the years to fill that wrestling void for fans of specific genres that WWE has given up on, from high-flying, high-risk action (cleverly titled the X-Division) to a Knockouts division that has produced some of the best women’s wrestling on television in many moons, to a flat out awesome history of tag team wrestling. TNA might change its mottos every now and then (From “We Are Wrestling” to “Crossing the Line” to “Wrestling Matters”), but it has been their steadfast ability to expand on the various boundaries that WWE places on itself that has made it successful and, in many instances, highly enjoyable.

I consider myself a deep fan of wrestling in general, so if you gauge wrestling fandom between the TNA mark and the TNA hater, I would put myself somewhere in the middle. I rarely saw TNA’s original weekly pay-per-views that emanated from Nashville, but got wind of the spectacular X-Division matches that were stealing the show from Scott Keith’s rants, featuring stars like Jerry Lynn, Sean Waltman, and Psicosis along with fresh up-and-comers like A.J. Styles, Low Ki, Chris Sabin, and Michael Shane. The production on the show was pretty sloppy and all over the place, but the intent of giving wrestling fans something different was commendable. The first tag team feud that really caught my attention at TNA was right after my first exposure to the company on FSN when America’s Most Wanted (Chris Harris and James Storm) fought Triple X (Christopher Daniels and Elix Skipper) in a cage match at their final pay-per-view in 2004, Turning Point. The match in the IMPACT Zone was an amazingly brutal bout with the high spot of a lifetime as Skipper walked the top of the cage and gave Harris a hurricarana. Triple X lost the match and had to disband, but it was that match that kept me tuned in to Total Nonstop Action, and the timing was perfect.

You could make a fair argument that in the years 2005 and 2006, when IMPACT was only an hour long and at one point did not even have a TV deal, that TNA was outperforming WWE in the ring and in entertainment value. The Bound for Glory pay-per-views from those two years were two of the best wrestling shows ever, regardless of affiliation. The feud between Styles & Daniels and the Latin American Xchange produced tag team wrestling to die for. The signings of Christian Cage and Kurt Angle are still seen as some of the biggest coups in the company’s history, when Dixie Carter seemed to have actually one-upped Vince. There was the famous three-way at Unbreakable ’05 between Styles, Daniels, and Samoa Joe that garnered a rare five-star rating from Dave Meltzer. There were hilarious segments like Kevin Nash and the P.C.S., Alex Shelley stalking Sting, the funeral for Team 3-D, and Scott Steiner in perpetuity. By the time John Cena was ushered in as the new king of the WWE, TNA was slowly finding its way and opening new avenues for also-rans and young talent.

As the years have gone by, ratings on Spike TV have never gotten to a point where it has even remotely threatened Stamford; their road tours are severely limited, and their pay-per-view buyrates have been laughable at times. But that has not deterred TNA from giving it the college try in order to offset the big game in town with some tricks of their own. Some of them have produced spectacular stuff, like Storm wrestling Harris in a violent Texas Death Match in 2007. If you grow tired of the ditzy, boring Divas matches that WWE trots out every week, look no further than Gail Kim wrestling Awesome Kong or Mickie James battling Tara in an fantastic cage match. I could make the case that the Knockouts division in 2008 and 2009 could rival women’s wrestling of any kind as the best in this country’s history. The X-Division was always plentiful as upstart Kazarian had a star-making ladder match against Christian and the Motor City Machine Guns duked it with Beer Money in one of the best tag team matches I have ever seen. It would be easy to say that the legendary names that have wrestled at TNA sleepwalked through their tenures, but au contraire to that, too. Angle and Mr. Anderson’s unbelievable cage match at Lockdown 2010 was better than anything I saw from WWE that year not involving Shawn Michaels or The Undertaker. The Olympic Hero’s catalog does not stop there, as he and company co-head Jeff Jarrett had one of the most violent brawls of all time back in 2009. Jeff Hardy has been rightfully criticized for his decision making, but his ladder match with Austin Aries last year was a sight to behold.

The list of great matches that have taken place either at the IMPACT Zone or at various arenas around the country for pay-per-view has only grown over the past year as familiar faces like Styles, Daniels, Bully Ray, and Jeff Hardy continue to provide memorable bouts with underrated stars like Austin Aries, Bobby Roode, and James Storm, who, like Styles, has been with the company from the beginning. But for every yin there is a yang, and although TNA has hit the mark many times in the ring, there is plenty of ammo for the haters to fire their rounds at the missteps by TNA. There is the simple fact that Vince Russo, one of the most reviled bookers in wrestling history, wrote TNA’s programming for more than five years of its existence, creating mishaps like the Reverse Battle Royal, Black Reign, and Team Pacman Jones. In vain attempts to catch lightning a second time, like when Hogan turned heel and formed Immortal at Bound for Glory 2010 or Sting wrestling Hogan at Bound for Glory 2011, the results were usually met with a big, fat thud. There was Sting oddly channeling Heath Ledger’s Joker in 2011, Jeff Hardy’s drug-fueled meltdown in a main event title match against Sting, and Kurt Angle in 2007 holding every title in the company, literally.

Then there was the just plain weird, like Samoa Joe and Kurt Angle getting down in an MMA lovefest during their main event title match at Lockdown 2008 and Joe ripping Scott Hall in front of everyone for no-showing a pay-per-view as Kevin Nash’s face turned red. I remember the IMPACT Zone strangely catching fire during Hard Justice 2006, the all-too-real Karen Angle/Jeff Jarrett love story where Kurt’s children were turned against him for the sake of TV, and the pathetic abomination that was Hardcore Justice and EV 2.0. It has been two years, and I still cannot figure out if the Hogan/Sting match was good or completely awful. The Monday night experiment in 2010 was a disaster and the company has tried out one randomly formulated faction after the next, from Team Jarrett to Fortune to the Main Event Mafia to Aces & Eights. Jenna Morasca and Booker T’s wife Sharmell at Victory Road ’09 managed to perform a “match” so unwatchable that it shot up the all-time worst lists the moment it was over. I enjoyed the hell out of Dr. Stevie’s feuds with Abyss, Raven, Daffney, and Mick Foley, but I still cannot figure out what the fuck was actually going on. As great as A.J. Styles is, even he had to shake his head last year in the midst of a pregnancy angle involving Claire Lynch – with acting so bad that the actress quit the company out of embarrassment. And please don’t get me started about the celebrity appearances (The less said about A.J. Pierzynski and Tito Ortiz, the better). The creative direction of TNA Wrestling has spun more times than a carousel, from Jeff Jarrett to Vince Russo to Scott D’Amore to Bruce Pritchard to Dave Lagana to Eric Bischoff, and answers to the many questions that surround the company’s potential are still yet to be found. But even when things fail spectacularly, there is always something to look back on and wear like a badge of honor when it comes to TNA. And trust me, if you stick around long enough and look past the Clair Lynches and the EV 2.0s, you might witness something great and something different from what the WWE has to offer.

I now open the floor to Greg Phillips, one half of the Hard Traveling Fanboys. What made you a true believer in the ways of TNA, or are you less enthralled with the options that the promotion has offered for wrestling fans in the past 11 years? What parts of IMPACT Wrestling have lured you away from the WWE to click to Spike TV over the years? Has the promotion reached its wrestling peak or is there still room for TNA to grow and become a bigger impact player in pro wrestling for years to come? Does the recent slew of cost cutting measures and being yanked off the road in the upcoming year scare you as a fan of TNA or are you indifferent to it like the other risks TNA has done that have yet to pay off? And whatever happened to that Abyss guy?

Samoa Joe and Kurt Angle at Lockdown 2008

Greg Phillips

I am an Internet Wrestling Community outlier in some ways. TNA is a great example of that, as I consider myself a fan of the company and cannot, for the life of me, understand the desire by many in the IWC to see the promotion fail.

I first watched TNA matches via file-sharing websites shortly after it formed, primarily due to the presence of AJ Styles. I’d become a Styles fan during his brief tenure in WCW as part of the tag team Air Raid. Needless to say, I was excited and blown away by the matches I’d watch online between Styles and the likes of Jerry Lynn and Low Ki. Soon I found myself seeking out anything with Styles or Ki involved, including their Ring of Honor work. I only kept up with the storylines through Scott Keith’s Smark Rants, but I found them to be sufficiently different from WWE’s matches that they were entertaining.

When I really became a TNA fan, though, was during the Fox Sports Net days. That iMPACT! show, while flawed, was mostly a solid pro wrestling show with plenty of good matches. The storylines were lackluster and the booking was frustrating (as would become the company’s hallmark), but there was never any question about the quality of work put in between the ropes. From solid veterans like Jeff Jarrett and Raven to exciting newcomers like Monty Brown, Chris Sabin and Alex Shelley, the show had a nicely balanced roster.

In the ensuing years, my interest in TNA has waxed and waned, but I’ve always tried to support the performers, because A) “Competition” is always better than a lack of it, and B) I want the performers to have a chance to ply their trade on television.

For some reason, many online have magnified every TNA misstep while ignoring the hard work put in by Styles, Christopher Daniels, Austin Aries, Samoa Joe, Bobby Roode, James Storm and even hard-working “old guys” like Sting and Kurt Angle.

Some of the best matches I’ve seen in the last decade have occurred in TNA — Styles vs. Daniels vs. Joe from Unbreakable, the entire Styles-Joe series, the Angle-Joe matches, Angle-Styles, Angle-Jarrett, Angle-Anderson in the cage, the Motor City Machine Guns vs. Beer Money, and so on.

That’s not to say I ignore TNA’s problems. The shows have often been rudderless, with no clear focus. Young stars like “The Pope” D’Angelo Dinero and the Motor City Machine Guns have slipped through the cracks in favor of former WWE midcarders like Sean Morley and the New Age Outlaws. And the storylines have either been too abrupt (2006-2009) or too drawn out (2011-present).

Still, the amazing abilities of several of TNA’s performers, including one of my five favorite active wrestlers (Styles), one of my all-time favorites (Angle) and the best tag team of the last 10 years (the MCMG) more than outweigh the bad stuff for me. Plus, once in a while the company hits a great character — Bully Ray in 2012, Alex Shelley and “Dr.” Kevin Nash in 2006, Beer Money in the latter part of the last decade. I’d put the Paparazzi Championship Series against any WWE comedy bits since the end of the Attitude Era, for instance.

As for the future, I’d be lying if I said I’m not concerned. The company’s made some drastic changes recently, and the signings of Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff have undeniably failed to pay off. Hogan was brought in specifically to raise TNA’s profile and ratings, and he’s done neither while commanding the highest paycheck. Bischoff has provided some great ideas, like the handheld filming style for backstage segments and the criminally underrated “ReAction” show that was cancelled before its time, but he also hasn’t provided an increase to TNA’s bottom line, at least according to the dirt sheets.

Ultimately, I’ll continue watching iMPACT! when I can, and I plan to watch Bound for Glory with some friends. One thing I can usually count on is some great in-ring action, and I’ve grown so attached to many of these performers (Bad Influence, Styles, Sabin and so on) that I wouldn’t think of abandoning them just because of the things I don’t like (the Aces & 8s, Robbie E, the current Knockouts division).

Place to Be Nation has you covered for TNA’s Bound for Glory 2013 PPV. We will have Ben Morse’s TNA themed Five Count, a full PPV preview by Scott Criscuolo and next week’s Place to Be Podcast Headlines episode will feature an in depth breakdown of the show, with guest hosts Greg Phillips and Nate Milton!

To read more about TNA, all check out these great pieces:

Callum Leslie rebooks the Bound for Glory series

Ben Morse examines TNA’s role to in the wrestling world

Scott Criscuolo reviews each and every Impact episode

Justin Rozzero issues a plea to Kurt Angle

Scott & Justin chat with Christopher Daniels