In the summer of 2002, TNA—Total Nonstop Action—Wrestling, in association initially with the NWA, launched as the first true North American sports entertainment alternative to WWE since the closures of WCW and ECW over a year earlier. Founded by former WCW World champion Jeff Jarrett and his father longtime promoter Jerry, the new company featured a combination of older names alongside up and coming stars with the unique delivery method of a weekly pay-per-view taped from Nashville and aired every Wednesday in lieu of a national television deal.
I didn’t order the first TNA pay-per-view—wherein ex-UFC and WWF star Ken Shamrock won the NWA title—but I definitely sampled at some point during that first summer before I headed back to college in the fall. Despite delivering a killer SummerSlam that year, WWE had settled into a bit of a malaise with a bloated roster and no real competition, so I welcomed an alternate take.
Those initial TNA offerings could be described less as an “alternative” and more as “throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks.” You had the juxtaposition of girls dancing in cages and midgets masturbating in trash cans with the rich history of the NWA being represented by legends like Harley Race and Ricky Steamboat. You had convoluted matches involving every conceivable form of the battle royal and forgettable gimmicks like the Dupp family.
However, while the firing a machine gun at a dartboard approach to booking that Vince Russo and company employed in those first months and years of TNA churned out a lot of crap, from the start, bright spots emerged. Ron Killings, a WWF cast-off who had gone by K-Kwik for a cup of coffee in 2000 and 2001, emerged as a bonafide main eventer and won the NWA title from Shamrock in a matter of months. The New Church rose up as a strong faction and showcase for the underutilized Jim Mitchell as a mouthpiece. And beginning on the second episode, something called the X Division grabbed the attention of wrestling fans everywhere.
Whereas WCW built a mid-card around their much-lauded cruiserweights for years, TNA took the idea to the next level, establishing a title focused on the more athletic, high flying members of their roster who could be counted on for great matches week in and week out, but with the emphasis on talent over weight; most X Division competitors happened to be cruiserweights, but this would not be a hard and fast rule.
TNA would crown its inaugural X Division champion in AJ Styles, a young competitor based out of Georgia who had signed on with WCW just before they shut their doors. Though his interviews didn’t prove to be the stuff of legend out of the gate, AJ’s feats in the ring could not be equaled, and more importantly, his genuine passion for what he did and dedication to the company giving him an opportunity made him the ideal choice to serve as TNA’s first truly “homegrown” star for the Nashville crowd to rally around. AJ’s incredible feud with veteran Jerry Lynn would help put the X division on the map and carve out a place for TNA on the wrestling landscape.
While AJ Styles tore it up with the likes of Lynn and others, two seemingly mismatched young journeymen proved the perfect combination to kick start TNA’s tag team division. Initially brought together as a wild card unit with a gimmick of having little in common, straight-laced “Wildcat” Chris Harris and raucous “Cowboy” James Storm proved to have amazing in-ring chemistry as America’s Most Wanted and would serve as the pillars of tag team wrestling in TNA for over five years. Their early violent encounters with the New Church would set the stage for even greater things to come against the “Triple X” duo of Elix Skipper and Christopher Daniels and others.
Interestingly, the heavyweight domain of TNA often seemed its weakest when held up against the impressive action of the X and tag team divisions. This would change in 2003 when Raven joined the company and embarked on a quest to take the NWA title from then-champion Jeff Jarrett, though Styles would end up beating him to the punch. The emergence of Raven, continued excellence of AMW and new X division stars like Chris Sabin, Frankie Kazarian and more taking the stage often ran parallel to Vince Russo’s convoluted Sports Entertainment Xtreme storyline or the rotating cast of authority figures from Erik Watts to Don Callis to Russo himself.
Indeed those early months of TNA can be seen as a microcosm for the company’s now decade-plus history (and for a little bit of context, WCW as WCW only lasted 10 years while ECW had a national peak of six or seven years tops).
Obviously, a lot has changed when it comes to TNA—or Impact Wrestling as they prefer to be called these days—since 2002. Most prominently, Panda Energy purchased the company from the Jarretts, providing a much deeper checkbook and the leadership of the enthusiastic but sometimes seemingly overwhelmed Dixie Carter. The weekly pay-per-view system did not last, giving way to a weekly show on Fox Sports Net and eventually a prime time spot with SpikeTV, who became a major backer. Their ring has had four sides, then six sides, then back to four. Free agent signings from Jeff Hardy to Sting to Christian Cage to Team 3-D to Kurt Angle to Mick Foley to Hulk Hogan have changed the face of TNA time and again.
For me, one constant has remained: TNA does its best work when it presents itself as an alternative to WWE.
While TNA has been able to use some former WWE and even WCW main event players to great effect—Sting, Angle, Hardy—and boost other to opportunities they never had elsewhere—see Bully Ray’s current run—their most valuable players have been those they’ve “built” from scratch or culled from the independent scene. You could argue nobody in wrestling had a more impressive aura than Samoa Joe from 2005 to 2008, and one of the most successful TNA shows ever, Lockdown 2008, grew out of his amazing rivalry with Angle. Bobby Roode debuted for the company a decade ago and has grown from a dependable tag team competitor to among the best heels in the business. Most had written off Austin Aries following his 2011 parting of the ways with Ring of Honor, but two years later, he’s at a higher point in his career than ever.
The X Division has ebbed and flowed, but for the most part it has continued to churn out tremendous matches and create stars. The series of encounters between Styles, Joe and Christopher Daniels in 2005 and 2006 set a new bar for North American wrestling with their first three way match proving the division could main event a pay-per-view at Unbreakable in 2005. Events like the World X Cup, the Super X Cup and the last few years of the Destination X show have maintained the X Division as something special. Ultimate X stands out as the most enduring gimmick match created arguably since Hell in a Cell.
While WWE has mostly let their proud legacy of tag team wrestling languish for the past 13 or so years outside of brief resurgences, TNA has celebrated the concept. After America’s Most Wanted wound down, the baton passed to other great pairings including the Latin American Xchange, the Motor City Machine Guns and Beer Money, Inc. The latter two duos’ best of five series in 2010 made TNA’s version of the World Tag Team titles the most prestigious in the industry bar none.
In 2007, TNA added a women’s division with their Knockouts roster led by Gail Kim and filled out by pedigreed independent talent including Awesome Kong, ODB and the Beautiful People faction of Angelina Love and Velvet Sky. Again, at a time when WWE—and most everybody else—ignored women’s wrestling, TNA capitalized. The Kim-Kong feud became legendary and the Knockouts started being part of some of the company’s highest rated segments. Suddenly TNA became the destination women’s wrestlers sought to reach, with young stars flocking in as well as veterans from Tara to Mickie James. Like every part of the company, the Knockouts have had their ups and downs, but as recently as this past summer, Kim and Taryn Terrell stole the show with an incredible encounter at Slammiversary.
There have been so many high marks in TNA over their first 11 years of existence, but if you look over the list I ran down, the bulk come from when they’ve gone their own way and focused on what they can do that other companies can’t, rather than try to follow in the footsteps of WWE. Realistically, TNA will never challenge WWE for the top spot in their industry—and that’s ok. When they’ve recognized this, it’s when they’ve seemed to be at their best, concentrating on being the best they can be and not making moves to try and reach a level they can’t and don’t need to achieve.
While some signings of former WWE stars have been boosts, the sheer volume has often made TNA look bush league. The attempt to ignite a new “Monday Night War” proved disastrous. Now it seems that taking Impact on the road may be the most disastrous move in company history, a gamble that had to have been taken with their “competitors” in mind.
Turning the clock back only a little more than a year, TNA seemed on a creative high with a strong Bound for Glory series, the Aces & 8s angle starting strong and so many major and minor players breaking out or hitting a new stride from Austin Aries to Bad Influence to Bully Ray to Joseph Park. There would always be complaints about the Impact Zone in Orlando providing a sterile environment with oft-uninterested crowds, but it provided a safe haven and made PPVs on the road or trips to the United Kingdom—where TNA does massive business—special.
If TNA had been content, 2013 could have been their best year yet. No taking Impact on the road, maybe no reduced PPV schedule and hopefully no financial woes that has led to a decimation of the roster. Bully Ray could have ridden into Bound for Glory as a tremendous heel champ to get his long-awaited comeuppance at the hands of AJ Styles without any swerves or interjections from Dixie Carter necessary. Instead, despite both men doing their best to hype what will likely be a great match, we’re only a couple weeks away and the story has become more about AJ’s contract status than TNA’s greatest hero triumphing over their greatest evil.
Through thick and thin, I’ve been a TNA fan; I remain a TNA fan. In the interest of full disclosure, I have a lot of friends who work for the company and want to see them continue to be employed and have a stage to do their great work, but beyond that, I think wrestling needs TNA; it needs an alternative. At its best, this has proven to be an organization that can put together some special stuff, from the X division to the Knockouts to great tag team wrestling to outside-the-box concepts like Ultimate X and the BFG series, and hey, I haven’t even mentioned they put on some of the best live events you’ll ever attend.
TNA has weathered hard times and emerged stronger; they’ve always been a cyclical company. I hope these latest challenges too will pass and refocus them not on trying to be or beat WWE but on providing the different and excellent product they’re capable of creating. I hope 2014 turns out to be their best year yet.