Total Nonstop Action Wrestling’s recent struggles may be an example of history repeating itself, but that might not be a bad thing
Before November of last year, I always felt like I was the only member of Place to Be Nation that was in on a dirty little secret. Back in the beginning of 2001, as the World Wrestling Federation was still clocking in record ratings after moving from the USA Network to TNN, it seemed more obvious than ever that the Monday Night War only existed in the minds of wrestling fans and that the actual war had been long over. Extreme Championship Wrestling had unofficially closed its doors under impending bankruptcy and when Paul Heyman appeared on the WWF’s Raw program in February of 2001, the premier independent wrestling promotion in the United States was officially dead. That left fans with the WWF’s toughest competitor for many years, World Championship Wrestling.
I was fully aware at the time that the best weekly wrestling program available was what Vince McMahon and company had to offer, and I accepted that truth long before. But even when it quickly started losing steam in the ratings war with the WWF, I always considered myself in many ways a WCW guy. When Eric Bischoff was let go and replaced by Vince Russo and Ed Ferrara in 1999, I tuned in all three hours on Nitro and even on Thunder to see what cockamany, breakneck booking they had in store every week in their Crash TV writing format. Even though 90 percent of what they wrote was garbage, there was the silver lining that there was always something going on, and it usually made no sense at all. By the time we got to 2001, Vince Russo had already worn out his welcome with the WCW and Time Warner executives twice over so he was put on permanent leave around October or November of the previous year.
What has made WCW in 2001 so intriguing to me over the years was not only its underdog nature but its forgotten nature. Most people cannot even remember who was the head booker or match maker at WCW before it was eventually bought out by Vince McMahon. Whether it was Johnny Ace or Arn Anderson or even Eric Bischoff on speaker phone as he tried to buy the company through Fuscient Media at the same time. But for reasons very difficult to explain to the outside world, I always had a deep connection with WCW programming at the very end in those early months in 2001 and watched probably more of that than so many of the great things the WWF was putting out. When I would explain this commitment in later years to different people, I usually went into the conversations thinking I was a lone wolf. Then I read Ben Morse’s magnificent piece of work this past November, detailing his love for that promotion at the same time (Seriously, stop reading this and click the link right now, you will not regret it).
Ben was able to put into better words than I could what made WCW in 2001 so weirdly enjoyable and impossible not to root for: Young and hungry talents like the Natural Born Thrillers finally getting golden opportunities, well-booked main event matches like Scott Steiner versus Diamond Dallas Page, tons of cruiserweight mid card action that was high on potential and the magnetic loose cannon that was Big Poppa Pump. By the time we got to the last Nitro at Panama City Beach in March of 2001, nearly every overpaid big name that WCW had foolishly drained its bank account on had either gone home to collect their big checks and survey the new wrestling landscape or were simply told to stay away and let the young guns get their turn. It can be debated forever how long fresh faces like Booker T, Mike Sanders, Lance Storm and Shane Helms could have managed as the go-to guys for WCW had Time Warner not cut the cord on them or had they found a different suitor – but it was fun to dream big for the little guy before the door was forever closed.
I bring up my connection with the dying days of World Championship Wrestling, when all seemed lost, because over the last few months I have been experiencing a cryptic sense of déjà vu with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling on Spike TV. Although I admit that I have not been a devoted weekly viewer of their programming over the past year, I have been a supporter from afar in regards to TNA’s history and standing as the top alternative to WWE in North America (Greg Phillips and the aforementioned Ben Morse are also part of that group). It is never a bad thing in any industry to have more than one option to choose from. TNA Wrestling and Ring of Honor Wrestling have been the most visible examples for wrestling fans who tire of the same WWE riffraff that there are new horizons out there. However, for the first time since both promotions came into form in 2002, I am beginning to sense this year that Ring of Honor has overtaken TNA’s number two spot on the totem pole not only in terms of in-ring quality, but also long-term stability.
TNA has been under the umbrella of a television contract with Spike TV since the WWE left them behind for the USA Network in late 2005. The time slots have changed more often than the number of writers who have been hired and fired trying to find that golden ticket for TNA that has never seemed to surface. The most notable schedule change that TNA made for their IMPACT show was also the company’s boldest move. In January of 2010, TNA head honcho Dixie Carter decided to go head-to-head with Raw on Monday nights (the first pro wrestling cable program to directly compete with WWE since WCW was bought out) by signing up Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff to swing for the fences on screen and behind the scenes. After Carter signed the Hulkster, big ex-WWE names like Ric Flair, Jeff Hardy, and Rob Van Dam arrived to work with pre-existing TNA stars like Sting, Kurt Angle, A.J. Styles, Beer Money, and Abyss. The jam-packed first show that went up against Raw on January 4th was a success as TNA got their highest ever viewership (Raw still beat them by more than 3 million viewers), but it turned out to be a one-shot deal of sorts. By the time IMPACT moved to Monday nights on a weekly basis in March, the ratings were already dwindling to under a 1 rating, and the company quickly retreated. After less than two months, Carter and Spike TV announced that IMPACT was moving back to Thursday nights, far away from WWE’s one-sided programming, where it remains to this day.
Place To Be Nation co-founder Justin Rozzero made an excellent point on his podcast that in the case of TNA Wrestling, the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. If you are a loyal viewer throughout the years, Dixie Carter has attempted every trick or stunt in the book in what felt like desperate grabs just to reach an unreachable 2.0 rating. TNA has changed the shape of its ring, turned Hogan heel for a year then back to a babyface, did likewise with Sting, signed up members of the WWE scrap heap, changed the color scheme, and taken its act on the road, and dramatically altered its pay-per-view schedule. There have been moments of clarity like The Motor City Machine Guns and Beer Money putting on what still might be the best tag team match on national television in the last decade, and then there were a bevy of embarrassments like Hardy showing up for a pay-per-view main event against Sting pilled out of his mind before the match was quickly cut short. No matter how many familiar faces or Hall of Fame talents the company brought in with hopes of pushing an uptick in the ratings or becoming a bigger player in the wrestling business, the results were always the same unsatisfactory ones as before.
People imagined that what we saw from Hogan and Bischoff during their run at TNA was a later version of the same thing they had planned for WCW had Fuscient Media actually purchased the company. And just as WCW was doomed to fail under the weight of expectations and a blown up budget, TNA was going the same route. It did not take long for reporters and fans to realize that by the time the Hogan & Bischoff era was winding down, Total Nonstop Action had reached terminal velocity. In 2013, TNA made the controversial decision to abandon the weekly hub at the IMPACT Zone in Universal Studios to take their act on the road and try to win the fans over at various locations around the country and in Great Britain. Outside of their British tour, which did surprisingly well, the costs for touring proved to be too much as the company was not generating enough revenue in return to break even. By the time Carter realized that they had to go back home to Orlando, the IMPACT Zone became more and more limited in booking dates. With a canceled road schedule in the United States this year and a race against the clock to get back on track at Universal Studios, it was not until just recently that TNA was able to secure a schedule just to tape its IMPACT programs for later months let alone a future pay-per-view event.
As TNA Wrestling indefinitely goes back to its central venue and abandons a nationwide tour, the presence of star power on the IMPACT program itself became almost equally alarming. What looked at the start of 2013 like customary budget cuts evolved by the end of the year into a mass exodus the likes of which I hadn’t seen since WCW was going down the drain in 2001. At that time, WCW was willing to push new, not-read-for-prime-time players onto the scene because so many of the mainstays at the company like Hogan, Sting, Goldberg, Kevin Nash, and Randy Savage had already flown the coup. Those memories resurfaced in a big way at TNA 12 years later as Dixie Carter portrayed the on-air role of the egotistical queen of the castle who was ready to banish any name who did not see things her way. As his contract was set to expire in October, Hogan “quit” the company weeks before the company’s biggest show of the year Bound for Glory. Hogan’s buddy Bischoff was the next on the chopping block as the man who had been handling day-to-day operations backstage (to the chagrin of many) was suddenly gone with the wind come Bound for Glory time. The writing was already on the wall for other wrestlers with bloated contracts like Mickie James and Jeff Hardy to either take a pay cut or hit the road.
The most unfortunate meetings between rock and hard place when it comes to financial strife over the past few months had to be the exits of Sting and A.J. Styles. Sting was not only the only legitimate Hall of Fame legend to never work for Vince McMahon or the WWE (for now), but he also made it a priority for more than a decade to make TNA his exclusive home as an active wrestler. He was tremendously loyal to the many different visions that the company doled out to him and was capable of making chicken salad out of chicken shit many times. He has been on one-year contracts with TNA for quite a long time, but as he lost his last match with the company and his former boss ripped up his figurative contract while parading over him in defeat, there was a sad mix of finality and compromise in the air. It seemed like for the first time since he had been working with Dixie Carter at TNA, Sting’s fame and legacy had become more important than the tepid resources that TNA still had to offer, that he had done all he could for TNA and it was time to finally leave it behind.
In the case of A.J. Styles, his departure was even more bitter and complicated. Not only had he been promoted for months as the company’s lone wolf, a man who never left TNA’s side through thick and thin, but he had won company’s World Heavyweight Championship in the main event of Bound for Glory after pinning Bully Ray. The original plan was to have Styles leave the company with the belt as a long-ranging feud with the evil Dixie character, but it soon began to feel like life imitating art. Styles returned to the company temporarily with his belt in December, but only after Carter had already crowned the British up-and-comer Magnus her TNA Champion in his absence. What seemed like a perfect angle for Styles to be at the top of the company was merely a red herring. Styles lost to Magnus a week later in a mess of a match on IMPACT, and he bid farewell to the crowd off camera before signing on to wrestle for Ring of Honor. The thought alone that Styles would be wrestling anywhere but TNA given his undying dedication to the company that he helped establish was almost tragic, as if the company itself was dying from the inside and Styles, like Sting and Hogan, had to get out before the ship sank to the bottom of the sea.
Sting and Styles’ exits were significant, but there have been plenty of others beforehand and it looks like the deductions may continue. One of the most shocking news items this year in wrestling was Jeff Jarrett, who had co-founded TNA in 2002 and was an instrumental part of the company’s infrastructure leading up to 2013, leaving the company in an announcement by the company. Judging by interviews Jarrett has given, the split was not amicable and he is already looking into starting up a wrestling promotion of his own with a famous investor. The next names rumored to be on the chopping block if they don’t want to negotiate down for new deals are Kurt Angle (who has openly stated as recently as this week that he wants to return to WWE), Christopher Daniels, and Frank Kazarian. As one big name star after another walked down the TNA aisle for a final time over the recent months and Dixie’s villainous persona boasted about her efforts to put their contracts through the shredding machine, it had to be met with a tad of irony. One of the biggest criticisms from fans who watched TNA in 2010 and previous years was the fact that they relied too much on stars formerly from WWE who, in some cases, had little left in the tank to take over top spots that should have been left for TNA’s future stars. Now, we are at a point just like WCW was in 2001 where TNA has to push new names simply because they are the only ones still standing after the superstar exodus swept them by.
I have caught up with TNA’s programming from Magnus’ title win in late December up to today, but as familiar as the struggles seem to be compared to WCW at its last throes, I simply do not share the same sentimentality as I did back then. Magnus is tapping into the potential that many fans and creative members at TNA saw in him when he was just a lower card tag wrestler years ago, but his heel persona as the TNA Champion has not been eye-catching and neither have his matches. With so many good hands like Styles, Sting, and possibly Angle on the way out, it is difficult to imagine that Magnus will ever find a rival or alpha male good enough to keep people tuned in to see his main event matches. The Bro-Mans tag team feels like a case of guys winning over backstage management rather than winning over fans as a tag team deserving of any kind of elevation, yet there they are as the Tag Team Champions. Austin Aries, Bobby Roode, Samoa Joe, Chris Sabin, and James Storm have always been able to consistently deliver good to great matches from the main event to the opening match, but with guys like Daniels and Kazarian eventually taking their leaves, how soon will it be before guys like Aries who have something left to give would rather provide their services somewhere else? TNA signed over two superb independent talents in Davey Richards and Eddie Edwards, but will they get enough opportunities at their new digs to make a good impression before it is too late?
There are a lot of hovering questions surrounding TNA Wrestling and what Dixie Carter will be able to accomplish on cable with such a limited and somewhat nameless roster on hand. The reason for so many questions going unanswered is the fact that they are all predicated by the biggest one which may not be answered until the fall of this year, when TNA’s television contract with Spike TV expires. Given the fact that ratings have not risen since the last deal was signed, the jury may still be out about whether or not the network wants in on another trip to the self-named Dixieland. Their negotiations for a new deal will be going on around the same time that WWE’s massive slate of programming will all be up for sale, and if Spike TV goes back in on the company that left them before TNA came calling and they sign a deal with Vince McMahon, TNA and Dixie Carter may be left out in the cold. Without a television contract and with so many fiscal concerns continuing to arise, Total Nonstop Action Wrestling may be on the verge of what fans had been predicting since it first opened up in Nashville, TN, in the summer of 2002: Its demise.
We do not know yet for certain if 2014 will be the start of a new, more homegrown era for TNA or if it will be the year that the company meets its fateful Waterloo. The company has already been around 10 years longer than most expected so a waving of the white flag for a company fighting against the WWE machine could be seen by most as inevitable. But I would like to point out the potential silver lining through the many dark clouds that hover over TNA. Just as I sentimentally held on until the very last gasp for WCW to make something of itself in early 2001, I will be tuning in more often than in previous years and checking out the great Nate Milton’s recaps to see if TNA will be able to avoid repeating history. There may be many moments in which I watch these shows through gritted teeth or uneasy grimaces, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder and there is always a fascination with witnessing something that could potentially be the finale, whether it be grand or with a whimper. And I just hope that as I and Ben Morse did with WCW more than a decade later, years after TNA is dead and gone, there is a fan out there right now watching TNA Wrestling all the way until the end, saying to himself, “It may have been the final days of TNA, but I have to think someone out there enjoyed it just as much as I did.” I bet he is not alone, because I know now that I wasn’t.