TNA 2.0: What Fans Have Gained and Lost in the New Era
Throughout the era that began with the arrival of Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff back on the January 4th edition of "Impact!", fans have debated every decision made by TNA creative, as fledgling wrestling promotion continues its attempt to find both itself and its audience.
Sure, you might say that TNA Wrestling has been around for years now, but in comparison to the rich tradition of the WWE, a tradition that spans decades and has included nearly every big name in the business that you've ever heard of, the company founded by Double J's Dad is still wet behind the ears.
TNA upped the stakes when they brought in Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff.
The roster saw some dramatic turnover, some wrestlers that once laid claim to main event status were either brushed aside or shown the door, and a new group of talent seemed to take over both in the story lines and in TV presence.
This article will attempt to take a look back at what we, the fans, have gained and lost through this long and winding road.
While I see authors on this site argue that TNA is better now or that TNA lost its soul a long time ago, I don't see the past, present and future of Dixie's company so black and white.
The Death of the X Division
The best of the best?
While many fans have bemoaned the fact that the once vaunted, no limits X Division Title, a symbol of the fast, young wrestling that TNA attempted to offer its fans some years ago, has fallen in to the hands of Robbie E. and his atrocious "Jersey Shore" gimmick, my issues run much deeper than the current title holder.
When Eric Bischoff was overseeing WCW during his first, and easily most successful run with the company, the Cruiserweight division was one of the crown jewels of the Ted Turner's growing Goliath. Rey Mysterio, Chris Jericho, Juventud Guerrera, Psychosis and many other stars got their start in a division that portrayed a style of wrestling that many Americans hadn't been exposed to at that time.
While the WWE attempted to emulate this magic with their Light Heavyweight division, the results weren't the same. It wasn't until TNA took up the mantle and introduced the X-Division that the lucha style would be adequately represented in an American wrestling ring again.
Adequately? Well, no. TNA didn't simply represent the lucha style, they didn't simply hearken back to the American pioneers with moves such as the hurracanranna, they innovated the style in to a brand new art form and the ravenous TNA faithful ate it up, chanting anything from "TNA! TNA!" to "This is wrestling!"
From the mythical hurracanranna that Triple X member Elix Skipper performed off the top of a steel cage (after walking on the top of the BAR of the steel cage like a balance beam), to arguably the best TNA match ever between "The Phenomenal" AJ Styles, "The Fallen Angel" Christopher Daniels and Samoa Joe, this division didn't simply show WWE fans what they were missing, it made TNA a household name among the wrestling community.
So that's why it's so baffling that Hogan and Bischoff would all but eliminate this division from existence, essentially wiping out one of their best advantages over the competition. The X Division was a difference maker, but apparently the "new management" didn't want TNA to be different anymore.
Wrestlers such as Petey Williams, whose flip piledriver finisher actually made me jump out of my seat, jaw on the floor, the first time I saw it (and made me tune in to TNA the next week), were shoe-horned into bad gimmicks before getting shown the door.
Styles, Daniels, Joe and Williams along with talents such as Sanjay Dutt, Jay Lethal, Amazing Red, Matt Bentley, Kazarian, Alex Shelley, Chris Sabin, Douglas Williams, Senshi, Jerry Lynn and many others brought a metric ton of blood, sweat and tears to this division back when it was in its prime.
But today? The entire division is usually wrapped up in one feud (currently Jay Lethal v. Robbie E.) and though we do see the spirit of the X Division in talents such as Generation Me and the Motor City Machine Guns, the belt and most of the talents that wrestle for it are merely a shadow of the former glory that was TNA's true trump card over WWE.
Oh, did I forget to mention Ultimate X?
The Rise of the Main Event Scene
The new champ
Some might debate me on this, but while TNA was attempting to grow their product, they had several solid main event competitors, but very few "stars."
While TNA was certainly admirable in their ability to find and polish gems from both the indy scene and competition such as the WWE and Ring of Honor, the main event scene often included Jeff Jarrett (who until that time had mainly been a mid-card talent in other promotions), and talents unknown beyond the small, but growing, fan base.
Talents such as Christian Cage came and went while several mid-carders from WWE popped up here and there. Andrew "Test" Martin had a good run in TNA, while Rhino has been able to stick around for years as well. Stars from WCW's past such as Sting, Kevin Nash and Sean Waltman have also come and gone, but not until Kurt Angle did TNA have a legit main event level star that was still in his prime and known throughout the wrestling world.
I know, that's debatable. AJ Styles received the number one ranking in the PWI top 500 list. I get that, but if you haven't noticed, TNA hasn't exactly used AJ Styles to his fullest potential in the last year. Still, with Kurt Angle, TNA finally had the name recognition and performer that made everyone around him better in nearly every match he's had in TNA.
Say what you will about Hogan and Bischoff, but under their watch, TNA's main event scene has grown by leaps and bounds since the days of Kurt Angle and "everybody else."
Jeff Hardy, Rob Van Dam, The Pope, Abyss, Matt Morgan, Jeff Jarrett, Samoa Joe, AJ Styles, Mr. Anderson and others round out a crowd of legit power players to go along with the Olympic gold medalist. Others might disagree, but to me, this is the strongest main event scene that TNA has ever had.
The Death and Rebirth of the Knockouts
The most dominant KO ever.
After several false starts from 2002 through 2006, the first Knockouts Champion was crowned in 2007 at the Bound For Glory pay per view. Before Gail Kim's victory, TNA signed several women and basically jump started the division practically overnight and centered it around Gail Kim, the Beautiful People (Angelina Love and Velvet Sky) and Awesome Kong (pictured above).
Arguably the biggest loss to the prospects of a successful women's wrestling division, not just in TNA, but in all of the major wrestling companies, came thanks to a third rate radio DJ named Bubba the Love Sponge.
Most wrestling fans should be familiar with the altercation between Mr. Sponge and former TNA super knockout Awesome Kong. Their issues resulted in Kong leaving TNA and was one of the many straws that finally broke the camel's back on Bubba's wrestling "career."
At this time, the Knockouts Division was stocked with some of the best female wrestling talent in the world. From Roxxi, Sojourner Bolt and Alyssa Flash to the aforementioned Gail Kim and the Beautiful People, TNA has seen some of the best women's wrestlers come through their doors, but none of them have been as big, as imposing and arguably as talented as Awesome Kong.
She was a legit wrestler in a world where many women get by on their looks, some hair pulling, some chest chops and one or two moves (see 95 percent of the WWE divas). She was the standard bearer of the division and she helped elevate talent ranging from Taylor Wilde to ODB and many others.
ODB? Yes, another Knockout that was shown the door during the Hogan/Bischoff era that saw the KO division decrease dramatically in numbers. At its low point, the only female wrestlers left in the company were the seldom used Taylor and Sarita, Angelina, Velvet, Daffney and Madison Rayne.
When Tara (aka WWE Diva Victoria) left and Angelina was injured, I was convinced that Hogan and company had succeeded in tearing down one of the foundational pillars of this company.
But then something amazing happened. Tara returned after rumors of an MMA career fizzled or failed to come to fruition. Sarita was elevated. Madison was elevated. Angelina returned and TNA brought one the WWE's best Divas ever, Micki James, into the fold.
Other wrestlers were signed to fill out the KO roster including Rebecca "Cookie" Treston and another solid WWE Diva, Katie Lea.
So while the Knockouts division hasn't exactly flourished under Hogan and Bischoff, the recent additions coupled with a wider range of female talents being seen on screen (there were several months where the Beautiful People were the only real attraction in this division that received stage time) lead me to believe that this ship is finally being righted.
The Loss of Potential
Another one bites the dust.
When WCW was riding high in the mid to late 90's, one of the biggest knocks on the promotion was their lack in ability to actually build their stable of talent. Sure, Bischoff spent Ted Turner's money and brought in the likes of Hogan, Lex Luger, Macho Man Randy Savage, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, Curt Hennig and MANY more of the WWE's main attractions, but in terms of homegrown talent?
Well, there was Diamond Dallas Page, Goldberg and...
Sure, WCW had Chris Jericho, Rey Mysterio, Chris Benoit and many other talents that would go on to become top draws in the WWE, but in WCW? They were mid-carders at best.
Say what you will about Total Nonstop Action prior to Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff's arrival, but they were building their stars. Sure, they latched on to several mid tier castoffs from the WWE (as they still seem content to do) but while a familiar face might have stopped the casual wrestling fan to put the remote control down for a minute and watch, it was the TNA talent that kept those same fans watching week in and week out.
Perhaps no wrestler more typifies this fact than "The Fallen Angel" Christopher Daniels. The former leader of Triple X, a former NWA champion that had feuds with Jeff Jarrett, Samoa Joe, AJ Styles and America's Most Wanted, Daniels, AKA Curry Man AKA The Fallen Angel was a mainstay in TNA for eight years who put on some of the best matches in the history of the company.
Apparently that resume wasn't good enough for some members of TNA's front office, as he was given his release in March of 2010. It has also been suggested that Christopher Daniels, after jobbing to the newly arrived Sean "Val Venis" Morley, decided that he didn't like TNA's current direction and asked for his release. He can now be seen in Ring of Honor.
So while TNA decided to let one of it's best potential stars walk, what about the other potential stars of TNA? Well, it would appear that Hogan and Bischoff really haven't learned their lesson from the past, as many main eventers are from the WWE while TNA's former main eventers have been pushed to the back of the line.
AJ Styles, the longest reigning TNA champion ever and the only former TNA, TNA Tag, X Division and TV champion has basically disappeared into obscurity with Fortune after a horrifically bad Ric Flair style gimmick. A new fan wouldn't think that he had much more to offer than fellow stable-mate Kazarian, but this former world title holder could and should be one of the main centerpieces of this company.
But AJ's misuse can't hold a candle to the thoroughly botched potential of Samoa Joe. The unexplained kidnapping angle, the feuds that never last or go anywhere, the squash matches that never seem to lead to title shots.
You throw a way to misuse Joe out there and TNA's probably already bouncing it around creative as a legit idea as we speak.
The sad part is the fact that his current feud with MMA enthusiast Jeff Jarrett, while nonsensical at best, is really the only sustained opportunity that he's been given in nearly a year.
How's that for treating your most talented wrestlers?
Other honorable mentions include the breakup and destruction of not only LAX, but the subsequent burial of Hernandez and the release of Homicide, a Team 3D versus the Nasty Boys "feud" and the losses of too many X Division athletes to name here.
Meanwhile, TNA continues to grow more top heavy as they sign "big" names or familiar names, letting the Desmond Wolfe's (buried before getting injured), Consequences Creed's (released) and other diamonds in the rough wither on the vine.
The Loss of Face and the Gain of Notoriety
Wow did this ever fail to come to fruition.
The Monday Night Wars. Remember those? They were supposed to be reignited under the banner of TNA versus WWE this time around. Only Hulk Hogan, Eric Bischoff and Dixie Carter made two critical mistakes:
1) They grossly overestimated the number of wrestling fans that watch wrestling. In other words, the pie simply isn't as big as it used to be. The days of WCW or even WWE doing sixes and sevens in the ratings are long gone. Currently, the WWE is getting threes, so TNA trying to jump in and grab a slice of that number is not only foolish, it's downright absurd.
2) TNA never should have tried to pull WWE fans away from their show. This just baffles me. Sure, Bischoff could outspend Vince McMahon back in the 90's, but with an upstart promotion that didn't have an NWO style angle? Why even attempt it? Why force your own fans, who most likely enjoy WWE programming as well, to choose?
After all of the trash talking, TNA ran back to Thursday nights just as fast as they possibly could, making sure they didn't let the Monday night door (or Vince McMahon) hit them in the backside on their way.
No longer would fans be able to wonder what would happen, no longer would TNA's potential be pitted against the large, New York machine. Who was better? Well, now we know. TNA lost face here and lost it big time.
But all is certainly not lost, as TNA seems to be finding their way in the ratings and building upward momentum again.
Sure, it can be argued that TNA was already moving upward, albeit slowly, before the arrival of Hogan and Bischoff, but with the talent they have and the sustained, less "stop and start" story lines as of late, the fans are starting to care more.
Where TNA had fallen so dramatically, they seem to have picked themselves up and reestablished themselves on Thursdays within a matter of months.
The roster, which had been seen several wrestlers come and go, now seems to have stabilized a bit, giving fans more of a chance to connect with the talent instead of having to constantly wonder who will show up this week.
Perhaps it's a bit premature, but fans might finally be out of the woods in terms of TNA trying to shock us each and every week. I guess someone finally told Dixie Carter to stop tweeting about "game changing" events every other day.
With this growing stability, TNA seems to be growing their fan base. They also seem to be doing this independently of the WWE as they've (mostly) gone beyond the pot shots and clever asides directed at Stanford.
Of course, this new found stability and gains in TV viewers haven't translated to more PPV buys, but that's a different article for a different day.
What We've Learned
The future of wrestling?
I think that TNA had to go down a little before they came back up.
Hogan and Bischoff have tried a lot of things that didn't work ranging from the Monday Night debacle, to some of the retreads and Hogan buddies that replaced either the spots or the wrestlers themselves.
Apparently no one wanted to see Hulk Hogan question whether he's still got enough left in him to fight Ric Flair while having eight segments of conversations with the likes of Brooke Hogan and Bubba.
Shocking, I know.
But while they nearly tore it down, TNA seems to be finding a way to right themselves. Sure, the X Division is still a running punchline now week in and week out, but the Knockouts Division seems to have received the shot in the arm that it desperately needed.
You'll notice that I didn't mention the tag team division, led by the Motor City Machine Guns, Beer Money and Generation Me. My attitude right now is that while it's still head, shoulders, guts and gonads above the current crop of WWE tag teams, the depth of talent is starting to show.
Sorry, but Ink Inc is adequate as a mid-level team, but beyond those four, the division thins out significantly. Team 3D seems to be done for now. LAX is dead and buried and has been for some time. There's still a part of me that hopes Chris Harris will return and form a new America's Most Wanted, but for now, we're left with a rather small number of tag teams that, while highly capable of putting on five star matches, still leave this fan wondering how many times we can watch the same few teams go at it?
I suppose that's the point though with TNA right now. They still show some signs of weakness. They still have several wrestlers that are horribly underutilized while people like Ric Flair seem to get an hour of mic time each night.
But they seem to be learning a little and doing alot with what they have and the fans seem to be responding (if the ratings are an indication). Will this lead to continued prosperity? Continued growth of the brand?
In my very humble opinion, TNA's biggest strength right now is also its biggest weakness. Much like the WWE, TNA doesn't seem to want to build toward the future. They have their main event talent right now and that's all that matters. Sure, you have a few guys that are rising to the top like Matt Morgan and the Pope, but who's to say that they won't get passed over if someone like Matt Hardy becomes available?
Lord knows that it's happened several times in TNA already under the Hogan Bischoff regime. If they can finally learn to stop latching on to the big names and use the names that they have to build up the guys that have been there, the young guys, the ones with potential, then maybe we'll see TNA's next generation of talent rise to the top while WWE continues to struggle with their own generational transition issues.
I wouldn't bet money on it though, as the evidence suggests that Hogan and Bischoff will throw a belt or a big angle on any new arrival. Or at the very least, they'll put the arriving talent over the established talent, when logic dictates that it only makes your own product look weaker in comparison to where that person came from to begin with.
It's all part of the give and take world that Hogan and Bischoff have given TNA fans. Hogan has brought some stars with him to TNA and he's brought some absolute duds as well. Hopefully, with nearly a year under their belts, the two have realized what they have in the entire roster and they can avoid making the same mistakes of the past and find even more ways to give fans what they want.
Or give back what they always wanted to begin with.
*cough* six sided ring *cough*