TNA: Why Does Vince Russo Still Have a Job in Professional Wrestling?

Darryn SimmonsContributor IIISeptember 30, 2011


It's one of the biggest mysteries in pro wrestling—the wrestling equivalent of "What came first? The chicken or the egg?"

This is the question that has been asked by everyone from current Executive Producer of Ring of Honor Jim Cornette to former world champion John Bradshaw Layfield.

Why, after a questionable record with more failures than successes, does Total Nonstop Action Wrestling Head of Creative Vince Russo still have a job in the field of professional wrestling?

Russo, who got his start with World Wrestling Entertainment and was given credit (maybe too much or too little depending on who you ask) for helping to bring about the highly-successful Attitude Era, is considered by many to be one of the reasons for the demise of World Championship Wrestling and a detriment to the growth of TNA Wrestling.

Such a resume would usually mean that someone needs to be looking for a different line of work.  Instead, Russo is still in the business and, in TNA, has outlasted more respected creative wrestling minds like Jerry Jarrett, Dutch Mantell and Cornette.

The question is why?

The answer is simple: Vince Russo knows how to play the game better than most of those that oppose him.

While WWE commentator Jim Ross has dubbed wrestler Edge the "Ultimate Opportunist" and Triple H the "Cerebral Assassin," you can argue that those names fit Russo better than anyone else in the pro wrestling business.

What is ironic about this is Russo has succeeded by becoming the best example of the kind of person he has claimed to loathe.

When Russo first entered the business as a writer for the then WWF Magazine, after two video stores he owned in his native Long Island went out of business (in Russo's defense, Blockbuster Video had recently moved in the area), he was determined to get a job in wrestling to support his family. In the 2005 3-DVD disc set "Pro Wrestling Ultimate Insiders," which was an interview of Russo and writing partner Ed Ferrara, Russo said he was bored with the current WWE product, which was based on more cartoon characters at a time when Paul Heyman's Extreme Championship Wrestling was providing a more mature take on the sport and Eric Bischoff had begun following suit in World Championship Wrestling.

Russo attributed this to members of the WWE's creative staff at the time, which included individuals like J.J. Dillon, Ross and Cornette.

Without naming names in Ultimate Insiders, Russo claimed that individuals on the creative team were trapped in what he called the "wrestling bubble" where they clung tightly to their jobs (or spots) and stuck to doing things in a certain way that they were sure the fans would like—and that the fans that didn't like it simply "didn't get it."

Russo, on the other hand, wanted to listen to the fans and give them what they wanted.  He said this was the key to a successful product.

To Russo's credit, he was right.

When he was given a chance in 1996 by WWE chairman Vince McMahon to make changes in the product, he did make some contributions to what would be the Attitude Era (although how much is debatable; in Mantell's 2011 book, "Tales From a Dirt Road," he discusses a conversation he had with Stone Cold Steve Austin where Austin said Russo had zero input on Austin's angle with McMahon—considered the biggest angle of that time).

Unfortunately, since that time, Russo has been more stuck in a bubble than Cornette, Dillon or Ross could ever hope to be.

Russo first showed signs of learning how to play the political game in WWE against Cornette, who would be his nemesis on more than one occasion.

While Cornette is considered by many to have more sense in the wrestling business than Russo, he's struggled, like many, to compete with Russo on the political side.

Cornette, like Mantel and Dillon, came up in wrestling in the days of the territory system—a number of different promotions across the country run by current or former wrestlers.

In that setting, Vince Russo would never have had a job in pro wrestling as promotion owners like Bill Watts (though, ironically, Watts helped get Russo to first sit-in on creative meetings in WWE), Eddie Graham and Jerry Jarrett (as we'll see in TNA) would have ran him out of the building.

However, Russo grew up in the corporate era of wrestling when wrestling people were no longer running wrestling companies. He knew how to talk wrestling to non-wrestling fans because, as he admitted in Ultimate Insiders, he wrote wrestling for non-wrestling fans.

Meanwhile, people like Cornette, Mantell and Dillon had been brought up to provide wrestling for wrestling fans. 

Luckily for Russo, Vince McMahon (along with right-hand man and Executive Producer Kevin Dunn) had long been focused on mainstream appeal. The result? Russo became head writer, and Cornette left to his native Louisville to help run the WWE developmental territory, Ohio Valley Wrestling.

This time, it was Russo that was clinging to his spot.

Russo would cling to his spot until 1999 when he and Ferrara jumped to World Championship Wrestling, who the WWE had caught up with and blown by.

WCW was owned by Time Warner at the time, and Russo knew how to sell himself to a corporation.

It was in WCW where Russo's philosophy of avoiding the "wrestling bubble" and "giving the fans what they want" took a serious swan dive.

Russo's determination to add mainstream fans, at the cost of the actual wrestling fans, resulted in moves like basing the cruiserweight division (that once featured Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko and Chris Jericho) around young wrestler Evan Karagais, women's wrestler Madusa and Ferrera doing a highly-criticized parody of Ross called Oklahoma.

In a "shoot" interview on one of TNAs weekly pay-per-views in 2002, Russo defended this by saying that fans were not entertained by cruiserweights.

Considering the success that Jericho, Guerrero and Mysterio had in their careers (and that WWE is currently having with a cruiserweight in Sin Cara—who is a big merchandise seller), it doesn't sound like Russo was listening to the fans.

When Jeff Jarrett was put on a leave of abscence in 2009, Vince Russo was the only Jarrett ally to keep his job - which was now running creative.
When Jeff Jarrett was put on a leave of abscence in 2009, Vince Russo was the only Jarrett ally to keep his job - which was now running creative.

However, nothing was a better example of Russo's booking mentality than two people that held the biggest prize in the company, the World Heavyweight Title, under Russo's tenure—Russo himself and actor David Arquette.

In the TNA interview, Russo defended the Arquette move by pointing out, again, that the goal was to get non-wrestling fans and the story was covered by USA Today and Entertainment Weekly.

TNA announcer Mike Tenay, who was conducting the interview, pointed out that the move resulted in WWE's Monday Night RAW dominating WCW's Nitro the following night.

Russo, who in his 2010 book "Rope Opera: How WCW Killed Vince Russo" said he felt bad about dominating Tenay in that interview, could only respond with doubts that Tenay was correct.

For the record, the ratings that Monday were a 2.46 for Nitro and a 7.4 for RAW.

Russo, to this day, goes against everything he used to complain about with guys like Cornette and Dillon (who he would butt heads with again in WCW)—refusing to change philosophy and clinging to his spot for dear life.

After WCW went out of business and was purchased by WWE in 2001, Russo would go through experiences that would ensure his determination to always have a job in the wrestling business—he would enter the real world.

After his first stint in TNA was cut short due to the company trying to woo Hulk Hogan (who wouldn't come with Russo there after their issues in WCW). Russo ran a video store that would eventually go out of business and also worked as a substitute teacher in Atlanta.

In "Tales From a Dirt Road," Mantell wrote that Russo confided to him that, "when he was away from the wrestling business, he looked at the real world and decided he didn't like it."

Since then, Russo has done everything in his power to ensure he doesn't have to return there.   Examples of this are throughout Russo's TNA tenure.

In "Tales From a Dirt Road," Mantell discussed the first creative meeting that he, Jeff Jarrett and Russo had at Jarrett's house when Russo returned to the company in 2005.

According to Mantell, the first topic Russo wanted to address was Cornette, who was working with the company. Russo was trying to get Jarrett to fire Cornette. Jarrett refused and a shouting match ensued.

Placed with the alternative of returning to the real world, Russo had little choice but to go along—and wait for another opportunity (and he would get it).

At the Destination X pay-per-view in 2007, Russo came up with a match between wrestlers Sting and Abyss called the "Last Rites" match where the winner is the man who could put the other man in a casket—which then would be raised to the rafters.

The match elicited a loud "Fire Russo" chant from the crowd after some fans saw him watching the match.

In his book, Mantell said that Russo told TNA President Dixie Carter that the idea for the match was all Mantell's—and that when TNA crowds chanted "Fire Russo," it was for that and other ideas that he had nothing to do with.

This is why Russo shines and will continue to have a job in the pro wrestling business for as long as corporations run wrestling promotions.

Carter, not being a wrestling fan herself, had no way of distinguishing the booking style of Mantell, who had set records in television ratings and attendance as a booker in Puerto Rico with a hard-hitting and realistic style, and Russo, who is well known for a love of gimmick matches.

Surprisng no one, Carter believed Russo and even did a shoot interview DVD where she reiterated that Russo didn't have anything to do with the matches where "Fire Russo" chants were heard. 

There is no better example of Russo playing the corporate game than when TNA was faced with the powder keg that was the Jeff Jarrett/Kurt Angle/Karen Angle situation.

In 2009, it was revealed that Jarrett was in a relationship with Karen Angle, Kurt Angle's wife. TNA President Dixie Carter placed Jarrett on a Leave of Absence.

In the ensuing months, Jarrett allies in the company, including Cornette, Mantell and wrestler B.G. James (who was working as an agent), were let go. Russo's main opposition was gone—but he remained, despite being an ally of Jarrett as well

Jarrett was the man who brought Russo into TNA in the first place.

However, Russo, seeing the corporate landscape when Carter and her family's business, Panda Energy, bought controlling interest in TNA, became more of an ally to the Carters than to Jarrett.

That relationship has paid dividends as it has been rumored that the only one left with any confidence in Russo's creative skills is Carter herself. Russo has butted heads with Hulk Hogan and others over his booking decisions in recent months.

In 2010, Angle said in an interview with the Miami Herald that the TNA creative team "never lets a story play out" and that many stories are "dropped without explanation or closure."

That is a Russo trademark—having a good idea for the start of an angle and none for the finish.  Still, his job remains secure.

The question is: Who is to blame for that?

As disturbing as it sounds, the blame falls somewhat on the fans and the wrestling minds who are better than Russo.

While meaning well, fans that have persecuted Russo for his questionable booking decisions have also made Russo more of a sympathetic character.

If you look at the social media websites of TNA executives like Dixie Carter, you will usually find some pretty derogatory comments about Carter personally—many not fit to print here.

Those people that make those comments are the same ones that make such comments about Russo as well. 

If you are in Carter's shoes, are you going to be more likely to listen to the fans making those immature comments or emphasize with the person in your company taking the same on-line beating?

It's pretty clear that Carter has gone with the second option—and you can't really blame her.

Over the years in TNA, the company has reached out to people to come in on creative including Heyman and Ross.

Deals were never reached, and Russo's reign continued.

Why? Because those individuals asked for more than what was reasonable.

Heyman reportedly negotiated not only for creative control but control in hiring and firing and other areas.

While being one of the best creative minds in the history of the business while running ECW, Heyman wasn't as skilled in other areas of managing a company, resulting in ECW going out of business.

It's understandable that Carter and the TNA brass would be reluctant to hand over more than creative control in light of that. If Heyman just wanted to run creative, he may be in TNA right now.

This is something that worked in Russo's favor early in his time with TNA when it came to the company's co-founder Jerry Jarrett.

In his book "The Story of the Development of the NWA-TNA: A Concept in Pay-Per-View Programming," Jarrett details letters and correspondence he had with Panda Energy (who saved the Jarretts from bankruptcy when buying the company) executives like one-time VP of Business Development Chris Sobol.

Jarrett makes it clear he feels his experience in the business should have been better consulted.  While that sounds good and logical to wrestling fans, if you're a Panda or TNA executive, you may take it a different way.

Such as, "If your knowledge was so extensive, then why is my company bailing you out from going out of business?"

Not unlikely, the reaction may have been with Heyman: "If you can run a wrestling company, why is your company out of business and you still owe people money?"

Russo looked to build alliances over making demands—and Russo is still here.

It's unfortunate, because who knows what TNA would be with other voices in creative. Many wrestling critics have said this.

Even Russo has said it.

In the Ultimate Insiders interview, Russo made these comments:

"You need to put out a product that people can relate to. Get new blood in there with fresh ideas and do away with people trying to protect their spots—that's what's hurting the business."

"You're insulting the intelligence of the audience. You have to make the stories as realistic as possible."

"Matches in the ring have to look real. No more powder in the eyes. People want to see fights and believe what they see. "

This is what Vince Russo thought was wrong with the wrestling business.

That is what Vince Russo is all about in the wrestling business.

Vince Russo is what is wrong with the wrestling business—and he's not going anywhere.