It seems that in pro wrestling circles, the most prevalent narrative about Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, whether online or in print, is the debate about its challenge of reaching the next level.
Everyone remotely interested in TNA has their own ideas about this subject – which only goes to show what a gigantic failure the TNA project has been.
There’s little debate about its shortcomings. It’s widely accepted that TNA is floundering and flouting whatever potential it’s ever had. This in itself – much like the glaring failures in WWE’s product that is geared towards corporate shareholders rather than any pro wrestling fan base – is a damning indictment of the power people in pro wrestling today.
WWE’s own soulless environment is a topic to be tackled another time. For TNA, however, it’s clear that what started as a great idea from the Jarretts has been subject to constant mismanagement and bad booking, and proof yet again that in this industry – much like with most issues in the world – you can’t solve a problem by simply throwing money at it.
So firstly, who’s truly to blame for the mess TNA has been seemingly destined to become? Let’s look at the suspects…
- Jeff Jarrett: The man who courageously – or foolishly – essentially held Vince McMahon to ransom by letting his WWF contract expire while still holding the Intercontinental Championship, agreeing to drop the title to Chyna for what’s believed to have been $300,000, had nothing to lose by the time McMahon bought his competition, WCW – where Jeff had ended up. Vince, insecure as ever, vented his spleen on the last-ever episode of Nitro, bitterly reminding Jeff that he would be “gone!” So Jeff eventually regrouped and, after a fishing trip with his father and Bob Ryder, came up with the idea for an organisation that would fill the void in the industry after the WWF had swallowed up its competition, leaving no alternative for the appetite of the fans.
- Jerry Jarrett: Unlike his son, Jerry’s had a relatively decent relationship with Vince McMahon over the years – wwe.com even showed him unveiling Oleg Prudius (or “Vladimir Kozlov”) to WWE management who were keen to sign the Russian martial artist. Jerry, having booked territories with that other Jerry – Lawler – for years, was able to leverage certain key figures in order to make the TNA dream a reality, with weekly mini-Pay-Per-View shows and the previously under-utilised and credible Ken Shamrock as champion. The venture seemed promising. But one thing it lacked was big bucks, not least since backer HealthSouth had pulled finance while being investigated for accounting irregularities.
- Dixie Carter: In 2002, Bob Carter’s Panda Energy invested in TNA, while the Jarretts retained a minority of shares and office clout (particularly Jeff). Bob was no doubt persuaded by his wrestling fan daughter Dixie, a business administration graduate who was specialising in sports and entertainment marketing and learned of TNA’s financial challenges while working with them. Dixie’s initial complaint that the market was being monopolised by WWE was also cited as an opportunity for an alternative product building on pre-existing small-time credibility with sports style presentation and a six-sided ring as opposed to the traditional “squared circle.” Alas, the monopoly Dixie cited had so engulfed the entire pro wrestling business that she often failed to see beyond their product; it became a new norm.
- Vince Russo: Jeff Jarrett’s second WWF run, in the “Attitude” era, enabled him to be taken more seriously, sporting short hair and spouting warnings to never “piss off” the guitar-wielding Nashville native. This was because WWF Magazine editor turned creative team leader Vince Russo was a fan and friend of Jeff’s. Though the likes of Steve Austin would ensure that Jarrett would only ever bang his head on the glass ceiling the Austin 3:16 machine rested upon, this second WWF stint was arguably better; Jarrett somehow seemed to possess more legitimacy, and featured more prominently and consistently on television. This explains why Jarrett brought Russo on board at TNA: like Jeff, Russo was essentially ostracised by the WWF after having also defected to WCW in a manner that angered Vincent Kennedy McMahon. Although Russo’s WCW booking – without McMahon to oversee and edit it – was largely responsible for WCW’s ultimate demise, Jarrett felt some of Russo’s successful concepts (the Austin-McMahon angles, D-Generation X’s antics, the Ministry of Darkness and “Higher Power” story, and the admittedly masterful Survivor Series tournament in 1998) were evidence enough of his creative abilities. Sadly, though, even after he’d supposedly found God, Russo still had the mentality that the ring, be it six-sided or otherwise, was almost a hindrance to writing of a product that has thrived throughout history when based on simple premises.
- Eric Bischoff: The man who fired both Sean Waltman (“X-Pac”) and Steve Austin by Fed-Ex because Hulk Hogan felt neither could “cut the mustard” was keen to save the WCW he’d steered to success with Ted Turner’s riches and subsequently taken on a humbling downward trend as the unsustainable star-buying system ran its course. Unfortunately, while long-time rival Vince McMahon had stepped in and snatched WCW from the multitude of AOL / Time-Warner suits who came in under Turner’s noses to negotiate the sale, it was Vince Russo who was blamed for accelerating WCW’s journey towards sell-off. Bischoff, then, perhaps resented Russo more than he did McMahon – as evidenced by the fact he went on to swallow his pride and work on-screen for McMahon after the “Monday Night War” was won. Despite what was said publicly, Bischoff being brought in by Carter to work alongside Russo was never going to work. And sure enough, as Jarrett faded into the background, Russo was soon gone.
- Hulk Hogan: What goes without saying are the contributions of Hulk Hogan to the pro wrestling industry; his charisma, ability to manipulate audiences and use crowd control, and his merchandise stand, television ratings, and box office performance, not to mention his brand’s strength itself. But of course Hogan is also the man who helped sabotage Jesse Ventura’s attempts to organise wrestlers who were – and still are – tied in to contracts that restrict them while being “independent contractors” conveniently (for Vince McMahon) responsible for their own huge health care bills and pension plans. If that’s not evidence enough of Hogan’s historic selfishness, just try and identify a single one of his peers that he’s wholeheartedly and fully put over and elevated above himself, and it’s highly likely you’ll draw a blank every time. This quest of self-preservation is what has always driven Hogan, which of course is fine – so long as you don’t give him influence over your product. Bischoff did this in WCW, giving him “creative control” where he’d literally be the author of his own fate (thus the above-mentioned firings of Sean Waltman and Steve Austin, who was expected to job to the abysmal but Hogan-friendly “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan). With both Bischoff and Hogan in the TNA staffroom and on-screen as well, there was never going to be much opportunity for the elevation of talent. Credit where it’s due: Hogan did seem to put over the likes of Matt Morgan and even Chris Sabin at various levels and stages, though not to the extent that it transformed anyone’s career.
So who’s to blame? Well, as with most things, it’s important to acknowledge context here. In reality, no one can really be blamed for TNA’s troubles – apart from, perhaps, Dixie Carter herself.
You see, Harry Truman once said – of himself as President of the United States – “the buck stops here.” And the same applies to Dixie Carter. Without her father, TNA would likely have met its demise, leaving the Jarretts to other pursuits (even if it’s just fishing with Bob Ryder). But once she became President of TNA in 2003, she took on not just the rights of power, but also the responsibilities that go with it. As mentioned above, Dixie has rightly expressed a desire for an alternative to WWE’s near-monopoly of the pro wrestling industry, while at the same time being trapped by it: picking up any talent that WWE shedded itself of, be it Kurt Angle, Ken Kennedy/Anderson, The Dudleys, Christian, and perhaps the most insightful signing of them all, Jeff Hardy.
This has only – rightly or wrongly – reinforced the public image of TNA as a place for WWE cast-offs and, thus, a second-rate version of WWE itself. TNA doesn’t need to be compared to WWE, because there should be no comparison. The ludicrous claims of Hogan and Bischoff while heralding another “Monday Night War” as TNA Impact switched to Monday nights to “compete” with Raw (an experiment that was quickly cancelled before it killed off TNA faster than WCW under Vince Russo’s pen) has been typical not only of TNA’s “boy cried wolf” publicity ploys where Hogan, or Bischoff, or Carter herself have promised (yet another) “announcement to change TNA forever” but also of the Nashville syndrome of believing WWE is some target, or yardstick, or goal. It should be none of these things.
Whether 2013’s news of a shake-up in Panda Energy and, as a result, TNA management means that the company will go on the market, be bought up, or even be faced with threat of closure, the TNA product needs more than just the recent outcomes where Hogan and Bischoff are both seemingly following Russo out the door, while faithful home-grown star AJ Styles renegotiates a contract with Dixie who’s playing the “poor man’s Stephanie” heel authority figure.
What TNA needs is all already available to them.
They have Jeff Hardy, a man who favours the respect, freedom, and schedule he’s afforded in TNA as opposed to the WWE, and who can still deliver excellent in-ring performances juxtaposed nicely alongside TNA’s “own” AJ Styles. Granted, Kurt Angle, not completely unlike Jeff Hardy, perhaps never should have been hired by TNA after even the ruthless Vince McMahon cut him loose to avoid another pro wrestling tragedy as Angle struggled with injuries, pain medication, and other personal demons. However, under the easier environment of TNA and a kinder, gentler boss, Angle still holds the potential to accentuate his plethora of positives and give TNA the “big fight” credibility it needs. Bully Ray – the former Bubba Ray Dudley – has worked hard to reinvent himself as a character with a revitalised off-screen work ethic, and whether this has been to put himself in the shop window for WWE or not, he’s been given a new lease of life in the industry and has an upside to be exploited creatively.
And beyond that, an Austin Aries so hell-bent on proving that WWE missed out on utilising his talent has been an invaluable asset to TNA. Bobby Roode, Christopher Daniels, Frankie Kazarian, Magnus, Gail Kim, Taryn Terrell, all possess the ability to create a foundation that can be built upon.
WWE have already stated they want to control everything; they want a future of cookie-cutter wrestlers who either left some form of athletics or had experience in modelling, and walked through the Performance Center factory before arriving on the main roster. This rejection of old school territory mentality and disdain for the independent circuit is a golden opportunity for TNA to use what is comparable might in the pro wrestling industry – to pluck talents from Ring of Honor, from Pro Wrestling Guerilla, and so on and so forth, and to let them develop their own characters as extensions of themselves and improvise bullet-point promos to convey a credible and believable narrative on-screen.
WWE is becoming increasingly about its shareholders; its television advertising revenue rather than its ability to book long television or build to Pay-Per-Views. As an alternative to this corporate entity, TNA should not only go back to basic booking, storytelling, and championship-chasing pro wrestling presentation, but also present and promote itself as the genuine article, where wrestling is called wrestling, wrestlers are called wrestlers, women are called women, and belts are belts. TNA is at its best when it is proud of what it does well (as with the old “Knockout” videos promising “no ‘divas’ here”) – and it has done many things well (the ratings-grabbing women of the Knockouts division; the X division; the six-sided ring, awkward as it sometimes is for the in-ring performers). All of those things were innovative, rather than a bad copy of a WWE product.
In recent months, TNA has offered some hope for itself. Getting rid of Hogan and Bischoff has been a good start, and the prevalence of AJ Styles is a good sign. But it can’t just be a brief storyline, with Dixie Carter herself “taking one for the team” through on-screen self-deprecation. It has to continue further along that brave path of risk-taking, rejection of corporate WWE norms, embracing everything independent promotions do so well, yet at a slicker, higher standard. The money is there. But it doesn’t cost the earth to use what you already have, and use it well, in order to succeed, generate greater revenue, and expand.
For the sake of a WWE creatively collapsing under its own bloated, phoney, complacent corporate greed, and for the sake of the pro wrestling business we all know and love, TNA has to do this if it wants to survive at all.