As a complement to last week's look at what TNA could stand to do better going forward, 411's Wyatt Beougher is back with a look at what TNA is doing right!
Introduction: So last week, I took a look at how TNA is apparently rebooting their storytelling again and what I thought they needed to do to make sure that they don't have to go through the entire process again in a few months' time. In spite of making every attempt to NOT come across as a Justin Watry column, the TNA faithful still took it as if I were disparaging their favorite promotion, and came out en masse to tell me just how wrong I was. And while they still didn't quite crack the comments record that I got for my "John Cena is a doodyhead" column a couple of months ago, I did get into some pretty good debates with a lot of these fans. Aside from a couple of commenters who just wanted to sling insults, I think a lot of the disagreement came about as a result of each side misunderstanding exactly what the other was trying to say, and I hope that after several lengthy discussions in the comments, we're all a little more clear about where the other side was coming from, even if we still don't agree. Originally I was going to talk about GFW this week, but out of respect for those fans who were willing to discuss their thoughts and feelings with me in a rational manner, I figured I'd postpone that column for a week and instead focus on the things that I think TNA is absolutely doing right at this point in time. And one thing I'd like to point out before we begin this week is that as someone who isn't beholden to the promotion, I'm exactly the type of fan that TNA should be looking to lure back in (long-term wrestling fan who loved the wrestling of the NWA/WCW over the spectacle of the WWF).
Easily one of my favorite wrestlers in the world today.
Building Up Their Own Talent
I know, I know, this is something that I led with last week, but after the aforementioned lengthy discussions, I'm more inclined to believe that the past few weeks of shows (combined with spoilers, which I'm again going to avoid details of) are an honest effort by TNA to right the wrongs of the Hogan/Bischoff era. Eric Young won the World Title back in April and held it for over two months, and he's still featured in the main event storyline of the promotion. That alone is an improvement over days gone by. And while I still think it was stupid to keep Bobby Roode off of television for two months, I have to admit that it led to a very hot crowd for his return, and it actually felt like a return worthy of a big star (which Roode absolutely is). On top of that, they've taken two guys who had a cup of coffee with the WWE in Kenny King and Derrick Bateman/Ethan Carter III and made them vital parts of the promotion, with Carter being one of the best parts of the show week in and week out. And while I don't like Magnus' new direction, hopefully his smarmy corporate dick persona was his "gray Hulk" phase, his current alliance with Bram is his "savage green Hulk" phase, and eventually we'll get the best combination of the two - a smarmy, suit-wearing dickhole who just goes nuts in the ring. And while I have absolutely no idea where they're going with this Samuel Shaw/Gunnar/Anderson angle, Shaw's gimmick had a lot of potential and he is either genuinely creepy enough to pull it off, or he's a phenomenal actor. Plus it got us that awesome video package on this past week's IMPACT.
Doing the Right Thing With Ex-WWE Talent
In addition to the aforementioned Carter and King, TNA has also moved three prominent ex-WWE stars into roles that I feel are perfect for them at this point in their respective careers: Kurt Angle, Bully Ray, and Jeff Hardy. Angle, especially, at this point in his career, doesn't need to be taking crazy bumps or inviting further injury, so moving him into a non-wrestling role as the Director of Wrestling Operations absolutely makes sense. He's still a very popular part of the TNA roster, and this allows him to be a visible part of the show on a weekly basis without all the injury risks. Bully Ray is a former TNA World Heavyweight Champion, and he's still a main event-level talent in TNA, but rather than chasing the title, he's embroiled in a blood feud with management. And while I don't agree with a lot of the stuff Bully says and does, I can't argue that this is absolutely the best role for him right now, as it keeps him as an important part of the overall storyline that TNA is trying to tell while still allowing guys like Eric Young and Bobby Roode to shine as they attempt to wrest the title from MLK. And Hardy, who is at last check TNA's biggest merchandise mover? He's been given the creative freedom to break his old OMEGA character out and run with it, and the effect that freedom has had on a guy with at-times questionable motivation has been readily apparent. Sure, his promos are hot garbage, but I mean that in the best way possible, as it's just an over-the-top, stream of consciousness jumble of words that comes across like the Bizarro version of the Ultimate Warrior at his most insane. And his commitment to getting the gimmick over has carried over to the ring, as well, as he still does his regular spots to keep the crowd happy, but he's got absolutely no restraints on the rest of the stuff he does. I know some writers here (*coughwatrycoughcough*) think the Willow idea is stupid, but for me, it's working. And this week's episode also saw Rhino re-debut as an enforcer for ECIII, and I can't think of a more perfect role for him at this point in time, as he shouldn't be contending for any major titles and the juxtaposition between Rhino, a guy who always looks grungy, and the immaculate ECIII and Spud is actually wonderful.
Signing the "Right" Outside Talent
Oh, look, here's another one that I used last week. In addition to the aforementioned King and Carter, there are several returns at the July/August tapings that are supposed to be for more than just that handful of shows, and if that turns out to be true, then TNA certainly has earned my vote of confidence in terms of taking the show in the right direction. I can't really go into a lot of detail without spoiling a lot of what's going to happen at the NYC shows, but I will say that the guys that I'm referring to have done well by TNA in the past, and I think bringing them back into the fold is absolutely the right move to make. TNA has also brought in some other notable talent in the past few months, including Bram (who I'm still not totally sold on yet, but who I haven't completely ruled out as being an asset either), Santana Garrett aka Brittany, and Tigre Uno. I think all three of those signings may well prove to be good ones, and the latter two will add depth to relatively shallow divisions even if they don't end up being pushed. That's something that I really enjoyed about TNA from 2005 until I stopped watching when Bischoff and Hogan came in - the depth of their divisions. Plus, I'll admit when I'm wrong, and after giving it quite a bit of consideration over the past week, I think bringing Lashley back in this time was actually a wise idea, especially if he's committed to working a full-time schedule. Sure, he carries that "WWE reject" with WWE fans, but Lashley was still a main eventer when he left the WWE (or at least when he got the injury that kept him off of television until his release) and he's been booked extremely well since his return. I think as long as they keep a decent mouthpiece with him (either MVP or Kenny King would be fine), he'll end up being a perfectly acceptable addition to the roster (and about as good of a transitional champion as TNA could've asked for).
Give these guys twenty minutes, I'm begging you.
How Those Talents Debut
So the four signings (or re-signings in the case of Lashley) I mentioned in the last section have all come in and been made to look like big deals - Bram is paired with the guy who started the year as the TNA World Heavyweight Champion and squaring off against two of the most popular guys on the roster, Brittany debuted with a win over arguably the best female wrestler in a major North American promotion and has been involved in an angle with Madison Rayne, who just won her fifth Knockouts champion earlier this year, and Tigre Uno debuted with wins over Manik and then-tag team champions the BroMans, which were followed up with a tag team title shot and then a best of three series of match for his partner Sanada's X Division championship. As for Lashley, he's been undefeated since his return and is obviously the current TNA World Heavyweight Champion. And in spite of some "assistance" from the rest of his stable, he wins his matches relatively cleanly (or completely cleanly in the case of two of his matches against Eric Young) and he actually looks the dominant physical specimen that they're building him as. This particular bullet point shouldn't be surprising to anyone who's watched TNA for a while, though, because while it seems like they lost their way with debuts for a little while there, going all the way back to 2005, they were able to make Samoa Joe look like the brightest young talent in the business, Christian Cage look like the biggest free agent signing in wrestling, and then they went and topped both of those when Kurt Angle was signed and debuted a year later.
Actually Addressing Areas of Concern
So if the last two weeks of IMPACT weren't enough proof, then I'll again vaguely refer to the NYC tapings for examples of TNA actually addressing some of the things that I mentioned last week. While the matches on this week's IMPACT weren't significantly longer than last week's, they felt a lot more substantial, and the balance of wrestling to non-wrestling stuff felt much, much better. From everything that I've read, that's a tradition that's going to continue for at least the next couple of months, and that's only going to benefit the company. (I am afraid that a return to the mouthbreathers at the IMPACT Zone will cause TNA to rethink this refocus on wrestling, but hopefully I'm wrong on that score.) On top of that, Kurt Angle has been booked perfectly as Director of Wrestling Operations - he's not kowtowing to anyone, he's not letting his past with certain wrestlers affect his judgment or interactions with them, and he's genuinely doing whatever he can to benefit the promotion. On top of that, it seems as though the on-air power structure is going to be streamlined pretty significantly in August, and can you imagine the ramifications there? Wouldn't a promotion with a non-biased authority figure who is just trying to give the fans the best possible shows without a variety of people who could potentially overrule his or her decisions be a breath of fresh air in this post-Mr. McMahon landscape? If this week's IMPACT was any indication, it's a direction I'm happy to follow TNA down.
Can we get a new King of the Mountain match?
And last, but not least, something I've always felt TNA has had a leg up on over the WWE is original gimmick matches. Disregard ladder matches, tables matches, hardcore matches, all of that stuff - I'm talking about gimmick matches are exclusive to each company. Right now, WWE has Money in the Bank and the Elimination Chamber, and while both of those are awesome, TNA would definitely have the advantage if they brought back a couple of their better ideas in the King of the Mountain match and the Bound for Glory series. As it is, Ultimate X is my favorite promotion-specific gimmick match and I'm excited to see what this younger generation of X Division talent is capable of within the confines of that particular match. And while King of the Mountain has some serious complex rules to explain to a new fan, I don't think they've ever had a bad KotM match yet, and it's one of those differentiating factors that I absolutely think TNA could stand to bring back. Between the chaotic action of the ladder portions of the match and the endless possibilities for penalty box interactions, I think next year's Slammiversary would be the perfect time to bring King of the Mountain back and give someone like ECIII his first World Title win. And while I'm not sure that there won't be a Bound for Glory series this year, the fact that they're already hyping the PPV being in Japan but haven't announced a single BFG series match yet has me worried. I've always been a sucker for tournaments in pro wrestling, and the fact that this tournament allows multiple wrestlers to be elevated AND gives added weight to submission wins gives it a slight edge over King of the Ring (it would be a wider gap in favor of TNA if not for all of the history of KotR). And while we're talking about tournaments that TNA could stand to bring back, if you're going to build up to International PPVs, can we see a return of the X-Cup? TNA's international flair back in 2005-2007 was one of the biggest differentiators between them and the WWE, and the X-Cup was easily the best way to bring new, young wrestlers into the company, see how the fans reacted to them, and also to give them their first early pushes in the company. Look at arguably the two most famous alumni of those early X-Cups - Eric Young and Bobby Roode. Seems to have worked out pretty well for both guys and for TNA.
So there you go - hopefully this week's column won't garner "The Watry Effect" and we can continue with the great discussions we started last week. I am a fan of wrestling first and that means I only want TNA to succeed, because not only does that improve the overall wrestling landscape, but I've got enough of an emotional investment in TNA that I actively want to see them become a viable alternative to the WWE. I'd say there's a 0.000% chance of there ever being another "Monday Night Wars" type era, but that doesn't mean that TNA can't grow their fanbase and provide an alternative product that focuses more on professional wrestling and less on sports entertainment. Getting rid of Hogan and Bischoff was the right first step to return to that direction, and the past handful of IMPACTs and the spoiled taping results have left me optimistic that they're once again headed in the right direction.
Wyatt Beougher is a lifelong fan of professional wrestling who has been writing for 411 for over three years and currently hosts MMA Fact or Fiction and reviews Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.