NWA: Total Nonstop Action, that colorful, Southern promotion, with the good wrestling, that you hear about, and that airs every Wednesday on PPV, has just had its first full year as a pro wrestling promotion this year. Speaking from my experience, being one of the few wrestling fans that has purchased more than one TNA PPV this year, and purchased them consistently, it’s been a tough year for them. Welcome to Headlines and Scrutiny. I’m glad to see you back after my winter break, and I’m hopeful that you’ve had a happy and restful vacation too. This column, the first H&S of the new year will focus on 2003 in NWA: Total Nonstop Action. The promotion that has provided everything from the original Rock and Roll Express (Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson) to Mabel to Sting’s first match in the United States since the last WCW Monday Nitro on March 26, 2001 to some of the best wrestling ever seen in this country. With both bad and good elements, TNA is sometimes great, and sometimes bad, but it’s always an interesting spectacle. Mixing elements of WCW, like Mike Tenay, elements of ECW like Raven, and elements of the new age like AJ Styles, NWA:TNA represents something else, though. On July 13, 2003, I wrote part two of my Figure Four Leglock discussion of TNA as a promotion, and the title of the column was one that I chose very carefully. “Aptitude.” Aptitude does not just mean hope, or possibility. Oxford University Press defines it as “a natural ability or propensity.” I chose that to show—simply—how well within reach TNA’s success is, barring deleterious mishaps. And I stand by that particular and peculiar choice to this day. This year has forced TNA to change how it operates, fundamentally. If this realism has forced TNA to operate differently—than it’s a lesson they had to learn in the trenches. The year 2003—for TNA—represents a great deal of change, ironically. Change platforms, change owners, change bedfellows, and change—their fans. This is the year that was. And this, is TNA.
The first quarter of the year for TNA was not anything special. TNA returned from their holiday vacation and continued to put on the same type of shows that they had before the break. If that doesn’t provide you a proper picture of the product, than you’re probably better off for that. TNA suffered a big loss with the loss of Tenacious Z, in the second week of February, when he, real name Zachary Gowen, signed with WWE. Gowen was special because he could wrestle—with one leg. Seeing him compete was amazing. However, the year turned out to be worse for him than the loss was for TNA. First, Paul Heyman recommended Gowen after seeing the one-legged wrestler performer on TNA PPV. Vince McMahon decided he had a place for Gowen and asked the talent department to offer him a base contract. John Lauranitis, who wrestled professionally as Johnny Ace, and whose brother is Animal from the Road Warriors, looked for a one legged wrestler. Oddly enough, he happened upon a different one in Florida, who was in training at the time, and sent him a contract. Rumor has it that the contract was signed and WWE had to pay out his release. When the real Zack Gowen was found, his tenure was up with TNA in a snap. His last match with TNA was a match with Ron Killings and Jorge Estrada, when they went over Mike Sanders, Glen Gilbertti, and B.G. James. Gowen went to WWE later in the year when he was brought in as a fan who had been training to wrestle, inspired by his hero Hogan while he had cancer, and wanted to get into the WWE. Mr. America was the Hogan angle at the time and Gowen was ringside. Roddy Piper, who at the time was a manager with the company in a very brief stint that ended because of a controversial interview he had on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, pulled Gowen in the ring with Sean O’Haire and attacked him. It was the beginning of the end for Gowen, who was to be used, with Hogan, in a feud against Vince McMahon. Hogan, however, had another dispute with McMahon, this time over how he was being used, and walked out of the company. Luckily, McMahon had footage of Hogan taking his mask off after the end of a SmackDown broadcast, and the stipulations set forth in the storyline were than Hogan couldn’t work for the company and if Mr. America were ever found out to be Hogan, than he would be gone. Gowen was the replacement for Hogan, and began a feud with McMahon, focused heavily on his disability. Fans were perturbed by this and many consider it the most insulting and embarrassing promotional tactic of the year. Gowen lost a 15-minute match with McMahon at WWE Vengeance on July 27th. After this, Gowen was seldom and forgettably used, suffered an injury, and now is not being booked on any shows. Paul London, who was also used frequently by TNA, but saw it merely as a stepping stone, went to WWE this year as well. I don’t see how it was a step up, because Paul London is being booked on WWE Velocity now, teaming with fellow misusee, Brian Kendrick (Spanky). WWE, I must say, has quite the luxury, because their B-show jobbers are world-class talents.
Both Frank Romano (on 6/23) and Brian Hughes (4/30) were hired in the major management additions this past year (besides Panda representatives and Dutch Mantel). Romano, who was the former Vice President of Event Programming and Operations (mainly research) for the largest PPV provider in the country, iNDemand, is TNA’s new Chief Operating Officer (COO), and works out of the TNA offices in Manhattan. Brian Hughes, who was the president of TNN, was hired to find TNA a TV deal. His status in the company currently is not known. TNA is now going through their largest negotiations yet about appearing on cable TV, with the WGN Superstation. The biggest change that will affect the product is the change of lead booker from Vince Russo to Dutch Mantel. While the decision to change bookers was partly based on the hope to use Hulk Hogan, it was mainly precipitated by Mantel’s reputation with IWA in Puerto Rico, where he has changed around business, and because Russo, even though a friend of Russo, was a problem because of his ideological differences with Jarrett in terms of the product. First reactions to Mantel have been mixed, but his influence on the product has been strong, but it is probably still too early to judge how well he has done his job in TNA.
For on air characters, the year ends with Erik Watts and Don Callis. Watts, who was, just earlier this year, in a group billing themselves as the (literal) new generation with Watts, Brian Lawler, and David Flair. One thing they all have in common is a lack of talent. Watts was given the job as director of authority, while Callis was management assistant. They never explained the structure until an interview in which Watts said that TNA controls the promotional aspect of things—they sent Callis, NWA controls the wrestling, and Watts represents them. So Watts represents wrestling? TNA has found a few ways to reuse talent somewhat successfully, however, in how they’ve been packaged. 3Live Kru, for example, the on-and-off tag-team with Ron Killings, B.G. James, and Konnan, who quite frankly, wouldn’t be doing anything productive otherwise. One could argue that they’ve missed the boat with Killings, who was NWA Champion for more than two months last year, and Konnan, who was a manager-type early in 2003, bringing an influx of Latino talent into the group each week. Regardless of what Killings brought to the table, him as champion was probably not going to be a long reign anyway. Complications also prevented the deal with Konnan from being a fixture.
Early in the year, TNA showed that there was more hope for them than one would expect. This was their Jeff Jarrett/Raven feud, which lasted through part of March and all through April, a calculated risk by the company, that the company hasn’t taken since because they felt it might weaken interest, as compared to the temporary and hotshotted angles. I will grant them that, that it takes a lot of commitment to book for the future, several weeks in advance, when the show is taking place weekly (and for TNA, weekly means $10). Their trepidation was and is warranted. For this reason I suggested that multiple angles take place throughout, guaranteeing at least one good main event on each show, from an angle that had good interest going into it, at the same time giving the company some credibility and solidarity. On April 30, 2003, TNA reached a peak, both with their product and with their booking of the World Heavyweight Championship that has yet to be reached again, based on a simple, time-tested formula. Raven, who was the heel, described the NWA Championship as his destiny, which he would work as hard as he could. This lent credibility to a championship with an average history. Jarrett had held the title since he defeated Ron “The Truth” Killings for the title on November 20, 2002. Among other things, fans were frustrated with a long fruitless reign by Jarrett, who was unsuccessful as a babyface, as well as the infrequent defenses and run-ins for finishes.
This experiment drew the highest buyrate in TNA history to date, around 15,000 buys, the average buyrate for the show has increased from about 7,500 per show in 2002 to 2003, to about 10,000 on a good show. I heard nothing but exuberant praise from fans for the show and the result of the commitment to the program. It is obvious that this is the sort of commitment that TNA is going to need to have, or else they will continue to be stuck in a ditch. They are still stuck in that ditch, however, and this is a lesson they have yet to learn.
In May, we had the Hard-10 tournament, which was weeks of horrible hardcore matches where you’d get one point for hitting someone with something and five, I believe, by putting them through a table. The fans would have the weapons. New Jack defeated Sandman to win the tournament. New Jack also had a popular gimmick with Shark Boy this month, which was something like the cartoon version of Mr. T babysitting, but with New Jack, and charming. Jack ended up not being used after being given a warning for bad on-air conduct, and then when iNDemand told TNA to tone back the programming, the same night Jack said “bitch” on the air. The booking wasn’t extremely tight or serious, but I was a fan of it. Also in May was the last World Wrestling All-Stars PPV, presumably of all time, on May 25 in New Zealand. Chris Sabin, shoe-in for rookie of the year, and Jeff Jarrett made the trip for the group, which was promoted by Jeremy Borash. Sabin, who was the X Division Champion, unified the title with the WWA World Cruiserweight Championship (held by Jerry Lynn). Jarrett unified the NWA Championship with Sting’s WWA World Championship.
On June 18, 2003, TNA aired their first anniversary show on PPV, with a main event of Sting and Jeff Jarrett going over Sean Waltman and AJ Styles. As Dave Meltzer said, it was like the first (and first part of the second) years of the promotion in many ways, good at times, and bad at times. Eddie T., who writes News & Analysis for this site, also described the year in TNA “a mixed bag.” The anniversary could best be described as a disappointment, featuring average work, an impromptu Vince Russo promo, in a segment that lasted 20 minutes, and the matches on the show had no importance. The big story coming out of the whole show was the deal to bring Sting in, which was an expensive plot by the company to contract him to four dates, but use videos and taped promos to carry over the appearances. The first of such videos, and the last, was an average four-part Mike Tenay shoot interview with Sting. Sting would not return until November 5, when he defeated Jeff Jarrett as champion, via disqualification, and shows that followed.
TNA had a long string of events in August that almost completely turned the promotion around. Thanks to a foundation laid by good workers like James Storm and Chris Harris, as America’s Most Wanted (who win the award for being the most consistent as champions, peaking with an amazing cage match against xXx in June), AJ Styles, xXx, and Raven, TNA added tremendous booking to the mix and came up with shows that were great as a fan to watch, and probably sparked the level of buys. If anyone ever had an inkling to like TNA before, they were given all the reason to at this point, and it rekindled some of the freshness that a new promotion brings to the table. It also gave Jerry Jarrett and Jeff Jarrett political power and leverage—and favor in the minds of the Carter Family, who owns Panda Energy (the company that saved TNA from death). Vince Russo and Jeff Jarrett, who are both friends, were debating over the style of the show. Jarrett finalized the scripts, but it was Russo who wrote the first draft, with the assistance of friends, namely Glenn Gilbertti. When the show was more Russo than Jarrett, it sucked, and after the string of more heavily Jarrett-written shows, which drew critical acclaim, Panda had chosen sides. Between this and the situation with Hulk Hogan and Dutch Mantell, which is detailed later, Vince Russo has taken a great hit.
The X Division has taken a fall this year. When you consider that the X Division and the matches conducted under the X Division banner were the cause of most of TNA’s first appreciation, the fall of the X Division has been an embarrassment and a disappointment. The wide variety of styles and high quality of the matches conducted for the title made it a popular fixture in the North American pro wrestling landscape. The year began with Sonny Siaki as X Division champion. The big news from 2002 that changed was Styles unofficially leaving the division. Styles has been a pillar in the division, and three-time champion since the beginning of the promotion. Siaki and Kash had a brief feud, and the title changed hands, and then briefly was held by the Amazing Red. Sabin took the title from there, and the month of July was focused around the feud for the title between Sabin, Michael Shane (Shawn Michaels’ cousin, who trained him), and Frankie “The Future” Kazarian, three great wrestling talents. This climaxed with a memorable match between the three in a gimmick called Ultimate X. The idea was that you would have the ring, pillars outside of it, and cables crisscrossing the top like an X, on which hung the title. Since you would have to get the title, it was also a ladder gimmick. I was critical of it at the time it was announced because I saw it as a 50/50 chance it would work. Luckily, my fears were unwarranted because it was structurally sound (except for the fact that the title was put on both cables causing it to fall off repeatedly) and the wrestling was tremendous. The match was one of the best of the year. The second Ultimate X happens on the show January 7, with Michael Shane (the winner of the title in the first match) defending the belt.
The primary reason for the decrease in quality in this division has been a change in the focus of the product. The talent remains there, the opportunities remain, but for whatever reason the commitment has changed. Everyone well knows that TNA is not WWE, but booking practices do not reflect it. TNA can’t treat the X Division as WWE treats its cruiserweight division. There is no reason why the X Division and the X Title can’t be treated at the same level as the World Championship. One of the best examples of the possibilities of the X Division came on the September 3 PPV (with matches taped 8/20 and 8/27) X Division Cup special. The PPV was so good that some called it the best ever, comparing it with greats that date back to the 1980s. While most of the matches on the show, featuring Michael Shane, Frankie Kazarian, Teddy Hart, Jerry Lynn, Jonny Storm, and Nosawa, were great, the final match in the tournament stood out as the best on the show. The amazing contest was between Juventud Guerrera and Chris Sabin. Sabin won, but Guerrera made one of his strongest showings in years. What the X Cup tournament special showed was the possibilities of the X Division, if it is used well. TNA has another year to show us whether it can use the X Division to its fullest extent, rather than a mundane afterthought.
September 10 was another pivotal show for TNA, when they promoted their one-cent show in order to branch out and promote the product. The show highlighted the TNA storylines and matches from the summer. Impressions of the show, which was seen by more people than ever, were mixed. What was able to carry over past the editing were many of TNA’s glaring problems, numbered among which are frequent and careless interference, the use of wrestlers far past their prime, and disorganization. Those who were impressed were able to look past that and see tremendous wrestling and a unique style of booking. The point of the one-cent show was to bring new fans in, but of course that means that the booking following the show has to be just as consistent or impressive as the package. TNA has not followed up as strongly as would be necessary to gain more viewers from the use of this show.
TNA’s perhaps most controversial move happened at the end of the November 5 broadcast of TNA on PPV. In what would have normally been no more than a tag team match main event to establish a storyline, Sting chose AJ Styles as his partner against Jeff Jarrett and a partner of his choosing. Just months after the death of the wrestling world’s first lady of wrestling Elizabeth Hulette in the very arms of this panicked, weeping man, that man was Lex Luger. With the wounds of the death of a woman that represented effervescent beauty to the degree that did Liz Hulette, epitomized the hurt and pain that deaths in wrestling have affected people. That so many people—that fucking Liz Hulette—got high on painkillers and drank herself to the degree that she could not breathe. With those wounds still fresh, TNA made a horrible move. For a man who had been so close to the situation—dating the married Hulette—to be hired was entirely careless and reckless of the company. TNA President Dixie Carter sent out a press release shortly after the controversy erupted. Controversy including multiple columns, including one that struck a cord that suggested a TNA boycott because of the move to hire Luger. The press release mainly said that TNA was about opportunity. But the situation wasn’t about opportunity. It’s about hiring a man who had a stockpile of steroids, likely rivaling that of the US Department of Justice’s Drug Enforcement Administation’s, who sat down with a woman, used drugs and drank with her, or watched her do it, just three months before the PPV in question. And it’s about hiring an old deluded man with no talent who commands a large paycheck. Luger and Jarrett did the job for Sting and Styles and Luger hasn’t been heard from since.
Hulk Hogan first met with Jeff Jarrett and Jerry Jarrett in Tampa on September 12 to discuss the possibility of adding Hogan an event based around himself and Jarrett. As it became more apparent that Hogan, and assistant Jimmy Hart, had agreed to some terms with the Jarretts, including removal of Vince Russo from the booking structure for at least some time. Hogan has had extreme differences with Russo since an angle at WCW Bash at the Beach in 2000 when Russo allegedly double crossed Hogan after Jarrett laid down and jobbed to him immediately. Russo had disparaging comments for Hogan which he aired publicly, apparently unbeknownst to Hogan, who had already left the building. The case went to court, Bollea vs. Russo, but the judge ruled that Russo made the comments, whether known to Hogan or not, under the auspices of the character Russo talking about character Hogan, not Russo the person on Bollea the person (which it would have to be to qualify for defamation). The judge, Susan B. Forsling, suggested that he had grounds to sue—but WCW—for breach of contract. Anyway, a deal seemed imminent, especially after a phone agreement made by Hogan’s lawyer, directly to Jeff Jarrett.
This led to a memorable angle between Jeff Jarrett attacked Hogan in Japan in which Jarrett attacked Hogan and left him bloody during a press conference following a match against Masahiro Chono, on October 12. TNA management went into high gear, marking the date November 30 on their calendar, and selling the idea of a full-blown Sunday PPV event the likes of WWE PPVs featuring the best card to date, a higher price tag, and a show based around Jeff Jarrett, as the promotion’s champion against Hulk Hogan. Because it was Hogan and there was no huge risk for anyone besides TNA, the major providers of TNA on PPV agreed. The sacrifice was that some fans would be turned off by the product because of Hogan, the direction of the company would need to change to reflect Hogan, this would include ending AJ Styles’ reign as champion, turning Jeff Jarrett heel, and giving Jarrett the belt. The idea would be that it would be TNA’s chance to step into the forefront for once and have a good package, with Hogan, to prospective cable companies.
In retrospect, the deal seems like a Faustian bargain that went wrong. TNA’s next mistake was their key one: proceeding without a signature on paper. Compounding the ignorance of this move, is the notorious nature of Hogan, who within the past two years has manipulated the business savvy Vince McMahon twice, both time without a contract to obligate him to the same demands as every other big time wrestler since WCW started offering big-time contracts across the board. As Hogan’s commitment became less clear, even with WWE’s WrestleMania coming up, TNA made no changes to their plan, by toning down on the heavy Hogan themes of the broadcast, or coming up with a contingency plan, in case Hogan, who has yet to sign a piece of paper that obligates him to a deal, dropped out. When TNA asked Hogan to make an appearance, he sent Jimmy Hart. When TNA asked him to do a phone interview, he said no, because he had a conflicting doctor’s appointment at the same time (TNA occurs live, 8-10 pm Eastern on Wednesday night). Hogan postponed the show close to the 11th hour and his other New Japan commitment, blaming injuries suffered recently, which caused him to have to have arthroscopic knee surgery (which is done on knee joints), recovery from which sources close to him have said is taking longer than expected. After basing the show around Jeff Jarrett and Hogan (represented by Hart), the company decided, after Hogan postponed on them twice, to write him out of the show. Hart has been gone since.
And as I said in the beginning, this has been a year of exploration for TNA. Some of it has been good, some of it has been bad, and some of it has been horrible. Luckily, TNA has been able to move in to the 21st century by cutting insulting elements of their show. The first 12 months of TNA were marked by xenophobia, homophobic remarks, racist jabs, violence against women, and Vince Russo-trademark insulting angles. Thanks to iNDemand, and Panda to a degree, this is all gone. When TNA was getting better in 2002, one of the problems was that every other word was a curse word, and I don’t know who that gets over with, but it diminishes the fanbase. Gone.
TNA needs to be put in more realistic perspective. TNA is a new promotion on the scene. For as many stupid decisions as they’ve made, like bringing in people like Rick Steiner with Jimmy Hart, TNA has taken another step in reevaluating who they are. For now, TNA has financial backing, thanks to the ownership stake purchased by Panda Energy International in 2002, to be able to explore their options with a bit more flexibility than the failed Xtreme Wrestling Federation, or the failed World Wrestling Allstars. To be frank, I believe that too much responsibility has been laid on TNA too soon. The wrestling environment is extremely treacherous, Vince McMahon has won a twenty-year long war against the wrestling industry and found that his hardest battle is the one he fights within his own company, and no one is looking for wrestling programming on cable. To expect that, even within a year’s time, that any new promotion will be set on the scene, prime quality, and on top of that recreate the magic that people want to see restored, is absurd. I can sit here and write Headlines and Scrutiny, and any other site can posts their coverage and reviews of the programs, but have in your mind, even in the back, that TNA has a lot to accomplish, and has accomplished a lot. It won’t be the second WCW, because there never will be a second WCW. It will not compete with WWE for years, if at all. It will not be James Crockett to the modern-day Vince McMahon. And whatever it will be, it won’t be immediate. Am I saying to accept whatever Vince Russo, or Dutch Mantell, or Jeff Jarrett, or Jerry Jarrett throw out there? Of course not, because I won’t. What I am saying, is give TNA a little room, and then criticize the hell out of them—it’ll make them better.
NWA:TNA returns live with a PPV broadcast on the 7th featuring the return of Ultimate X (Michael Shane vs. Chris Sabin vs. Low Ki vs. Christopher Daniels), which was originally scheduled for Bound For Glory, a Mr. TNA awards ceremony with the final three being Jeff Jarrett, AJ Styles, and Raven, as voted by TNA fans, Roddy Piper, 3Live Kru’s new song, and Raven and a mystery partner vs. The Gathering, who cost Raven the NWA Championship.
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News: The decision has been made that if the WGN deal is reached, that they will air a new version of Xplosion on the network. Expectations of the deal going through as planned have been extremely high up until the past 2 weeks or so, which probably signifies an additional roadblock… Panda has been pushing, as of late, to do buy a thirty-minute spot on WGN instead of a whole hour to reduce costs for the time and production costs… Primetime Elix Skipper, who has been with TNA for a while now, once a part of the XXX tag team with Christopher Daniels and Low-Ki, has been signed to a two-year contract with TNA this week, according to Jeremy Borash. The physically adroit Skipper, who got his start in WCW in 1999, was the company’s cruiserweight champion for two months in 2000, was the WCW Cruiserweight Tag Team Champion with Kid Romeo, and three-time NWA Tag Team Champion… The TNA pricing plan where you can buy the whole month in advance on a discounted price of $34.95 starts this month (no matter how many TNA events there are, for example, March has five Wednesdays). It doesn’t apply for satellite dish customers, sorry. Now, TNA has a partial list online, which includes me, and I’m gonna try to get the plan and see if it works, which knowing past experiences, and other experiences people have had (remember the one-cent show?), I don’t have a chance. You have to order through your local company, which I just tried doing, and guess what, the operator had never heard of any promotion of that sort. What she did say was to print out the offer and take it in, which I will do, and we’ll see how that works. Rhetorically, I would ask someone in TNA, what the point is, if it’s such a hassle… According to Jeremy Borash, Bob Ryder was able to take out an out-of-control fan in the Asylum with one punch a couple of weeks ago… The response to the new nwatna.com offering that allows you to purchase all of TNA’s past PPVs (with the newest continually being added) has been astounding… There was some chatter about bringing in the Insane Clown Posse, a punk band that got a push in WCW for no reason, to feud with 3Live Kru. In an interview on the ICP website, Vampiro said that he was part of such plans. He also had this to say, “All of the wrestlers, every f***ing last one is a dirty, lying f***ing bitch ass liar piece of shit. I hate each and every one.” That’s going down somewhere. On why he returned to MLW after quitting he said, “money, drugs, the fans, and some nice looking ass.” Fantasy land continues with this quote on Billy Kidman, “Not only did I f*** his girlfriend, but he has no talent, sucks, is ugly ass shit and stole everything from Mexico and never gave us props.” Hmmm. Oh, now that you’ve cleared that up. What about why you went to work for TNA. “Money and the xanex.” Thoughts on Jeff Jarrett? “Well, he had this sickness. It was called, ‘I am a bitch and a spoiled dick with no talent, so leave me alone.’ I thought he would get over it but I guess not. It had eploed like HIV, and now he has his own show. The ‘Jeff Jarrett Hour,’ but I think they call it TNA or something.”.. At the Fairgrounds on 12/11, a TNA-“supported” endeavor was a success, according to those involved with it. The purpose of the wrestling show was to raise funds for Rick Santel after an injury in a TNA match left him a hefty medical bill to take care of (it shouldn’t be a surprise that he didn’t have medical insurance). Why didn’t TNA take care of the costs entirely? If I’m wrong here, please tell me, but that’s pretty cold-hearted.
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