The modern era of professional wrestling is a fairly curious beast. Before Vince McMahon supersized his father’s company and created what we know today as WWE, most promotions were solidly territorial in nature, and you had to be a diehard fan to know who most of the top stars in the industry were, without likely ever having seen them personally.
…Hell, I just made most of that up. By the time I was born, that era was drawing to a close. The 1980s saw the death rattle of the territorial era. The AWA, the biggest competition for WWE and the longstanding NWA, folded, without much fanfare. NWA, for all intents and purposes, was transformed by Ted Turner into WCW, an almost exact duplicate of WWE. And from that moment on, the only wrestlers who really mattered were centered squarely in two companies, and everyone else became independent bush leagues, feeding their developmental talent one way or the other, and you weren’t really anyone unless you broke onto the big stage.
Anyway, all of this is to try and set that stage for the modern era, and attempt to explain the why and what of Total Nonstop Action, otherwise known as
As with WWE, WCW, ECW, and god knows how many other promotions before it, TNA began as an offshoot of the NWA, the National Wrestling Alliance, which is recognized as the oldest continuously run wrestling agency in the sport’s history (and still running, I might add). The company was formed in 2002, and has since developed into a legitimate rival on the national stage for WWE. Just what that means has often been interpreted loosely as TNA being the second coming of WCW, which has always been misleading. As the earliest days of the company itself will attest, TNA has always been a little more like ECW, with definite WCW leanings.
As a startup, and with WWE having dominated the wrestling scene for more than a year at that point, TNA in 2002 had two channels of access for its original lineup of talent: either stars who had once been famous for performing in WWE or WCW and for some reasons were no longer doing so, or a batch of new talent that could be found on the independent scene. From the beginning, then, what you thought of, say, Ken Shamrock or Jeff Jarrett and what the implications of their lack of activity within WWE at the time, meant just as much to you as unknowns like AJ Styles and Christopher Daniels, both of whom had become legends on the independent scene within just a few years of activity.
Shamrock hadn’t been active in WWE since the fall of 1999, and Jarrett had been one of the most prominent stars of WCW’s final days, and perhaps not so coincidentally had also been active in WWE during the tail-end of the last millennium. Along with Ron Killings, who’d had a brief, undistinguished run with WWE, these were to be the major stars of the company; not only had none of them been world title contenders in WWE, which had at this point apparently proven that it really was the stage of the immortals (and well into the development of a hot new talent in the form of Brock Lesnar, no less), but between them they had never really energized a significant fanbase before, either.
Shamrock left soon after TNA’s earliest days were over. Whatever he might have had to contribute, and whatever novelty Killings might represent as an unlikely champion, Jarrett soon established dominance as the face of the company. His most obvious rival now became Styles, who was fast impressing fans with his dynamic and energetic, fresh approach to wrestling, not only as the figurehead of the X-division (a revamp of the cruiserweight phenomenon which swore it was anything but…even though its stars almost exclusively amounted to cruiserweights, and fought only cruiserweights, with Styles being the rare exception). For TNA, Styles was the franchise player, the unique talent WWE had nothing to do with; he was basically the company’s Sting.
As the company developed, and the years passed, it became clear that this original model was something it would have to learn to accept. WWE, which had not only defeated WCW and ECW, but bought up most of their talent, and strung their debuts along at a leisurely pace. If TNA had counted on stars like Scott Steiner, Rey Mysterio, or even Bill Goldberg for a little extra juice, once the initial “invasion” of talent in 2001 petered out, one by one, those stars showed up in WWE. There was an influx of ECW talent in the company’s second year (a precursor to EV2.0, if you will), and Raven quickly established himself as one of TNA’s most prominent wrestlers, quickly vaulting back to world title status, which he’d enjoyed back in Pennsylvania, but never in WWE or WCW.
Though the wrestling scene had ultimately proven that it couldn’t support two, let alone three, national promotions, buzz quickly developed that WWE had finally found another challenger. That’s been the constant bane of TNA, the demand that it somehow automatically replicate an experience that ultimately failed. Wrestling will never be able to continuously capture the attention of a mainstream audience. Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, and The Rock are exceptions, not the rule. That may be a little tough to swallow, a context that’s difficult to understand, when even the core wrestling audience exhibits mainstream opinions more often than a basic interest in the art and science of what everyone has theoretically come to enjoy. Then again, the appeal of pure wrestling still has the 2007 stink on it, when the momentum that WWE’s Smackdown brand ran with for years collapsed in on itself in a couple of murders and a suicide.
I don’t mean to be too expansive here, but to be a tad realistic. ECW, for all the rabid support it had from its fanbase, something that far outlived the company itself, could never really compete with WWE or WCW, even when either company was at their lowest. The international flavor of wrestling that drew many fans to the matches that weren’t blood-soaked in hardcore mayhem had the effect of initiating the cruiserweight phenomenon, which was really just a way of reversing the trend Hulk Hogan had begun a decade earlier, when athleticism was less important than displays of power. Of course, the dirty secret was that the Hogan style if not the exact size was always the predominant form of professional wrestling. Even the fleet-footed Bruno Sammartino could never have gotten away with being champion for so long if he didn’t at least have the look of a bruiser. Ric Flair established a new style by stripping away the extraneous power elements of his most famous opponents, Harley Race and Dusty Rhodes, both of whom were far bigger than him, and let wrestling be as pure as possible. But he was more the exception than the rule, which was why Ricky Steamboat, Sting, and even “Macho Man” Randy Savage, all of whom were closer in style to Flair than Hogan, never quite reached the same level, even though they were routinely praised as the best wrestlers of their generation.
I don’t mean to obscure my points here, but what TNA offered was the best version of almost exactly the opposite of what most wrestling fans demanded, then and perhaps even now. It was like a supersized version of a territorial promotion, or the perfect example of what the independent scene that had replaced that idea could be. It offered dynamic wrestling, but without ready access to outsize personalities (and here I should add “in their prime,” because many older stars continued to appear, and on a more regular basis, as the years continued), that wrestling would always tend more toward what was never going to galvanize a wide audience. The cruiserweight phenomenon was a far bigger success than anyone ever realized. In fact, until TNA developed the X-division, cruiserweights had finally been accepted into the mainstream, as represented by Shawn Michaels’ 2002 comeback, when he was at last embraced as a fan favorite, a position he enjoyed until his retirement. (Anyone who argues his breakthrough came in 1996 wasn’t paying attention.)
This is not to say TNA hasn’t overly indulged in farcical antics over the years, but that these instincts are the lifeblood of a wrestling organization, and have been routinely relied upon for decades, by every single promotion, in any country you can think of, by the proudest and most shameless stars the industry has ever seen. So yeah, I’m a little tired of the argument that TNA doesn’t get any respect because it hasn’t earned any. The basic truth is, TNA is exactly the success, on whatever level you calculate it, that it is because that’s what is actually possible at the moment. It has produced a wide range of classic wrestling moments, built and enriched careers, established a legacy many times over, and is more than deserving of any wrestling fan’s respect. No, I don’t expect anything I have to say here to change the balance of the current landscape, but to suggest that for those currently working for, or anyone who may in the future, TNA, it’s okay to have a little pride. It was not such a bad decision for Sting to once again choose TNA over WWE.
For those of you who judge your perception of morale in the TNA locker room based on public antics and unfortunate behavior, I might suggest that no company, wrestling or otherwise, will always be able to maintain a perfect sense of happiness for its employees. There’s always something to be said for the hope that authority figures will always have the best interests of those employees in mind when they choose how to run their business, but sadly that’s not always the case, in wrestling or otherwise. To be a little more blunt, you can’t blame TNA itself for what Jeff Hardy last did in a wrestling ring. You can blame Jeff for agreeing to participate, when he obviously was in no condition to, and even those who let him walk onto a PPV like that, but you can’t judge a whole company for this one incident. (Hardy had proved for more than a year that he could conduct himself professionally, and was rewarded with a lengthy world title reign; it’s my opinion that TNA simply asked too much of him, in the end, especially considering the legal matters that shadowed much of that period.) You might as well argue that Michael Jordan shouldn’t have been playing basketball with the flu, but then, you can’t always predict results.
In my eyes, TNA has succeeded beyond the wildest of expectations, given that it was never bankrolled by billionaires. You would never have WWE, or the heyday of WCW, without all that money. TNA is about a love of wrestling, and I’m not just saying that in tandem with the latest gimmick and shot at “superstars.” That a promotion can achieve this level of awareness, and last this long, in decidedly shaky financial times, is remarkable enough. But just wait until you see the action in the ring…