Thursday, July 7, 2011

Jabroni Companion #11

This installment is another multi-topic one, so let’s dive right in…

XVIII. Genesis

The topic for this one isn’t biblical, but the annual TNA PPV, which to my mind has become something of an unintentional cornerstone for the company. Most people will think of Slammiversary or Bound for Glory (though come to think of it, along with Lockdown and Destination X, the company has done remarkably well creating these kinds of annual events).

Anyway, a lot of my firsthand familiarity with TNA has come from DVDs, since I’ve only sporadically been able to watch Impact since it landed the Spike contract, so it was amusing when Genesis ended up providing me with most of my favorite TNA memories. The trend began in 2006. Anyone particularly hep to their TNA lore will tell you that year’s Genesis was significant for being Kurt Angle’s first PPV with the company (his first match, anyway), the so-called “Dream Match of the Decade” against Samoa Joe.

Back in 2006, Angle was something of an odd commodity. He’d spent many of the preceding years taking significant amounts of time off from WWE competition to deal with his recurring neck problems, and many were speculating that he was necessarily at the tail-end of his active wrestling career. He’d just had a successful run as Smackdown world champion, wrestled a classic with the Undertaker, and been chosen to be a cornerstone of the new ECW brand, when he unexpectedly chose to bail. For someone who fully understood the increasing limits of his own physical endurance but still burned with energy and drive, the prospect of a lighter schedule with TNA was too good for Angle to ignore. (Of course, he would be a bigger, more important, integral fish in the smaller pond, which must also have been attractive.)

So in November, at Genesis, a renewed Kurt Angle made his most recent comeback in TNA. He didn’t look his strongest, let’s be honest. That’s the thing that shocked me the most when I finally had a chance to see the match. It was almost alarming. Maybe he pushed himself a little harder for the occasion. (I have yet to see the other clashes Angle and Joe had in subsequent months.) I do know that he’s looked hail and hardy since, and has been with TNA for five years now. He shows no particular signs of significantly slowing down. This Genesis was a milestone both for him and TNA, and me, too.

Skip a few years, and in 2009, I found another Genesis of some appeal. As you might know from my list of favorite matches, the highlight of this card was the clash of Alex Shelley and Chris Sabin, which to my mind opened the eyes of TNA management that these two had an appeal that transcended the X-division. What we’re seeing with their Motorcity Machine Guns tag team is that acknowledgement, but I believe we still seeing only the beginning of their legacy. I can’t overstate the importance of this match. For some of the more old school fans, maybe think of the 1992 Summer Slam match between the British Bulldog and Bret Hart. It’s exactly like that.

The 2010 Genesis is perhaps a tad infamous at this point, given the continuing discomfort with the “Hogan Era,” which officially kicked off on this card, complete with a return to the four- rather than six-sided ring. For me, there was Mr. Anderson’s debut with the company, plus another classic clash between Kurt Angle and AJ Styles. I’d also like to give a shout-out to Brian Kendrick, who gets far too little support, even though he’s managed to stick around the national scene in some capacity for much of the past decade, through several incarnations in WWE and an ever-evolving and unique role in TNA, where he’s one of the few cruiserweights (in so many words) to come with an actual personality.

The 2011 Genesis was Mr. Anderson’s christening as a world champion, which to my mind came a good five years later than it really needed to, given WWE’s skittishness long before the injury bug hit him, but probably at exactly the right moment in his TNA tenure. The exact way the company chose to put the belt on Anderson will hopefully garner more respect in the future, given the overall context. For the preceding year TNA had only had three champions (Styles, Rob Van Dam, and Jeff Hardy), while the title of #1 contender had been something of a project for most of that time, with a variety of tournaments that rarely had a satisfactory payoff. This PPV was only supposed to feature the culmination of another of those tournaments, but instead also featured Anderson in a surprise championship match, which played very well with Jeff Hardy’s character at the time (a storyline that was followed, ultimately, too closely). Anderson and Hardy had been building chemistry together since their WWE days, but had also developed a complex relationship in TNA. There was also the best encounter between the Motorcity Machine Guns and Beer Money, also represented on my favorite matches list. A lot of people don’t seem to appreciate how TNA builds momentum, but this particular Genesis benefited greatly from it.

XIX. Ring of Honor

To my mind, ROH is exactly the company every wrestling fan in the 1990s was praying for, everyone who grew up on Ric Flair and who relished the WCW cruiserweight scene, who cherished the Shawn Michaels-Bret Hart clash at WrestleMania XII, who would one day get to see Eddie Guerrero and the late Chris Benoit as world champions in WWE. It’s the wrestling purist’s dream.

Lord knows that there aren’t as many wrestling purists as some fans will sometimes lead you to believe. Many who think they are do like wrestling well enough, but probably don’t appreciate the science of it as much as they think they do. As fans we’re constantly encouraged to embrace it as more of an entertainment, a battle between face and heel competitors, good guys and bad guys, people either to cheer or boo. In Japan, you watch for a whole evening and probably not hear a single peep from the audience. These are fans who respect the art of it.

That’s not the way it is in American wrestling, obviously, and not even the way it is in ROH, whose fans graduated from the ECW school, or as it sometimes seems, from soccer games. They like to chant, “This is awesome!” (That’s where WWE fans got it from.) Without ROH, it’s doubtful we would have ever seen Daniel Bryan (Brian Danielson) or Desmond Wolfe (Nigel McGuinness) in WWE or TNA. We wouldn’t have gotten CM Punk. These are wrestlers more akin to Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat than John Cena or Randy Orton.

If TNA struggles to become a recognized competitor with WWE, then ROH is the next step down, and that’s quite remarkable. Where ECW was causing a revolution in the 1990s, forcing WCW and WWE to adapt and adopt violence and cruiserweights, ROH doesn’t try and pretend it’s anything like its contemporaries. Like the territory era, it only exports future stars, and lets their new companies try and handle them (I’m still disappointed that TNA ultimately it wasn’t “hungry like the Wolfe”). So far the only ROH star to pull a Savage and retain his exact personality and momentum has been Samoa Joe in TNA. WWE has used the company as something of a farm league in the past, learning, for example, that Jamie Noble really was a phenomenal wrestler (not that he still got much of a chance to prove it when he went back to his old stomping grounds, possibly because trailer park trash needs to drink beer to get over) after he spent time in ROH as James Gibson.

It’s worth noting, too, that Bruno Sammartino took a timeout from his wrestling boycott to visit ROH.

I’m always on the lookout for ROH DVDs.

XX. Pro Wrestling Illustrated

PWI is perhaps notorious for its kayfabe approach, a magazine filled with stories that take wrestling at face value, which is a little odd for an era where fans have long become familiar with the man behind the curtain (I gotta say it, even though he’s been dead for years now: Gorilla Monsoon).

So yes, PWI is on one hand pretty quaint, but on the other, it’s a pretty unique phenomenon, too, a continuously published, mainstream wrestling publication. Sure, the Internet is swarming with websites that carry results, interviews, spoilers, and commentaries, but there’s a hard case to be made for a single authority, and that’s a nice thing to have for any fan. PWI fills that role for wrestling fans, for better or worse.

The cornerstone of the magazine is the annual PWI 500, a ranking of wrestlers from throughout the world. Sure, a WWE star invariably (only Sting, AJ Styles, and Dean Malenko had achieved it for other companies) takes the top spot, mostly because of overall awareness, but it’s an invaluable source for fans to catch up with wrestlers who might otherwise slip their attention, whether they represent the US, Mexico, or Japan. There’s always an argument to made for your WWE or TNA favorites, to either rank higher or lower, but half the fun is the comprehensive coverage of the whole scene.

Last year I purchased a subscription for the first time, and found myself pleasantly surprised to find a lot more analysis on a consistence basis than I’d previously suspected from the magazine (but then again, maybe PWI merely increased the amount of it). I’d always believed that for the most part, PWI lived and breathed for breathless stories detailing the amazing developments and personalities among the biggest stars, that most of the magazine was geared toward fluff pieces. Many of the columnists who supplement these features actually do break kayfabe, but few of them seem interested in serious discussions, only firmly held opinions whose surfaces are rarely scratched. It’s just assumed most fans will have the same ideas. Wrestling is about conformity, after all, isn’t it?

I do wish that PWI would break kayfabe entirely (WWE does have its own magazines, after all, and website recaps of its programming), that it would embrace its responsibilities, as represented by the PWI 500, perhaps demonstrate for a mainstream audience that wrestling really can be taken seriously and as entertainment at the same time. Yes, wrestlers are used for specific purposes by their companies, but the manner in which they succeed as athletes or as personalities can be debated more thoroughly than by how many people choose to cheer or boo them in the arena. As an independent voice of established authority, PWI could actually influence the popularity of a star, by making it plain why they deserve more attention than they currently enjoy. Putting RVD at the top of the PWI 500 doesn’t have as much weight as explaining why he deserves it. You can’t just be a fan in a position like that. If you can describe his assets as more than vocal supporters and a particularly athletic and established in-ring routine, then by all means, do so!

I’m not criticizing as a detractor, but as a supporter. I’d like PWI to reach the next level. Any success a magazine achieves is a win for wrestling in general.

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