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The Renaissance of TNA Wrestling and Why It Might Be Doomed Anyway

TNA has carved out an existence as America's second-tier pro wrestling company, but that may come to an end just as they're hitting their stride.

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Sep 23 2014, 1:15pm

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It's Friday night in Charlottesville, Virginia, and MVP is beating the piss out of Jeff Hardy. Their fight has taken them outside the six-sided ring set up in the center of the University of Virginia's John Paul Jones Arena, and now they're inches away from the paying crowd. In the front row, there's a small girl, maybe nine years old, there with her dad, and she's been giddily cheering the entire night. But now, in the main event, things are taking an ugly turn.

Right in front of her, directly in front of her, MVP is punching Jeff Hardy in the head. MVP turns toward the girl, stares into her eyes, and taunts her: "Oh, you like him?" Then he picks up Hardy and drops him ribs-first across the guardrail that separates the crowd from the wrestlers. Hardy falls to the floor, clutching his chest in agony. MVP turns towards the girl, gets louder: "What now? What now? What now?" The girl immediately bursts into tears, curls into her father's side, shakes. The fight goes on, returns to the ring, and the girl still sobs silently. Hardy mounts a comeback, hits MVP with two Twists of Fate before finishing with his Swanton diving senton, winning the match. Still, the girl cries.

When Hardy staggers over to the guardrail, signing autographs and hugging kids, he seeks out the little girl. He peels off one of the fishnets he wears over his arms—even at 37, Hardy still steadfastly rocks the late-90s Hot Topic fashion he was wearing when he first found fame—and hands it to the little girl. She snuffles, tries to smile, seems appeased for the moment. On the way through the lobby, though, she's still shaken, unsmiling, leaning on her father for support. She's been through something.

This is Total Nonstop Action Wrestling in 2014. It's not the biggest wrestling company in America, but it's the biggest one that's not afraid to make a little kid cry.

******

When Nashville-based TNA started in 2002, there was a pro wrestling vacuum in America. The second- and third-biggest wrestling companies in the country—the corporate-funded WCW and the scrappy upstart ECW—had gone out of business within a few months of each other, their company identities subsumed into the WWE giant. WWE handpicked all the WCW and ECW wrestlers it wanted. It toyed around with the idea of rebooting both companies as subsidiaries, but never really followed through except for a flopped WCW invasion storyline and an ECW-in-name-only TV show that ran for a few years. WWE absorbed all its competition, which left a space for a new rival. That's where TNA came in.

Jeff Jarrett, a former WWE and WCW wrestler (who, not coincidentally, had been blackballed from WWE) co-founded TNA with his father, the legendary Memphis wrestling promoter Jerry. With its old-school Southern orientation and tit-joke name, TNA was never going to challenge WWE for primacy, though it always tried. From the beginning, the company has been notorious for signing WWE castoffs, and early on, WCW or ECW castoffs who, for whatever reason, didn't make the WWE cut. Aging megastars like Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair and Sting and Kevin Nash wrestled for TNA during the periods when they were on the outs with WWE, but they all eventually returned to the bigger company. And when TNA has made or discovered stars of its own, like the Southern high flyer AJ Styles or the MMA-influenced bruiser Samoa Joe, it has generally let them languish for the sake of their establishment talent.

And yet, TNA has scratched out an existence, steadily drawing a million pairs of eyes to its weekly Impact Wrestling show on Spike TV and touring in the U.S. and the UK for over a decade. There's never really been a consistent direction for the company, even on something as basic as ring shape. (It's gone from a six-sided ring to a four-sided ring and back to the six-sided one.) And there's been constant turnover in both wrestlers and behind-the-scenes types; even co-founders Jeff and Jerry Jarrett are gone now. But TNA has carried on.

It's hard to say how long it can keep carrying on. Late in July,TMZ reported that Spike TV had opted not to renew TNA's contract at the end of 2014. TNA claims that negotiations with Spike are ongoing, and the company could always land on a different cable network. But without a secure TV deal, TNA can't survive much longer in its present form. Online wrestling pundits—and there are more of those than you might imagine—have been predicting TNA's death for years now, but lately, those predictions have grown louder.

If you talk to the wrestlers in TNA, though, they insist that they're not worried. "There have been critics on the internet that have questioned the longevity of TNA for years and years and years," says Michael Paris, the young high flyer who wrestles as DJ Z, on the phone from his Chicago home. "But every time there's some rumor and they seem to doubt TNA, we always end up sticking around in the end. TNA's been around longer than WCW was. It's been around longer than ECW was. I don't see us going anywhere in 2015."

******

No one knows how creative momentum might affect the business's bottom line, but in recent months, Impact Wrestling has become something it hasn't been in a long time: a fun, anarchic, unpredictable wrestling show. Earlier this summer, TNA taped a few months' worth of Impact Wrestling shows—unlike WWE, TNA almost never airs its TV show live—at the Manhattan Center, an intimate New York venue famous for raucous crowds, mostly for smaller companies like ECW and Ring of Honor. Those shows have been a total blast, with the company fleshing out its skeleton crew roster with indie wrestling darlings and doing everything it can to make noise.

WWE boom period veterans Team 3D and the Hardys have been embroiled in an entertaining three-way tag-team feud with the Wolves, a duo of hard-striking indie veterans. Jessicka Havok, a towering, badass female wrestler, has shown up to terrorize everyone in the so-called Knockouts division. Japanese import Sanada has turned on his mentor, the legendary Keiji Mutoh, and stolen his Great Muta character. An Iraq war veteran who wrestles with a prosthetic leg made his debut on a show timed, as cynically as possible, to air just before 9/11. Samoa Joe has kicked a lot of people in the head. It's been fun.

However, TNA's instability is still an issue. Hulk Hogan and Sting both left the company in the past year, as did the home-grown champion AJ Styles, who is now in Japan, after a contract dispute. Rumor has it that a couple of the company's biggest stars, the former Olympian Kurt Angle and the ECW/WWE veteran Bully Ray (better remembered as Bubba Ray Dudley) are on their way out, as well. Losing Bully Ray would seriously hurt. A role player with his two previous companies, the Bully Ray of TNA has matured into a main-event player, a nasty bastard with a booming voice and a willingness to get mean.

But that instability has also lent an appealing unpredictability to TNA's shows, especially in contrast to WWE's rote, repetitive storytelling. It helps that TNA's writing staff is small and that the wrestlers get chances to figure out their own characters. Michael Paris is a great example. A former indie standout, he signed to TNA a few years ago as a pretty boy bad guy, one who brought a can of hairspray to the ring and sometimes sprayed it in his opponents' eyes. That's a tried-and-true wrestling gimmick, but it's not an especially fresh or interesting one. And given Paris's real-life background—he's the Filipino-American raver son of a mail-order bride—the character he was playing seemed criminally simplistic.

Recently, though, Paris has become DJ Z, an obnoxious EDM doof who rocks a multicolored mohawk, wears headphones to the ring, and yells air horn noises—"ber-ber-ber-berrrrr"—in the middle of matches. To hear Paris tell it, he came up with the character himself after taking up DJing while recovering from an injury. "TNA happened to hear about my DJing and decided to let me return to television doing this DJ character," says Paris. "But as far as the character itself, that was all me. There was no direction when I came in with the character. It was just 'you're a DJ now.' So my vision of the character is where the air horn came from, and all of the neon colors, and the annoying DJ stereotypes and cliches that I do. People hate it."

Another good example is the ridiculously chiseled Michael Hutter. Until last year, he was known as Derrick Bateman, a talented standout on the WWE undercard who could not break through to a prominent role. In TNA, though, he's found an ideal position. He now wrestles as Ethan Carter III, the sneering, entitled rich-kid nephew of Dixie Carter, the company's president in both storyline and real life. Hutter looks the part completely: jutting jaw, immobile pompadour, expensive-looking salmon-colored trousers that he wears when he's not wrestling. He's the bad guy from an Archie comic, the entitled rich bully who steals your girl and then laughs at you.

In WWE, EC3 would've been a one-note character, a jokey midcard figure coached to stay on-message and presented in micromanaged backstage sketches until the audience either embraced him or got sick of him. Hutter knows this because he saw it happen, time and again, to other wrestlers during his run in WWE. In TNA, though, EC3 has been given the room and TV time to grow into something resembling a three-dimensional character. He's been presented as an actual threat, as someone who doesn't need to cheat to beat established stars. He's gained a sidekick hypeman, the tiny British wrestler Rockstar Spud, who wears impossibly tight and gaudy suits and who struts and bounces like a clown as he walks EC3 to the ring. He's built a big brother/little brother chemistry with Spud, teaming with him, but constantly acting annoyed at his presence. He's funny, but he's not a joke, which is what he would have been in WWE.

As influences, Hutter cites the early-00s WWE stars—Edge, Christian, Kurt Angle, the Rock—who could be funny, but who were still presented as legit forces. Hutter was able to develop the EC3 character in part because he had input on it, because his vision for the character and the creative team's vision weren't at odds. Coming to the company, he pitched a number of possible characters, working with the writers to nail down EC3's traits once they figured out who he was. And he picks out and buys those obnoxiously preppy clothes himself. "I believe in this character, and I believe in myself," he says. "To become it, you gotta dress like it."

In the biggest moment of TNA's summer, the 49-year-old Dixie Carter—a former marketing rep who became TNA's president shortly after her family's company, Panda Energy, bought it from Jeff Jarrett—went through a table. She'd been feuding with a trio of craggy ECW veterans, Team 3D and Tommy Dreamer, and the storyline ended when Bully Ray powerbombed her through a folding table as the New York crowd lost its collective mind. In the weeks since, EC3 has gone dark, coming out with real fire in his eyes and blasting the crowd for cheering the assault of a defenseless woman. He's got a point, you know?

******

But in Charlottesville, EC3 isn't building his storyline. The show is being filmed for Turning Point, a pay-per-view special that'll air at some unspecified date, but it's essentially a glorified house show. No stories advance, and almost nobody talks between matches. The setup is bare-bones: two or three cameras, a ring announcer, two referees, no pyrotechnics or Jumbotron or big lighting rig. Announcers Mike Tenay and Tazz aren't there; they record their commentary afterwards. The arena is big enough to host Springsteen shows, but a big black curtain cuts off half of it. I'd be surprised if there are 1,000 people in the crowd, but those less-than-1,000 people are loud.

Charlottesville may be a hippie mountain college town, but the crowd at the TNA show is country as fuck, presumably coming from the nearby boonies. It's not the New York variety of loud, though. The Virginia fans cheer good guys and boo bad guys and get incensed whenever anyone cheats. They mostly avoid the elaborate half-sarcastic chants that internet-reared audiences love. This is an intense, engaged audience. Folks whose parents or grandparents cheered on Dusty Rhodes in North Carolina or Jerry Lawler in Memphis. They are, in many ways, TNA's base.

During the matches, the storytelling, which had been fast-paced and unpredictable at those televised New York shows, is hammy and theatrical, in old-school wrestling tradition. Only a couple of heels win their matches, and they do it through nefarious means. (DJ Z pins the indie veteran Sonjay Dutt by grabbing a handful of tights and, perhaps inadvertently, giving half the arena an unobstructed view of Dutt's asscrack.) Feuding monsters Abyss and Bram have a fun hardcore brawl, one that involves a broken table and a cheese-grater shot to the nuts. Good guy wrestler Bobby Roode starts off his match by turning down his old tag-team partner James Storm's invitation to join Storm's growing bad guy faction.

The wrestlers, in other words, were playing to a particular crowd on a particular night, something they've learned how to do. "If you're in New York City in front of die-hard wrestling fans, maybe you don't do as much comedy or character stuff," explains Michael Paris. "Maybe you do more of an athletic exhibition. But if you're in Charlottesville or a Southern town, it's a little more slow-paced. They may not understand a lot of the athletic maneuvers. But they will understand "don't touch my hair" or "don't touch my headphones." They like that simple story. It's fun to experiment with different crowds. Any part of the country you go to, you're going to get something different. What works in New York may not work in Charlottesville. What works in Charlottesville may not work in Texas. It's knowing your audience and being aware of what they want to see that night."

The whole show takes place almost completely outside the scope of TNA narratives because it will air far enough into the future that nobody knows where storylines will be at that point. The various champions, for instance, don't come to the ring with their belts, since they may well not be champions by then.

As for Ethan Carter and Spud, they abandon their holy war against the TNA hardcore fans long enough to take on the thrown together good guy duo of Mr. Anderson, a peroxide-headed loudmouth who spent some time in the WWE as Mr. Kennedy, and Gunner, one of TNA's endless supply of big, scary white guys with biker beards and long, stringy, always wet hair. (Seriously, TNA employs about seven guys who looks just like that, and it gets hard to tell them apart.) The match ends when EC3 eventually gets disgusted with Spud's uselessness, storming out of the ring and leaving his accomplice to get destroyed by the babyfaces.

******

As it happens, the company's champion is not in Charlottesville on the night of the show. Bobby Lashley, a man who looks like an oak tree built out of muscles, is at a Connecticut casino because he's got an MMA fight. Lashley left behind a promising WWE career in 2008 to wrestle in other companies and to try his hand at MMA. He returned to TNA for a second stint in May, destroying everyone and winning the company's championship after forming a bad guy faction with MVP and charismatic indie vet Kenny King. (For all the controversy about the recent Atlantic article that claimed WWE has never had a black champion as long as we don't count The Rock as black, it's worth noting that TNA has a black champion right now, and he's not its first.)

Since returning to TNA, Lashley has also signed on with Bellator, the TNA of MMA, which also happens to broadcast on Spike TV. This seems like a slightly dubious idea for TNA. After all, they can't control what happens in the cage. If Lashley loses in MMA, couldn't that loss undermine the entire company—or at least his own storyline as champion? I picture wrestlers and officials biting their nails all night backstage, muttering prayers, ripping their collective hair out. But a few days after the show, all the wrestlers say that they weren't worried at all. "Have you seen Bobby?," asks Rockstar Spud. "Look at him! The man's a juggernaut!"

Michael Hutter, meanwhile, offers the interesting opinion that Lashley would've been fine even if he'd lost. "We care about the guy, and we wanted him to succeed," says Hutter. "But I didn't feel any nervousness from the higher-ups. They're confident in him, and I don't think they'd let him [fight] if they weren't. But win, lose, or draw, whatever would've happened—because anything can happen in an MMA fight—I think they would still stand behind him and support him. Because we're a family."

Any concerns would have been moot anyway. Lashley won his fight in the second round, beating veteran fighter Josh Burns with a rear naked choke and literally turning him purple. In Charlottesville, ring announcer Jeremy Borash happily tells the crowd the result of Lashley's fight in between matches. Asked if the wrestlers backstage were watching the Lashley fight, Rockstar Spud immediately breaks out into giggles. "Yes," he says. "Yes, we were. It was awesome." If letting Lashley fight was a gamble, it was a gamble that paid off.

TNA has made a number of gambles over the years, however, not all of them worked out. They tried leaving their inexpensive studio, the Impact Zone at Universal Studios Orlando, and broadcasting their TV show live on the road. That didn't work out. They tried going up against the WWE's flagship show Monday Night Raw, reviving the WWE's 90s-era Monday night wars with WCW. That turned out disastrously. Later this year, they'll air Bound for Glory, their biggest annual pay-per-view, from Tokyo, something no major American wrestling company has ever tried.

TNA is trying things. They're taking swings, and lately, some of those swings are connecting. The company's show has a looseness and an energy to it. The timing is good; Raw has gone fully moribund this summer, and TNA looks strong in comparison. Its ratings are growing. Its characters are figuring out ways to shine. Its recent decisions—taping a summer's worth of shows in front of a loud New York crowd that would've shit all over the company if they hadn't put on good wrestling, cutting their champion loose in an MMA cage—have turned out well. Things are clicking. "It's a perfect storm, creatively," says Hutter. "The stuff we were doing in the past that might not have worked has been realized and negated."

It's unclear whether these measures will be enough to save the company, and it's certainly possible that TNA will blink out of existence next year, after its TV deal lapses. But considering what TNA has been doing lately, that would be an awful shame. After all, they're a family. And anyway, America needs one televised wrestling company that's willing to make a little girl cry.