What the Hell Happened to TNA?

TNA's recent history, capped by this year's collision between owner Dixie Carter and Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, is so crazy and convoluted that it’s almost refreshing.

|
Nov 8 2016, 2:10pm

Photo by Brian Wright via Wikimedia Commons

There was a time, about a decade ago, when it seemed WWE's crown would slip. An upstart number two promotion, TNA, was hitting its stride just as WWE was in a creative lull. With its perfect mix of talent from yesteryear and young, hungry up-and-comers, TNA seemed poised to make a real push at WWE's top spot, à la WCW in the 1990s. It never happened, and TNA is now a strange throwback basket case of a promotion teetering on its last legs.

It's worth casting back to affirm that TNA being a credible wrestling company wasn't just a fever dream concocted by wrestling nerds desperate for anything as a counter to WWE's Triple H/John Cena/Randy Orton stranglehold. TNA, on paper, was amazing.

Read More: Hell in a Cell and the Limits of WWE's Feminism

Writing a history of TNA in short form is difficult. It's a confusing mess of dropped angles, real-life grudges, and missed opportunities. Things would happen, only to never be referenced again—witness Samoa Joe's kidnapping by what looked to be tubby ninjas in an angle straight from 1988, which was completely forgotten by the following week. Or the Voodoo Kin Mafia, née WWE's famed New Age Outlaws (and yes, that's VKM, a play on Vincent Kennedy McMahon), calling out Triple H and Shawn Michaels by their real names, in a strange score-settling guaranteed to go nowhere. TNA is filled with baffling creative cul-de-sacs and decisions that were always pointed to magnetic wrong on the compass, so much so that writing about it so it makes sense would require a tome.

Still, on paper, TNA should've slayed. Started by Jeff Jarrett in his eternal quest to prove that a competent wrestler with the charisma of drywall but also with name recognition can be world champion for eternity, the company quickly became a destination for guys ready to take a step past the coalescing indie scene but not suitable for WWE's then maniacal belief in homegrown beefy guys above anyone else. The aforementioned Samoa Joe showed up and had a great run as a Goldberg-esque monster. Current WWE World champion A.J. Styles was one of TNA's crown jewels for years; he made his name there on the back of matches every bit as good as what he's doing now before a global audience. Current NXT stars Austin Aries and Bobby Roode had good runs. Underrated hands like Christopher Daniels and Sonjay Dutt had their best years in TNA. Ring of Honor stalwart Jay Lethal became a star there.

All of those daring, creative pro wrestlers were paired with luminaries who had falling-outs with WWE, either because they got too old (Hogan, Flair, Kevin Nash), or because they sought a promotion that didn't seem to care much if you did drugs on the job, (Kurt Angle, Jeff Hardy). Regardless of the circumstances, on paper it was a near perfect mix of young and old, big and small, daring and conservative.

In brief spurts, it worked, as with Samoa Joe and Kurt Angle's feuds, but mostly the old-timers would strut around, disparaging WWE (though only rarely by name), and nothing would come of it except for 200 people in a stadium oohing and ahhing at the imagined transgressions of pro-wrestling etiquette. When Hogan and Eric Bischoff were more or less given license to run the company, in 2010, they proceeded to take any of those inklings of promise and purge them as quickly as possible. From an emphasis on edgy ringwork, TNA ended up ceding the program to Hogan's familial drama, with Brooke Hogan inexplicably working top angles with her father.

It sucked. All of it sucked. And as it sucked, and as it all became more screwed up, wrestlers didn't get paid on time, TNA migrated from station to station, and what could've been never was.

Which brings us to 2016 and what may be TNA's last gasp. In what is perhaps the most TNA way possible to teeter toward insolvency, their worst financial days coincide with their stewardship of the best wrestling angle of the year in the Broken Hardy Brothers. They have Matt and Jeff Hardy working magic and TNA is worse off than ever.

The perpetual cog in TNA's problems, Dixie Carter, is still there. She's an odd character: she started as some sort of PR apparatchik, but her parents own Panda Energy International, a big clean energy company in Texas. She invested a fair amount of her parents' money into TNA in its early years and has hung around as some sort of chairwoman/owner/president ever since. Except she doesn't really know anything about wrestling—there's an apocryphal tale that she didn't know what kayfabe meant until Hogan told her—beyond the fact that she likes pro wrestlers. So she blows money like it isn't hers (spoiler: it isn't) and generally mucks around with things. The spigot of parental money has come to a grinding halt recently, and it has cast TNA's future in more serious doubt than at any other time in its history.

Despite all my rage I am still planning to continue legal action. Photo by Arturo Pardavila III via Flickr

Enter Billy Corgan (as stated at the outset, TNA is really weird). The Smashing Pumpkins front man has always had a love of pro wrestling, and even founded a small Chicago–based promotion called Resistance Pro Wrestling. He got involved with TNA on the creative side and, because he has money and name recognition, got suckered into giving money to make up for TNA's budget shortfall.

Corgan recently went to court in order to recoup his losses. David Bixenspan, writing for SE Scoops (he is also a contributor at VICE's Motherboard), has been vital to understanding just what the hell is going on, because it's increasingly looking like the collision between a ne'er do well (Carter) and a slightly unhinged former rock god (Corgan) over what amount to scraps of a never-was wrestling company. Most everyone who made TNA almost sort of push WWE a decade ago are now long gone, mostly to WWE; what's left aren't even really on TNA exclusive contracts, making them "TNA" wrestlers in only the loosest sense.

That's if Corgan ever really did anything of note for TNA at all. For now, TNA is in Carter's hands, with a judge ruling there's not enough for Corgan to get an injunction, while leaving the door open for further legal action; Corgan's lawyer insists they plan on continuing with legal action. All of it is so crazy and convoluted, beholden to intertwined egos and conflicting ideas of what wrestling should be, that it's almost refreshing, a throwback to the decidedly stupid days of the territories, when tinpot dictators of thimble-sized wrestling domains would act like the stuff outside the ring was the most important thing going. It's a stark contrast to WWE's current buttoned-up, corporate, perfectly triangulated view of pro wrestling. It's a mess, but by god at least it's a change of pace.

For all that, you'd have to put money on TNA pulling through. They've survived it all—barely—like some mutant cockroach living in your drain. So what's to keep the rambling wreck of a wrestling promotion from going through one more disaster?

Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.