You’ll be shocked to read that someone else has decided to write about TNA this week. That someone is me. Whether or not I can add anything to the raging fires of fury that are burning brightly around Dixie and the rest of the IMPACT misfits is up for debate.
I’ll try to resist the urge to just repeat what others have said, but if I do, it’s only because the points being made are so universally correct. Before we get into things too deeply, I’ve got a little history lesson for you. Stop me if you’ve heard it before.
When WCW collapsed under the weight of creative and financial mismanagement in 2001, the world of professional wrestling changed forever. No longer was there legitimate competition to WWE, at least from a rival wrestling promotion. UFC, other sports and various forms of entertainment have continued to compete with WWE for their fans entertainment buck.
When the dust settled on the death of WCW and the botched Invasion angle spluttered to an unsatisfactory conclusion, a large number of wrestling fans walked away and never returned. There are a number of reasons put forward for this sudden loss of millions of wrestling fans. The death of WCW was a major factor. The product WWE put forward did not interest the fans of WCW and so they didn’t tune in to WWE programming.
That would explain them not staying to watch WWE, but fans were also leaving WWE in droves during the early part of the last decade. In the decade that followed the end of WCW, the popularity of WWE has steadily decreased. TV ratings dropped from weekly Neilson averages of near six to their current levels of near three. The days of ten million people in the US watching wrestling every week quickly ended and an audience of four to five million became WWE’s core viewership. Still respectable, but nowhere near what it had been only a few short years earlier.
Their PPV business bottomed out around 2008 with buy rates collapsing like a house of cards, with buyrates regularly dropping below 120,000. The larger shows like Wrestlemania, Summerslam and the Royal Rumble continued to prop up WWE’s PPV business. However that baseline number for regular monthly shows was in the toilet. It’s slowly started to come back in recent years but it’s nowhere near the level it was during WWE’s war with WCW.
While WWE remained highly profitable (thanks to TV rights revenue, merchandise, licensing deals and other revenue streams), creatively the company was bankrupt. The period where Stephanie McMahon took control of creative from 2002 onwards resulted in some of the most bizarre, poorly constructed and counterproductive television WWE has ever produced.
They moved so far away from what makes wrestling on TV successful, that a lot of WWE shows actually resembled a parody of a wrestling show. The move to PG is blamed on a lot of this but the fact is WWE employed non-wrestling people, to write wrestling and it simply didn’t work. In the last few years that creative slump has begun to turn around but it’s safe to say the glory days of the early 2000s are long gone.
During this time of creative struggle in WWE, fans of professional wrestling longed for a company that could be a viable alternative. With Vince McMahon’s unmatched and unchallenged global domination of the wrestling world now in its second decade, there has never been a greater need for a viable, popular, cutting edge and – most importantly of all – alternative version of professional wrestling (or sports entertainment if you want to be a dick about it).
Ten years ago a new promotion was formed out of the ashes of WCW. It was called Total Non-Stop Action and it was hoped one day it would become a rival for WWE and bring back the glory days of the Monday Night Wars. The market was crying out for an alternative to WWE that could present wrestling in a new format, with new stars and innovations in the ring and with TV production. For one reason or another that fresh, new, modern take on wrestling that TNA could have been, never materialized.
The great poet, novelist and philosopher George Santayana famously stated, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” When they come to write the obituary of TNA that quote should be front and center, in bold print and size 72 font. It should have flashing lights attached to it and a giant neon arrow pointing at it from above. There is no other quote that so accurately sums up the litany of blunders TNA have made over the past decade.
TNA have long been accused of failing to learn from the mistakes of WCW. It’s safe to say that is now an undeniable fact. All you need to do is look at the front cover of the book, Death of WCW by Bryan Alvarez and RD Reynolds, and you’ll see that two fifths of the people on the cover (Hogan and Bischoff) are today, for all intents and purposes, running TNA.
Although only when it suits them. It’s almost comical that when TNA comes in for criticism, Hogan and Bischoff are always conspicuous by their absence. These two are consummate workers and they have played TNA and Dixie Carter to perfection since their arrival in the company.
Vince Russo is also featured prominently on the cover of the book and I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone quite how spectacularly bad Russo was during his time as the booker/lead writer of TNA. The collapse of TNA’s PPV business (just like in WCW) was presided over by Russo. His uncanny ability to rehash old angles and storylines, while simultaneously ensuring no one got over as a star in TNA, had the company on its knees from a creative point of view and they are still struggling to recover from those dark days.
TNA even employed Hall and Nash at various points (the remaining two fifths of the book’s cover) during the past ten years. However neither of them had the power or the influence in TNA that they had in WCW and therefore their impact (pardon the pun) was negligible.
However it does show that TNA kept going back to what worked in the past but ultimately failed. TNA has never come across a company that looks forward. They always back. They go back to things that worked fifteen years ago because they are bereft of new ideas to take wrestling forward in 2013. Nostalgia works for a short time but the novelty soon wears off. Another lesson TNA have never learnt.
No matter the countless, well documented and critical mistakes Bischoff, Hogan and Russo made in WCW, they all found their way to TNA and became important creative forces and strong political influences. While those inside and outside wrestling regularly warned that these men were stuck in their glory days and living off success that was either fleeting (Bischoff with his three good years in WCW) or built off the back of someone else’s creativity (Hogan and Russo both being products of Vince McMahon), TNA ignored the lessons of the past and have been dealing with the consequences ever since.
Arguments could be made all day long about the positive or negative influence that Bischoff, Hogan and Russo have had on TNA. Some may claim they brought positives to the company, some may simply be blinded by the short term success Bischoff and Hogan had in WCW and some idiots even think Russo was solely responsible for the attitude era in WWE.
Those arguments are all well and good, but when you look at cold hard facts and numbers – such as TV ratings, PPV buys, profitability of the company and general awareness with the mainstream public – all three have made little to no difference to TNA. Hogan and Bischoff in particular were supposed to herald a new era in TNA where the company would become competition to WWE. That’s an era that never came and doesn’t look likely to in the future.
So here we are, 2013 and TNA appears, from the outside at least, to be in disarray. Their TV product has become boring and stale, with a focus on Hulk Hogan and a top heel stable in Aces and Eights that has simply failed on more levels than I can count. Their ratings have stagnated. Their public perception is not as an alternative to WWE. They are a distant second and when I say distant, I’m talking light years.
As the #AskDixie debacle showed, for many fans, TNA are simply a laughing stock. The laughs kept coming this week as the latest in a long and disappointing line of ‘mystery men’ was revealed on IMPACT. Tito Ortiz, former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, appeared on the most recent episode of IMPACT to the kind of tepid and uninterested reaction from the live crowd that should have set alarm bells ringing in TNA.
Ortiz is the third MMA fighter to join the TNA ranks in the last year and from the reaction online, many TNA fans are completely at a loss to understand why TNA, when they are cutting wrestlers from their roster, seem intent to act as a promotional feeder system for a Bellator, the MMA promotion which shares a home with IMPACT on Spike TV. And therein lies the answer.
It’s become obvious in the last few months that Viacom, the massive media company that own both Spike TV and the Bellator MMA promotion, are using TNA as a way to help promote Bellator as an alternative to UFC. What that says about Bellator, that they have to use a second rate wrestling promotion to raise awareness of their brand, is another topic for another day.
The introduction of King Mo, Rampage Jackson and now Tito Ortiz is not to benefit TNA. How could it? The TNA fan base is wrestling fans. They want to see professional wrestlers who wrestle. The name Rampage Jackson might mean something to them (thanks to his career in the UFC and starring in the A-Team remake) but the reaction to Tito’s arrival was extremely telling. Perhaps if this was 2004 (when Ortiz was at the height of his fame and powers) then the reaction would have been different. Unfortunately it’s 2013 and Tito Ortiz’s star hasn’t just waned, it’s burnt out completely – at least to anyone outside hardcore MMA fans.
This is a move designed to help Bellator, nothing more, nothing less. TNA, being so hamstrung to Spike TV, are giving their valuable TV time to promote something that has no benefit to them. MMA fans are not suddenly going to start watching IMPACT because they’ve seen Rampage unconvincingly throwing worked punches in a brawl with Ace and Eights. They’re just going to see it for what it is, a publicity stunt, a way to try and get people talking about Bellator and their ‘two sport’ athletes.
Conversely wrestling fans are put off by MMA fighters appearing on their show. It’s a constant reminder that King Mo, Jackson and Ortiz are simply ‘playing’ wrestling. Which in turn reminds the viewers that everyone else on the show is ‘playing’ wrestling. It removes the suspension of disbelief which is so important in making effective, memorable and money making moments in wrestling.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that professional wrestling has been used to help a MMA promotion. In 2005, when MMA was a new concept on Spike TV, the UFC’s Ultimate Fighter reality show benefited from a strong lead-in from WWE’s flagship TV show, Monday Night Raw.
The major difference between the two situations is WWE was never used as a way to promote UFC. They certainly didn’t have Randy Couture or Chuck Liddell appearing on RAW to have a feud with Steve Austin or DX. It was simply a time when older WWE fans were become more and more disinterested in the product WWE produced and UFC was seen as the hot new thing that a lot of the fan base migrated to UFC and never came back.
Bellator, Spike TV and TNA are once again attempting to recreate something that worked in the past, but they have no idea how and why it initially worked. Instead of an effective and well thought out plan to market Bellator via TNA, they’re just throwing fighters on the show and hoping people will care. If the initial reaction to Tito is any gauge, people don’t and won’t care.
This isn’t the first time that a cross promotion between wrestling and MMA has been tried. It didn’t work in the past and it won’t work today. Another lesson of the past TNA have failed to learn.
The situation TNA currently find themselves in is more akin to New Japan in the mid-2000s. Antonio Inoki, the man synonymous with NJPW since the mid-1970s and one of the biggest names in the history of professional wrestling, was the first to try to cross other forms of shoot combat and professional wrestling.
When the popularity of PRIDE exploded in Japan in the early 2000s, it was Inoki who was at the forefront of this new wave of combat sports. Unfortunately his vision, a NJPW where his wrestlers would take on the toughest shoot fighters in the world, win and become big stars, was completely misguided and failed to materialize.
Many of NJPW’s top stars, including Yuji Nagata and Shinsuke Nakamura, were beaten badly in MMA fights. Nagata (at that point in time the ace of NJPW and the man the company were looking to build around for the foreseeable future) was knocked the fuck out by Mirko Cro Cop inside 22 seconds on a huge MMA show on New Year’s Eve 2001. Nagata’s drawing power was killed almost instantly and he’s had to work for the best part of a decade to get back to anywhere near the level of star he was before Cro Cop killed him.
NJPW wrestlers saw their aura as tough guys vanish over night with the NJPW fan base. They were exposed as not being as tough or skilled as the MMA fighters. In the end NJPW’s popularity plummet and the promotion very nearly didn’t survive into this decade.
The cross over between MMA and wrestling didn’t benefit the wrestling promotion and while the situation isn’t quite the same here (I don’t expect TNA wrestlers to fight in Bellator) it’s certainly another lesson from the recent past that TNA have failed to learn anything from.
So what does the future hold for TNA and Bellator? Will we continue to see the biggest names in Bellator joining the TNA roster, simply to try and get more TNA fans to watch Bellator? Perhaps that is the future TNA finds itself in – being used as place to advertise a product that their network is more invested in. Are they simply a pawn in a war they actually have no fight in?
Spike TV are desperate to beat Dana White and the UFC. Ever since the UFC left Spike and signed their historic 7 year network TV deal with FOX, the war of words has become increasingly bitter between White, Spike TV and Bellator. Each side is using all the promotional tactics they can to beat the other. So far, UFC are winning, handsomely.
White has not been backward in coming forward with his criticism of Viacom, Spike and Bellator. While Bellator have tried to take the high ground, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that this war is only just beginning and TNA seem to be stuck right in the middle of it. It’s only going to get worse as Bellator struggles to be seen as an equal to UFC.
Which is the core of the problem for both Bellator and TNA – they will never been seen as equal to the UFC and WWE. They’ve joined the game too late. They don’t have the promotional know how. They don’t have the stars. They don’t have the innovation in their TV product. TNA are relying on former stars at the expense of more talented young wrestlers. In Bellator’s case, with Rampage and Ortiz, they hope those former stars will help sell their first PPV.
At the end of the day TNA need to do what is best for their future. If Spike TV tell TNA to jump, you can bet your ass Dixie will ask how high. To lose their TV spot would be disastrous for TNA and could potentially spell the end of the company. While they have failed to learn lessons of the past, they certainly aren’t short sighted enough to go against the wishes of Spike TV. Sometimes you’ve just got to do what your boss tells you, even if it’s not of a benefit to you personally. That’s the position TNA find themselves in and they have no one to blame but themselves.
If TNA had learned the lessons from the death of WCW, they wouldn’t have hired Russo, Bischoff and Hogan. Dixie Carter could have made a bold move and given Paul Heyman the level of control of the company he was looking for back in 2009. If anyone would have been in a position to change the direction of TNA, to present a fresh, modern and alternative professional wrestling product, it was Paul Heyman.
One listen to his ideas back in 2009 which included – firing everyone over the age of 40, building the company around the likes of AJ Styles, James Storm, Joe, Bobby Roode, bringing in new production style – tells you that here was a man with a different vision. A vision that would set TNA apart from WWE.
Here was a man who was willing to take a chance on something new and fresh. It wouldn’t have been ECW. It wouldn’t have been WWE-Lite. It would have been that true alternative to WWE that may have just brought back some of those 5-7 million disillusioned wrestling fans who gave up when WCW folded.
Instead, TNA ignored the lessons of WCW and went with Hogan and Bischoff. And here they are, four years later, reduced to being used as a step up to promote a fight between two former UFC stars who have a combined record of 1-10-1 in their last 12 fights.
Would Heyman have changed the fortunes of TNA? That’s up for debate. Would he have done a better job of presenting a new, revamped and youthful wrestling promotion than Hogan and Bischoff? Without a shadow of a doubt.
The question now remains, what is the future for TNA? Are they simply a wrestling promotion turned billboard for a struggling MMA promotion? Have they soured the relationship with their fan base to the point that the relationship can’t recover? When will Dixie Carter learn the lessons of the past and begin to make decisions that actually prove to be sound from both a business and a creative point of view? When will TNA stop looking behind them or to MMA and finally break the mould and do something that brings back all those disillusioned wrestling fans that left in the early 2000s? So far a decade of TNA has seen nothing to suggest that any of that will ever happen.
Still, at least a few TNA fans might buy the Bellator PPV and that’s what’s important in all this, right?
I’m sure you’ve got your own opinion on TNA and their failure to learn from the past. Or their new function as an advertisement for Bellator. Maybe you have the answer to the questions I’ve posed. If you do, I’d love to hear them. Either here in the comments section, or on Twitter where you can follow me @MFXDuckman. Or if you’d prefer to use those sexy ears of yours to listen to my dulcet tones on a weekly basis, then why not check out the Marks for Xcellence (MFX) Podcast?
What’s MFX you say? It’s only the rudest, funniest, most satirical, sarcastic and impression heavy wrestling podcast you’ll find anywhere on these here interwebs. It’s hosted by yours truly and my partner-in-crime Sir Ian Trumps. If you like your wrestling podcasts to be funny and occasionally insightful, with a side order of smark, then MFX is just for you.
Check us out over at www.mfxpodcast.com and remember you can subscribe via ITunes or stream us on Stitcher. The show’s NSFW and cuts close to the bone. So don’t come crying to us if you’re easily offended or if you split your sides from laughing. You have been warned.
As always thanks for reading and keep supporting Wrestling Rambles.
Until next time…