"One step up and two steps back"---Bruce Springsteen.
Actually, Total Non-stop Action (TNA) Wrestling took several steps backward Monday night in their most ambitious attempt yet to become relevant enough to be a serious challenge to the WWE.
TNA Impact opened its 2010 schedule with a heavily hyped 3-hour, live, special edition from their home base in Orlando, but while they had the best match of the night between the two promotions, it wasn't enough to save the show from being a disaster, and the blame falls at the feet of TNA President Dixie Carter and her latest "saviors", Hulk Hogan & Eric Bischoff.
Where did TNA go wrong? Let me count the ways:
1. Too many commercials in the first hour, too much talk, and not enough action.
I get that TNA wanted to minimalize the advertising in the final 2/3 of the program to emphasize the action, but it would've been nice to have more than 2 matches during that opening hour. Instead, they spent the majority of that time repeatedly teasing the "pending arrival" of Hogan, who promptly blew that up at the start of the 2nd hour when he opened his speech by saying that he had been backstage all day. Even at its worst during its final days, WCW wasn't that inept in preparing their product. There were exactly 2 matches in the first hour, including a women's title match that ended with a new champ being crowned and the pinfall not shown because the new champ, in grabbing her opponent's tights for leverage, ended up giving the crowd a moon shot not appropriate for television audiences. TNA cameras ineptly turned away, not willing to risk the FCC giving Spike TV a fine for indecency.
The opening match, a "Steel Asylum" match contested inside a dome that looked more like it was made of plastic than metal, ended in a "No Contest", because one of the combatants, Homicide, pulled out a retractable baton and went postal on the other wrestlers. Now, normally, in a cage match, anything goes. Not in this case. The fans understandably were upset and a profane chant went up. Thank goodness for the seven second delay in live broadcasts, otherwise the FCC would have something to pin on the network.
2. TNA hires some "old friends".
The one problem TNA has had from the get-go has been to bring in "familiar names" because they cannot completely trust their audience to get behind "homegrown" stars like AJ Styles, the current TNA champion, X Division champ Amazing Red, or "Black Machismo" Jay Lethal, for a few examples. Hogan will happily plead guilty to charges of cronyism, with the Nasty Boys (Brian Knobbs & Jerry "Sags" Sagonovich), Scott Hall, & Sean Waltman turning up, along with Tampa radio personality "Bubba the Love Sponge" (more on him later), plus ex-WWE stars Orlando Jordan, Sean Morley (formerly known as Val Venis), Shannon Moore, Ric Flair, & Jeff Hardy, the latter of whom was indicted earlier today on drug charges in his home state of North Carolina. With Hardy, Hall, & Waltman, all of whom have previously worked for TNA, the company is taking on a huge, huge risk. What if Hardy is convicted and sent off to prison, effectively ending his career (as we know it)? TNA will have wasted an investment that could've waited until Hardy's legal troubles were resolved. Hall and Waltman have had their own issues over the years, and Hall is on his 3rd tour of duty with TNA. The over-under on him is 3-5 months, tops. He lasted three months during his last go-round with WWE in 2002. Waltman, last seen in the short-lived Wrestling Society X for MTV in 2007, had been wrestling in Mexico since then. And that leads to my next point.....
3. You can't call them the NWO anymore, but.....
Hall, Hogan, & Waltman, along with Bischoff & Kevin Nash, were the founding members of the New World Order (NWO), a rule-breaking faction in WCW that carried that company to the top in 1996. Unfortunately, Bischoff ran the golden goose into the ground, too busy counting the merchandise dollars to realize that, as Shakespeare said, "all good things must come to an end", and when the NWO was first dissolved, it was at least a year or two later than it should have. The last 1/3 or so of Impact saw Hall, Nash, & Waltman attack Rhino, the Motor City Machineguns, and Beer Money, Inc. for no other reason than to establish one salient thing. Just as in '96, these overpaid---and now over the hill---stars were taking over. Mick Foley was the last victim at the end of the show, and it was clear that Bischoff wasn't just content with being in the background. He wanted to be front & center, to stick it to Vince McMahon one more time.
One thing to understand about McMahon's attempt at reviving the NWO label in 2002. He brought Hogan, Nash, & Hall in. Waltman was already on his roster. Less than six weeks in, Hogan swapped his black & white togs for the classic red & yellow. Two months later, Hall & Waltman were gone. Another month passed, and Nash ended up on the disabled list with a torn quadricep muscle. Bischoff began a 3 1/2 year run as "General Manager" of Monday Night Raw in July 2002 with the NWO already a distant memory again. By keeping Bischoff away from the other founders, McMahon made sure to keep the NWO under his control. By hiring Bischoff and not giving him any creative freedom, McMahon made sure his old rival listened to him. Dixie Carter is too much of a mark to recognize the mistakes that Bischoff made in the past, and by letting him & Hogan join TNA as "business partners", it was tantamount to inviting a weasel into a hen house, with the predictable results.
4. Poor behind the scenes communication. A story making the rounds today claims that a set of TNA-sanctioned complimentary passes given to "Bubba the Love Sponge" were determined by Universal Studios theme park officials to be counterfeit, leaving several fans unable to attend the live show. TNA essentially threw Bubba, a Hogan confidant who was the play-by-play announcer for Celebrity Championship Wrestling in 2008, under the bus during a post-show after-party. Bubba even went as far to state he wouldn't be at tonight's taping for the 1/14 show, and considers himself 1-&-done with TNA. Not the first one, to be sure, but this speaks volumes of the lack of communication between TNA & their landlords at the theme park.
It's clear to me that TNA would rather continue to ignore the talent that should be developing into major players in the business in favor of catering to the overfed egos whose best days are long behind them (referring, of course, to Team Hogan) in pursuit of ratings points more than professional respect. As it is, the 3 hour show netted a 1.5 rating in the Nielsen fast national ratings.
Monday Night Raw, after spotting TNA a 1 hour head-start, managed to double TNA's rating in just 2 hours and change with former champ Bret Hart as host. From top to bottom, Raw was the superior show, as everyone expected it to be. Hart mended his fences---in wrestling terms, anyway---with old foe Shawn Michaels, and with Vince McMahon, but the latter started the wheels turning for a new feud by booting Hart in the gut to end the show. Speculation is that the 52 year old Hart, whose in-ring career ended nearly 10 years ago, would fight the 64 year old McMahon at Wrestlemania 26 in late March, in what figures to be a career coda for both men.
In hindsight, WWE felt they didn't really need to do anything special to combat TNA, knowing that their would-be challengers would trip over themselves again, and they did. Hogan, like McMahon, prefers to relive the past in order to keep himself in the limelight, but as Hart & Michaels ably demonstrated last night, it's better to put the past away and move forward. In effect, the two old enemies set an example. The question now is, will it be followed? Stay tuned.