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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

"King Sheamus" Isn't The Future Of WWE ... He's The Present

Last night Sheamus became the 19th WWE wrestler to wear the King of the Ring crown. As Michael Cole reminded us time and time again, he joins the likes of such wrestling greats as “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Bret “Hitman” Hart, and Triple-H.

And Billy Gunn. And Ken Shamrock. And Mabel.

Indeed, not all past WWE King of the Ring tournament winners have gone on to have great careers. For proof of that, you can look no further than William Regal, who just months after winning the crown in 2008 was relegated to the role of WWE Superstars jobber (Granted, Regal appeared in line for a big push after winning the tournament, but had his career derailed by a Wellness Policy violation.)

And so, the King of the Ring tournament is significant for a different reason than WWE might have you believe. While not every KOTR winner goes on to be a major star, they all were pegged by WWE as having the ability to do so.

Both Mabel and Gunn were groomed as future main-eventers soon after winning the tournament. Mabel challenged for the WWE championship in the main event of one 1995’s biggest pay-per-views, SummerSlam. Gunn got a co-headlining match against WWE megastar The Rock at SummerSlam 1999, and was rumored to be considered for a big run with Steve Austin that year. Ken Shamrock also got a couple of WWE pay-per-view main event paydays.

But, in the end, WWE clearly got it wrong when it came to predicting big things for each of those men, who went on to have respectable but unremarkable careers.

And so, it begs the question: Could WWE be wrong about Sheamus as well?

In some ways, the question doesn’t even really apply. Sheamus is the first wrestler to have won the WWE heavyweight championship before winning the King of the Ring tournament. (You may be thinking Bret Hart did it first, but he won his first KOTR tournament in 1991, a year before winning the WWE title.)

"The Celtic Warrior" has already worn the WWE championship on two occasions, headlined several pay-per-views, and remains in the top tier mix on the Raw brand. And so it's a bit peculiar to forecast big things for the new King of the Ring. Been there, done that.

That’s not to say that Sheamus’ peak years aren’t ahead of him, but still I can’t help but think that WWE missed out on an opportunity by not having an up-and-comer win the crown, and in doing so sending a message to fans that the new King of the Ring is one to watch.

To me, the best fit to win the tournament was Alberto Del Rio, the arrogant Smackdown antagonist who boasts of coming from Mexican royalty. Like past KOTR winners, including Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle, Del Rio has made a big splash in WWE in very little time, and seems likely to get a main-event run some time in the future. What’s more, Smackdown could have really used the boost it would have gotten from claiming the KOTR crown.

Of course, nothing is to say that Del Rio, or any other participant in last night’s tournament, won’t go on to have a big career that even eclipses that of Sheamus, regardless of whether or not they won the King of the Ring tournament. But it’s telling that WWE chose an already-established main eventer, rather than a potential future one, to wear the crown. Perhaps, after the Gunn, Mabel, and Shamrock disappointments, WWE wants out of the handicapping business.

-Al Castle
Pro Wrestling Illustrated Senior Writer

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Some New Lessons in "Old School" Raw

I had more fun watching Monday Night Raw last night than I have in a long, long time. Having followed WWE for nearly 30 years, last night’s “Old School” Raw was right up my alley, and, I suspect, the alley of a lot of wrestling fans around my age. From the retro show opening, to the red-white-and-blue roped ring, to the numerous appearances by WWE stars of yesteryear, the program allowed me to revisit some fun memories from my childhood.

But more than just deliver a one-time nostalgia fix, last night’s Raw actually offered a lot of lessons that remain relevant in the modern wrestling era.

Here’s some of what I took away last night:

With the right theme, a theme-show could work: With pay per view buy rates shrinking over the last several years, WWE took the questionable route in 2010 of rebranding many of their traditional PPV offerings to instead be “concept shows.” The flawed theory reasons that since the Royal Rumble is always good for a few extra buys, why not have every pay per view carry a specialty match theme? And so WWE came up with Fatal 4-Way, Money in the Bank, Hell in a Cell and TLC. None have done anything to drive up buys, and instead have served largely to water down once special stipulations. While I remain down on the idea of gimmick-match centered shows, I’d be all for an annual “Old School” show. It might even be a good idea to move the theme show to pay per view, rather than giving it away from free on Raw. Coincidentally, Survivor Series may be the ideal stage for a nostalgia show. The event, now in its 23rd year, reeks of old-school, so much so that WWE nearly canceled it, feeling its dated tag-team elimination format had become irrelevant. But such a format would be perfect for an annual legends match, where the old timers could “compete” without any one being called on to do all that much. Most importantly, it would allow WWE to brand a show with a “theme” without affecting its organically-developed main storylines and top matches. WCW experimented with just such a concept in the early 1990s with its first Slamboree events, which featured whatever big matches they had on top, and a couple legends matches on the mid-card.

Nostalgia has its place: As a longtime Yankee fan, one of the highlights each year for me is “old-timers day,” when retired Yankees from over the years return to the Stadium, don their old uniforms, and play a couple innings of ball. The key to maximizing the value of the retired players is to bill them as legends, honor their past contributions to the sport, and make their appearances feel special. As beloved as Reggie Jackson may be, no Yankee fan would argue that he should be playing right field today for the team. The money is in presenting Jackson as a superstar of an era gone by, and then presenting Derek Jeter as just as big a star for this era. That point appears lost on TNA, which believes that the fact that Hulk Hogan, Sting and Kevin Nash were effective headliners 15 years ago must mean they could still be effective headliners today. In fact, if Dixie Carter took over the job of general manager for the Yankees, I imagine Jackson would be batting cleanup today, perhaps behind Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield and Yogi Berra.

Some of what worked then would still work today: WWE may have intended to get no more than a few chuckles and smiles by bringing back some of the old staples of WWE’s programming from the 1980s, such as the interviews on the small stage, the “Update” segment with Gene Okerlund, and the small picture-in-picture promos that ran during a couple matches. But it struck me that all those ideas could work well today. One of my favorite features of the 1980s-1990s WWE programming was the “Update” segment, where Okerlund would recap storylines. The same format was used for special pay per view “Report” segments, in which Okerlund would run down the entire card for an upcoming pay per view. Those are both effective tools of promoting that, for some reason, have fallen by the wayside over the last 15 years. Similarly, the small insert promos could help several wrestlers get their personalities over without taking up any extra TV time. And conducting the occasional interview or angle on a ringside stage, rather than in the ring itself, would offer a refreshing and much-needed change of scenery.

WWE has an announcing crisis: Perhaps one of the most underestimated contributing factors to WWE’s recent drop in business has been its subpar announcing team—the worst crew of play-by-play and color commentators I can remember in WWE’s history. Michael Cole’s inconsistent heel persona has only confused fans and distracted from the matches and storylines he is supposed to get over. Jerry Lawler is professional, but unmotivated. Matt Striker is a cliché dispenser. And those are WWE’s three best announcers. But because mediocrity has become the standard, most WWE fans may not even notice how bad they are. All they know is that they are not particularly inclined to tune in to next week’s show, or buy the next pay per view. Indeed, WWE announcers' primary job is to sell the product, and clearly they not have not been effective in doing so. Enter Jim Ross, making a special one-night-only return to call a match last night. Instantly, we were reminded how good WWE announcing could be. Ross called the action with passion and zeal, got over the characters, and spoke as a voice of the fans. And he looked great. It’s absolutely insane that the greatest wrestling announcer in the history of the sport is at WWE’s disposal, and they don’t use him. Even if they never bring back Ross to the booth full time, WWE needs to do something to shake up its listless announce team.

WWE has a rich tradition: I don’t know the logistics of doing so, but I’d be all for WWE re-visiting legal settlement with the World Wildlife Fund, and making an attempt to bring back the WWF name, and the classic logo that was on display Monday night. Even eight years into its new name, WWE still does not easily roll off the tongue, and I still cringe every time the mention of the old letters is censored, or the “Attitude Era” logo is blurred out. Even if WWE can’t get back the WWF name, it should do everything it could to pay homage to its history. It’s taken some big steps toward doing that in recent years, with its historic compilation DVD releases and line of “Legends” action figures. Creating an actual WWE Hall of Fame building, as has been rumored, would be fantastic.

Some old timers still have something to offer: Perhaps with a straight face, Hulk Hogan would argue that his mission in TNA is to use his star power to “get over the young guys, brother.” Of course, many astute observers of TNA and the “Hulkster” would beg to differ. But, it remains true that, when used correctly, legends from past generations could be effective in helping establish today’s stars. I can think of no better recent example than Monday night’s show-closing “Piper’s Pit” segment. The “Rowdy Scot” may have done more to bring into focus John Cena’s moral dilemma heading into the Survivor Series than anybody else for the past month. Adding gravitas to the situation was the wisdom Piper could offer from his decades in the sport, and the respect that Cena said he had for Piper and his generation. Who would have thought that the MVP of the go-home angle heading into this Sunday’s pay per view would be a 56-year-old retiree? While WWE should be commended for its recent youth movement, there remains something to be said for the valuable roles of wise, experienced, grown men in a winning wrestling formula.

Some wrestling stories have happy endings: 2008’s Oscar-nominated film, “The Wrestler” told the tragic tale of a down-and-out former wrestling star spending forced to live in a trailer park and slice meat at a deli after his wrestling career was finished. It’s a story that resonates throughout the sport, but it’s not universal. Monday’s Raw illustrated that, in fact, many of the stars we grew up watching years ago are now well-adjusted, comfortable and happy in life after wrestling. Tito Santana is a successful business owner in New Jersey. Roddy Piper has been trying his hand at stand-up comedy, and is cheering his son on in his career as a mixed martial artist. Nikolai Volkoff has a municipal job and even ran for public office some years ago. And, of course, several WWE stars from the past remain employed with the company in backstage roles. It was nice to be reminded that not everyone ends up like Randy “The Ram.”

-Al Castle
Pro Wrestling Illustrated Senior Writer

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Memo to Mr. McMahon: You're killing your own gimmick!

Sunday is the 24th annual Survivor Series, and on a more historical note, the nine-year anniversary of the “official” death of WCW. Technically, it was nine years ago Thursday, Team WWE defeated Team Alliance at Survivor Series 2001 to kill the brand once and for all, but you know what I mean.

Since then, WWE has been called to task for numerous things that have “ruined” the business; you name the factor, and it’s been pegged as the reason wrestling is in a down cycle.

Changing from WWF to WWE? Death! Brand extension and brand-specific pay-per-views? Stupid! The Diva Search and Tough Enough? Expose the business why don’t ya? In recent times, it’s been anything from not making new stars to drawing out feuds too long to Linda McMahon’s senate campaign causing WWE to go PG being blamed as the eventual cause of death.

Yet, we’ve all kept watching—or have we?

Alas, I think I’ve figured it out, and while the above factors may play into it, the real culprit is … wait for it ... gimmicks. More specifically, the pay-per-views touting them specifically.

The latest Wrestling Observer printed a list of the 10 Worst Bought WWE PPVs of all-time. Naturally, the dismal December to Dismember PPV in 2006 was number 1 on the list (and believe me, even many of us backstage wondered why we were subjected to it). However, of the other nine, a whopping SEVEN of them have happened since SummerSlam 2009.

Trivia Time: When was it that WWE officially went away from their old PPV schedule and turned every non-Big 4 PPV into an official gimmick-filled event?

If you guessed September 2009, you win the booby prize.

Yes, it was just 14 short months (and 16 pay-per-views) ago that Unforgiven became Breaking Point, Armageddon became TLC, Money in the Bank got its own event, and so forth … which means that almost half of the pay-per-views in that time rank in the bottom 10 buy rates of all-time.

Think about that for a minute. In 25 years, WWE has held probably 200 pay-per-view: 26 WrestleManias, 23 Survivor Series’ (24 after next Sunday), 23 SummerSlams, and 22 Royal Rumbles account for roughly half of those, with maybe 100 more “lesser” events in a quarter-century … and seven of the last 16 are among the worst of all-time.

It has to be the gimmicks, right?

It can’t be the “not building new stars” thing, because Sheamus and Wade Barrett have been all over the un-magnificent seven. It can’t be the drawn-out feuds because that’s been going on for years. And it definitely can’t be the “kid-based” strategy, because while they can’t make purchasing decisions, they can sure convince their parents to shell out $45 once a month for their love.

It has to be the gimmicks, because after all, remember rule number 1 of why WWE almost failed in the mid-1990s: Gimmicks sell t-shirts, storylines sell tickets.

Night of Champions and Extreme Rules can get somewhat of a pass because they were already conceived, and Elimination Chamber gets a pass because it’s at least an innovative concept and that show can vitally shake up WrestleMania (and in the process prevent the full nine-week stretch after the Rumble from becoming stale).

The rest? Shoehorn city.

I loved the TLC matches of 2001-02 as much as anyone, but the stipulation loses its luster when I get to watch Degeneration-X vs. Legacy main event a PPV in one. Hell in a Cell was once a violent feud ender, but this fall it was a mere prop to drag out the thrilling Randy Orton vs. Sheamus blood feud.

Even Money in the Bank, which was an exciting addition to WrestleMania that made the card, has become just another useless idea. Don’t even get me started on Fatal Four Way, which in addition to being obvious could also just be called “slap together the top two singles matches from 'Mania into one mess.”

I will not be watching either of WWE’s remaining pay-per-view events. I love Survivor Series, but I have tickets to the Eagles/Giants game that night; I’d say I’m missing out, but we’re seven days away and we know all of three matches.

As for TLC, though, I’ll be far away from my TV. While adding three legal weapons may make Sheamus vs. John Morrison or Kofi Kingston vs. Dolph Ziggler that much more epic, I’ll pass.

Though, Vince, in 2011 you’ll get my money if you spend less time fitting the storylines around the stipulations, and more time doing the opposite.

-Louie Dee
Contributing Writer

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Angel Is The Devil

Dear Ms. Angel Orsini,

I write this letter to you as a matter of professional courtesy, which is something I’m sure you will need to look up in the dictionary, as after our recent encounter, I seriously doubt you have any idea you know what it means.

This past Saturday, I was asked to attend the WSU show in Union City, New Jersey, to honor the WSU champion, Mercedes Martinez. As you are very well aware, Mercedes has been atop of the WSU roster since she won the title back in May of 2008. Now whom did she beat for that belt? I just had the name on the tip of my tongue a moment ago. Oh, that’s right, she beat you. So you should be very familiar with that match indeed.

Back to the point, however. The night was supposed to be about Mercedes. PWI was asked to come and present WSU’s Woman of the Year award to Ms. Martinez, I was to say a few kind words, and all would be well. But that wasn’t okay with you, was it?

I had a feeling from the moment you entered the ring during Mercedes’ acceptance speech that things wouldn’t continue to go so smoothly. When you grabbed the mike and started directing your frustrations toward me, I was sure the evening would be ruined.

While I’m normally a very attentive, patient, and laidback person, hearing you yammer on and on about how your All Guts, No Glory title needed to be recognized by not only WSU, but by PWI as well, well that really struck a bad chord with me. Look, any kid who’s cut enough lawns can save up to buy a belt and start proclaiming him or herself a champion as well. Doesn’t mean we, or anyone, has to acknowledge it.

As you continued spouting off your career accomplishments, which I will be the first to admit are rather impressive, my frustration at your audacity to come in the ring and steal Mercedes’ spotlight, not to mention my time, continued to grow.

Sure, I may have turned my back on you a few times. Maybe I checked my phone to see the score of the TCU vs. Utah college football game. Certainly I stopped listening more than halfway through.

Regardless of what I did, it does not excuse your actions that followed.

When you placed your hands on me and began ranting and raving about how you were going to “drop me” and “rip me apart” until you got your way, I knew you were out of your mind.

When I heard head WSU official Ray Sager yell to you to stop, I thought, Finally, someone is taking control of this mad woman. As WSU conceded to your threats in fear of my safety (and, more likely, a possible lawsuit), I was very pleased to have you let go of me, and get as far away from me as possible. But when you came back in my face, taunting me, delivering a painful knee to my stomach, and throwing me to the ground, that is when you crossed a line that should never be crossed.

Let’s get something straight, Ms. Orsini, I’m not a trained fighter. Much like The Thomas Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress, “The Pen Is Mightier” has been firmly engraved in my foundation. What does picking on me prove? That you, a trained combatant, can take down a kid who hasn’t been in a fight since Dan Martin tried to steal my lunch money in 5th grade? Well, cheers to you.

The real travesty of this whole thing, Ms. Orsini, is that WSU officials did what they felt they had to for my safety (by the way, I do appreciate that) and now the AGNG title is officially recognized. But was that the right thing to do?

Caving in to—well let’s call it what it was—your terroristic threats was a huge mistake on their part. They’ve set a horrible precedent that undermines every ethic the company stands for.

As for me, anytime I’m asked to appear at a ceremony, I’m going to have to request bodyguards at my side in case some wrestler feels they can have their way with the magazine’s editorial policy through me. Believe me, Ms. Orsini and anybody else who might have a similar idea, PWI cares more about its journalistic principles than they do me. And that’s not a joke.

I’ve already let the WSU front office know I have no interest in pressing legal action against you or the promotion itself. I don’t see any reason to put both our companies through the anguish of a drawn-out court battle. Besides, after taking one of your hits personally, I have no doubt it will only be a short matter of time before someone much tougher comes along to put you in your place.

With that all said, Ms. Orsini, congratulations on having WSU recognize your championship belt. I hope you had fun displaying it around backstage on Saturday night while I was being cared for by medical personnel. But I want you to know something: While I may not be the final word in recognizing titles, I certainly have a very big vote. And as long as I am here, I will do everything in my power to make sure that hunk of metal you call a championship belt never gets recognized by the PWI family of magazines.

To me, Ms. Orsini, you will always be the kid down the street who cut some lawns over the summer, saved up some cash, bought a belt, and started calling herself a champion. And believe me, that takes absolutely no guts, and even less honor.

Jeff Ruoss
Managing Editor
Pro Wrestling Illustrated

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Linda 2010: Wrestling's Biggest Botched Move

Forget Evan Bourne, John Morrison, or Tyson Kidd. This election season, the highest risk maneuver was executed by the McMahon family itself.

Indeed WWE attempted the biggest high spot of all—the equivalent of a shooting star press onto a ringside table from the top rung of a ladder while it was balanced on the ropes. They had their longtime CEO run for U.S. Senate.

And, like in wrestling, the wisdom of that maneuver was ultimately judged by its success. Hit that moonsault flush, and you look like a hero. Miss it, and you look like a fool. But, alas, Linda McMahon last night connected with nothing but an empty mat. And so the McMahon family’s decision to run for Senate can now officially be looked at as not much more than a colossal miscalculation.

And this is not a case of 20/20 hindsight. Most anybody who has closely followed Vince and Linda McMahon over the 30 years that they’ve run WWE realized how ludicrous it was to have Linda run for public office with a track record of doing not much more than being chief executive officer of a corporation that most Americans consider silly or sleazy or both.

And, yet, somehow the McMahons seem to be taken off-guard by how poorly their political gamble turned out. And what an expensive gamble it was. Linda McMahon reportedly spent $50-million of her own money—that is to say money the McMahon family has earned running WWE—to finance her election. For that huge sum, WWE bought itself some of the worst publicity it has ever received, and that’s saying a lot.

Fair or unfair, the mainstream media typically ignores the pro wrestling industry, unless a big celebrity makes a crossover appearance or a high-profile wrestler drops dead. And while the McMahons may have over the years resented the fact that the “elitist” media’s neglect has meant that some of WWE’s impressive accomplishments have gone ignored by the general public (dominant cable ratings, live attendance records, recognition from charitable groups), they should count their blessings that many of the negative stories coming from WWE have also gone under reported.

But that all changes when you have one of your top executives run for national office. As would be expected, Linda McMahon’s candidacy led to both reporters and political adversaries trying to turn over every stone to uncover the dirt on her. And they didn’t have to look too far.

Appalling WWE storylines involving misogyny, incest, and even necrophilia gained a national spotlight. New attention was drawn to the spate of premature deaths among ex-WWE wrestlers, and the drug abuse behind many of those deaths. Connecticut authorities even began looking into the questionable classification of WWE performers as independent contractors. Skeleton after skeleton after skeleton was unearthed from the McMahons' family closet.

The McMahons may have thought the kind of scrutiny they received was unfair—and maybe some of it was—but they should have expected it. The truth is that neither Richard Blumenthal’s operatives nor the mainstream media scratched the surface of the myriad bad calls that WWE made while Linda McMahon was at the helm. (I saw no mention anywhere of the single most tasteless WWE angle I ever witnessed—Muhammad Hassan’s simulated terrorist beheading of The Undertaker, which aired on TV on the same day as the 2005 London train bombings.)

But, instead, the McMahons appeared shocked—and even indignant—over the criticism they were receiving in the mainstream media. WWE responded by launching another potentially expensive media campaign, this one drawing attention to all the good work WWE does and casting anyone who questions WWE’s benevolence as a mean bully.

It’s worth noting that WWE really does do a lot of good things. Although I could do without all the self-aggrandizing, I’ve never doubted WWE’s motives in visiting American troops or granting the wishes of sick children. They are selfless and honorable deeds, and WWE won’t let you forget them. Beyond that, it’s true that WWE generally brings a lot of happiness to the lives of its fans, and that many a family comes together to enjoy WWE entertainment.

But as much as it has tried to reinvent itself and hide from that dirty “wrestling” label, in the end, WWE should be well aware of its bad reputation, and not put itself in a situation to make many more people aware of it.

Even while trying to discredit their detractors, the McMahons only gave them ammunition in recent weeks with some of the most embarrassing antics they’ve ever attempted: A heavy-handed “Stand Up For WWE” campaign. A lawsuit against the state for not allowing voters to wear John Cena T-Shirts. A vow to give away free WWE merchandise outside polling locations. A “fan appreciation night” in Connecticut four days before the election in which WWE deeply discounted tickets in a thinly veiled attempt to buy votes. Another WWE event in a Connecticut arena on Election Day itself.

And then there was that disgrace of a segment on this past Monday’s Raw featuring WWE Chairman Vince McMahon presumably moving his bowels on a Blumenthal campaign sign. How dare anyone question the tactfulness of WWE!

And so, after the last vote was counted, Linda and Vince McMahon's baby, World Wrestling Entertainment, is left with an even worse mainstream reputation than it had before the race. And Vince and Linda themselves are $50-million poorer.

And so maybe the McMahons are finally ready to return their focus to running the family business. With pay-per-view buy rates and TV ratings the lowest they’ve been in years, it couldn’t come too soon.

All that said, there is a silver lining in the fiasco that was “Linda 2010.” The fact is that WWE may have inadvertently benefited from McMahon’s campaign in ways it may not realize today.

Even while defending themselves from the various criticisms they have faced over the last several months, the previously oblivious McMahons must have had their eyes opened to their company’s perception outside the bubble of the WWE Universe. The reality is that the fun, fantasy world of WWE has a lot of real world problems to address.

Only good things can come from that kind of self-awareness—and some already have. The issue of whether WWE superstars should be classified as employees, and therefore receive benefits including health insurance, is being given more consideration than it ever has. During the campaign, WWE banned any use of the lethal prescription drug Soma, took further measures to protect performers from dangerous concussions—including by banning unprotected chair shots to the head—and toned down some of the needless gore and salaciousness in its TV product.

While the motives in making those moves may have been less than pure, they nevertheless got done.

And maybe, along the way, you even got some cheap WWE tickets as well.

Al Castle

Pro Wrestling Illustrated Senior Writer

Monday, November 1, 2010

TNA Knockouts: Monsters Of The Mid-Card

For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the current state of women’s wrestling in WWE, it’s easy to overlook the fact that there are a number of smaller organizations who seem to have the right idea when it comes to the treatment and promotion of female grapplers. TNA, for one, still has a good thing going with its Knockouts Division. Despite the loss of top-notch performers like Awesome Kong and ODB, along with the backlash from Lacey Von Erich’s ill-timed and ill-conceived push, the organization makes ample use of its star-studded roster of lady gladiators.

The October 28 installment of Impact provided a terrific example of TNA’s commitment to women’s wrestling. A vicious brawl between old foes Tara and Mickie James set the stage for an explosive tag match in which Madison Rayne, Tara, and Sarita squared off against Angelina Love, Velvet Sky, and Mickie James. That’s a talented sextet, for sure. In fact, all of the aforementioned grapplers placed in the top half of this year’s PWI “Female 50.” Their ensuing contest was a mid-card bonanza of solid, hard-hitting action. Incorporating a broad range of talent and experience into a simple, quasi-coherent storyline seems challenging enough to those who call the shots for the WWE Divas, but TNA appears to be developing a multifaceted series of Knockout-related angles that will hopefully serve to hold the collective attention of those who appreciate women’s wrestling.

Madison Rayne (who, incidentally, garnered my vote for the number-one slot in the “Female 50) continues to grow into her role as TNA’s dictatorial über-villainess, as she leads a tentatively allied faction of like-minded ladies into battle against her former “BFFs,” The Beautiful People. Rayne’s “frenemy” Tara, having recently surrendered the KO strap to Rayne in fulfillment of a personal debt of sorts, is embroiled in a new phase of her longstanding feud with Mickie James that is set to culminate in a battle at Turning Point. James won’t back down from that challenge, or any other, and she’s made it eminently clear that her ultimate goal is to capture the TNA Knockouts title. When the dust settles, James might well realize her dream of becoming the most decorated women’s champion in pro wrestling history.

The drama of TNA’s Knockouts division isn’t limited to rivalries and cliques. TNA continues to develop a fledgling women’s tag division and the belts are currently held by Japanese superstar Hamada and former Knockout champion Taylor Wilde. Granted, the women’s roster could benefit from a few more tag pairings to make the chase for the KO tag belts a bit more intriguing, but the sustained effort to keep a diverse range of women’s action in the front and center of TNA programming is noteworthy.

Despite the fact that WWE remains the biggest of big leagues in the world of pro wrestling, there is an apparent gender gap when it comes to how the company presents its female talent. For today’s women of WWE, they might well consider themselves lucky to land in the lower-card, cast in a handful of one-dimensional feuds and rivalries before relegation to a supporting role as arm candy for a rising male star or a guest host.

This is not to say that there is an absence of top-quality female talent in the ranks of WWE. Michelle McCool, Melina, and Natalya are prime examples of women who strive to make the most of their time in WWE. In many respects, though, WWE appears to have given up on presenting a women’s division based on work ethic and physicality. In a post on this blog several weeks ago, PWI Editor-in-Chief Frank Krewda used the phrase “looks vs. ability” in his discussion of WWE’s ongoing identity crisis vis-à-vis women’s wrestling. Time and again, “looks” wins the day.

TNA effectively bucks this trend by nurturing developing talent and providing new opportunities to seasoned veterans. The Knockouts aren’t afraid to incorporate a smattering of gratuitous “cheesecake” moments into their respective repertoires now and again, but it’s clear from week to week that the women of TNA have greater purpose and potential than simple sex appeal.

Indeed, the profound difference between the Knockouts and the Divas lies in TNA’s willingness to let their talent work, both on the mike and in the ring.  

Mike Bessler
PWI Contributing Writer