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Friday, December 27, 2013

Of Styles And Substance

I don’t follow the logic. Whether the departure of AJ Styles from TNA is legitimate or part of a storyline isn’t really the issue for me. If it's real, TNA is letting one of its most talented performers drift away. If it's part of a storyline, then TNA is just doing what they've done so many times in the past, blurring the lines between real world concerns and storytelling to the point that fans don't know and don't care what to believe anymore. Either way, it's not good.

AJ deserves better, from the business and from wrestling fans. On December 16, Styles issued a public statement on his rather unceremonious (and relatively anticlimactic) parting of ways with the organization that’s been home to him for over a decade. Wrestling’s rumor mill is often rife with intrigue and venom, but with regard to Styles, the rhetoric seems uniquely ignoble. Here’s the backdrop: Since 2002, Styles has been an integral part of the U.S.' number-two promotion. Through some of the company’s more difficult stretches, he’s proven to be one of the most consistently entertaining folks on the roster. Hell, one could even make the argument that Styles helped build TNA into a credible, viable outlet for mainstream wrestling fans who might otherwise have ignored the company altogether. A top-ranked singles performer; a charismatic, energetic and able-bodied performer; a man with a passion for professional wrestling—it’s not too much of a stretch to say he’s TNA’s John Cena.

But that—all that—wasn’t enough for TNA to keep him down on the farm. And he’s just another name in a big list of folks who have slipped away from TNA this year. Stu Saks spelled it out in his “From The Desk Of...” column in the November 2013 issue of PWI when he provided a list of the folks who had been cut by TNA over the course of recent months. I wasn’t convinced, myself. Stu noted that his sources were saying that TNA was in “more trouble than it’s been in in a long while” at that point, but around the same time, I heard from some folks in the business that the state of the company was relatively strong. I don’t like disagreeing with Stu, anyway. It’s like arguing with my father-in-law about which tires are better for my car; I have my own reasons and preferences, but at the end of the day, I’d be crazy to go against the sage-like wisdom that comes with decades of experience.

Hogan’s departure, which followed the exodus that Stu Saks described, was a tremendous blow to TNA’s continuing assertions that everything was still going swimmingly for the company. The way he went out, with on-screen figurehead Dixie Carter on her knees begging him to stay, was especially embarassing. Maybe they didn’t expect things to shake out the way they did, but in retrospect, it’s really hard to see the wisdom in how the Hulkster’s exit was staged. Now we’re hearing that Jeff Jarrett, the architect of Total Nonstop Action wrestling and, for many years, the driving force behind the company on screen and behind the scenes, has officially left the company as well. Yet, as big as Hogan and Jarrett are with regard to the company’s origins and recent past, the potential loss of Styles is the biggest blow to an organization that is increasingly short on depth and substance these days.

Much to my surprise, I’ve seen a vocal contingent on social media sharing some rather bleak predictions about Styles’ potential future outside of TNA. I’ve read a lot of skepticism regarding Styles’ marketability as a WWE guy (which, all told, is likely more of a commentary on WWE than on Styles himself) and I’ve seen a fair amount of people questioning whether or not Styles could even become a formidable player in ROH and independent wrestling. Even's
 David Shoemaker took a rather mean-spirited swipe at Styles shortly before his departure of TNA, as well as Adam Pearce and Christopher Daniels, suggesting they’d missed their moment and likening them to “30-year-old(s) playing Triple-A ball.”

A lot of the critique seems more like parlor games and puffery as opposed to substantive analysis of Styles’ abilities and TNA’s struggles. Styles’ noteworthy run with TNA makes one thing very clear: these entities—the grappler and his longtime home—are best served staying together. For Styles, he’s a big fish in a relatively small pond and, when he’s allowed to shine and flourish, merits top billing solely because of how and what he does in the ring. For TNA, Styles is a bankable, reliable star who never lets his fans down. Is Styles tainted through his longstanding relationship with TNA? Maybe, but only to those who make up their minds by judging individual workers on the missteps and poor decisions of the company itself, which is a rather unfortunate and shortsighted perspective. The fact is, Styles deserves better and TNA can and should do better by him. In the words of some other big-time wrestling guy, “It’s what’s good for business.”

Mike Bessler
PWI Contributing Writer
@OfficialPWI Contributor

Friday, December 13, 2013

TLC: New Hype For Some Old Ideas

I don’t want to be one of those guys. You all know what I’m talking about. Those Internet guys. The guys who complain and complain and complain about every single angle going on in pro wrestling today. The ones who tweet, post, and blog about what’s wrong with the business but offer no new or substantive ideas on how it could someday get bettermostly because they’ll never be satisfied anyway. The ones who say there hasn’t been a good Monday Night Raw since 1997. But somehow, y’know, they’re still fans.  And hey, at the end of the day, I really don’t think I am one of those guys. But I have to admit that right here, right now, I do agree with them about one thing: The “big match” heading into TLC doesn’t have a whole lot going for it. Not much at all. Note that I am choosing my words carefully here because PWI Publisher Stu Saks tends frown upon the kind of coarse language that I’d rather use to describe the big Cena/Orton “showdown.”

It’s just tough, that’s all. It’s tough to get excited about this when it feels like all we’re being offered is a warmed up batch of leftovers from the back of pro wrestling’s gigantic, stainless steel LG refrigerator. Many, many voices on the 'net have sharply (and correctly) criticized the current incarnation of the Cena/Orton feud, largely because we’ve already seen it. More than once. And why would this particular showdownin which things have been just thrown together for the sake of choosing the “new” face of WWEbe more personal than the other ones? Like the time in 2007 that Orton shackled Cena to the ring while he punted Cena’s dad in the head…I mean that’s personal, folks. Or how about when Orton’s 2010 win over Wade Barrett resulted in Cena’s brief exile from WWE? Those were some high stakes, right? The point here is that we’ve seen these guys before. Sure, they can work a match, but it seems like WWE is just putting some lipstick on the same old cash cows.

And the title unification thing? Again, we’ve been down this road before. Is the title unification for keepsies this time or is this just another story that’ll be undone in a few weeks or a few months when the story gets stale? I think my friend and fellow PWI contributor Kevin McElvaney captured the cynicism of a lot of frustrated fans when he jokingly told me that the TLC main event should be re-christened as the “No, It's Only Going to Be One Belt, For Real This Time!” match. 

In a recent message to their text subscribers, WWE kept up their full-court press for the forthcoming showdown, asking fans if TLC’s Cena/Orton main event is “the biggest match in WWE history.” It was a rhetorical question, though, because it wasn’t attached to any particular poll. But really … Bigger than Hogan and Andre? Bigger than Michaels and Austin? Bigger than Rock and Cena? Bigger than Sammartino and Morales? It was the aforementioned text that got me thinking: Is there any other sport or form of entertainment that consistently hypes its product to a level that makes it almost impossible to deliver at the end of the day? I think the potential is usually there, but most comparable enterprises resist the temptation to do so just in case they don’t deliver … so that they don’t hurt their overall product in the end.

Did anyone know that the Rams and Titans would put on one of the best championship games ever before the kickoff for Super Bowl XXXIV was in the air? Nah. Can anyone say that a World Series will have a nail-biter ending in Game 7 before the first pitch? Nope. But can we say that Sunday’s champion vs. champion match at TLC is the most important contest in WWE history? In this case, logic is absolutely turned on its head by the hype machine because WWE suggests it could very well be the best ever. 

Sure, this could all be an elaborate set-up for a much larger and more exciting story that naysayers like me are too shortsighted to imagine. But with a healthy mix of recycled ideas and a shaky build for Orton as convincing and formidable opposition to Cena’s veritable freight train of momentum, it’s really hard to get excited about Sunday's main event.

Mike Bessler
PWI Contributing Writer
@OfficialPWI Contributor