Alternate Reality by Vin Tastic – TNA has jumped the shark, boy!

About six years ago, Total Nonstop Action Wrestling appeared to be different from mainstream pro wrestling in every way. Their business approach was different, they featured smaller, quicker, more explosive athletes in longer matches, their tag team titles were booked to be important, and even their uncommon six-sided ring was unique and fresh. They were setting themselves apart from the standard fare, until they chose to adopt the worst habits of the most financially successful but unsatisfying pro wrestling company on the planet, World Wrestling Entertainment.

TODAY’S ISSUE: Jumping the Shark Boy…

Although I’m sure the phrase “TNA has jumped the Sharkboy” has been conceived by many jaded wrestling fans since the Stone Cold parodies began, Kurtis “Time Machine” Osterlund was the first one I saw use it, so I’ll give him the credit for this clever line. The Orlando-based promotion made a sharp 180 at some point and decided to stop trying to etch their own place by being different. Instead, they started acting like it was their mission to become WWE-lite.

Take their reigning X Division champion, Jay Lethal, for example. Lethal is a young, flashy, impressive, accomplished performer who not only came within an eyelash of defeating then reigning world champ Jeff Jarrett, but more recently he defeated current top dog Kurt Angle for the X Division strap when Angle held every belt in the promotion. Those are some lofty achievements, so the brain trust had to bring him back down to Earth fast, lest his popularity skyrocket him to the top of the card. Lord knows they can’t have a new guy getting over with the crowd, what with all the over-the-hill performers on the roster. Why, what would become of Angle, Booker, Sting, and Nash if a younger, quicker, more agile wrestler whose best years are still in front of him took one of their coveted top spots?

Obviously, Lethal’s momentum had to be destroyed – just leave that to booker-from-hell Vince Russo. Lethal debuted a passable impression of 10-years-since-relevant “Macho Man” Randy Savage in a lame comedy skit backstage a few months ago, and it should have remained a minor curiosity. But as is often the case in pro wrestling, they had to go and turn that into his full-blown gimmick. It worked for vanilla babyface John Cena a few years ago when he showed he could rap at a “Halloween party” on SmackDown!, but his new Eminem-like gimmick was edgy and compelling, whereas Lethal’s Macho Man act is worn paper thin, and only getting worse.

At first, the “Black Machismo” gimmick only affected Lethal’s ring-entrance music and gear, plus he added the top-rope elbow to his offensive repertoire. That wasn’t so bad, but then TNA took it ten steps too far. Now the X Division champ suddenly believes he IS the Macho Man, complete with “remembering” old WWF feuds, calling out Hogan, and referring to SoCal Val as “Liz”.

Is Lethal crazy? Has he taken one too many blows to the head? Does he have amnesia? Why does he now act like he thinks he is Randy Savage? How does something like that happen to a grown man who’s NOT in state custody? However it happened, it seems the same affliction has affected the already overly gimmicked Shark Boy, who now believes that he is the wife-beating, beer-swilling, Vince McMahon-hating Stone Cold Steve Austin.

It wasn’t craptacular or gimmicky enough for TNA to feature a skinny guy with pseudo-Jaws music and ridiculous tights who somehow bites the backsides of his opponents while wearing a mask that covers his mouth. They had to make a SECOND knock-off of a vintage WWF character out of him. As if one such bush league impersonation wasn’t bad enough, and didn’t highlight how much TNA’s own brand of pro wrestling wasn’t on WWE’s level (which is the message these copycat gimmicks send).

Having given Sharky all of Stone Cold’s signature mannerisms and a couple of lame, not clever nor funny lines like “Shark Boy 24:7 says I just bit your ass” and “That’s the fishing line, cause Shark Boy said so,” TNA is well on the way to overtaking WWE as the stupidest, campiest, least original pro wrestling promotion in America. That IS their goal, right? It certainly appears to be.

In another classic blunder by a desperate company willing to do anything to stay relevant or stir up attention for themselves, TNA keeps confusing celebrity or notoriety with value. Seemingly intent or remaking the worst mistakes WCW made just before they went out of business (go figure), they invite semi-known non-wrestling personalities to get involved in angles on a fairly regular basis. Nobody cared when would-be NFL bad boy Adam “Pacman” Jones hung around TNA for a few weeks, unable to actually wrestle due to Tennessee Titans contract restrictions. How brilliant was TNA for making him one half of their tag team champions, when he couldn’t get physically involved in a match? Hell, even Jay Leno actually wrestled for WCW when he appeared on their 1998 Road Wild pay-per-view.

Hermie Sadler, Jeff Hammond, A.J. Pierzynski, Frank Wycheck, Kyle Vanden Bosch and many other so-called big names in sports have appeared on TNA programs, but as their own on-screen commissioner Jim Cornette once said, “wrestling fans watching a wrestling program want to see wrestlers wrestle”. Sports Center is on ESPN, and the E! Network has all the “best” celebrity gossip; that’s not what we’re looking for in your six-sided ring, TNA.

Now the geniuses making decisions for TNA have interest in notorious college basketball coach Bobby Knight. For the love of Pete, who the hell would possibly care if Bobby Knight showed up on iMPACT to throw a chair or get in somebody’s face? What dollar amount is Bobby Knight worth? Before answering that, consider the fact that he won’t make one viewer tune in on Thursday nights or compel one fan to purchase a $30 pay-per-view which, lest we forget, is the very reason for the weekly show in the first place.

None of this tomfoolery would be needed in TNA if they’d just book their wrestlers into solid, logical feuds and let them tear the house down while settling their issues. TNA boasts a very strong roster of amazing athletes, and if their “seasoned” veterans worked angles with and/or against the young guns, they could build a whole new generation of workhorses upon whose backs the company could ride for the next ten years. Kaz, the Motor City Machineguns, Christopher Daniels, Samoa Joe, Petey Williams, LAX, Robert Roode, Tomko, Lance Hoyt, and Matt Morgan could all do great things for the company in the right roles against the right opponents

There is one other guy in the locker room with buckets full of athleticism, loads of talent, outstanding in-ring skills, and (contrary to what some would claim) plenty of charisma. The most underutilized man in TNA, with the most frustrating story, is AJ Styles, a former three-time Triple Crown winner (he was the first man to win all three of their championships, with former Olympic gold medallist Kurt Angle as the only other wrestler to do so).

Styles is the best all-around performer on their roster, and among the top wrestlers anywhere in the world. He meant so very much to the company in their early days, exemplifying the kind of athlete TNA featured and helping solidify their identity as the opposite of WWE. Young, strong, agile, innovative, and willing to win whatever the cost, AJ can do it all. From day one he formed the core of the promotion along with a handful of others, and his three kayfabed, annual “Mr. TNA” victories (2003-2005) represented his importance to the #2 brand of US professional wrestling.

I remember the very first time I checked out iMPACT on Fox Sports Net in June of 2004. So much of what they offered was foreign and took some time to adjust to, but the first AJ Styles match I saw made me realize what a great performer he was, and I wanted to tune in the following week to watch him wrestle again. ONE man convinced this fan to give TNA a second chance after ONE match. That’s how you hook somebody. But now, Styles has been shattered as a legitimate threat and relegated to an upper mid-card lackey spot that countless other guys on the roster could pull off in his stead.

Why on Earth TNA would want to destroy the credibility of their greatest talent (home-grown, at that) in favor of every cast-off or reject from McMahon-land is beyond me, unless they actually ARE following WCW’s failing blueprint from 1999-2000. They must have believed that bringing in Rikishi and Test was a better business decision than booking Styles and Samoa Joe around their world title. That’s simply unfathomable to me.

The sad thing is, when they let AJ do his thing, he’s still an incredible in-ring performer. Recently on iMPACT he faced off against the current incarnation of Tiger Mask, and the match was very good, especially for free TV. This was the type of contest TNA should focus on: exciting, fast-paced, and different from the WWE’s usual fare.

It wasn’t perfect, however. Styles played heel, and although he’s won championships his entire career, he had to cheat to secure the victory. Where is it written that EVERY heel must ALWAYS cheat in order to win, and can never be better than his opponent? Whatever happened to the days of a strong heel who you wanted to see lose, yet always found a way to win? Sometimes that way should be legit, allowing the heel to earn fans’ hatred like Muhammad Ali used to – by running their mouth and backing it up in the ring.

Later in the evening, Styles showed great fire in attacking Christian Cage after his match against Judas Messias, looking like a strong heel, not an ignoramus or a lackey. But then he had to go and put the stupid crown on his head again, totally ruining whatever momentum his wrestling skill allowed him to build. Nothing frustrates me more about TNA right now than the fact that they are literally throwing away money by treating this “phenomenal” performer like a joke.

What they need to do with Styles is let him finally get fed up with all the underling nonsense, turn into an incensed tweener who wants to take out all his frustrations on everyone who kept him down, and simply explode. He can play heel against Cage and face against Angle, tearing it up with both of them in feuds that could carry the upper card through the summer.

But instead, they’ll keep doing holiday-themed crap like they’ve done to death and aping WWE ideas like unmasking Abyss (remember when Kane wore a mask?). They’ll keep trotting out used-up WWE/WCW guys like the Steiners, the James Gang, and Team 3-D, and keep dragging up any useless celebrity with a modicum of notoriety. They’ll keep giving fans everything they don’t want, and ignoring what they do want. They’ll keep turning off potential viewers with horrendous nonsense and boring, useless garbage. They’ll keep mimicking old stuff from other companies instead of paving their own way, and they’ll keep pushing all the wrong guys while ignoring, or worse, sabotaging good performers who could help them make money.

In short, they’ll keep living Russo’s dream of transforming themselves into a less flashy, lower budget version of Vince McMahon’s sportz entertainment circus. What a waste.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled reality.

p.s. – “Work spares us from three evils: boredom, vice, and need.” – Voltaire