Alternate Reality by Vin Tastic – Seems like so long ago…

By now my readers know I recently got burned out on the juvenile “sportz entertainment” antics of Vince McMahon’s WWE juggernaut, so I looked elsewhere for the sort of pro wrestling action I prefer. I appreciate more focus on in-ring action, less gimmicky characters, championship titles that mean something within the storyline, and athletic, talented performers who entertain with their wrestling skill and ability to weave a compelling tale between the ropes. Once upon a time, not too long ago, the promotion I turned to for that type of fix was Total Nonstop Action Wrestling.

TODAY’S ISSUE: When the X Division put it all together.

Now that Vince Russo has a large say in the creative vision of TNA and they’ve decided to hire and push every WWE cast-off rather than their own home-grown talent, the Orlando-based #2 US fed has morphed into WWE-lite, or WCW 2008. It’s too bad they decided to mimic WWE as closely as they could, albeit on a smaller budget and with less exposure, because they were really on to something before that shift in company strategy. The thing that made TNA stand out as a true alternative to the boring, tired, bloated WWE (in addition to a very solid and well developed tag team scene) was the “no limits” X Division.

The X Division was where the mostly smaller, more athletic performers were allowed to tear it up in the six-sided ring, leaving the gimmicky monsters and silly storylines in the heavyweight ranks. A similar approach worked quite well for WCW during their biggest boom period ever in the late 1990s, and TNA was hitting on all cylinders with this concept of great wrestling by lighter, more agile athletes in the middle of the card.

It was the pseudo-cruiserweight X Division that immediately caught my interest as a fan when I tuned in for the very first episode of iMPACT! on Fox Sports Net, way back in June of 2004. Although it feels like a long time since TNA has been even close to entertaining, it was but a mere three years ago that they began an epic saga surrounding the X Division crown, between three innovativeg performers: the Fallen Angel Christopher Daniels, the Phenomenal AJ Styles, and the Samoan Submission Machine, Samoa Joe.

It’s worth noting that all three are ROH alumni, as performing in Ring of Honor may have set the stage for their intensity, clearly influenced the “Code of the X Division”, and guaranteed fantastic in-ring action for the length of their three-man feud. Their rivalry was the meat and potatoes of TNA programming for several months, and the story they told was the perfect mix of great matches resulting from solid character motivation, creating impeccable pro wrestling harmony.

In August of 2005 at the ppv known as Sacrifice, the finals of reigning X Division champ Christopher Daniels’ Super X Cup invitational tournament featured one of the most decorated TNA champions of all time, AJ Styles, facing off against a newcomer, the seemingly unstoppable monster known as Samoa Joe.

Joe and Styles had an intense, brutal match into which Daniels saw fit to interfere, drawing the ire of both competitors. Joe lived up to his new moniker “the Samoan Submission Machine” by making Styles submit to the Coquina Clutch, thereby becoming the new number one contender to Daniel’s X Division crown. But since championship committee member Larry Zybysko was unhappy with the outside interference by the champ, he adjusted Joe’s title shot to a three-way dance between Daniels, Styles and Joe for the gold at the September ppv, Unbreakable.

It was a battle between three men who each had a strong desire to win, and it lived up to every bit of the pre-match hype. Daniels battled hard to try to defend his gold, Joe fought with the fury he’d shown from day one in TNA which allowed him to earn this opportunity, and Styles displayed the heart of a champion in capturing the X Division title for the fifth time against two very worthy competitors. This was the kind of match that a true wrestling fan just had to love, and it left each man wanting another piece of his two opponents.

Two months later at Genesis, Joe and Daniels found themselves partners on a four-man team in the Elimination X match, and you can guess the two bitter rivals had some problems trying to work together. “Friction” doesn’t begin to describe what happened between the two, when Joe viciously attacked his own partner after they won the match. Joe bloodied Daniels and delivered two Muscle-Busters, one of which planted Daniels’ head on a steel chair. In the storyline, the Fallen Angel had indeed fallen, suffering a kayfabe concussion and being placed on the shelf by the Samoan monster.

This dishonorable attack and breaking of the code of respect amongst X Division athletes drew the ire of the top X-man himself, AJ Styles, who had come to respect Daniels as a competitor and as a man. Styles wouldn’t have to wait long to try and right this wrong, as he defended his strap against Samoa Joe one month later at Turning Point.

But Joe was not to be denied, and he pummeled the champ in a violent onslaught, surviving all Styles’ high-impact offense and imposing his will on the smaller champion. Once again, the Coquina Clutch led Joe to victory; he squeezed Styles into unconsciousness and left with the X Division title in tow, and once again, he went too far and attacked a defenseless Styles after the final bell.

This prompted the return of Christopher Daniels, who had seen and felt enough of Joe’s disrespectful, arrogant, aggressive assault on the X Division. Daniels was not “medically cleared for action”, but he couldn’t stand by any longer as Joe ruined the spirit of the division that Daniels reigned over longer than any other man had at that point.

Once month later at Final Resolution in January of 2006, the Fallen Angel had an opportunity to ascend to the heavens once again, as he faced Joe in a grudge match in which the drama practically wrote itself. Joe disrespected everything Daniels and his brothers-in-arms stood for and then took him out of action via a vicious attack; clearly Daniels wanted to strike back at the dominant champion. This was paint-by-numbers booking that didn’t fail to satisfy.

Daniels was not 100 percent recovered from his concussion, and as a reminder, Joe draped a bloody towel over his shoulder before coming to the ring. The blood staining the towel was Daniels’ own, from the last encounter he had against his one-time partner. As Daniels endured violent strikes, kicks, throws and slams, a very concerned AJ Styles came down to ringside and watched on, worried about the long-term health of his respected compatriot. Styles saw enough of the unconscious Fallen Angel being brutalized at the hands of the merciless champion, and threw in the towel on Daniels’ behalf, ending the match and stopping the carnage but spoiling what little hope Daniels had of regaining his crown and exacting his revenge on Samoa Joe.

All this led to a second three-way match between these men now locked in a war of attrition, which Joe seemed to be dominating every step of the way. At Against All Odds in February, the rematch from five months earlier was another amazing chapter in this epic saga. Styles, Daniels and Joe once again laid it all on the line and left it all in the ring. Joe emerged victorious, drilling AJ with the Muscle-Buster for the pinfall and the win. The question was now, “What’s it going to take to get the X Division title away from Samoa Joe?” and the answer was, “Ultimate X”.

A staple of the high octane X Division, the Ultimate X match returned in March of 2006 at the Destination X ppv, setting the stage for the third and final three-way dance between these gladiators destined to face one another over and over again. Completely out of his element, the nearly 300-pound Samoan Submission Machine was ill equipped for this acrobatic, aerial engagement, and was unable to retain his championship. The Fallen Angel finally tasted victory in this war, as he successfully navigated the dangerous structure to grab the gold it seemed he might never reclaim.

Exactly one month later on the Thursday debut of iMPACT! on Spike TV, Daniels defended his gold once more against Samoa Joe, and since it was a standard match with no structure to climb and no acrobatics required, the murderous islander stomped Daniels into a bloody mess one more time. Daniels was in control early thanks to his speed and skill, but Joe was simply too much for the smaller champ, and he took the X Title back from the battered Fallen Angel with the Island Driver off the second rope. This was, not surprisingly, one more fantastic match as any combination of these three warriors would always deliver.

Joe then moved on to the heavyweight division, effectively ending the story between himself, Daniels and Styles. While it lasted, this saga was nothing short of incredible. Three prideful, talented men, each with a dedicated fan base and palpable desire to reign over the other two and all comers waged war for the better part of a year. The matches were always entertaining, the drama ready to boil over at any moment, and the intensity was dialed as high as it could be. What more could a pro wrestling fan want from a feud? This was the stuff of legend, and although it was only three years ago, it seems like a lifetime.

Nowadays the X Division is comprised of guys like Super Eric, the faux Macho Man, the Guru, Curry Man (yes, I know it’s Daniels under the mask) and Sharkboy. It’s not that these are poor wrestlers, but with Russo in the creative loop TNA is so focused on gimmicks now rather than solid storytelling and great wrestling, that they may never again deliver a classic like Styles, Joe and Daniels did. It’s unfortunate, because that’s what a lot of wrestling fans enjoy, and it seems unlikely to happen again in the six-sided ring. But one never knows. Here’s hoping…

We now return you to your regularly scheduled reality.

p.s. – “Inspiration and genius – one and the same.” – Victor Hugo