The Common Denominator: “The Return” (TNA, WWE, AJ Styles, Magnus, Impact Wrestling)

Don’t call it a comeback!

No, really, don’t. That implies some sort of highly anticipated resurgence after a period of futility, and let’s face it, it’s not like the Internet fell apart in the six months or so since my last post. I doubt there were picketers outside of the Inside Pulse offices demanding the return of The Common Denominator, so let’s not kid ourselves.

Still, it’s good to be back.

So, for the first time since, like, April or something, greetings to all of my Common DenomiNation! Yes, it has been a while. How have you been? What’s the state of professional wrestling these days? I can’t say I’ve been glued to my TV set over the past several months watching the weekly offerings from our friends in sports entertainment. I have watched here and there, but honestly, it has been just so I could discuss what’s going on with my kids. I’ve just been busy, and wrestling (and as a result, this column) had to go on the back-burner.

But things have slowed down considerably at the newspaper where I work, so hopefully I’ll be able to keep a regular schedule going forward. Hopefully, it also means I’ll be able to watch more wrestling (and here’s to hoping they give me something worth watching as we head through what can sometimes be a lackluster end of the year.

Ok, so TNA is still around. And all over the Internets folks are ringing the death knell for the promotion. I’ve heard they’re for sale. I’ve heard they’re not for sale. I’ve heard a lot of stuff, but I really haven’t been watching much. I record “Impact” on the old DVR every week, but unless I read something in a recap that strikes me as potentially interesting, I just skip it.

However, after the AJ Styles/Dixie Carter angle (that is so, so different from the CM Punk that saw Punk quit the company with the title) where Styles quit the company with the title, I decided to go back and watch the last couple of shows to see where they are headed. It turns out they’re having a tournament to crown a new TNA champ (that is so, so different from the storyline where the WWE had a tournament to crown a new champ after Punk left with the belt). Well, regardless of how derivative of the Punk angle the whole thing is, I’m a sucker for a title tournament, so I was intrigued.

Now, first off, let me say that I actually am glad TNA is still around. I really think that there needs to be at least some sort of “competition,” or at least “viable alternative” to the WWE. I hope rumors of their demise are unfounded. If they are for sale, I hope whoever purchases the promotion puts it in the hands of “wrestling people,” and not a) business people who do not understand the product, or b) somebody or somebodies who do have a wrestling background but have a terrible tendency to put their agenda ahead of the real good of the promotion (I swear to God, if Kevin Nash had died in a car wreck in 1998, WCW would still be in operation today), or c) Hulk Hogan (seriously, Hulk, retire and go away).

Are they going out of business? Maybe. I’ve been watching wrestling for more than 30 years, and I have seen more than my share of wrestling promotions fold up and disappear. The collapse of WCW has been well documented, as has ECW. If you’re a big enough wrestling fan to be on this site, chances are good that you already know the stories about how mismanagement (WCW) and financial instability (ECW) led to the end of those companies (and basic absorption into the WWF fold), but those were just the two most recent examples.

The next biggest promotions that I watched disappear were the American Wrestling Association and World Class Championship Wrestling. The AWA was, at one time (think 60s, 70s and even into the early 80s) a major player in the world of professional wrestling. I watched their 2-hour weekly primetime show “AWA Superstars” every week from the time I found it on cable in 1984 or so until they were reduced to holding shows in some tiny arena at a casino in Las Vegas (and still only being able to show one side of the ring from far away due to the small crowd). They went from being able to hold shows in baseball stadiums featuring stars like Hulk Hogan, the Road Warriors, Bruiser Brody, the Fabulous Freebirds, and Nick Bockwinkle to having decent shows in mid-level venues featuring Curt Hennig, the Midnight Rockers, Scott Hall, Sgt. Slaughter and Col. DeBeers to having a medley of has-beens and never-was workers like Larry Zbyszko (who was their last champion), the Yukon Lumberjacks (who would often don masks and wrestle as the Texas Hangmen on the same show), Baron Von Raschke, Nikita Koloff (plus hair, minus giving a shit at all), and Jake “The Milkman” Milliman, with the coup de grace, of course, being the infamous “turkey on a pole” match in an empty TV studio. By then, they had lost their primetime slot and were reduced to a daily one-hour afternoon slot that ran a lot of reruns and often got bumped for more important programming (like, say “World’s Strongest Man” competitions from 1977). They limped along until 1991, but really, once Verne Gagne let Hulk Hogan get away by refusing to put the belt on him in 1983, it was all but over. The AWA DVD Vince and Company put out a while back doesn’t even begin to cover the real legacy of the AWA.

World Class is a whole different story. The WWE actually did a pretty good job with their “Triumph and Tragedy of World Class” DVD. Of course, it was very Von Erich Family heavy, but there were a ton of other big-time talents that made their way through Texas, including the Freebirds (a recurring theme, you’ll see), King Knog Bundy, Chris Adams, Gino Hernandez, Cactus Jack, Eric Embry, Bam Bam Bigelow and even the Undertaker. Of course, like the AWA, Vince going national was the beginning of the end for WCCW. The completely unbelievable tragedy of the Von Erichs certainly played its role as well. Unfortunately, I didn’t really get to see the heyday of World Class, only getting to watch when I would visit a cousin whose parents had a satellite. It wasn’t until they began an ill-fated, last ditch attempt partnership with the AWA and USWA (more on them in a minute) that I saw their stars regularly. They made it until about 1992 or so. I bet Death is still looking for Kevin Von Erich down in Texas (keep hiding Kevin).

So, those are the major promotions that folded in the past couple of decades, but there are others. The Universal Wrestling Federation is the one that sticks in my mind the most. The UWF was promoter Bill Watts’ attempt to go nationwide (or at least expand his region) in the late 80s. As Mid-South Wrestling, Watts had created one of the best run and best written shows in all of wrestling. And he had the talent to make it work. If you only know Hacksaw Duggan, Junkyard Dog, Ted DiBiase, One Man Gang, the Sheepherders (Bushwhackers Butch and Luke), Terry Taylor, or Butch Reed as the cartoon characters the WWF turned them into, it’s your loss. Really, Jake Roberts was pretty much the only one to not have his character ruined by the WWF. They also had the Fabulous Freebirds (see, there they are again) and some great regional stars like The Fantastics, Savannah Jack, Iceman Parsons, Eddie Gilbert, Missy Hyatt, a young Shane Douglas, and it’s where Sting got his start. It’s also where Jim Ross learned to call a wrestling match.

The UWF fell victim to a regional economic downturn and trying to grow too much too fast. Then, in what was, if not for the complete botch of the 2001 Invasion storyline, the worst missed opportunity for an inter-promotional war ever, Crockett Promotions (the NWA), acquired the promotion and promptly buried nearly all of their new talent (and just ignored all of their titles). By 1989, the promotion was pretty much forgotten. I used to watch them every week. It’s where Terry Gordy became one of my favorite wrestlers, and it was the first time I saw the now cliché “plucky rookie unexpectedly gets a title shot and wins the belt” storyline, wherein Shane Douglas (basically a jobber on UWF TV up to that point) won the UWF TV title from “Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert in an impromptu match with a big upset and a great crowd.

In the mid-90s, there were still a few regional promotions making a go of it. The Global Wrestling Federation rose, sort of, from the ashes of World Class. Based in Texas, the GWF even scored the AWA’s old afternoon timeslot on ESPN. They seemed to have all the right ingredients with a great roster that included Kerry Von Erich (right before his suicide), the Freebirds (maybe it’s them?), Cactus Jack, The Lightning Kid (X-Pac), The Ebony Experience (Harlem Heat), Stan Lane, JBL, Eddie Gilbert (always underrated, sadly gone too soon), The Guerrerros (the older ones, not Eddy and Chavo, Jr.), Chris Adams, The Patriot (Del Wilkes), Handsome Stranger (Buff Bagwell), Scotty the Body (Raven), and more. They just couldn’t keep it going financially. They were, however, the first promotion I ever saw do the “evil group funded by mysterious benefactor who turns out to be a high ranking official in the organization” angle that has now been done to death. In this case, the group was The Cartel and the mastermind was “Brother Love” himself, announcer/on-air vice-president Tom Pritchard (this was a good four or five years before the NWO). Smoky Mountain Wrestling, Stampede Wrestling, the Herb Abrams version of the UWF (fun while it lasted, think “Heroes of Wrestling,” only with a TV slot), and others came and went.

And then there’s Memphis.

I’m from the Memphis area, so I am intimately familiar with the hotbed that the city once was in the world of pro wrestling. Going all the way back to the 1950s and with a heyday in the 1970s and early 80s that I really can’t explain, Memphis wrestling was phenomenal. Based in Memphis, but running a weekly circuit that spanned Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky, Mississippi, and for some reason, Evansville, Indiana, practically every wrestling star ever (seriously) made a tour through Memphis. If you only know Jerry Lawler as the skeevy announcer on “Raw” (or even also as the skeevy wrestler who feuded with Bret Hart in the 1990s on WWF TV), you’re missing out. Lawler really was (and still is, sort of) “The King” in Memphis. I was in the Mid-South Coliseum when Austin Idol (collaborating with Tommy Rich and Paul E. Dangerously, aka Paul Heyman) nearly caused a riot by beating Lawler in a hair vs. hair match (the only one Lawler ever lost and one in which Idol had promised the crowd their money back if he failed to beat Jerry). I was also there when Lawler beat Curt Hennig to win the AWA World Title (just before that actually stopped meaning anything). There have been books written about the phenomenon that was Memphis wrestling. Whether it was the CWA, USWA, Power Pro Wrestling, or finally, sadly, simply “Memphis Wrestling,” downgraded from sell-outs at the coliseum to three rows of folding chairs at the flea market grounds, I’ll always have fond memories of that promotion (And would pay all of the money for a DVD “Best of Memphis” box set.

So, what about TNA? They seem to be making some wise moves. They gave going on the road a shot, and whether it was bad timing, just not a product people wanted to pay to see live, or some other misfortune, the experiment just didn’t work out. They’re headed back to Orlando, and for now, that’s probably for the best. That will save them money, give them a decent crowd for every show, and hopefully make the product a little more attractive to potential buyers (again, assuming they are indeed for sale).

They have trimmed the roster way down. I mean, like to probably 20-25 guys. Maybe I’m missing something, but that seems about right. And that should work. If you can’t build a compelling storyline for 20 guys (and gals), then you need new writers (and, since I saw that they are, in fact, hiring, I’m available, guys!). Seriously, think about the cast of any successful TV series. A cast of 20 is huge by those standards. Even great ensemble shows like “The Office” or “ER” or M*A*S*H” had 10 or 12 characters tops. So, focus on who you’ve got, at least for a while, and build from there as it makes fiscal and storyline sense.

They also have some per-appearance talent. I don’t claim to know how it’s all run with those guys, but they have the makings of a very decent roster, with a mix of veterans, WWE cast-offs, younger guys and some “wild cards” to work with. They’re right in the middle of their TNA World Title Tournament. They decided to go with an 8-man bracket, meaning some of their top guys got left out of the mix. I personally would have just thrown the whole roster into a 32-man tournament (they could scrap together enough guys to pad out the bracket) and spent the rest of the year just going through that. One, it would have made the winner “the best” in the promotion, since he outlasted the entire roster, and it would have been the perfect opportunity for the inevitable return of AJ Styles (you know it’s coming) with the “real” TNA title belt. “You beat all of them, (whoever), but you haven’t beat me!” That’s something wrestling fans would want to see, right?

But, they went with 8. We’re already done with one side of the first round of matches. They’re all gimmick matches, by the way, thanks to Heel Authority Figure/Owner Dixie Carter (has there ever been a face in charge of TNA? No, really, I’m asking). Jeff Hardy beat Chris Sabin in a Tables, Ladders, Chairs and Stairs match (take that, WWE!), and Kurt Angle beat Austin Aries in a Submissions match. On the other side, (and both of these matches take place tonight on Impact, a pay-per-view quality show, I’ve been promised) Samoa Joe will face Magnus in a Falls Count Anywhere match, while Bobby Roode and James Storm will clash in a Bullrope match. Just based on the storyline that they’ve been running, the finals looks like it might be Angle vs. Roode (again, with the winner likely looking at a showdown with Styles sooner rather than later).

The Thursday show is being called “Turning Point,” which you’ll recall was once a pay-per-view, but in case you haven’t heard, they’re cutting back on their pay-per-views, to four a year I think. It’s a smart move, and one the WWE should actually look at, especially if they ever get their WWE Network up and running. TNA will apparently continue their “One Night Only” pay-per-view specials. They’re cheaper and recorded in advance, so it’s a different beast altogether from live PPV shows. Mr. Anderson vs. Bully Ray in a retirement vs. breaking up the Aces & Eights match, that hopefully will end that storyline and allow them to move on to something else.

So, assuming the show really is a “Turning Point” and they are heading back to Orlando, it’s a good time to assess what’s working, what’s not working, and practically start from scratch. I’m not suggesting the ridiculous “reboot” that WCW pulled when they thought the combined might of Eric Bischoff and Vince Russo was going to reverse the curse in the Monday Night Wars (12-year-old spoiler alert, it didn’t). But they are about to crown a new champion, they’re going to have a new/old home, and they’ve cut the roster way back. Just start over.

I wish they’d even change the name. TNA is a stupid name. It was stupid when they came up with it. I still remember the first show when goofy Ed Ferrarra came out and said, “I’m always ready for a little TNA!” (you see, it sounds like “T and A,” meaning “tits and ass,” you see, and man, that’s clever, because we’re not PG down here, boys, we still cuss and bleed and all that great stuff you loved when the WWF did it in 1998!). Seriously, call it Impact Championship Wrestling, It’s already the name of the show. ICW sounds pretty cool. Or Impact Pro Wrestling, maybe. The crowd can even chant “I-C-W” or “I-P-W” if they want.

Here’s the TNA roster, in no particular order: Kurt Angle, Jeff Hardy, Samoa Joe, Chris Sabin, Austin Aries, Bobby Roode, James Storm, Magnus, Abyss/Joseph Park, Christopher Daniels, AJ Styles, Kazarian, Bully Ray, Ken Anderson, Chavo Guerrerro, Eric Young, Hernandez, Rob Terry, Robbie E, and Mike Knox. There are some others, but you’ve got the main guys here. And Sting. I don’t like the idea of Sting continuing as an in-ring performer, unless it’s a “one last run” thing or an Undertaker-like special attraction, but I think he’d work fine as an even-handed on-air authority figure. That is a roster that should be able to put out a very nice weekly TV product with no problem.

I can’t make my big Pulse Wrestling return without doing a little fantasy booking, so here’s what I got: Put the TNA title on Samoa Joe, preferably in a tournament final against Kurt Angle. They had some great matches back in the day, when Joe was being booked properly. Don’t bring AJ back right away. Let him stay off defending the other belt in Mexico or Japan or Cleveland or whatever for a while. Book Joe as a monster again (but still as a face, mostly). Eventually, his buddy Magnus asks for a title shot or maybe wins some kind of match where the reward is a title shot. Either way, Joe goes all arrogant heel on him, with a big beatdown, taking him out of action. Eventually, he comes back and wins the title from Joe. Cue AJ Styles.

They have a big showdown and it’s decided to have a best-of-seven series to determine Undisputed TNA (or ICW?) Champion. The first six (you know it’s going seven) are on free TV, with the final on pay-per-view. For match seven, TNA brings in a three-judge panel of veterans to decide a winner in the event of a draw. I don’t know who all is available, but I’m going with Jeff Jarrett, Shane Douglas and Lance Storm. My dream panel would be Diamond Dallas Page, Sid Vicious and Vader, but I don’t know about their availability. You could go with a lot of others here: Scott Steiner, Shane Helms, Konnan, Al Snow, Raven, the list goes on.

Anyway, you could have either one win. I’m going with Magnus, just because he’s my pick for new star in the making. So, Magnus wins, and (let’s say) Lance Storm brings the belt (a new belt) to the ring to present to Magnus. He (sort of, but not really) asks the new champ for “the first crack” at the title. Magnus assumes he’s joking and brushes him off, at which point Storm asks again, only more angry. A sort-of stare down commences before Storm indicates he really is joking and pretends to walk away, only to jump Magnus from behind and deliver a major beatdown. (You know, if Jake Roberts was available for this and in any kind of shape to perform, that would be awesome).

So, that kicks off a big Magnus/Storm feud that Magnus ultimately wins, ultimately gaining Storm’s respect. And you’ve got a series of fresh contenders waiting in the wings, like Hardy, Angle, Joe, etc. Yeah, it’s a complete rip-off of the Ric Flair-Terry Funk storyline from 1989, and yes I already fantasy booked the same storyline with CM Punk and JBL back when Punk was on his lengthy title run, but it’s an awesome storyline that is one of my all-time favorites. Here’s a look:

Now, granted we’re talking about Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat, and Terry Funk. No one on the TNA roster will ever be as good as these guys were in their primes (ok, maybe Angle. Does Sting count?), but they could still make it work.

So, that’s all for my big return. Hope you enjoyed it (those of you who stuck it out till the end. I apparently had a lot to say). Feel free to sound off in the comments (good or bad), and always, thanks for reading. Hope I can stick to a regular schedule!

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