A couple of months ago WWE announced a Cruiserweight tournament for the Network and, in combination with re-watching The Asylum Years, it got me thinking about TNA’s identity. TNA once had the market cornered on the best Cruiserweight style wrestling in the US but as a result of years of neglect where the division was clearly less a priority and more a token gesture, TNA now appear to have ceded that ground to WWE.
And that’s not the only ground TNA has given up. At one stage TNA had the opportunity to change the way women were presented and for a while they did. Gail Kim and Awesome Kong made great strides for women’s wrestling. Instead of following up on that and striving for more, TNA rode its coattails—pretending a revolution was happening instead of actually making it happen. That opened the door for NXT to truly break new ground on how women are presented in pro wrestling. Let’s look at the variety of identities that could be applied to describe TNA, either past or present.
TNA as an alternative.
When you look at NXT, a brand owned by WWE, it’s a master class in branding. WWE have managed to create a hip, youthful alternative to their own sluggish behemoth that they also happen to own and control. They own both the establishment and the anti-establishment. NXT is presenting itself in a way relative to WWE that TNA should have years ago.
TNA as a movement.
This is another where NXT has quite superbly captured ground which should have been TNA’s years ago. This idea of creating a company people can rely upon, creating a company people can believe in, that they can invest in—a company that they can call “theirs.” When Triple H opens a Takeover welcoming fans to his revolution the message is clear—this brand is for you. TNA has seemingly gone the opposite route. They’ve done nothing but tarnish the trust fans had in their brand and have done little to regain it. If you believe and invest in TNA, historically you’ve been burned.
TNA as a wrestling product.
While TNA can be relied upon to deliver 10-15 ~four star matches a year they are certainly not a product with a heavy focus on action and wrestling. The closest they’ve come to that was in 2005 when they produced a year of superb PPVs hinged on brilliant AJ Styles performances. Only three TNA matches have ever made the final list of the Voices of Wrestling match of the year poll (Bobby Roode vs. Bobby Lashley tied for 111th in 2014, The Hardys vs. Team 3D vs. The Wolves finished 53rd in 2014 and Rockstar Spud vs. EC3 finished 37th in 2015). TNA are simply not known for producing a large quantity of high end matches.
TNA as a story product.
This is probably the most accurate reflection of what TNA tries to be and in many ways that’s problematic. Firstly because WWE is first and foremost a story based product and if people want to watch a WWE style wrestling presentation they’ll watch Raw, not Impact. It’s also a problem in that while for the most part their stories are relatively structurally sound (they tend not to have huge gaps in logic, or be too absurd unless somebody is pushed in front of a train), TNA’s manic pacing and poor discipline usually undermines even their best stories. TNA’s major story beats rarely land in a way that feels meaningful, in a way that brings their characters to life.
TNA as the home of the best and brightest.
Once again there was a time where this was true of TNA. TNA has, at one stage or another, been the home of the likes of AJ Styles, Christopher Daniels, Samoa Joe, Austin Aries, Alex Shelley, Chris Sabin, The Young Bucks, Jay Lethal, Nigel McGuinness, Bobby Roode, Roderick Strong, and many more. The best and brightest names from the independent scene would find a home in TNA. TNA would offer them national exposure for the first time and reap the benefits of them developing into some of the best wrestlers in the world. Over time TNA stopped aggressively pursuing that kind of talent and have now reached a stage where they can no longer attract that kind of talent. New Japan or NXT are those folk’s first ports of call with TNA feeding off the scraps. TNA’s value proposition has changed—they can no longer offer the exposure or money they once could nor are they always a creatively fulfilling place to work (though the degree to which that is the case depends on who you are).
TNA as the home of the old stars you know.
Yet again, this was once true. If TNA provided nothing else in from 2007-2011, they were at least a nostalgia kick for folks. Sting, Kurt Angle, Mick Foley, Booker T, Kevin Nash, Scott Steiner, Ric Flair, and Rob Van Dam were all pattering about coasting on past reputations. At least that’s something of an identity, a hodgepodge of other people’s past identities but that’s better than nothing. It is of course no longer the case these days, at least in this instance that’s for the better, as only really the Hardy’s harken to days gone by.
TNA as an edgier alternative/TNA as an Attitude Era substitute
This is a route that TNA aggressively pursued through the years to little long term end. Under Vince Russo TNA was a mess of old Attitude Era ideas without an understanding of what made the Attitude Era tick. It was simply throw as many poorly conceived, short terms ideas at the wall without any of the strong characters to underpin it. In 2010, TNA decided more blood was the solution, with people bleeding seemingly every week (Ric Flair especially so). Again this did little to move the needle because the old ways of the Attitude Era have aged dreadfully. The Attitude Era was a Steve Austin/Vince McMahon tide that helped lift all other ships. Others thrived because they stumbled upon a character that clicked but longevity was not in the cards for the vast majority. The Attitude Era was a phase that should be left in the past.
TNA as a place where you can see things you can’t see anywhere else.
Generally the key attraction for each company above all else is its wrestlers. And this is generally still true of TNA. While many of TNA’s wrestlers do work elsewhere TNA is largely the only place you can see them all interact with one another (with some exceptions). The problem here is that TNA doesn’t have that many compelling stars left, and it becomes dramatically more difficult to make stars without existing stars to help with the transition. Ultimate X and the X-Division used to be TNA’s unique selling point but they’ve fallen by the wayside. Which then begs a simple question—what does TNA do that nobody else does? Or at the very least what does TNA do that nobody else does better? And those become difficult questions to answer.
TNA as a sports based product.
TNA flirted with this approach last year and honestly it’s the one I’d most suggest they pursue. The World Title Series introduced a variety of format changes designed to make each wrestling match feel more meaningful and it worked. While the tournament suffered badly from how it was taped and the nature of the content, the core concept was sound. Make everything mean as much as possible. Take the best elements of live sports as well as how UFC promote their fights and apply that to pro wrestling (with the added ability to protect key stars and plan for the long term). A focus on realism in the sense that wins and loses actually matter, titles and matches actually matter – and each and every match affects each character in some way. Stories underpinned by a patient build with clearly established stakes. New Japan does a wonderful job of this. New Japan’s booking is satisfying to follow because it generally makes a great deal of sense. When you look at the current North American landscape, with the knowledge of how the television industry is moving, this seems like the largest opening.
TNA as TNA.
In many ways this is the most poignant point. Over the last few years TNA has lost touch with its own history. Only Abyss, James Storm, Jeremy Borash and Gail Kim provide a link to the past in front of the camera. Mike Tenay was replaced by Josh Mathews. AJ Styles, Bobby Roode, Eric Young, Samoa Joe, Christopher Daniels, Kazarian, Austin Aries and Kurt Angle have all left. TNA has steadily replaced staples of their own company with staples of somebody else’s. Pretty much all TNA history that directly relates to the current state of the company is a few years old. Companies aren’t static things, they should change and develop and evolve over time but ideally the history of the company shouldn’t be lost in the process and that’s what’s happened to TNA. The TNA of 2016 is radically different to the TNA of 2012 and almost unrecognisable when compared to the TNA of 2005. The only real through line is they still tape in Orlando.
The most worrying thing about TNA is the lack of iteration. Since the post-Spike freefall TNA has largely been running on the spot. Instead of trying a new hat for a few months and seeing does it fit, they’ve simply dug in, saying in essence “this is our approach and we’ll push it until it works or we collapse trying” rather than having the vision to say “I don’t think this is working, let’s try a new approach.”
Is TNA worth fighting for? That’s the core question at the heart of this piece. That’s not really a question I’m trying to answer or even one I’m asking of you, the reader. Your answer will likely depend on your own personal experience with the company. I certainly believe it is otherwise I would have long since given up writing about them. For as long as the lights are on and somebody is home, I believe there is a redemption story left in TNA. No, I’m asking that question of the folks in TNA right now. What do they want TNA to be? Are they simply satisfied living hand to mouth and clinging on year to year, barely surviving? And who do they want TNA to be? What is TNA’s major contribution to wrestling? What do they have to add or say that nobody else does? These are not easy questions to answer, but they are essential. Until TNA can answer the question of who exactly they are and what exactly they are trying to do that redemption story will still be a long way off.