The Wrestling 101 Match #16
Steel Cage Match for the TNA World Heavyweight Title
Samoa Joe vs. Kurt Angle ©
April 13, 2008
Total Nonstop Action Wrestling
Paul Tsongas Arena
Every now and then, wrestling fans are forced to reckon with the fact that we spend an unsettling portion of our finite time on Earth watching something that is often produced by people who despise us. Indeed, for much of the history of Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, one would be hard-pressed to argue that the people in charge of the show weren’t more contemptuous of their audience than the average stranger who asks if we know it’s fake.
In this context, Samoa Joe’s 2008 TNA heavyweight title victory over Kurt Angle is a bit of a happy historical accident. Plucked from the depths of Vince Russo’s TNA, this match and its storyline buildup consciously set out to distinguish the contest as being more similar to a competitive, mixed-martial arts fight than it was to the other pro wrestling matches on the card. In their attempt to make a Not Pro Wrestling match, the goofs who ran the company wound up putting out a pretty darn good, MMA-influenced main event.
To properly appreciate this match, it’s helpful to place it in the context of two concurrent phenomena: the wrestling world’s infatuation with MMA and the deeply cynical creative approach of 2008 TNA.
In his testimonial for this match, my colleague Robin Reid did a great job of articulating just how enamored the pro wrestling community was of MMA and its skyrocketing popularity during the mid-and late-aughts. As he puts it, “You couldn’t have any discussion without somebody bringing up what wrestling could learn from the UFC…that wrestling needed to adapt to a far more believable style; chinlocks wouldn’t cut it anymore now that the public had seen the real deal.”
Outside of the buildup to this Samoa Joe/Kurt Angle match, the product TNA was putting out at the time was exactly the opposite. As part of my preparation for reviewing this match, I went back and watched Angle and Joe’s storyline arcs through the five TNA pay-per-views preceding Lockdown 2008. In an endless parade of miserable backstage segments, the two all-time greats meander through a series of shifting alliances, harebrained revenge schemes, and cringe-inducing “comedy.”
Matches are loaded with idiotic stipulations and the world’s most predictable “swerve” finishes, characters break up and makeup without rhyme or reason, and it’s difficult to discern which of the over-the-top narcissists we’re supposed to cheer for.
In one low-water mark scene, Karen Angle enters the men’s bathroom with Jeremy Borash to seduce AJ Styles, hoping to lure him into siding with her husband in his main event title match against Christian Cage. After receiving some sensual caresses and a few soft kisses on the neck and jaw, Styles excitedly excuses himself to visit the bathroom stall, implying that he’s planning to rub one out.
There’s a sad irony in the contrast between the rest of TNA’s programming and the MMA-inspired build to Angle/Joe. The people who ran the second-biggest U.S. pro wrestling company in 2008 thought their messy collage of misogynistic love triangles, nonsensical heel turns, and disappointing interference finishes was the engaging, high-quality content that would attract the sort of dipshits who like pro wrestling. In order to produce a main event that took itself and its audience seriously, they sought inspiration not from the vast history of pro wrestling, but from the rival spectacle of MMA.
The build-up to Joe/Angle mimicked the way UFC promoted its real fights at the time. Joe was shown doing an MMA training camp with UFC fighter Marcus Davis, Angle participated in “sparring sessions” with AJ Styles and Tomko, and viewers were treated to video packages of MMA fighters and experts discussing the various strengths and weaknesses of the two combatants. It was all a bit self-serious for me, but at least it wasn’t totally unserious. Either way, fans bought in, propelling Lockdown 2008 to one of TNA’s biggest commercial successes.
The match itself was a tale of two halves. The first half featured tentative jabs and leg kicks, “half guard,” and commentary from MMA fighter Frank Trigg about “stuffing punches” and the fighters’ respective “ground-and-pound” games. It was alright, but I’ve written before about how much I love the way pro wrestling allows its creators to optimize the spectator sports experience for maximum drama. If I wanted to watch a UFC fight, I’d watch a UFC fight. Who wants to see a steel cage match where nobody bleeds?
The flow of the match changed for the better after Angle hit a belly-to-belly suplex midway through. Suddenly, we were brought back to the love and light of professional by-god wrestling. The work the rest of the way was hot and stiff, with action-packed reversal sequences, thrilling nearfalls, and one (1) instance of a wrestler bashing the other guy’s head into the cage. It all culminated with Joe hitting the muscle buster to finally capture the TNA Heavyweight Championship that had eluded him during his first three years in the company.
In the end, I’d say I had mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m glad TNA allowed these two legends to have a serious match that fans bought into, and the match itself is a fun way to spend 18 minutes.
On the other hand, it’s genuinely sad that so much of TNA’s history was wasted by people who didn’t seem to understand what wrestling fans love about wrestling—to say nothing of all the brilliant performers who spent years of their careers getting kidnapped by ninjas and hamming it up in dreadful backstage segments. Ideally, you’d think that a wrestling company would want to make all of its world title main events feel serious and important. Isn’t that the whole point?
This was a pretty cool experiment, but when it comes to Samoa Joe cage matches, I’m taking the big man busting up Jay Briscoe over this one every day of the week. It’s pro wrestling that I want, and pro wrestling that I love—no matter how many self-loathing promoters try to serve me something else.