Welcome to Deadspin’s irregular pro wrestling column, in which Tom Breihan and Ernest Wilkins will comb through the past month or so of superkicks, lariats, and 450 splashes in search of the greatest things that this most American of artforms has given us.
Ernest Wilkins: Ten years ago last month, Orlando-based Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (Yup, TNA Wrestling) held its Unbreakable PPV. The main event was a triple threat match between Samoa Joe, a former ROH champion and a current NXT star; Christopher Daniels, a multi-time tag team champion and one of the most entertaining wrestlers ever; and AJ Styles, the longtime TNA loyalist who has absolutely exploded in New Japan Pro Wrestling over the last few years, winning the IWGP Championship (the New Japan version of the World title) two times, a rare feat for a non-Japanese wrestler.
The match was a bonafide classic, garnering Match of the Year nods from damn near everyone, including Dave Meltzer who gave it his coveted five-star rating. Now, a decade later, all three men are gone from the company, along with names like Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, The Dudley Boyz, Austin Aries, Booker T, Sting and well, you get the point. Thanks to a combination of poor booking, Spike TV cancelling the main Impact Wrestling program and a seemingly never-ending series of boneheaded financial decisions, the whole thing came to a crux when Impact was left without a television partner after the end of the year. For many, the move seemed inevitable. The company has been putting out uninspired programming for most of the year thus far, even though big names like The Hardys and Kurt Angle were still appearing regularly. Tom, I’m not going to act like TNA hasn’t been dead on arrival for a long time but I’m kinda bummed whenever an alternative to WWE goes under. Did/Do you watch TNA, Tom?
Tom Breihan: I watched TNA off and on over the years. It was always one of those things I wanted to like more, since it was fun to see something a bit different from WWE, especially right after all of WWE’s major competition (WCW and ECW) had gone under. I liked that they used a six-sided ring and kept the arenas dark. And there have been some really good moments over the years. The Styles/Daniels/Joe stuff was incredible, and I really liked how they brought in Kurt Angle by having him feud with Samoa Joe. Austin Aries winning the world title was a cool story. The set of shows that they taped in New York last year were a lot of fun. The recent rise of Ethan Carter III, a truly gifted performer who never got anything to do in WWE, has been a blast to watch.
But yeah, TNA has mostly been trainwreck after trainwreck, with all these listless former WWE guys coming in and having nonsensical storylines that often actively insulted the viewers’ intelligence. At one point, this company had Samoa Joe and current New Japan ace Kazuchika Okada, and the only thing it could think to do with them was to create a deeply halfassed Green Hornet/Kato tag team.The company’s entire history has been a series of missed opportunities, like the moment when they reportedly almost gave creative control to Paul Heyman, who wanted to build the company around a young Daniel Bryan (then Bryan Danielson on the indies).
I’m not convinced TNA is going away yet just because the company’s TV has disappeared. They’ve managed to last for a decade-plus and overcome all sorts of things that would’ve killed smaller companies. But it doesn’t look good for them now. That sucks, but they’d probably be in a better position now if they hadn’t made so many goddam stupid decisions. It mostly sucks because that means WWE may never have any real serious competition again, not that TNA ever quite rose to the level of being that. This month’s Night of Champions pay-per-view was a solid outing with a few good matches, but a lot of it felt like WWE’s creative team spinning its wheels, and Raw lately has been repeating itself ad infinitum. Ernest, do you agree with me that WWE could use some kind of kick in the ass? And that no other company seems ready to deliver said kick?
Ernest: We’ve discussed this in previous columns, but post SummerSlam, WWE goes into autopilot until the Royal Rumble in January. You’re right though: the creative team is focused on getting as many subscribers to the WWE Network as possible, rather than on telling a good story. The decision to casually announce that the next installment in the Brock Lesnar-Undertaker saga will be happening next month at Hell in a Cell via Paul Heyman voice over in a commercial is kind of...short-sighted? Ridiculous? I don’t know but it’s not making a ton of sense to me. Short of the continuing antics of The New Day stable (who continue to be the most entertaining part of any show they’re on), I’m kind of tuned out until the Rumble. As for competition, I like when upstarts throw stones at the WWE’s near-monopoly on pro wrestling, as it reinvigorates Vince and the crew and the product gets better. Obviously the Monday Night Wars are the best example of this, but even nowadays when Ring of Honor started making noise, we got a boosted NXT and the appearance of Jushin Thunder Liger. Competition is a good thing!
Speaking of competition, we got some GREAT news this week, as Lucha Underground was officially announced as being renewed for Season 2. Season 1 was easily the best weekly wrestling show in America during it’s entire run and I know they have more to come. The stars of the show have even been branching out into other indies like Chikara, where three of them are competing in the annual King of Trios tournament. Tom, I know you love you some LU, but can you shed some light on KOT and why it’s a big deal that Lucha Underground wrestlers (via the Mexican promotion AAA, which is a big part of the American show) are participating?
Tom: The weird thing about WWE’s down period this year is that they’re cashing all their chips with their semi-active guys. So Sting and Brock Lesnar and the Undertaker are all around, which should be a big deal, but they’re not really bothering to craft compelling storylines for any of them. Brock Lesnar and the Undertaker in Hell in a Cell should be amazing! The last time those two guys got into the big cage, they had one of my favorite WWE matches, this total blood-drenched war. But this time, it feels like they’re just going to be like, “Well, here they are.” It’s weird.
But anyway, yes, King of Trios. Chikara is one of my favorite indies; it’s this sort of cartoonish lucha libre promotion that doesn’t always use the biggest indie stars but always takes its time putting together these long, drawn-out comic-book-esque story arcs. It has a fervent, cultish fanbase, and its live shows are fun as hell. King of Trios is its big annual weekend, a three-day tournament of six-man tag team wrestling. It’s always, always awesome, and they always pull in great teams from different promotions around the world. I haven’t watched this year’s tournament yet, though it’s available to stream online for not-bad-prices, but the lineup of teams is a good one. There’s the Lucha Underground team, the New Japan Bullet Club team of AJ Styles and the Young Bucks, and another team of really talented British high flyers, along with all the usual charismatic Chikara dorks. The Lucha Underground guys, in particular, have barely wrestled on the American indies, so it should be a blast to watch them pull out their insanely acrobatic moves in front of a crowd that should be suitably blown away.
Some of those same Lucha Underground wrestlers also competed in another recent big indie tournament. Pro Wrestling Guerilla, a blowing-up promotion in L.A., only runs shows about once a month, and it always uses the same cramped American Legion Hall in Reseda. But it always pulls in the best indie wrestlers from around the world and throws them into crazy, fast-paced matches, usually without bothering to build a story around it. The annual Battle of Los Angeles tournament went down recently, and the DVDs aren’t even out yet, but this thing looks badass. The all-highlights trailer videos that PWG puts on YouTube are some of my favorite things in wrestling:
That’s the fun thing about this moment in wrestling. Even when WWE is dragging its feet, there are all these incredible smaller promotions to watch. And one of those promotions is even a part of WWE itself. NXT, WWE’s developmental show, put on what I’d have to call the year’s best wrestling show during SummerSlam weekend, pulling the unprecedented feat of selling out Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in the process. Ernest, how did you feel about NXT Takeover: Brooklyn?
Ernest: As an event, I was excited to see how the non-Full Sail crowd would react to the show going on the road. They more than delivered (so much in fact that WWE announced last week that SummerSlam and NXT will be staying in Brooklyn for the next two years) with a pop (the cheer when a wrestlers music hits) for hometown guys like Enzo Amore and Colin Cassady that was the loudest I’ve heard since Brock Lesnar returned to WWE. The debuting Apollo Crews had a good match and the main-event ladder match was a great way to cap off the Finn Balor-Kevin Owens feud. The Sasha Banks-Bayley title bout is on my shortlist for match of the year. although their forthcoming 30 minute ironwoman match will more than likely be better. What was your favorite part, Tom?
Tom: That Banks/Bayley match was something special. But really, the whole show, taken in in its entirety was something special. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve heard that many people that excited to be in a building together, watching some wrestling. That sense–that wrestlers and fans are on the same page, that we’re all hoping amazing things happen and we’re all pulling for one another–is commonplace if you’ve been to enough indie wrestling shows. But seeing something like that on such a grand scale, with a full sold-out arena? We don’t get that often enough. If WWE really tried, they could have something like that in their main-roster shows. But for now, I guess we’ll have to get it where we can.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum. He’s written for Pitchfork, theVillage Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical, and he writes the Netflix Action Movie Canon column for Deadspin’s Concourse. He lives in Charlottesville, VA. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Ernest Wilkins is a writer living in Chicago. He’s written for Gawker, Complex, Pitchfork, Noisey, GQ, Rolling Stone and the Chicago Tribune. He’s 5’11” on a good day, and is also on Twitter.