Of course you realize, this means war (sort of)
It was just like old times Monday night, with dueling prime-time TV shows featuring professional wrestling (or “sports entertainment,” given the parlance of our times), with Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff leading the charge on one side and Vince McMahon on the other. There’s no sense in declaring in a winner, as this “Monday Night War” was over before it started. For the time being, WWE will not even acknowledge they’re in a war, and why should they? Most likely, they won’t be for the near future; however, TNA took one hell of a shot Monday night, highlighted by a couple of major signings.
Overall, though, with the exception of an incredible TNA World title match with A.J. Styles defending against Kurt Angle, the company did not deliver offer the high-quality alternative to WWE programming that they claim to aspire to be. With so many old stars appearing (looking very old indeed), it had the feel of TV show reunion (like “Dallas”)—and when that show is “Monday Nitro,” that’s not a good thing. (Actually, it’s never a good thing, with the “Seinfeld” reunion on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” the exception to the rule.)
Yes, like an old girlfriend who screwed us over so many times (WCW post-1997), Hogan and Bischoff vowed repeatedly that “things are different this time.” (Sorry, but I’m just not ready to take you back. It’s not me—it’s you.)
Stunning that TNA kicked off with comments from the fans entering the Impact Zone, interviewed by Bubba the Love Sponge, who comes off like a sleazy doorman. (To steal an old Jerry Lawler line, “He’s got a face for radio!” Har har!) What’s scary is that of the dozens of fans they must have taped for this segment, these were the best they had: a woman declaring her love for “sweaty wrestlers” (the flirty Bubba—sounding like a “Girls Gone Wild” cameraman—appears to fit half that bill), a Hulk Hogan lookalike (not the infamous fan who used to show up at ringside during so many major WWF events back in the day) and some clown with a TNA tattoo (talk about Crossing the Line…of decency) who was obviously fed a line about the company kicking Vince McMahon’s ass. Amateur hour stuff.
They had the right idea featuring an X-Division bout early that included the Motor City Machine Guns, Amazing Red, Homicide and Black Machismo; however, the red cage looks absolutely horrible on TV, making it difficult to follow the action. Plus, for a promotion whose strength is a better lineup of quality wrestlers, I think a straight wrestling match involving the Guns (whom I’m really high on) as opposed to such a gimmicky concept would have been a no-brainer. Keep it simple.
I can’t even try to explain how a cage match can end in a disqualification, but this one did.
Then came one of the first surprises of the evening: Jeff Hardy. (Uncle Eric loves surprises because that’s a key ingredient of his brilliant “controversy creates cash” philosophy of booking—never mind that aggressively promoting the appearance one of the top three stars in the business today would helped popped TNA’s rating.) Hardy took care of that “show-off” Homicide (poor Mark Tenay’s attempt to explain the guy’s agonizingly long post-match struggle to ascend the cage for no logical reason). Hardy then climbed the outside of the cage himself and…sat on top of it. (Probably contemplating the huge career mistake he’d just made.) Looks like Hardy’s signed a short-term deal with TNA after apparently backing out of a verbal agreement to return to WWE, most likely by WrestleMania. Then again, perhaps he knew that federal charges would indeed be filed the next morning (Tuesday) for his drug arrests last year, so he figured TNA would sign him no matter what, whereas WWE would probably back off until his name was cleared. Heck, TNA usually waits until a guy’s name is mud before they approach him (Pacman Jones, Rod Blagojevich, etc.) with a contract offer, so I guess the new management is definitely ahead of the curve on this one. What could have been a major coup instead came off like a flop, but that didn’t stop Tazz from shilling worse than Jerry Lawler on his worst day in WWE. (I usually like Tazz and Tenay, but the overzealous selling of “the history being made” on this night was a bit heavy-handed.)
While it’s mind-boggling they’d portray Bobby Lashley as a pussy-whipped weenie, I will say his wife, Krystal, has great potential as a heel. (God, is she ever unlikeable—instant disdain from the moment she opened her mouth. Not many people in the industry have that gift, Eric Bischoff being one of them, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.) I really don’t like Lashley’s direction as “the MMA fighter who finds TNA competition beneath me.” At this point, TNA needs all the credibility all they can get, so why not have Lashley say (he can speak, right?) he’s out to prove he’s the baddest man in both MMA and TNA—a modern-day Bo Jackson, the one dominant force in both sporting entities. OK, OK, have him act slightly snobby about the MMA thing if they want him as a heel (“conquered that world, so TNA should be easy”), but don’t treat TNA as a classless joke. To me, this was the wrong kind of heat.
Kevin Nash delivered a rambling interview with Christy Hemme (who was rubbing Big Sexy’s Old Man River’s chest at the outset), talking about making more money with Hulk now on the scene. (Sure, rub it in our faces, you undeserving prick.) He then promised that Hogan was “on his way” to the arena (shades of WCW)—and “he’s not alone.” (Visions of the Booty Man and the Disciple danced in my head. Or maybe the Honky Tonk Man as X-Division champion.)
Yes, I groaned with the reappearance of the stars arriving late to the event in a limo—one of the overused ratings teases of both WCW and WWE in the late ’90s…effective a few times before the former ran it into the ground, much like everything else. (What…not a single Hummer in sight?) Supposedly, even though he was in charge now, Hogan couldn’t even be bothered to show up to the arena on time.
Believe it or not, the first limo arriving was a swerve (go figure): Ric Flair. OK, that got a pop from me. Hardy and Flair in the same hour? Pretty damn impressive and an awfully strong statement to WWE that they mean business. I heard it was about 50/50 on Flair in the days before the show, but he’s apparently signed a deal for around 65 dates. Makes sense: Flair needs the money and they certainly need his name for credibility. I don’t want to hear how old he is: Flair still has enough charisma to give a young guy—whom it appears it will be A.J. Styles—more of a superstar rub. (Of course, they’ll probably swerve us and have Flair screw Styles and align himself with Angle, which at the very least would be damn entertaining.)
Mick Foley was shown arriving late (Jesus, does this company even have a call sheet?), so I guess he got stuck behind all that limo traffic and the police escort on the way to the arena. They wouldn’t let him in, so apparently he’s on the outs with the new creative direction. (Maybe’s he too young?) But then on the next commercial break, they announced Foley as the host of the new TNA replay show Epics. (Actually, that concept is brilliant to show new fans just how strong the in-ring TNA product has mostly been over the years.)
Up next, a backstage strip poker vignette featuring Lacey Von Erich, Madison Rayne and Velvet Sky—they must be among the performers whom Vince Russo referred to last week as “not ready for TV.” Really bad acting, with bad dialogue (“the ratings” talk is already getting old). Lacey’s playing a total ditz (I suppose some would argue she’s merely continuing the Von Erich tradition), but it was hard to differentiate that character from the other two bimbos. Another boob (Val Venis, complete with a towel fastened around his waist) would show up later. Excruciating television.
Hogan finally showed up after another limo tease (mystery man leaving one vehicle and climbing into Hulk’s limo) and an outside shot of X-Pac and Scott Hall being refused entry into the building. (Ah, if only that that were true.) Of course, as soon Hogan hit the ring, (following an awful knockoff of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child,” his old NWO music), he revealed that he’d “been in the back all afternoon.” So much for details. The collective fart you heard moments later was the loyal TNA audience when Hogan declared that TNA would soon be the “number-one company in sports entertainment.” Or maybe that was just the bloated Hall, who managed to crash the party along with X-Pac, just in time to mark out over Hogan’s speech. Not exactly a coincidence that this segment was slotted right before Bret Hart’s return on RAW kicked off—well played.
Despite the embarrassing flop of the NWO in WWE and the bad taste the concept left in the mouths of former WCW fans, Hogan and Bischoff just can’t help themselves: They’re actually trying to recreate the biggest success of Easy E’s tenure. (Not to worry, though, because it’s different this time, baby. I’ve changed.) While a bit of a novelty seeing them all together again, my first thought was, “Dammnnn, they look old.” Really, the NWO seems like a lifetime ago. Granted, HBK and Triple H often look very silly in their DX gimmick nowadays, but there’s no denying they move a ton of merchandise and the name is still a hot commodity. TNA can’t use the NWO name (can the dreaded “Wolfpack” be far behind?) and even if they could, it wouldn’t matter—the gimmick is dead. While X-Pac is still an in-ring talent, Nash can barely walk, while Hall, who at one time was outstanding in the ring, is washed up and looks it. In my opinion, all three aren’t worth the inherent headaches. (Talk about a lethal injection of NWO poison—maybe that’s what Hall meant by “partying old school.”) Having the nucleus of the NWO in the ring as the counter to Hart and Shawn Michaels meeting face to face for the first time in years? Sting, who was watching from above in the rafters (God, what year is this?), may have found all this fascinating, but it was no contest for me.
In a classic example of Memphis promoter and former TNA head Jerry Jarrett’s successful booking philosophy (“personal issues draw money”), Hart and Michaels spoke of the infamous Montreal Screwjob, which came off very emotional and real to me. Earlier that day, I wrote of how I’d hoped that Hart, Michaels and McMahon were hands-on with their treatment of this angle and spoke from the heart as opposed to a script produced by WWE Creative. As the astute Todd Martin from the Wrestling Observer also noted, the moment Hart uttered the words “WWE Universe,” an annoying marketing term created years after he left the company, I knew then that even the Hitman has to stick to the script nowadays. It briefly took me out of the segment, but while the words may not have been his own, the emotion was certainly there. The live crowd didn’t quite know what to make of the stare-down, but they popped pretty big when the two old rivals buried the hatchet and hugged following an HBK tease of Sweet Chin Music. I think they could have teased this at least another week, but it was strong television.
Back on TNA, Hogan spurned his old cronies, telling them, “It’s time that we all grow up, and we do the right thing for this business, brother.” Hey, Hogan, you’re about 12 years too late, brother. (Baby, it’s different this time. I swear.) I guess to prove how things have changed, Bischoff then came out (groan). Again, the man has a way of getting under my skin the moment he opens his mouth, so he’s not exactly bad for television. (But for the finale they were planning, they should have waited to reveal Bischoff at the end with Foley—that would have been much more effective.) The Bisch, of course, talked about his ratings glory so many years ago, claiming, “We took on the 800-lb. gorilla and put him in a little monkey cage. And we spanked him. In the process, we changed this business forever. Hopefully, we’re all just a little smarter.” Now that’s funny. Look around you, Bischoff. My goodness, that had to be a rib. Don’t get me wrong—I can understand the intrigue for an episode or two of IMPACT, but there’s no way an NWO storyline can carry this company. If they drop it quickly to prove a point that it’s truly all about the young guys, I’ll be impressed. But I fear the worst. Maybe that’s because Bischoff then ripped up the “TNA TV format” and produced a new one saying, “This is what you thought you were going to do. This is what we’re gonna do.” (I’ll admit it, I was jealous: I’ve been wanting to shred one of Russo’s formats in front of a live audience for years.) He then vowed to “turn this place upside down.” Sounds awfully reminiscent of his “hitting the restart button” spiel on Nitro years back. At least Dixie Carter didn’t speak, though she was shown marking out in the audience.
A little sad to see Samoa Joe sort of lost in the shuffle of all this. He’s lost so much steam since Russo arrived. (And his ring attire now looks like a mini-skirt at times during the action…horrible.) Still, good to see him in the ring.
Jeff Jarrett received one of his best babyface reactions since his Memphis days. He gave an inspired promo about the background of the company, which would have meant more had we not heard it all before, but….). Then Hogan popped up on the screen and ripped him apart. Although it was not intended, Hogan came off like a heel. (It was supposed to further illustrate Hogan’s commitment to everyone having to prove themselves, but it sure seemed like Hulk was shitting on Jarrett’s work in the company. The Orlando crowd didn’t like it.)
Two of the hottest young stars in the business, the Nasty Boys, finally made it into the arena after being rebuffed a few times. (I love how the Impact Zone was portrayed as some kind of cheesy nightclub where you had to be “on the list.” (The head doorman, Bubba the Love Sponge, got them in.) Apparently, they’re headed for a showdown with Team 3-D. Oh, my. The more things change….
The Pope’s got a lot of natural charisma, but someone should tell him he’s not quite the Rock just yet, i.e., he can’t pull off some of the lines he used like referring to himself as “a delicious cup of chocolate saving grace.” He got an upset win over the former Nigel McGuinness (who’s now stuck with that lame, soap-opera-like moniker “Desmond Wolfe”) as the crowd chanted “This is wrestling!” (They were probably so excited because there hadn’t been much of it at this point.)
World champ AJ Styles was doing a promo hyping his upcoming PPV title bout with Angle when Bischoff interrupted, saying the showdown for the belt would be tonight. While I don’t think the company should sacrifice PPV main events for ratings too often (which was out of control in WCW…Nitro’s Hogan vs. Goldberg, Hogan vs. Hart bouts, etc.), this was a good move to showcase the company’s two strongest workers.
While Kofi Kingston and Randy Orton had an OK bout with little time on RAW, the TNA title bout was more than 20 minutes of state-of-the-art professional wrestling. Simply fantastic. Part of me thought they were immediately going to take the title off Styles, who delivered a big-time performance, so I was pleased when he retained. The mysterious masked man who interferred–bringing back memories of the Flair/Hogan title match on Clash of the Champions in 1994–couldn’t even ruin this one. (God, if it turns out to be Ed Leslie or DDP, I’ll blow my head off.) Still, I gotta figure that Styles isn’t what Hogan and Bischoff have in mind as World champion, so I expect Angle to get the strap in the rematch. I’d love it if they gave Styles a chance with Flair at his side, but I expect they’ll go with the Angle as champ. Don’t blame them, really, as Angle does have the name and he’s still the best worker in the game. (Rhyme unintentional, I can assure you.)
Hogan addressed A.J. and Kurt after the bout, putting them both over strong before being interrupted by a backstage commotion. Foley had finally made it in and was looking for Hogan but instead crashed the strip poker game (woo-hoo…boobies in bras!). Venis smugly directed Foley to a corner office, where Foley instead found…Bischoff. (That would have been a nice surprise ending had Eric not appeared earlier.) The not-NWO attacked Foley (this must be the fresh, exciting approach they promised) with Hogan showing up and having a standoff with his 4-life brothers as the show closed. Eh. Whatever.
Over on RAW, McMahon answered Hart’s challenge for a meeting and called him out. The two traded words before McMahon suddenly switched gears from his heel persona and acknowledged Bret as the best there is, was and ever will be. Just when Bret let his guard down, McMahon kicked him in the grapefruits. I think the swerve was a little too obvious. I would have preferred a leery Bret refusing to speak with an earnest Vince throughout the show before finally giving in. I love Vince as a performer, but he stopped a little short of the sincerity that was needed to really make this segment click to avoid making Bret look like a gullible dope. (Another option: Bret catches Vince’s foot as he goes to kick him and slaps the shit out of the chairman of the board, who gets his revenge next week to set up some kind of showdown at WrestleMania. ) Overall, though, it was riveting seeing them together in the ring, letting off genuine steam about the Montreal incident. As Jerry Jarrett wrote on Facebook: “I must admit that during the Vince McMahon/Bret Hart segment, I had a wave of emotion surge through me. The great angles in the wrestling business are usually fact-based. This was truly a fact-based segment. Maybe I’m a bit prejudiced because I had a tiny hand in Vince McMahon’s start as a wrestling talent. I contend that he is the best heel our business has seen in the last century. I had the pleasure of working with Bret Hart on a daily basis in 1993 and 1994, which is about the time he won the title at WWE. The segment was emotional because of several factors. Bret has as much self pride as any person I’ve ever known. Vince runs a close second in this area. Both talents exude charisma and both set pride aside last night. I really think few fans understand how real that segment was.”
Although it was never in doubt, WWE crushed TNA in the ratings; however, the Observer is reporting that Impact did a 1.5 (with hours of 1.7, 1.4 and 1.2), which was higher than the company expected. (RAW did better than average, around a 3.7 or 5.6 million viewers.) This most likely will lead to a permanent shift to Monday nights for TNA.
The business is about to pick up.