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Rules of engagement: Why TNA didn’t make the grade in the “new” Monday Night War

May 11th, 2010 2 comments
 
On the ropes: Dixie Carter moves TNA back to Thursday nights … because their 17 fans demanded it.

On March 3–less than a week before the first head-to-head battle of what was to be the new Monday Night War–I outlined 10 steps for TNA as they trudged uphill to gain a foothold on Vince McMahon’s WWE juggernaut. With last week’s announcement by Dixie Carter that TNA was “giving the fans what they want” and moving iMPACT back to Thursday nights on Spike TV, I’ll examine how well they did in those areas. (Comments in italics highlight some of the previous points I raised in March.)

1. Beat WWE in the ring: Kick off iMPACT shows with a hot opening match that’s given enough time to build–not a long, drawn-out segment with Hogan and/or Bischoff. Ironically, TNA’s biggest asset, their in-ring talent, is probably the least emphasized facet each week on iMPACT. With WWE’s show always likely to open with a talk-heavy segment, TNA would be wise to showcase their one element that can outperform Vince & Co, especially since most RAW matches are limited to under three minutes. During his ECW days, Paul Heyman used to say he could never compete with WWE on presentation, so he focused on his strengths. I’d advise TNA to do the same. 

Grade: F   With Shawn Michaels in the ring discussing the biggest match of the year with the Undertaker on RAW, the March 23 iMPACT kicked off with an Eric Bischoff “guitar solo” as part of the continuation of his midcard-at-best program with Jeff Jarrett. (As a matter of fact, with Eric “playing” in the darkened arena, at first, I didn’t even know this was iMPACT; I thought the previous program was running long.) Jeff Hardy. Rob Van Dam. Kurt Angle. AJ Styles. Desmond Wolfe. All those guys were in the back while TNA wasted valuable TV time because Bischoff remains convinced he’s a ratings draw. It seems that after the move to Monday nights, TNA actually increased its hokey skits, long promos and backstage office vignettes. To their credit, all these negatives were cut on the action-packed (though bloated) April 19 show, but it was a classic case off too little, too late. (Actually too much, too late because they gave away far too much on that free broadcast, which I documented here.)

2. Act like you’ve been there–even if you haven’t: Limit the carnival-barking about taking on WWE and making history. 

Grade: C-  Hard to give them too much credit here for their restraint, as TNA’s ratings steadily decreased with each passing week, so Hogan and Bischoff really had nothing to crow about. Plus, it’s kind of hard to talk trash and fire shots when one side doesn’t even know it’s in a war. 

3. Bring down the curtain on the Band: How fitting would it be to wrap this going-nowhere-fast storyline than to kill off Waltman, Nash and Hall as the company kicks off its new era on Monday nights? Shedding as many resemblances to WCW Nitro as possible would benefit most involved–in fact, the life TNA saves may be its own. While you’re taking out the trash, grab the Nasty Boys as well. And for God’s sake, get Sting out of the damn rafters already and put him alongside the Pope or  on the opposite side of an issue with a younger star who could use the rub, like Desmond Wolfe.  

Grade: F   In typical WCW TNA fashion, the angle with the former NWO members peaked on the first night, with Hall, Nash, Waltman, Hogan and Bischoff reuniting in the ring on Jan. 4. It was a cool sight to see the “not-NWO” in the ring, but the nostalgia was gone the moment they went to a commercial. The WCW hangover goes on: Scott Hall and Kevin Nash won the World tag titles at the last set of TNA tapings. Still, it could be worse; they could be feuding with the now fired Nasty Boys over the straps.

4. My money’s on the Pope: TNA has done a solid job of building up the Pope as a contender for the World championship. Continue to focus that spotlight on perhaps the company’s most charismatic rising star and let him shine. He’s the closest thing TNA has to a young “Rock”-like personality who could break out with huge mainstream appeal. 

Grade B+   Two weeks after pinning World champ AJ Styles on iMPACT, the Pope shined at the Against All Odds PPV, winning the 8-Card Stud tournament in impressive fashion with a valiant effort against Mr. Anderson, with the show closing on Dinero’s celebration. That was one of hell of a buildup for the title showdown with Styles, which I applauded here.  The title bout with Styles retaining was a solid bout hindered by a bad finish (A.J. swiped a pen from a nearby cameraman zooming through the cage and jabbed Pope in the eyes to finish off the challenger). One could argue Pope would have been a better choice than RVD as champ because it’s something new and fresh, but I’d rather see Dinero chase the belt for at least a year as the fans may turn on him a bit if he gets the strap too soon. Besides, the chase is more compelling than the title win–one of those basic tenets of wrestling that Vince Russo and Eric Bischoff have absolutely no concept of. (Not only that, but Van Dam also has more mainstream cred, which is what TNA is after.) Once he’s healed up, Pope is locked into a feud with Mr. Anderson, which should brilliantly showcase both men’s above-average promo skills. (In the aftermath of the eye injury, Pope even has a way of making an eye-patch seem cool.) Pope is one of the guys who gives you hope about TNA’s future. 

5. Get Samoa Joe back in the mix: For years, Joe was entrenched as one of the company’s biggest stars. With the exception of an under-promoted title shot with A.J. Styles in which the emphasis was on Bischoff as special ref, he’s been a background player since the Hogan takeover.  

Grade: C+   They’ve finally got the Samoan Submission Machine back in the thick of things–better yet, sans dopey outfit, which scores big points for me. Joe is back in silent killer mode, an outlaw with no friends ready to kick everyone’s ass. Wise move for the character. My only reservation is that TNA’s writers will screw it up again; the more distance Russo has from Joe the better. (I believe within a month of Russo’s initial hiring, the formerly undefeated, ultimate fighting machine Joe had been pinned twice on free TV…by Scott Steiner and Tomko no less.) Average grade salvaged as Joe seems to be headed in the right direction as TNA’s unstoppable force. I’m intrigued at the possibility of a RVD title defense vs. Joe if they handle the buildup correctly.  

6. A mix of old and new: There has to be a balance of established talent with name value (Hulk Hogan, Flair, Foley, Angle, Hardy, etc.) and younger talent on the rise (D Wolfe, Pope, etc.). WCW relied on established stars like Hogan, Hall, Nash and Savage to build their audience in the late ’90s and that worked for a while. Ultimately, the company was doomed when it failed to elevate the young talent (Jericho, Mysterio, Guerrero, Benoit) who were blowing away audiences with their matches. Don’t bury the longtime TNA stars and alienate its loyal fanbase by relying too heavily on older stars under the new regime. In theory, Flair is a great  superstar rub for World champ Styles, as long as he doesn’t continue to overshadow his protégé.  

Smell like I sound, lost in the crowd: Fans are hungry for the Wolfe.

Grade: D-   Hogan and Flair continue to overshadow the younger talent, which has got to be demoralizing for the locker room (unless you’re over the age of 45). If used carefully, Flair could still be the occasional ratings draw, but his appeal is limited by appearing on a weekly basis, especially as a heel. His promos have been as entertaining as always, but fans just aren’t going to boo the Nature Boy at this point in his iconic career–there’s too much respect there by the fans. (Which is why it’s futile to book Sting as a heel as well.) Sad that a Ric Flair match (vs. Abyss) after his well-publicized retirement bout with Shawn Michaels was the main event of one of the lowest-rated iMPACTs in history, which helped seal TNA’s fate on Monday nights. Fans want to see Flair–but not this often…and not bleeding like a stuck pig and losing to Abyss on free TV.  (Abyss is a young guy with a monster push, but the fans have turned on him a bit thanks to the hokey Hulkster Hall of Fame ring stuff. It could be salvaged if Abyss snaps and turns heel on his teacher, which is likely in the plans down the road.) By the way, pushing that bumbling, uncharismatic stiff Rob Terry as the next coming of Goldberg was not what I had in mind in the way of creating new stars–especially when Desmond Wolfe has breakout potential…the fans are dying to love the guy. The bottom line (wooo!): You can’t build a wrestling company around Sting, Jeff Jarrett, Hogan, Flair, Nash and Hall in 2010. You couldn’t anymore in 1998, either, but WCW damn sure tried.

7. Hot tag:  It’s no secret that McMahon has a disdain for tag-team wrestling, despite the fact that matches for the company’s World tag titles produced some of the company’s most memorable bouts of the ’80s and ’90s. I’d start a major angle over the TNA belts tonight, making them a viable goal worthy of pursuit as opposed to WWE’s Unified tag titles, which seem reserved for two singles stars who are paired up because they have nothing better else to do. A hot, old-school tag bout with enough time to tell a story would be ideal tonight. I like TNA’s established teams like Beer Money (despite the Russo name) and Motor City Machine Guns, although I’m afraid the sun is setting on Team 3-D as players. Showcase what has largely become a forgettable aspect of WWE programming. 

Money mark and the Beautiful bunch.

Grade: F   The tag titles weren’t even mentioned on the first head-to-head broadcast and have only been used as a punchline until they figure out what to do with Matt Morgan, who has potential with better material. The March 23 iMPACT had a memorable PPV-worthy tag bout with Beer Money vs. Jeff Hardy and RVD …but of course, the match was booked with only 40 minutes left on the show, so there was no buildup for the viewing audience. Overall, dreadful booking by Russo, who supposedly shares McMahon’s disdain for tag wrestling. (See Nash and Hall crowned tag champions above.) 

8. Limit the Bisch: While I admit he’s a strong performer on the mic, Bischoff is making the classic booker mistake of overexposure and involving himself in too many segments and storylines. Less is more in the case of Bisch. While the jury’s still out on his creative direction, I know for a fact that Bischoff the performer doesn’t sell PPVs. If anything, I’ll take the Bisch as the on-air exec in charge over Dixie Carter any day. But he’s way better in small doses. 

Grade: C-   For every worthwhile segment with Bischoff (the great head-to-head verbal confrontations with Mick Foley) there are about five lame ones. He’s a natural TV personality, especially as a heel, but he’s way overexposed, which was a smilar problem in WCW. (See guitar solo above.) 

Hulk smash!: Kong was a casualty of the Hogan/Bischoff era.

9. Knock ’em dead: TNA’s Knockouts have long been considered by TNA’s fans to have the superior women’s division in the ring compared to WWE’s, so prove it to an expanding audience. With the notable exceptions of Maryse and Mickie James, the Divas mostly are a homogeneous blur of nameless, faceless women. Kiss Awesome Kong’s big ass and get her back in the fold, if she’s not already, as I think she could be a major star on Monday nights. 

Grade D-   They’ve all but killed the credibility of this once-proud division. The mega push of the Beautiful People has been OK, as I love me some Velvet Sky, but losing Kong was a major mistake. Yeah, yeah, I know the game-show segment drew a decent rating (well, it was still dismal, but fared better than the rest of the segments on the show) with all the, um, T ‘n’ A, but that was desperate Russo booking at its worst and by far the lamest crowning of a champion of any kind since the Judy Bagwell title reign in WCW. (That said, the closing segment did reveal one undisputable fact: Lacey Von Erich has a great ass.)

10. Cliffhanger: Shortly after the NWO takeover, Bischoff did a pretty good job at closing Nitro episodes with compelling ending and giving the audience a reason to tune in next week. So far in this run, he’s not really come through. The Jan. 4 closing saw Bischoff spin around dramatically in a chair as Foley was looking for Hogan, which would have been OK had he not delivered a promo earlier in the ring to kick off the second hour. Then the fate of the segment was doomed when the Band bum rushed Foley. And in case you have any further ideas of reliving 1997, Sting dropping down from the rafters to save Hogan and Abyss after the main event isn’t going to cut it in 2010. 

Grade: F   Russo & Co. have hotshotted every angle known to Mankind the Mutilator. Several times, TNA has started an angle and given you the payoff in the same segment, with virtually no incentive to tune in next week. Their most entertaining show thus far set up Hardy’s and Van Dam’s chase of the World title by giving away a fan’s dream match between the two former WWE champions and concluded the chase in the same evening, with RVD winning the belt. Sure, it was great TV, but ratings plummeted the following week because we had already received the payoff (and on free TV), i.e., the story was over before it began–much like this latest version of the Monday Night War. 

The move back to Thursday night should help TNA re-establish their audience on what has traditionally been a good night for wrestling. It should take some of the pressure off the writing team, so hopefully they’ll recommit to the younger guys and let them develop. (I see no sign of that happening yet, however.) Thing is, even if they regain their old audience, those folks still aren’t purchasing TNA’s PPV events, largely because of the rushed storylines as part of desperate attempts to pop a rating (classic WCW). Hotshotting angles is a vicious circle that doesn’t benefit the company long term. Maybe Paul Heyman is the answer; after all, desperate times call for extreme measures. 

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A world of difference? Rob Van Dam wins the TNA World title…but at what Sacrifice?

April 20th, 2010 No comments

Mr. Monday Night lived up to his name.

With WWE Creative desperately scrambling (more so than usual) to come up with a show, TNA delivered one hell of a TV moment April 19, with former WWE and ECW champion Rob Van Dam defeating A.J. Styles for the TNA World title in a live Monday broadcast on Spike. Of course, in typical Eric Bischoff/Vince Russo fashion, the angle was rushed and poorly promoted, so it meant little in the way of viewers, confirmed by the 1.0 rating for iMPACT reported earlier today. The show opened with Styles crowing about his PPV win over the Pope before he was interrupted by Van Dam, who desperately needed to cut the promo of his life. RVD failed in that sense, but the crowd was so hot that they rallied behind him when he questioned whether or not Styles was still the best wrestler in the company.  This barely coherent statement seemed to finally wake up Jeff Hardy, who joined the discussion. (You know a segment may be in trouble when Styles is the best promo guy in the ring.) Hardy looked more energetic (and chubbier) than I’ve seen in a while, as he finally stated his purpose for being in TNA months after signing: to complete his collection of World titles. Hulk Hogan hit the ring and he delivered a spiel about the importance of the World title and how his championship win changed his life. Hogan applauded Styles for his reign as well as RVD and Hardy for stepping up before setting up a number-one contender’s match between the two former WWE champions. Nope–not for PPV…or even next week on iMPACT…tonight. I was thinking, “Man, oh, man….they just can’t help themselves, can they?” Then came the announcement that the winner would get the shot at the title…tonight. Mike Tenay blurted out, “You gotta be kidding me!” I hear ya, Mike.

Hogan’s deal was effective, but you can’t expect one promo to make a difference in how the championship is perceived. The World title and its holder have to be built up over time, they have to be protected. Styles has been jobbed out on TV since Hogan/Bischoff took over, so the credibility of A.J.’s reign wasn’t what it should have been heading into this segment.

Yes, Hardy vs. RVD was a fantastic match to have in progress at the top of iMPACT’s second hour as RAW opened with one of those seemingly endless Triple H promos (which was actually somewhat entertaining, thanks to the angle with CM Punk and Rey Mysterio), but I hate the accelerated pace of how even TNA’s best angles unfold. If they were hell-bent on giving us such an intriguing matchup with no promotion beyond a Bischoff  teaser “tweet” earlier that afternoon, I would argue that RVD vs. Hardy should have at least ended inconclusively (e.g., double countout) forcing Hogan to schedule a “must be a winner” rematch the following week on iMPACT. Then they could have more time to promote this classic “fans’ dream matchup” and build up the heated-yet-friendly rivalry between the two former WWE champs looking for TNA gold. The winner of that bout faces Styles in a showdown for the World strap at the Sacrifice PPV, whetting the fans’ appetite to see two stars on a collision course for the belt.

Instead, two 5-star frog splashes within a span of 60 minutes later, and RVD’s “dramatic” chase of the World title is over before it begins.  A sacrifice indeed. Yes, it was an amazing scene with RVD and Hardy celebrating the title win in a sea of confetti (red and yellow, no less) with Hogan, but at what cost? Why couldn’t they have waited a few weeks before pulling the trigger? Once again, TNA starts an angle and gives you the payoff in the same show–it’s a ridiculous formula no matter how good the execution is. Ironically enough (given recent correspondence from TNA lawyers), I’ll paraphrase Jim Cornette’s explanation of Booking 101: You put two stars on trajectories by having them both win matches. Months (or in some cases, weeks) later, the bout between the two stars is  announced. The fans go crazy: They’re finally going to wrestle and settle it once and for all…”Who is the better man?” Sure, the game has changed today, and ratings do matter. But hotshotting angles without a least a week of buildup is insane and proved to be the death knell for WCW in the long run, despite some wonderful TV moments in the ’90s.

This shouldn’t be surprising–after all, Hogan and Bischoff were the creative forces who gave away what could have easily been one of the biggest PPV buy rates of the decade just to pop a Nitro rating, when Goldberg won the WCW championship from Hulk in 1998 with less than a week of promotion for the bout. Yes, the Georgia Dome–and fans watching Nitro–went crazy when Goldberg hit the jackhammer to pin Hogan clean in the middle, but that pop was drowned out by the sound of the millions of dollars WCW flushed down the toilet that night.

In his first promo with TNA, Bischoff vowed to the fans at the iMPACT ZONE that he’d learned from his mistakes running a wrestling company. Last night was further evidence that he hasn’t, despite the inspired choice of RVD as champion.

Monday Night Musings: Eric Bischoff’s vanity project

March 23rd, 2010 4 comments

Plane as day: TNA's ratings are sure to nosedive at this rate.

I was floored that last night’s live iMPACT began with an Eric Bischoff “guitar solo” as part of the continuation of his midcard-at-best program with Jeff Jarrett as WWE kicked off its go-home show for what looks to be the biggest WrestleMania card in years. As matter of fact, with Eric “playing” in the darkened arena, at first, I didn’t even know this was iMPACT; I thought the previous program was running long. WWE has its faults, no question, but, overall, they know whom to spotlight–and when. While Shawn Michaels was in the ring on RAW delivering a promo about the most anticipated match of the year with the Undertaker, Bischoff was using TNA as his own personal highlight reel instead of spotlighting say, Jeff Hardy and RVD, two guys who if used correctly, can not only make a difference in ratings but also sell PPVs.

Fact is, while it makes sense for Jarrett to be involved in an angle with the company’s new management, it won’t sell one PPV. Not one. There’s a place for this angle, but not at the show’s opening going head to head with RAW, especially coming off the heels of a PPV. Speaking of which, if you tuned in at the beginning, you wouldn’t know the company even had a PPV the night before, with a controversial (and that’s being kind) finish to the World title match between A.J. Sytles and Abyss. Yes, the crowd at the iMPACT Zone popped when Jarrett smashed the guitar over Eric’s head, but the timing of the segment couldn’t have been any worse from a logical business standpoint.

Again, this isn’t bad booking–this is anti-booking. This is a classic example of the booker involving himself in all the key angles and programs and commanding the spotlight when it goes against good business sense. RVD and Jeff Hardy vs. Beer Money won’t mean anything if the thousands of fans who flip over to RAW during a Bischoff-heavy opening segment like this never come back to learn that about what had the potential to be a hell of a main event…which, in typical WCW fashion, was booked after the midway point of the show. TNA has some players, but they’ve got to them involved and positioned correctly if they are to compete. And their strongest asset–a quality in-ring wrestling product–was again pushed to the background in the show’s first hour with only the Knockouts tag bout (5 minutes) and the Rob Terry squash of Tomko (1 minute) featured before Mick Foley and Jarrett were “forced” to wrestle (about 15 minutes) in the second hour in one of those worthless stipulation matches where the loser is fired…which means Foley will be off TV two, maybe three weeks, tops. I hate to say it, because I still enjoy his matches, but Jarrett’s backstage segments always die…to the point that even Foley can’t save them.

We also got another bloated angle where Hogan cuts a promo saying “it’s no longer personal–just business” with Styles and Ric Flair…and then proceeds to book a steel-cage match with Team Hogan vs. Team Flair. Huh? Then Sting magically appears to handcuff Hogan to the corner. But instead of Styles and Flair getting their heat back on Abyss and the Hulkster, the Pope makes the save, and the World champion (who has been pinned clean in the middle of the ring three times on iMPACT since Jan. 4) was left laying once again. And, of course, Abyss then clotheslines the legendary Nature Boy out of his wheelchair and Dinero shoves a dollar bill down his throat. Oh, I can’t wait for Abyss and Hogan to finally get their revenge within the confines of an impersonal cage match at Lockdown. Oh, wait.

Dinero has the title shot at Lockdown, so his involvement makes sense, but his non-title win is looking a lot less impressive after Abyss and Hardy pinned the champion on consecutive weeks.

And what’s the storyline connection with Hogan and Bischoff? One’s a heel (well, most of the time) and the other is the top babyface. It’s not compelling–only confusing.

Again, it’s simply mind-boggling that RVD and Hardy weren’t involved in the opening segment to promote an intriguing main event matchup featuring two former WWE champions against TNA’s most dominant tag team in recent memory. If you’re not going to build up that matchup for a PPV, then at least give the announcers the entire show to plug it. Even worse: the main event they plugged for next week’s taped show is far less compelling, with Hardy, RVD and Eric Young vs. the Band (Nash, Hall, Waltman), who reunited at the PPV (in a finish more predictable than perhaps any swerve in TNA’s and WCW’s histories combined) and “saved” their jobs. (Yeah, like that’ll put asses in the seats.). Plus, I may have missed it, but have Hardy and RVD cut promos stating the purpose behind their TNA signings–other than wanting “to have fun” and a lighter schedule than WWE’s? Maybe it was no coincidence that Hardy had this deer-in-the-headlights look on his face as the show closed.