April 29, 2010
Mat Matters: Floundering TNA needs to use UFC template
By BRIAN ELLIOTT -- SLAM! Wrestling
The old adage ponders, "How long can you flog a dead horse?" Sadly, when it comes to TNA Wrestling, we don't yet have an answer.
You see, TNA management have been told over and over again. Former wrestlers, experienced critics, and even current employees have rolled their eyes and, in the case of those still being paid by the company, largely bitten their tongues. But this week's 0.5 rating for Impact! put all of the criticisms of TNA's creative team into 20-20 perspective.
Sure, a large part of that disastrous rating is down to the Monday night move, but the fact remains that they have been incapable of producing compelling television ever since they went from weekly pay-per-views to a more regular television show schedule in May 2004. And going up against a media giant in WWE, who is going to watch the distant second-best without a compelling reason to do so?
A successful wrestling product -- as everyone except TNA management seems to have worked out -- is not about putting on flashy television, being unpredictable, or having your wrestlers perform daredevil moves. It is about telling stories which your viewers can relate to -- or can imagine themselves in -- and which allow that same viewer to emotionally invest in the people involved. Only after that does it somewhat matter about production values; my apologies for my second rhetorical question in as many paragraphs, but in 2010, what would Citizen Kane be without its story, acting, and verisimilitude?
If you don't believe me about the importance of stories and personalities, all you have to do is check out another Spike TV offering, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Like classic wrestling of the 1960s and '70s -- a parallel that has been drawn by those who have experienced both periods -- their stories are believable, easy to follow, and appeal to the most primitive of emotions. If it isn't the sheer desire to be the World champion, their battles are about respect, dislike, or all-out hatred. There are no kidnappings or bizarre love triangles, and with a product that is incredibly similar to professional wrestling, for UFC 100 they convinced 1.6 million people to part with $44.95 to watch a rematch of Brock Lesnar (do I need to point out his pro wrestling background?) versus Frank Mir.
You would think that with the UFC alongside them on Spike (a best-of UFC show, Unleashed, has often been a lead-in to Impact!), and in-seeing how Dana White's company are the clear "in" thing at the moment, that TNA would look to use that to their advantage, by putting together a similar, believable presentation, with the added twist of being able to maximize the good things about UFC, in a way which a true sport cannot. TNA, for example, can ensure that a bout like Anderson Silva versus Damian Maia (in which Silva made a mockery of the sport by running away from his opponent for more than 10 minutes) never occurs in their ring, and can instead draw on decades of experience in how best to make a match reach a dramatic conclusion. But I guess no-one believes that this is a good idea.
That is, not even after the TNA PPV record-breaking Kurt Angle versus Samoa Joe match in April 2008, which had been preceded by the closest thing to a UFC build-up the company had done. When I asked Jim Cornette, while still with TNA, why the company didn't continue with that type of main event promotion after its tremendous success, he could only reply with a shrug, saying: "I would comment further except for the fact that several armed gunmen are here with 44-calibre pistols pointed at my head."
Clearly, it doesn't have to be this way, where logic and a sense of reality has been replaced by comedy and farce. Simply because World Wrestling Entertainment has (mostly) taken that direction, it doesn't mean that TNA has to follow suit. Thinking about it logically, since WWE have allegedly been so concerned about UFC's growth in Europe that they have been implying to TV moderators there that UFC should be banned from television, TNA should be challenging them with a product that the fans are clearly into, but that WWE can't, or won't, give them.
It's time to stop flogging the aforementioned horse, in the name of someone's obscured vision of professional wrestling. That isn't what the sport has thrived on for a couple of hundred years -- it is only what has caused its suicidal fall from grace in more recent times.
Brian Elliott is a British journalist covering soccer, mixed martial arts (MMA), and professional wrestling, who has recently written for the likes of the Daily Mirror newspaper, the Associated Press, and Sports Illustrated.