Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 Year in Review/2014 Year in Preview: Impact Wrestling

Bond villainy at its finest
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Promotion: TNA/Impact Wrestling

What Happened in 2013: The year started out with the Aces and Eights saga in full swing. The mysterious President was calling the shots, trying to get all his pieces in place for a run at the company. Hulk Hogan was at his wit's end, dealing not only with people like Taz turning on him and joining the group, but with Bully Ray courting his daughter Brooke. The two got married, and Hogan felt he could trust Bully enough to not only look after his daughter but his company as well.

Little did he know that Bully was using him to further his cause. He snagged a title shot against Jeff Hardy at Lockdown, which is where he revealed his master plan, that he was the President of Aces and Eights all along. Using the help of the group, Bully won the World Championship and reigned terror on TNA, especially his now reluctant bride Brooke Hogan and her father. Brooke Hogan ended up leaving the company, at which point Bully replaced her with another Brooke in Tessmacher, while the Hulkster would end up having to step aside to let another group come to the aid of the company.

The Main Event Mafia reformed with Sting, Kurt Angle, Samoa Joe, Magnus, and *sigh* Rampage Jackson in an attempt to fight Aces and Eights. Their efforts really didn't do much damage, as the group imploded from within after Jackson was pulled from TNA by Bellator, Angle went to rehab, and Magnus of all people started getting too big for his britches and clashed with the other members of the group.

The impasse that defined a company
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The downfall of the group didn't come from without, but rather from dissension in the ranks. Mr. Anderson, a group member who was recruited due to the lack of camaraderie with the rest of the TNA roster, started getting a weird sense of deja vu after a series of misunderstandings put him squarely in the ire of Bully. He didn't take too kindly to the scorn and raged against Bully to the point where he would be the one fighting to end the group. He succeeded, and while the various members are still with TNA, Aces and Eights ceased functioning as a biker gang bent on taking over Impact Wrestling.

Meanwhile, the parallel narrative of AJ Styles unfolded as his one-year ban from competing for the TNA World Championship kept him squarely at odds with old opponents. He was teased as the Sting-in-1997-WCW figure in the whole Aces and Eights saga, but the drama was more seated not with the group courting him, but with guys like Kazarian and Christopher Daniels pushing him in that direction. While Styles rejected the biker group, his sour and dour demeanor was dropped like a bad habit once the Bound for Glory Series came about.

Styles predictably won the tournament, but once he had Bully Ray in his sights, a new adversary descended from the office. Dixie Carter, who has been traditionally been known as an ally and falsely accused lover of Styles, put on a more devilish front and played hardball with him over joining her. Styles responded by claiming his contract was up shortly after Bound for Glory and that he'd have no problem walking out of the company with it, like CM Punk threatened in WWE two years ago. Unlike Punk, Styles actually DID walk. Reports are hazy as to whether he's signed back with the company or if he even will, but in the interim, something had to be done.

New Champ
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Carter set up a tournament for the now-vacant title, but more importantly, set up a stable around herself that included new Chief of Staff Rockstar Spud, and her nephew Ethan Carter III (the former Michael Hutter/Derrick Bateman). And at the conclusion of the tournament, Magnus, the one who ended up as Champion, took his place as the crown jewel of Carter's empire.

2013 MVP: AJ Styles may not be with TNA anymore, and he may not ever return, but his year in the company held the most interest. Bully Ray's Bond villain-like plot and subsequent speech about how he claimed the TNA World Championship may have been the best singular moment, but Styles held serve for most of the year. Even though his "Sting nouveau" run had a disappointing ending, he was still intriguing as the free agent on the wire. However, his run opposing Dixie Carter at the end of the year puts him over the top.

What's Going to Happen in 2014: Firstly, the title scene depends on whether AJ Styles actually comes back to the fold or not. I could see a hot Lockdown main event between the fake Champion Magnus and the real titleholder Styles, but that story depends on whether Carter and her real life front office cronies actually pony up the money and pay him what he's worth. Otherwise, TNA would have missed a golden opportunity to create something memorable. I know, you're all shocked that they would drop the ball so hard, but try to keep your jaws from stretching unreasonably here.

If not Styles, then who should step up to fight against Carter's regime? They kicked the tires on Gunner by giving him the Feast or Fired briefcase, but he might be a year away from really contending. James Storm is an old reliable candidate, as is Samoa Joe, who has the cache of not only being a main TNA guy who never worked for WWE, but also someone who has had fallings out with Magnus twice over the last couple of years. They could turn any number of their heels - Austin Aries, Robert Roode, Chris Sabin, Christopher Daniels, Kazarian - and gear up for a run at their steel cage pay-per-view, but at this point, Styles not coming back leaves the future wide open.

One thing is certain from where I sit. I don't think Sting or Kurt Angle will remain with the company for much longer. Even if the Carters don't sell the promotion, I think they finally realize that counting on the really old dudes whose names are made from WWE or WCW is a bad strategy going forward. TNA's gotta go with the homegrown guys they have, even if most of their "young" wrestlers are already well into their 30s.

A sign of things to come for ECIII?
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Five Wrestlers to Watch in 2014: Gunner - Sure, he's gotten a lot of hate for his adversarial attitude against critical fans or his hate for Five Dollar Wrestling. However, as many Georgia indie observers will tell you, he can go in the ring and actually has a modicum of charisma to back him. He has the Feast or Fired briefcase (which he stole from James Storm), but I think he's about a year away from being a big thing, meaning 2014 will be an interesting year for the man.

Rockstar Spud - Spud won the English wrestler Tough Enough thing that got him a roster spot, and he's actually gotten a plum gig to jumpstart his career by being associated with Carter and her authority group. I can see him as part of a rejuvenated X-Division in 2014. The X is TNA's signature, so why shouldn't Carter have a representative competing there?

Ethan Carter III - Speaking of Carter's group, the former Derrick Bateman has gotten a HUGE push out of his debut. I think he'll have the best chance of ending next year as TNA World Champion out of anyone who isn't already in the scene right now. He's actually the rare castoff from WWE that they've picked up and whose talents they've utilized correctly. He can be a main guy for them, and I think the only thing stopping him would be TNA hemming and hawing on him like they have with, well, nearly everyone.

Taryn Terrell - Terrell was on her way to great things in the Knockouts Division until she was sidelined. Fortunately for her, she didn't get injured, but she was with child. After recovering from the pregnancy and spending time with her little one, I can see her picking up right where she left off. She would make a great foil against Gail Kim among others.

Knux - He's in limbo right now after Aces and Eights was disbanded, but TNA would be foolish not to keep booking him. He's got size, is an excellent in-ring wrestler, and a money look. He could be a main event gatekeeper on Team Dixie, a serviceable foil for Joseph Park, or just a guy who works matches to make the main event dudes look good.

ODB and her colleagues deserve better
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Three Things I Want to See Happen in 2014: 1. SELL - The wrestling promotion experiment has unequivocally failed for the Carter Family. They run TNA like it's some kind of corporate sweatshop, where the talent is fungible and deserves to be demeaned to drive down their value. They need to sell to someone who actually knows how to run a wrestling promotion, someone who is frugal but not cheap, someone who knows the value of having strong personalities, and one that knows that imitating the market leader is not the best way to compete with it. Hell, they need to sell to someone who has no delusions of competing with WWE at this point. TNA is an indie promotion with a sweet television deal and limited pay-per-view distribution. Let someone who can see those as house money run the best promotion they can.

2. Drop the selfish and restrictive "no indie DVD/iPPV" policy - TNA is in such public relations disarray right now. Any good they do by barring talent from making money for companies that aren't them is undone by robbing fans who might want to see wider release of their talent in diaspora. TNA should be trying to court the hardcore wrestling fan who goes to an indie show and is jaded by the current state of mainstream wrestling, not alienating them.

3. Restore the Knockouts - TNA's treatment of women throughout its history has been appalling. Despite the fact that the Knockouts segments were doing the best numbers, latent misogyny within the front office led to stripping the division of most of its talent and replacing it with a WWE model of looks first, talent second. TNA can differentiate itself by making women a priority. For some reason I can't comprehend, a billion women wrestlers want to work for a company with a public history of sexual harassment and wage gap widening. They need to sell to someone who actually has a progressive attitude towards women so that they can fix internally what is wrong with the company and restore the greatness in the Knockouts Division.