In the spring of 2011, Austin Aries was preparing to call it a career. After having been released from Ring of Honor, where he twice wore the heavyweight title, and being passed up by WWE for a spot in its Tough Enough competition, "A-Double" was starting to feel like he was spinning his wheels.
"I didn't want to keep beating my head on the wrestling wall," Aries said. "I wasn't really getting ahead to where I wanted to be. So I felt like taking a step back was what was best at the time. And just a few days after that, TNA called with the opportunity to come down there. There were no promises, no expectations. But I thought it couldn't hurt to go down there and see what happens."
What happened was a career resurgence that included a record-long reign as X-Division champion, a run with the TNA World Heavyweight Championship, and an opportunity to headline TNA's premier event of the year, Bound for Glory, against one of wrestling's biggest stars, Jeff Hardy.
"The company started getting behind me," Aries said. "Hulk Hogan was endorsing me. [TNA president] Dixie Carter was endorsing me. The fans who had been watching since way back in the early Ring of Honor days were kind of vicariously living through me.
"They were seeing somebody who they had watched grow finally have that opportunity to have that top spot," Aries said, recalling his 2012 run. "All those things combined, and it really did create a great atmosphere."
Now the self-professed "Greatest Man That Ever Lived" is getting primed for another Bound for Glory on Sunday on pay-per-view, another showdown with Jeff Hardy, another shot at the X-Division title, and, he hopes, another run at the top of TNA.
"I'm looking forward to hopefully getting that position again and finish what I felt I was starting and had cut off before I really had a chance to sink my teeth into it," Aries said. "I think there's something there. I think there's a genuine connection to the people that we should capitalize on."
But first, Aries has his sights set on his match this Sunday in San Diego -- a five-man Ultimate X bout that includes Hardy, Chris Sabin, Samoa Joe, and reigning X-Division champ Manic. Although some might view it as a step down from his world title past, Aries said the X-Division championship belt remains plenty prestigious -- especially if it's around his waist.
"When I walked in there and was able to hold the X-Division title, I like to think that I was the one who gave the X-Division title a rub, and not the other way around," Aries said. "I brought it to the forefront and made it important because of the quality and the caliber of matches I was having dictated that," said Aries.
Aries did acknowledge that X-Division has its share of problems.
"Is it supposed to be a championship for a certain style of wrestlers? For wrestlers under a certain weight limit?" Aries said. "I think over the years the one thing that has held the X-Division from being in a certain spot is that it doesn't have a definition. I think the X-Division in the form that it is in will be as important as the man who holds the championship."
Still, Aries said he believes it's his job to defend TNA from outside criticism -- especially coming from observers who may not know the full story. The promotion has come under fire in recent months for releasing several wrestlers and office workers -- a move that has led to speculation that TNA is major financial trouble.
"Obviously, I'm going to be more privy to the ins and the outs of what's going on than a lot of people who are reporting on it, than the fans who are talking about it, than the dirt sheet writers who opinionate about it," Aries said. "I'm loyal to the company that I work for. I want it to be a success. And whatever issues it might have, that's something that we always keep internal. On the outside, it's important that I always promote the company and help people understand the difference between rumors and facts . . . You write it as doom and gloom, 'They're going to fail,' or you can try to look at it from the other side -- that the company is trying to find the right combination for success and trying to take steps forward."
Another polarizing topic in TNA has been the promotion's centerpiece storyline heading into Bound for Glory: Dixie Carter turning heel and feuding against AJ Styles in an angle reminiscent of that involving Vince McMahon and CM Punk in WWE two years ago. For his part, Aries said he sees promise in Carter playing a villainous authority figure.
"I think it has the potential to be a very good thing, as long as Dixie understands the position that she's putting herself in and is willing to take the heat that's going to come with that -- opening herself up to criticism, both storyline-wise and behind the scenes, as well," Aries said. "If anything, it has the potential to shake things up a little bit and open up a new direction and some new interactions between characters that we haven't seen before. I'm not going to lie. I'd love to have the mic in my hand opposite of Dixie Carter in the ring and say my piece, say what's on my mind. And if she's willing to sit there and listen to it. I think it could make for some great television."