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Thoughts on last night's big shows

I wrote a lengthy blog post that was pretty scathing about last night's historic TNA Impact minutes after it went on the air, but sure enough I acceidentally lost it. Rather than re-type the whole thing, I went to bed.

It may have been for the best, because, after sleeping on it, I probably have a little clearer and better perspective of the program than I did right after watching it.

I'll still say this much: I did not like the show. I thought it was plagued with much of the undisciplined and oblivious booking style that has been a hallmark of Vince Russo's career (whether he booked last night's show or not) and has been a cancer on TNA for years.

That said, there is no question that the show was one of the most of the most newsworthy of any Monday night wrestling program in a long time. Surely, there are a lot of fans who loved the excitement that came with a steady stream of surprises and hot debuts. If that was TNA's goal, then last night's show was an unquestionable success.

What's more, I don't doubt that the ratings for the show will exceed a lot of expectations. Going into last night, I thought Impact would draw in the range of a 0.8. Now, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it drew double that, especially as news spread among fans that Jeff Hardy - one of the most popular wrestlers of the last decade and a proven draw - debuted in the first segment of the show.

But all that said, I still cannot call this a good wrestling show. Last night, I would have said it was terrible and disastrous. Today, I will only say it was tremendously frustrating and quite discouraging.

But I'm willing to give TNA's new regime some time for its vision to take hold, before writing it off as a complete failure. My favorite television show of all time, Cheers, came in dead last in the ratings in its first season - and for good reason. The characters were shallow, and the writing was weak. But NBC gave the show some time to improve, and it went on to last more than a decade and become one of the most beloved and successful sitcoms in history.

Now, I don't think for a second TNA has the necessary leadership and vision to ever even seriously compete with WWE, much less conquer it. But, hopefully, some of the company's decision makers will learn from what worked last night and what didn't. I don't have much confidence that they will.

To me, it was apparent that TNA had not learned from its past mistakes from nearly the first minute the show went on the air. After the supremely annoying Hulk Hogan crony, Bubba The Love Sponge, interviewed several of the kind of wrestling fans that make me embarassed to call myself one (including a mother of a young child who proclaimed that wrestling needs more chair shots,) we were greeted to the ridiculous and ugly red bird cage that symbolized one of TNA's biggest problems in recent years - inefficient booking and convoluted gimmick matches.

Just as they have been for years, the competitors in TNA's X-Division - potentially the company's most valuable asset - were sent out for a short, meaningless spot fest. What's worse, it had a moronic non-finish, and sloppy, botched angle at the end.

What came after that? The celebrated return of a wrestler who is currently facing drug trafficking charges. I should say that, if given the opportunity, I don't doubt that WWE, too, would jump at the chance of signing Jeff Hardy. It's hard to deny his star power and value to a wrestling company. But is this really the message you want to send in the first segment of the first night of the new TNA - especially when you've got Scott Hall returning on the same show? Who's next - TNA General Manager Jake "The Snake" Roberts?

My frustration's only grew during the most anticipated segment of the night - the first in-ring appearance of Hulk Hogan. "The Hulkster" has been saying all the right things in the media in recent weeks - how he wanted to fire all of TNA's writers and get back to basic wrestling storytelling and a focus on the company's young talent.

But what did we get instead? A segment that included no fewer than five men in their 50s (including Sting in the rafters in a rehash of his 1996 gimmick). They talked about minority ownerships, corporations, television formats, wrestlers earning spots, and camera men potentially losing their jobs.

Things got worse during the Jeff Jarrett segment, in which Jeff ad nauseum reminded us how he "founded" TNA, and Hulk Hogan went on about how Jarrett held down westlers and destroyed the company. Until TNA began this stupid storyline months ago, for the vast majority of fans Jeff Jarrett was nothing more than a wrestler. And that's exactly the way it should have been.

I watched all this "Wink-wink" nonsense and kept thinking, "Who cares?" Taz may have said it best in my interview with him last week. Wrestling booking should be as simple as "wrestler A dislikes wrestler B, and they're going to have a fight." But TNA remains obsessed with acknowledging wrestling's inner workings through convoluted "worked shoot angles" that serve only to alienate the very audience that they are intended to target: the Internet fans.

The fans who follow wrestling's inner workings the most, including myself, don't want that side of the business discussed on TV. On the contrary, we want easy-to-digest stories that feature a good guy, a bad guy and an issue between them that makes us want to see them fight. There was almost none of that on this show. Hulk Hogan was supposed to be a babyface, but he aligned himself with the clearly heel nWo. However, as was always the problem with Hall, Nash and Waltman, they played for cheers by trying to be overly cool. Eric Bichoff was supposed to be cast as a good guy, but in typical Bischoff fashion, came off as smug, arrogant and mean. Jarrett was supposed to be a heel, but instead cut a babyface promo that caused fans to cheer him, and boo Hogan for berating him. Mick Foley is supposed to be a bad guy - I think. I lose track with his near-weekly character changes. But he was attacked in the end by the heel nWo, which is led by the babyface Hogan.

What a complete mess. Who are we supposed to like and dislike here? And how does any of this garbage lead up to a match that we want to see?

I understand that it may be unfair to judge the new TNA from this one show, considering that the priority last night was less to put on a solid, fundamental wrestling show, and more to make news and attract new fans. But I would have liked to see more groundwork laid for a sustainable and solid wrestling product.

There were some things to like: Even though it foolishly cost TNA its pay per view main event, A.J. Styles and Kurt Angle had another terrific match in the main event of the show. More satisfying, Styles went over strong on Angle. But technically sound matches by themselves mean nothing unless the wrestlers and the storyline between them are over.

I also liked the foundation being laid for a feud between Jeff Hardy and Homicide, who has proven to have star power and drawing ability in Ring of Honor and Northeast independents, but has meant nothing in TNA.

It was also good to see TNA's new leaders scrap the booked "barb wire bloodbath" garbage match betwene Rhino and Abyss (assuming they ever really intended to do it) in favor of a match that showcased of TNAs most potentially valuable commodities, Samoa Joe.

I also thought that the wrestlers seemed more loosely scripted than usual - particularly in the Hogan segments. Hogan, himself, came off as a major star and spoke with the confidence that had been missing from his act from years. He also looked amazing, especially while standing next to wrestlers who are younger and in considerably worse shape.

But, for my money, there was a lot more bad than good here. Coming off of the rush of seeing a parade of debuting stars and big angles all night, it may be tempting to call last night's Impact a home run of a show. But, when the one-time novelty of watching several stars make their first appearance on TNA wears off, what are you left with? We were left with little reason to believe that any of TNA's new acquisitions will be put in a position to make much of a difference.

As for that other wrestling show last night...

Aside from the blockbuster return of Bret Hart, WWE put forth a rather pedestrian edition of Raw. And really, if you put aside the fact that TNA was on live at the same time, therw would be nothing wrong with that. WWE still has a month to go before its next pay per view, and is staying the course with a number of solid storyline developments. WWE did not need to do to much tonight, and it did not.

As for Bret's return, I thought it at least met, and possible exceded expectations. There were two truly historic moments with Hart reuniting with Shawn Michaels and later with Vince McMahon. As well, WWE wisely did not overexpose Bret, instead featuring him in only the two in-ring segments, and a brief angle with Chris Jericho backstage. Thankfully, he was not out at the rampway booking a Pink and Black Divas Lingerie match.

I'll give Bret's performance a mixed review. It has to be pointed out that Bret Hart has aged considerably since most fans last saw him. It may be unfair to judge him alongside the likes of Shawn Michaels, who has had to keep himself in ring shape and has had the benefit of aging gradually in front of fans and not all of a sudden appearing in front of HD cameras after being away for 12 years. But Bret didn't do himself any favors in how he chose to present himself. He should have trimmed, colored and styled his hair and put on a decent pair of jeans and black boots rather than those ill-fitting shorts and sneakers.

Bret handled himself quite well, all things considered. He was visibly nervous, but that is to be expected considering his history with WWE. It probably didn't help matters that WWE's writers insist on scripting nearly every word uttered by its wrestlers. I think that took away a bit of the sincerity and emotion of Bret's promos throughout the night.

Bret's exchange with Shawn Michaels was really terrific and satisfying. Although it was a "work," there was certainly a lot of truth in what both men had to say to each other. And their embrace at the end felt real - right down to the bit of hesitancy both men had while hugging each other. Good stuff.

Then there was the big pay off - the showdown between Bret Hart and Vince McMahon. This, too, was booked tremendously well. Even I was starting to believe that we'd get a happy ending and that the show would close with both men celebrating with their hands in the air. But, alas, the sinister Mr. McMahon opten to deliver a low blow to Bret instead. And, ever the worker, Bret sold it like a champ.

The angle clearly got the ball moving on what will likely be the biggest storyline headed into this year's WrestleMania.

There was a good guy that we like, a bad guy that we hate, and an angle that made us want to see them fight each other.

It really is that simple


New York Sports