Keep Austin Aries Weird

In praise of pro wrestling's most dickish, and maybe best, champion.
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I don't know, he looks like a pretty nice guy. Oh wait, you mean the one laying down?

Image via My123Cents.

One of the stranger and, perhaps perversely, most missed aspects of the old WCW was the feeling of whiplash disconnect its shows evoked in viewers. The company's main event scene, and really even its upper midcard, was usually every bit as bad as its posthumous rep has become. That part of the card was full of used-up, wrung-out, drugged-to-half-death has-beens and big, lumbering stiffs, guys who seemed to dish out career-ending injuries to hapless lessers on a biweekly basis. These galoots would play out some of the most unfocused, illogical storylines that the generally focus- and logic-resistant wrestling universe has ever seen, tales almost baroque in their refusal to make the tiniest bit of sense. But the lower card was the domain of the Cruiserweights, the undersized but insane acrobats who seemed determined to make names for themselves no matter how obviously doomed their company was.

There was so much good wrestling in WCW back then, and almost all of it came from grapplers who had essentially no chance of scrapping their way to the main event scene. A few of those wrestlers became stars later, after the company's demise: Rey Mysterio, Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit. More of them went nowhere. The company made a habit of signing the greatest groundbreaking stars of Mexico and Japan and throwing them on their B- and C-level shows, barely noticing all the money they were presumably paying these guys. Even in the final months of the company's existence, wrestlers like Blitzkrieg and Jason Jett were blasting in from obscurity, executing eye-popping moves on live TV, and then fading back into nothingness once the company died. WCW's cruiserweights were consistently having matches way more intense and aerial and dangerous than anything that anything that the WWE has ever put on TV, partly because the WWE has an understandable aversion to letting its wrestlers do moves that dangerous to each other. The WCW Cruiserweights were one mass collective Icarus, and I loved them so much.

Very quickly after WCW blinked out of existence, TNA Wrestling rose up to take its place as the country's number-two wrestling company, though this one never seemed to have any real ambition to meaningfully challenge the WWE. The horrifically named TNA (stands for Total Nonstop Action, which somehow makes it even worse) is a Southern promotion, and I once heard a former employee dismiss the entire company as "hicks with money," which I thought was hilarious. Early on, though, TNA showed a ton of promise, snapping up talent from the suddenly-resurgent American independent wrestling scene and actually doing big things with them. For a year and a half, the former Ring of Honor champion Samoa Joe got to be an unstoppable monster, dismantling enemies with a set of moves that looked like they actually hurt. AJ Styles and Christopher Daniels, guiding spirits of the independent wrestling boom, became honest-to-god big names. Plenty of other risk-takers, including a fair number of former WCW Cruiserweights, got nice little runs. All these wrestlers were lumped together into the X Division—for X-treme, obviously—and the X Division was something special.

It still is, even as it's been pushed further and further down the company's priority list, as an increasing number of beaten-down relics have gotten to take their turn at the forefront of the company. For the past couple of years, TNA's main eventers have been a laundry list of unmotivated wrestling-business trainwrecks: Paleolithic figures like Hulk Hogan and Sting, more recent burnouts like Rob Van Dam and Jeff Hardy, and the grating human puzzle that is Mr. Anderson. There have been highlights: sneering old-school bad guy Bobby Roode, a steadily-deteriorating-but-still-great Kurt Angle, the resuscitated former Dudley meatball Bully Ray. This is a company that, until a couple of months ago, employed Ric Flair, and not just as a golden-age figurehead. They had him wrestling. And bleeding. Often. It was, in a very real way, WCW all over again. And like WCW, it had its own head-spinning charms while also having no evident purpose or direction.

That all changed last Sunday, and the man who changed it was Austin Aries. Aries is a guy who's been kicking around the American indie scene forever; he's the only two-time Ring of Honor champion in that company's decade-long history. He's had a couple of short runs in TNA before, and he seemed to leave under contentious circumstances both times. But he returned once again last year, securing a place in the company by beating three other indie-standout guys at the Destination X pay-per-view, an annual PPV devoted entirely to the X Division guys. (That's one thing that WCW never had. Destination X is consistently the best show on TNA's calendar, and the one time you can be pretty sure you can watch a few straight hours of the company's programming without wincing.) And since his return to the company, Aries has been an absolute hellbeast.

An important thing to know about Aries: He comes off like an absolute dick. That's an essential part of his character, but it doesn't seem to be all play-acting. Aries is maybe a legit 5'9", but he struts around like the bully in an '80s high-school comedy. He stares lasers at people in the audience for no reason. He has a gigantic tattoo of a Chinese character on his shoulder. His facial hair is some unholy hybrid of early-80s Selleck, late-80s Hetfield, and mid-00s Daughtry. On his walk to the ring, he wears a tiny and hilarious silver cape. Shortly after his TNA re-debut, he took to calling himself "the greatest man that ever lived." As you'd imagine, he spent most of the past year playing a bad guy. But he was the best kind of bad guy: One so ridiculously good at his job that you couldn't help but like him. And to the company's credit, TNA noticed that people were cheering him, and they changed him into a good guy, somehow managing to pull off the switch without compromising the innate dickishness at Aries' core.

Another important thing to know about Aries: As a pure professional wrestler, he has basically no weak spots at all. He can do jump-flip moves with panache. He can bust out dizzily twisty submission holds. He kicks hard, hard enough that you can hear the pak from the back of the tiny arenas where TNA holds its live shows. He has a transcendent asshole's sui generis grandstanding flair for making his opponents look like chumps. He's spent almost his entire most recent TNA tenure holding the X Division, and it was a big deal when, at this year's Destination X, he got to challenge Bobby Roode for the company's main championship.

The entire show was pretty great, and absolutely worth seeking out. With Aries being forced to vacate the X Division title to get his shot at the big one, the company brought in all sorts of indie players to take shots at it. Johnny Yuma and Scorpio Sky, two stalwarts of L.A.'s great Pro Wrestling Guerrilla promotion, got to take shots at it, as did masked Chikara warrior Jigsaw. (All of them had to use goofy new names, for whatever reason. Jigsaw was now Rubix, but he still ruled.) Kenny King, a Ring of Honor tag-team championship who walked away from his ROH job to take part, had a great run in the tournament and got to establish himself as a young star, something he never quite did in ROH. Zema Ion, a wonderfully haughty young acrobat, eventually captured the title by spritzing hairspray in an opponent's face and causing him to fall, blinded and clutching at his eyes, from a scaffold. Samoa Joe and Kurt Angle, who'd had a classic series of matches upon Angle's arrival in the company, had a feel-good rematch. AJ Styles and Christopher Daniels, two guys who have wrestled each other literally hundreds of times, had an even better match—a Last Man Standing throwdown that transcended its unutterably clumsy backstory by marrying high-flyer theatrics, old-school bloody-forehead brawling, and the early-00s WWE throwing-people-off-stuff stunt-storytelling style.

But Aries' big shot against Roode was the overwhelming draw here, and it delivered, with Aries overcoming all of the bigger Roode's time-honored cheat tactics (referee distractions, ball punches, title belts rammed into faces) and countered with a frightening array of severe-looking moves. Aries finally won the match, and the title, with his brainbuster, a finishing move that looks like it could actually kill someone. When Aries ended the show by running circles around the ring, belt hoisted above his head, while confetti rained down all around him, it felt like a big moment. And it was one.

Aries may be a dick, but his victory is a victory for everyone who loves wrestling. Roode's bad-guy title reign was the longest in the belt's history, and it was a good one, mostly because you kept rooting for someone to beat him. And with Aries, the company settled on the exact right someone. He's an amazing wrestler who also happens to be a great character, and after spending so much time in the X Division ghetto, I can't wait to see if he can wring good matches out of the remaining main-eventers. The challenge for the company is to keep Aries fresh, to prevent him from turning into one of the desiccated characters who tends to thrive in TNA. He needs to keep being the little guy who bursts with manufactured confidence, and he needs to keep his crazy-guy edge. I know he can do it; I just hope TNA will let him.


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Comments

Some of the authors comments on WCW are just plain wrong. I have noticed it has become the easy thing to do for any writer to lambaste WCDub as a pathetic staggering monolith always teetering on collapse. And while that is true in the last 12-18 months of it's existence, it certainly was not the case in 1996-1999 when the cruiserweights came to some prominence. The author states the cruiserweights performed amazing feats "no matter how obviously doomed their company was", did WCW appear doomed when it trounced WWF Raw for almost 2 years straight? Or was it when the Hogan/Sting Starcade 1997 was perhaps the most profitable Pay Per View ever up until that point. Or when Ed Leslie as "The Disciple" shocked and amazed the wrestling world with his grappling ability? Okay that last one was awful but you get what im saying. In point of fact sir your beloved WWF appeared far closer to extinction than did Mr. bischoff's enterprise, Vince couldnt draw a dime in comparison to the groundbreaking nWo angle and the daring LIVE Nitro every week. Did WCW become a bloated beaurocracy with no coherent booking later on? Oh my yes, watching David Flair "Marry" George Clooneys current girlfriend on Nitro was interesting to say the least. Also i would point out when the Author says WCW's matches were so death defying "because the WWE has an understandable aversion to letting its wrestlers do moves that are dangerous to each other", shows a real non-understanding of Vince Mcmahon. Vince would let his peeps have a "shoot eachother in the face with Glocks" match if he could get away with it. Also the names Droz and Owen Hart seem to ring a bell, you may remember they were paralyzed and dropped of a building respectively. On another quick note the whole old guys at the top of the card forever is a double edged sword, their would have been no WCW resurgence or massive Nitro Ratings had those old guys not made that happen, lets face it Hogan's heel turn and the work of Nash/Hall changed the business. Alot of dopey characters went by the wayside as a new "cool heel" approach was born and ofcourse The Ring Master Steve Austin took notice. (not to say the booking geniuses at WCW didnt have a few sweet characters still to come ie: The Kiss Demon, G.I. bro, The Legendary Maestro, and perhaps most wonderfully a man with a proper english accent who was so afraid of contact he wore football equipment to the ring Norman Smiley.) In closing i'd just like to say bashing WCW is easy these days, but hey kids, that dont make it right... And In the words of the Immortal Sid Vicious "I am twice the man you are and I have half the brain you do". (P.s. follow @schiavoneTony for hot wcw action)

Breihan wasn't saying that the entirety of WCW's existence was marred by those problems, but those problems were certainly what killed it, so they're kind of the operative thing to talk about, considering the context is TNA and its recent past's resemblance to that period of WCW, and its present seeming commitment to work itself out of that same fate.

But I would argue that WCW started its slide in '96. You love your old NWO shirt and I think that's adorable, but let's start with the fact that Bischoff ripped off his "groundbreaking nWo angle" from a Japanese storyline. Second, yes, it was exciting (Razor popping up at the announcer's table was basically what got me into pro wrestling), and it drew ratings, but it basically destroyed the credibility of everything happening in that promotion by making every indigenous WCW wrestler look terrible (until they inevitably joined the nWo), and turning every Nitro into a run-in fest, with a shitload of mic wanking. It was basically the worst of Russo before Russo even got there. At least when Russo wrote Raw, there was a ton of shit for the mid-card to do. On Nitro, there were the old bullies, the people they beat up, a big bald dude who couldn't wrestle a full match, and the short nerds in masks whose matches gave the announcers a nice opportunity to talk about all the shit the old bullies were doing.

And also, I won't argue about McMahon being an asshole, but Droz got injured during a plain ol' botched powerbomb, and he's still employed by the company. The WWE has banned piledrivers and headshots, and it may be just for business, to keep their roster healthy, but they still banned them. We all love Kevin Steen and the promotions that let him do what he wants, but that dude is gonna flat-out kill someone in the ring one day.

Hmmmm... I'm not sure how you can know what the author MEANT to say (unless you have a telepathic connection with him, not unlike mine with Dean Malenko) other than what he actually wrote. Which, my young friend, are the things I wrote about in my earlier post and used specifics to correct. Wrestling is about making money and getting ratings both of which the nWo angle did when it basically popped wrestling out of it's mid 1990's stupor, even though many indiginous (phenomenal word choice) WCW creations like "Pretty" Paul Roma and Max Payne were made to lose "credibility", as you say, when the new hot heel stable ran roughshod over the WCW faces of the day. Frankly, I spent many a sleepless 1994 night wondering when Ice Train would use his universal credibility and assume congressional office. (its pro wrestling for gods sake, nobody is credible unless the audience says they are) The fact that the original idea of an "outsider" faction infiltrating a promotion came from a very cool japanese angle is simply how wrestling (and even other businesses?!) work. Also WCW midcard had some hysterical Jericho work in 1997-98 so dont pretend it was a wasteland of only great physical matches. Also Horace Hogan was pretty rad. As far as Vince... Uhhh Vince is a legend for working/abusing his talent until they are broken mental cases and im sure you will agree that wwe's new non violent aspects have much less to do with his deep moist affection for workers but his plans for his old lady to take national office. And he threw a guy off a building.

P.S. My nWo t shirt still fits and IS adorable... But my Tony Schiavone khaki Dockers are downright sexy