Image via My123Cents.
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.