Over the course of Total Nonstop Action Wrestling’s tumultuous eleven-and-a-half year existence, the main theme of the promotion has been one of change.
We’ve seen a four-sided ring become a six-sided ring, only to revert back to its original design.
We’ve seen Wednesday night “NWA-TNA” pay-per-views give way to Friday afternoon broadcasts on Fox Sports, only to be replaced by a two-hour primetime slot on Spike TV.
We’ve recently witnessed TNA’s first attempts at taking “Impact!” on the road; a costly measure and one that has hurt the company financially.
On top of it all, we’ve watched as TNA’s roster has gone through significant turnover. Time and time again, a big name free agent has been brought in to be the new face of the company, and time and time again this big name player has failed to take the company to the next level.
Amidst all of this upheaval and change, there has been only one true constant in TNA and that is “The Phenomenal” A.J. Styles.
There is no one who has given more to this promotion than A.J. In spite of all of the costly established talents that have been pushed as the company’s top stars, it is Styles’ name that is synonymous with TNA Wrestling. Over the duration of TNA’s existence, Styles has been the most successful homegrown star the company has built. He has functioned at once as the company’s workhorse and its moral centre. He has done everything that has been asked of him, and until his recent series of “worked shoot” promos, he has never complained.
When listing the greatest matches in TNA history, almost all of them feature the breathtaking abilities of “The Phenomenal One”. He has won every title the company has to offer and main-evented countless pay-per-views. So why does it still feel as though TNA has never given him the push he deserves?
It seems as though TNA has a propensity to cut A.J.’s biggest opportunities off at the knees before he gets a chance to establish any kind of rhythm. The shining example of this came from his lone TNA World Championship reign. After winning the belt (please don’t tell Vince McMahon I said “belt”) in September 2009, Styles racked up a string of successful title defenses, and it looked as though TNA was finally committed to pushing him as its top star.
However, in the aftermath of the January 2010 Hulk Hogan-Eric Bischoff acquisition, Styles was turned heel and re-cast as Ric Flair’s protégé. What was already a curious pairing officially jumped the shark when the creative team directed Styles to emulate Flair’s mannerisms verbatim. Turning your company’s top guy into a clone of someone else is a surefire way to derail his career, and after Styles dropped the belt, his momentum was staggered.
Furthermore, two of his three NWA World Championship reigns lasted approximately a month, he has been constantly been bounced back and forth between competing in the X Division and the main event scene, and sadly, Ric Flair 2.0 isn’t the only ridiculous gimmick the company has saddled him with over the years. During his tenure with TNA he has served as Vince Russo’s protégé, Christian Cage’s comedic lackey, Karen Angle’s miscast love interest, and more recently a brooding take-off of Sting’s 1997 “Crow” gimmick. All of these character changes conceal that fact that Styles doesn’t need any window dressing. He has gotten over by establishing himself as one of the finest wrestlers in the business, an electric talent who comes across as genuinely likable, and TNA has seemingly never been able to grasp this concept.
Recently, they’ve tried to add some edge to Styles’ character by having him speak out against the current regime, injecting a rebellious nature into his character while playing up Styles’ recent contact impasse with the company, which I will address in a moment. It isn’t so much that this is a bad gimmick, but it’s not right for A.J. He simply doesn’t need it. He exudes a quiet charisma that doesn’t require monotonous promos to resonate with audiences. People want to cheer this guy, and having him spout off a bunch of controversial anti-TNA sentiments like this merely confuses the same fans who want to get behind him.
Before I go any further, I want to explain that this column is not meant to bash TNA. I genuinely want to see them succeed. I was a huge fan of the product as a kid, and I want what is best for them. They have a very talented roster and a loyal fan base, and the potential is there for a highly successful promotion to emerge out of the other side of the problems that they are currently experiencing.
With that said, TNA stands at perhaps its most important crossroads at this time. Recent reports indicate that the financial state of the company is none too promising right now, with the added cost of taking Impact! on the road leading to severe budget issues and cost-cutting. In recent months, there have been significant talent purges as the company attempts to save money at every corner.
Amongst all of the chaos, rumours have circulated that Styles’ contract renewal negotiations have not gone smoothly. Rather than sign a new long-term deal with the company, recent speculation indicates that A.J. signed a three-month extension and that both sides have taken a wait-and-see approach to the matter.
It is a fitting coincidence that TNA stands at its greatest crossroads at a time where the same can be said of A.J. Styles’ career. While the contract situation plays out, Styles’ in-ring career is about to take another important turn. As the winner of the 2013 Bound for Glory Series, A.J. is slated to face Bully Ray for the TNA World Heavyweight Championship on Sunday, October 20th in San Diego at the company’s signature event, Bound for Glory. If TNA is wise, they will finally get behind Styles in the way they should have over a decade ago. He is their top in-ring competitor and the true face of the company, constantly eliciting a superstar reaction from the TNA fan base. What’s more, he has accomplished all of this without needing a fancy gimmick or a lengthy WWE or WCW resume. There is money to be made in a top baby face who fights for what he believes in, never betrays his moral convictions, and puts the company’s best interests above his own. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure a similar character has made Vince McMahon millions of dollars over the last decade.
At a time when TNA faces more uncertainty than ever before, this is the right moment for the company to hitch its wagon to the only certainty they’ve ever had the privilege of relying on. I’m confident that the contract situation will get resolved and Styles will reclaim the top spot he has seemingly been in an out of for the past decade. TNA management seems to be realizing what they have in him, and that a TNA without ‘The Phenomenal One” isn’t really TNA at all. Make no mistake about it; A.J.’s inherent value to TNA surpasses that of any other wrestler on the roster. Any question of who means more to TNA Wrestling than A.J. Styles can be answered by simply reading the man’s t-shirt:
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