One of the things I've regularly talked about here at Scouring Monk that has never particularly interested my readers is professional wrestling...and really, I'm okay with that. So here we go again.
Chris Sabin just became the new TNA world champion. You may not know who Chris Sabin is, or much less what TNA stands for, but this is pretty big for both, trust me.
First off, TNA stands for Total Nonstop Action. And yes, probably in the beginning it was meant to be a double entendre. The name of its weekly TV show is Impact Wrestling, and there's been speculation in the past that the promotion could very well adopt that as its name in general. TNA is the second largest wrestling promotion in North America, behind WWE (and yes, there are others, including ROH - Ring of Honor - which has existed for as long as TNA has, twelve years). It's like the bastard child of WCW and ECW, but it's become its own beast over the years, despite a steady stream of naysayers who have attempted to point out that it was always doomed to failure. They said the same thing about the WNBA, and that's still running.
The wrestling market is not anywhere near as strong as it was in the late 90s, or the glory days of the 1980s, when Hulkamania was running wild and Ric Flair styled and profiled. It's not popular to be a fan of this stuff, partly because it's hard to justify an interest in a sport that was long ago exposed as mostly make-believe, so that all those sweaty giants (and just as many smaller guys, like Chris Sabin) grappling in the ring look like buffoons instead of the athletes and artists they are. To the outsider, it seems like it can never be any other way.
I mean, by god, TNA is called "TNA." How much more crass do you have to be? Of course, sometimes pop culture seems like it's nothing but crass. And maybe wrestling is really only popular when it's the best crass in town. Pointedly, WWE went the family-friendly route a few years ago. And TNA has been leaning all the more heavily toward the best wrestling in town for the last several years now.
That's what Chris Sabin represents. He's the latest of the new champions, new directions, under the Hulk Hogan regime that began in January 2010. At the time, TNA had finally anointed A.J. Styles, its very own Shawn Michaels, as a champion it could get behind. He had the first of the lengthy and unusual championship runs of this new era. He was replaced by Rob Van Dam, who a decade earlier was the fan and critic's choice as best in the ring, although he had to wait a few more years until WWE decided to give him a run as top dog. RVD was succeeded by Jeff Hardy, another contender for second coming of the Heart Break Kid.
If there was a hiccup, it was when Hardy succumbed to his demons, demons that haunted him thanks to the daredevil tactics that first got him noticed. The things he used to do are probably some of the worst moves you can perform for a lengthy career, much less one that doesn't involve a lot of pain. You don't have to be a wrestler to perform with pain, and you don't have to be in the ring for playing like that to catch up with you. Here I'm thinking of the brilliant career of ballplayer Albert Pujols, who has lately seemed like a shell of himself.
Hardy collapsed in the spring of 2011, but incredibly had turned his life around by the fall. He's still doing well, by the way, and was even given another run as TNA champion. After him was a transition period of more traditional champions, including the veteran icon Sting and Kurt Angle, who is widely considered to be the best wrestler of his generation. This was also the period where a personal favorite, Ken Anderson, finally had a chance to be champion. Mr. Anderson is the white version of The Rock. That would have been a dream match if Anderson's career had developed differently.
Anyway, TNA went back to the approach it'd been using previously when it tapped first Bobby Roode and then Austin Aries as champion, with a little James Storm tossed in for good measure. These were all talents that had never been considered world champion material before, and would probably have never been thought that way in WWE. Roode's career has been all over the place, although he's been a TNA staple since the beginning, mostly in tag teams. Aries is a miniature version of Chris Jericho. Storm is like a Duck Dynasty version of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.
The point is, TNA began embracing its own legacy. It's very much comparable to the ROH of its middle years, when Daniel Bryan (then competing as Brian Danielson), CM Punk, Samoa Joe, and Nigel McGuinness ruled the landscape. These were the titans of ROH. They were the best and brightest, and somehow most wrestling observers didn't really notice that this was the best the promotion was ever going to get (probably).
What I mean to say is, people take notice. This is a great time to notice TNA. Chris Sabin as champion is exactly what TNA should be doing. He just defeated Bully Ray (who used to be half of the Dudley Boys tag team) for the honor. In fact, he's just completed a miraculous comeback in general. He's been sidelined for years. When that misfortune began, he'd just won his greatest success, with Alex Shelley, in a tag team that finally forced everyone to see just how good he really is. He's long been a signature element of TNA's X-division (a renamed version of the familiar WCW cruiserweight concept), and like other such competitors (Aries, Styles), he's now graduated to the main stage.
This is why that's such great news:
No matter how long Sabin is champion, he's the latest affirmation that TNA has made a real commitment to integrate its entire wrestling scene. Styles, as I've mentioned, is the heart and soul of the company, but he's never really been a breakout popular star where wrestling fans in general will know him like they're familiar with the names Hogan, Austin, or The Rock.
For the past year the company has been making a concerted effort to transform Styles from just the best wrestler they've got to an actual personality. Much of the early focus was on his long-standing rivalry with Christopher Daniels, who like Roode and Aries has lately been a highlight of the tag team division. The whole company is currently gearing up for its October super-card, Bound for Glory, basically TNA's WrestleMania. It's been long assumed that Styles will be in the spotlight on that card.
Having Sabin as champion going into this rather than Bully Ray shifts the focus to exactly where it needs to be. Bully serves as the focal point of one of those big nasty heel factions that traditionally spotlight the traditional main event players. Think the New World Order (or the Four Horsemen). In fact, for a while it looked like TNA was having Styles repeat the Sting angle from the nWo days. But recently it shifted him back into an active role, far sooner than Sting did. And while it's true that Hogan lost the title once before Sting had a chance to take it from him (sort of) in the culmination of that feud, this feels different.
Like I said, it feels like the setup to what TNA has been trying to do for years now: operate under its own terms, and use its best strengths to their fullest potential. Any number of arguments could be made to the contrary, but that's how I see it. All these wrestlers, Styles and Roode and Aries and now Sabin, have all been shifted more directly into the spotlight.
All it takes is for Daniels to defeat Sabin and the main event of Bound for Glory has been determined, Styles versus Daniels. Maybe that's not what WWE would do, but TNA is not WWE, in the same way it isn't WCW or ECW or ROH.
It's just, now we're getting to see that more clearly. This has been breeding ground for some of the best wrestling you're likely to find, the best wrestlers from every angle to you care to envision. They've been looking for a catalyst, a way to make it impossible to overlook their strengths. Regardless of whether or not the pieces fall exactly into the place I now see, I think they've reached that goal.
Chris Sabin can be champion for a week or a month or a year, but he's just proven that the company around him has not let all the lessons of the past go to waste. And that, as "Diamond" Dallas Page would have said, is a good thing.