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Sunday, 15 June 2008

TNA -Two Nights: Awesome

Right, first let’s get the gripes out of the way. Christian Cage was not on the tour, only two Knockouts came over, three of us had to share one room in the hotel and one of the Carlsberg’s I had in the arena was warm.

Apart from that, I had a blast. The trip from my home in the heart of Devon to Liverpool, some 400 miles and a five hour train journey away, was more than worth it.

Normally when telling you about away days, I waffle too long about the nuances of the journey. This time I won’t do that, and instead I’ll begin the story from the moment I stepped down the steps out of Liverpool’s Lime Street train station.

I’d like to thank the very kind WPC for her kind help, pleasant nature and free map when I asked her for directions to my hotel. I’d also like to admonish her for confusing the hell of me and for my embarrassment as I attempted to follow her instructions only to emerge from the subway about 100 yard from the point I entered it, but nearly ten minutes later.

Finding the hotel proved to be harder than finding the logic in a Warrior interview, but find it I did, and met up with my two compadres for the duration of my stay in Merseyland – Mr Simon Rothstein, head honco of the Sun Wrestling, and Phil Allely, our TNA Guru (Not Sonjay), token Irishman, and man whose name sounds like stamp collecting. The work of “So Bel Phil”, as we christened him in a manner we felt befit him after he professed his admiration for Jay Lethal’s valet, can be viewed here –

After a tasty dinner in Liverpool’s second favourite Nando, we headed to Liverpool Olympia. The venue is out of the city centre, and is distinctly unremarkable from the outside. However, once inside, it resembles the Hammerstein Ballroom, where the ECW One Night Stand Pay Per View took place (the first one – the amazing one). The feel is of a quaint old theatre, and it was a building very different to the O2 Arena, where I last saw a wrestling show.

This was to be my first time watching TNA live, and I’ll admit right now to not being a loyal TNA-ite, and only sporadically watching Impact until finding out about 8 weeks ago that I’d be able to attend these two shows.

Over two months of programming and Pay Per Views, I’ve been reasonably pleased with the product, especially the wrestling. WWE’s problem right now is not a lack of star power, or even talented wrestlers, it’s that the focus is on poor storytelling.

Heavy storytelling and angles rather than wrestling is not a bad thing. I know most people criticise WWE for this, but they should remember that back in 1998-2000, both WWE was red hot, and they were very heavy on the backstage stuff and development of story rather than in-ring product. And the show was better for it. It was entertaining, got you involved emotionally, and satisfied you.

Now, a lot of attention is heaped on garbage like Hornswaggle being Vince’s son, and lame stuff like that. We’ve seen it all before, and now is the time (I’m sounding like Verne Gagne here) to go back to what brung us, what is says on the marquee – ‘rasslin’.

The two WWE shows I saw in the O2 arena in April were ok, but nothing more. I heard reports from House Shows which were very negative. Of course, it depends on the perspective. If the majority of the audience are young kids simply excited to see their heroes, then they will likely be more satisfied by a WWE house show than watching, say, an ROH DVD with Kevin Steen and El Generico.

Those that know their stuff, though, were turned off by House Shows with the guys ‘phoning it in’ and putting on very ordinary, “cookie-cutter” bouts. The buzz from TNA was this tour would be different. And it was.

TNA is uniquely positioned in that it’s roster is a combination of technical and high-flying workers who would grace ROH and other like-minded promotions, but also has an added, WWE-like glamour to it, with big-name stars like Sting, Nash, Angle and Booker T that have been there and done it in the big leagues.

But they can go. You don’t see many folks in TNA who can’t work, and it was noticeable that the limited roster that they bought to England, featured – in no particular order - AJ Styles, Abyss, Jay Lethal, Sonjay Dutt, Robert Roode, Chris Sabin, Alex Shelley, Petey Williams, Homicide, Hernandez, James Storm, Gail Kim, Awesome Kong, Booker T and Rhino. Oh, and a bloke called Joe. Samoan I think we was.

This line up was augmented by Kurt Angle, but in a non-wrestling capacity, and Doug Williams, UK talent and soon-to-be TNA talent, for the World X Cup at the very least.

Conspicuous by their absence were Team 3D, Kip James, BG James, Matt Morgan, Tomko and so forth. Bigger guys who have their worth, but to work a series of great matches on house shows, not necessarily the best fit.

TNA’s roster could still be greatly improved and honed, but they should be credited on a roster that has a great deal of wrestling depth, and this is something they HAVE to exploit. They also have another major ace in the hole, but we’ll come to that in due course.

So, arriving at the arena, to see what our cabbie described as the biggest queue he’d seen outside the venue, we were ushered in through a side door by Steven Godfrey.

Publicist, I believe is his official title, but this trip featured him filling all kinds of roles, including getting ice for the guys and even assisting with stitches being applied, after James Storm took a nasty gash to his left eye on night two, which was done hard way, with even the Tennessee Cowboy himself not knowing how it was done. Sorry about your damn luck, James.

Steve was an absolutely top man, and I can’t tell you how well we were looked after by him, in a manner not consistent with how Wrestling journalists can be typically considered.

We got to see Alex Shane, who was the promoter for the tour, also a successful British grappler in his own right but more importantly a feature columnist for the truly marvellous Fighting Spirit Magazine. (Cheap Pop). Alex had a chat with a chap called Martin (sorry, mate, I forget your surname) who had use of a nice little box overlooking the 6-sided ring. Martin is promoting a show in Wolverhampton in September which I’m hoping to get to, and sounds fantastic. Roderick Strong and Austin Aries are just two names off the top of my head that are appearing. Check out ....for info.

This is getting like a bloody infomercial! And I’m not getting paid for the plugs! Maybe I’ll get a freebie...........:-)

The box was a fantastic spot to watch the show from. Not just the matches, but the audience. Think ECW and you’re on the lines of what this crowd was like. Not so cult-like, not so bloodthirsty (there was very little violence or hardcore wrestling on either show) but just as enthusiastic, and very knowledgeable.

Interestingly, the first chant of the night featured profanity. Our came out host for the evening, Jeremy Borash, who prompted fell up the ring steps and bumped on the side of the ring – I have it on VERY good authority that it was NOT intentional.

“You fouled up, You fouled up” was not the chant. I’m sure you can guess what was.

Borash is outstanding. He’ll never sell a ticket. No-one is going to see TNA coming to their town and say “I must buy a ticket, Jeremy Borash is on the show” but the guy is sensational. Doing all the announcing, all the continuity, plugging video games and so forth is not an easy task, but he does it all expertly, smoothly and with great humour. He was also doing all the cueing up of theme songs and he whipped the crowd into a frenzy, as if they needed assisting.

During the evening, JB kept reminding fans of the promise of backstage access to the loudest fans in the arena - a genuine claim, and quite a few of the approximate 1800 crowd got to have a look behind the curtain.

This kept the fans intent on making noise, and even being cynical and saying it’s a stunt to get people making a racket for the sake of it, it’s still a clever stunt which makes the atmosphere unique.

JB – Just Brilliant.

The first match we were treated to was an X-Division Title match, and it was a three-way dance. I thought it was maybe a mistake to make a few title matches over both days, because it told you who was going over in them, That said, it didn’t detract from the match quality.

Sonjay Dutt, Jay Lethal and Petey Williams opened the evening, with Sonjay getting some admirable heat considering he has only just turned. Maybe, though, the heat was not for turning his back on Black Machismo, but for simply turning his back. Seriously, the amount of “Bacne” this guy had was insane. He tried to hide it with a doo-rag the second night, but it fell off.

Petey, of course, went over, but this was off the charts. Non-stop flying and creative moves, and not a bit like a WWE triple threat with one man playing dead for an inordinate amount of time and the other two squaring off. Great opener.

Next up we got to see mixed Tag action with Gail Kim and the UK’s Doug Williams taking on Amazing Kong and James Storm. It was a shame that two were the only knockouts brought over, since TNA has really created a niche for all their talented women, but Gail and Kong both looked terrific. In the ring, I’m obviously meaning. Although let me tell you just how hot Gail is close up.

Doug, complete with really British shouts of “come on”, and Storm did their bit. Solid match, with quite a lot of interaction between the men and women in this.

At times, though, the match was secondary, as a very over heel was in the ring. Not Storm, not Kong.

I’m talking Earl Hebner.

He hadn’t even descended three steps on his entrance when the crowd burst into a “You screwed Bret” chant. Some people have very long memories, and Earl was happy to indulge them. All his matches were called down the middle, but he spent plenty of time bantering with the crowd, threatening to fight them, and playing up to the heat. Funny stuff.

Abyss and Rhino squared off in a neat brawl next up, and probably the most noteworthy thing from this one was the high-flying antics of Rhino. Yeah, seriously, Rhino. A plancha and a top rope splash were in his repertoire for this one, which spilled to the outside on more than one occasion. Abyss won with the Black Hole Slam.

Before we got to intermission, we had possibly the wrestler cheered the most all night. The Phenomenal........Ultimate Warri......just kidding. AJ it was, and he emerged to take on Robert Roode.

Roode is a terrific heel. He reminds me so much of Curt Hennig, and not because he does the Perfectplex/Fisherman’s suplex. It’s because he carries himself superbly, and genuinely creates nice heat. I suspect he’ll be happy when he can cut his hair though. Maybe a Roxxi-like shearing could be on the cards for Bobby.

The match was tremendous. AJ is such a joy to watch, and the people were just crazy about him. He ended it with a Styles Clash, after teasing it a couple of times, and this was another brilliant contest.

Intermission time, and what was noticeable was that we’d seen four matches – An X-Division three-way, a mixed tag showcasing the girls, a big man brawl and a great technical showpiece. Four very different matches, with two being decent and two being absolute belters.

Next up was more tag team action, and a fantastic bout to see live. The tag champions LAX defending against Sabin and Shelley, the Motor City Machine Guns. The pace of this match was frightening, and Hernadndez is one of those guys who you cannot fully appreciate until you see him live. The guy is huge, but so mobile and so charismatic. LAX are hugely over, and you can see why. They have the triple advantage of a great smaller guy in Homicide, a mobile big guy in Hernandez and a great...I don’t like to call it gimmick, but a great hook in their Latino Nation ethos, and infectious personality. Although not present in Liverpool, Shelly Martinez as Salinas is a great addition – and I now know why she’s called Salinas.

I’m not telling you though. Sworn to secrecy I’m afraid. Sorry.

The Guns are simply so fast, and the minute I saw them up close I just thought “Give these two London and Kendrick and watch ‘em go.” That would be a real dream match.

LAX got the win, and we all got to see Hernandez launching himself over the rope onto both Guns. Shelley got a mild concussion from this, I’m told.

The great thing about LAX, seen even more the following night, is they really seemed to enjoy themselves out there. I think that, although you need to retain Kayfabe for the most part, a couple of guys smiling occasionally and having fun will be appreciated by audiences.

One match to go, but before then, a special guest appeared. JB’s introduction was far from subtle, and as soon as the year 1996 was mentioned, it wasn’t a stretch to work out who was coming.

Kurt Angle probably got the pop of the night, and seemed genuinely moved by his reaction. He kept it short and sweet, slated WWE, praised TNA majorly and got everyone even more pumped up than before.

From here, it was just a main event to go, with a chap called Samoa Joe taking centre stage. His opponent was Booker T, who got a great reaction, but showed what a top hand he is by soaking it up, grabbing the stick, backing up what Kurt said.....then turning it into an ego-driven tirade about how he isn’t respected. The people knew the score, and I’ve never seen so many people booing, but with a smile on their face.

Booker topped even that during the match, in a terrific piece of showmanship, which Simon called brilliantly. A small Spinerooni chat got noticed and exacerbated, getting Book’s attention. He posed, readied himself for it........only to raise to his feet and give the crowd the “up yours” salute. Hilarious stuff.

Joe won, obviously, and that would have pleased some extremely knowledgeable folk who chanted “Welcome Back” at him, in a reference to his last ROH match being in Liverpool, I’m told.

A terrific show, with a staggeringly hot crowd and an evening which was just such a lot of fun.

For the people, it hadn’t ended. Borash had teased earlier in the night that no-one should go anywhere after the Main Event, and this was duly noted. No-one had left, as JB made the announcement that if not everybody could get backstage, then they’d bring backstage out to the people. We didn’t stick around until the bitter end – we had the option of going for drinks two lovely PR girls from Midway. What would you do? – but we were told that it was nearly two and half hours before the session ended. TNA’s goal was that everyone would get at least one t-shirt signed, programme autographed or photograph taken. They likely achieved this.

TNA have a philosophy that they try to be as people-friendly as possible. This is not a gimmick, folks. They genuinely want to know what people like and what they don’t. They want to satisfy their fans in any way they can, and the post-show signing was not a publicity stunt, but a positive well-meaning gesture which surely would have made many people’s evening.

Friday began in a bit of a haze (What can I say? Phil’s an Irishman – he led me astray, and I absolute did not want to have that eleventh beer. The previous ten were nice, though.) but we had most of the day free so took the opportunity to check out Liverpool. It is a most agreeable city, although as we perused it, it was a bit embarrassing that the first thing we thought about seeing was the Albert Dock where they filmed This Morning with Richard and Judy (“that must be where Fred’s map was!”)

A wander around took in seeing the famous Liver Building, a walk along the Mersey (no time for the famous ferry, unfortunately) and a look at Beatles country – the famous Cavern Club where the Fab Four made their name.

The people really do live up to their reputation as friendly, although as we were trying to ask directions to a hotel (not much luck with hotel finding, all told) the chap in the Hot Dog van didn’t need to accost passers-by to find out where the Malmasion was. Barely any had heard of it, and looked at us accusingly when we ensured they got the name right. (“But that sounds.......French.”) Their efforts of Mermaid, Marioness and Marriott were close though.

We were going to the Malmaison because we had a date with a very special and lovely lady. If Vince McMahon is the gruff, grizzled and intimidating Chairman of WWE, then his TNA equivalent is the polar opposite. Friendly, chatty and approachable, Dixie Carter joined us for a convivial chat over a couple of drinks. The only negative thing I could say about her is that she hugged Simon, and then Phil increasingly throughout the day. I felt left out. Maybe I’m not huggable type L. I expect a hug when I visit Orlando, Dixie. J

Seriously, Dixie listened to our praise and criticism of the previous night’s show, which she was unable to attend. It was mainly praise, and I found myself in the strange position of actually desperately finding something to complain about, because our words of adulation for her company were starting to sound sycophantic and crawling. We meant it, though.

We were joined by her husband Serge, also a great guy, and the brains behind the TNA merchandise range. I know I’m sounding like a broken record, but spending time with these guys, who have so much genuine feeling for their company and their wrestlers was truly special. I’m a long time wrestling fan, who really loves the art, and am continually saddened by premature tragedies to young men and, on a more aesthetic level, an overly negative attitude by ‘fans’ towards what they see.

Although I sound hypocritical because I have plenty of gripes here and there, I do wish that people would sometimes just watch and try to enjoy rather than getting into too many deep thoughts about problems they can’t solve. That said, people invest money in buying wrestling Pay Per Views, merchandise and so forth, and they have every right to moan.

Hand on heart, I can tell you that TNA wants to redress the balance and please fans. I’m not saying their booking is perfect, that every guy in the company is talented, and that their concepts are all spot on, but their heart seems to be in the right place, and although a couple of house shows looking good does not a company make, they are surely heading in the right direction.

Sneaking a ride with Dixie and Serge in their taxi, we got into the arena even earlier, and when we entered we were met by a really big guy. “Hi, I’m Chris” he said. I introduced myself, as did Phil, and it was only when Simon said he’d seen him not long ago that I realised who it was. Chris was Abyss, and though I’m probably the slow one for not realising who this huge individual was, it does show the disparity between person and character. Mind you, that character is basically insane, so I should hope there is a bit of a difference.

Stepping down towards the ring area, we saw pretty much the whole roster looking up the ramp.

Liverpool was the first time, I’m told, that TNA have used screens at House shows, adjacent to the entrance, and as we entered the arena on the Friday afternoon, the wrestlers were watching the previous night’s show on tape.

You know when you hear about the guys watching their matches to improve them? That’s true, you know, not just a claim to make them sound good.

Most of the guys were extremely friendly and polite. Especially Gail, whose greeting and smile was the warmest, and made me fall in love with her even more. Ah, Gail.........

We were allowed back into the box from where we’d perched to watch the previous night’s show, and saw a familiar face. Jeff Jarrett was with the wrestlers, and I think that’s a gesture towards the UK about how important TNA consider this tour. I know Jeff will want to see his guys all the time, see if the matches and how they can improve, but he could have watched a DVD of the shows from the US, and could have told everyone who to work with over the phone.

The fact that both Jeff and Dixie were there, and I understand will be attending each show (I’m writing this Saturday afternoon – the guys are due to be in Coventry tonight and Brentwood on Sunday) is positive for two reasons. One being that it shows that the UK is an important market to them, and they are not just paying lip service to us. The second is that both saw the red hot crowd and fantastic show of Saturday night – both of which eclipsed the previous evening.

As the wrestlers headed to the back while the doors opened - a process which was referred to as “doing the building for Kayfabe” – we followed soon after, as Simon had a chat with Doug Williams and Booker T, while I caught up with Earl Hebner.

It may sound a strange choice for interview, but if you are familiar with my other life as a football (soccer) journalist, then you may know that I write a column called Referee365 for the website (more pimping!). It seemed the natural choice to talk to Earl, as a referee in a different world, and also since I had the privilege of chatting to Bret Hart a couple of months ago so asking Earl about a certain event where he earned his ubiquitous “you screwed” chant.

I’m not going to tell you what he said – you’ll have to keep checking the Sun’s site to see when the interview goes up. Suffice to say, though it was interesting, and although his reaction to talking about Bret was surprising, he was predictably scathing about his former employees.

We reconvened in the box for the show, where our perch at the front of the box was rudely taken up by someone. To be fair, though, it’s her company, so we let Dixie sit where she wanted.

The matches, will I’ll run through in a second, were equal to if not better than the previous evening, but I found myself spending less time watching them because I couldn’t help but study the audience’s theatrics , and the subsequent reaction of Ms Carter. I think she cried at one point, so was the emotion of the night.

The crowd was hotter than Thursday, but we had predicted that somewhat in that Friday was the first show on sale. The Thursday show was added when Friday sold out in four hours (!) so we knew that if Thursday was great, the people going the following night were those that were the most eager to snap up tickets. We were not let down.

We opened again with X division action, with Sonjay this time teaming up with Petey Williams to take on The Motor City Machine Guns. Another amazingly fast-paced bout ensued, with a few botched efforts serving to bring this one down notch or two. But still some phenomenal action.

The Guns won, but of course the people wanted to see the Canadian Destroyer. How to solve that? Well, the solution was part Rick Martel v Jake Roberts and part Mr Fuji, as Petey reached around as if blind, after Sonjay had mistakenly thrown powder in his eyes. The Guns forced Sonjay into Petey’s grasp ,and he gave his own partner his patented move. Really fun stuff, this, and played in exactly the right manner.

Kong v Gail in a one-on-one encounter was next, and saw possibly the most brutal moment of the night, although unintentional.

The match was really enthralling the fans – Kong is so impressive live – as the champ spilled to the outside, and Gail climbed to the top rope. She dove onto Kong in a spot where the Awesome one would catch her. She did, but Gail had caught the guardrail on the way down. Dixie shuddered in genuine worry for Gail the person, not the commodity. From where we were, it looked like she’d taken a nasty bang to the head, but she ploughed on through the match. When we saw guys from the backstage, we kept enquiring to her wellbeing. We were told she was fine. Man, these girls are tough.

Third on was LAX taking on Storm and Roode, and if Gail looked hurt but escaped ok, the opposite occurred here, where James Storm would later require stitched on a head wound which apparently even he doesn’t know how he got it. Logic would seem to say it was from a Twisting Homicide Dive to the outside (I’ve thought about that name. I think I called it ‘the twisty thing” last night) and I would categorically say it was hardway and not a blade.

I was very disappointed (perhaps my only criticism of the crowd on either night) by the “you can’t wrestle” chants aimed at Bobby Roode. Oh yes, he darn well can, and for someone I really think is on the brink of something big to receive that was odd indeed.

LAX won, and we got to see Hernandez fly again. He misses that top rope by millimetres, you know. I hope he doesn’t eve catch his toes on the top rope one day, as his fall could be perilous if he does. Match was also notable for seeing Homicide pay great homage to Eddie Guerrero, with a Three Amigos and frog splash.

Lastly before the interval was AJ once again, as a three-way was announced. This is proof of how quickly they were booking these things, considering all the buzz we heard was about AJ taking on Abyss.

Anyway, AJ emerged to take on Jay Lethal and Doug Williams, in what was quite possibly a tryout for Doug. He is signed up for the X Cup, but is being considered for a longer term deal. We’ll see.

One blotch on this match was a spot AJ threw a dropkick but Doug had ducked as if looking to miss a clothesline. I think wires were crossed and that the AJ thought the drop kick was after one Irish Whip, Doug after two.

It’s a small criticism which I wanted to get out of the way, because the match was tremendous. Just so innovative, and Doug played his part too. Much less “come on” in the repertoire, and much more in the style of TNA rather than Traditional British stuff.

AJ won with a mesmerising corkscrew from the top, executed perfectly, and after the match all guys shook hands, with AJ putting Doug over as “the newest member of the family”.

After the break Dixie made an in-ring appearance to thank the people, and I should note that plenty of time was spent by her mingling amongst the crowd before, during and after the show.

Next, it was Booker T v Rhino in another match where I barely watched the match, but instead studied the crowd. Both men were over huge here as babyfaces, even though Booker was playing the heel role with his usual panache.

I timed the first five minutes after the bell as having one move in it, and that was a shoulderblock. It was a cacophony of noise, with duelling “Let’s go Booker” “Let’s go Rhino” chants the feature, but a smattering of “E-C-Dub” efforts in there too.

The competitors lapped it up. The lack of moves wasn’t because they were dumbfounded by the noise, it was because they continued to create it. I’ve never seen Rhino so animated, and the people loved him here. The heat continued during the match, with no man being the favourite until Booker did his antics with the Spinerooni again.

After failing to give the crowd what they wanted, Booker became the heel, and Rhino stepped up his game. After knocking Booker down, the War Machine, the Man Beast from Detroit, Michigan, went down to one knee. He looked into his hands, and delivered what I can only describe as.........SPINERRHINO! So awesome.

Booker would go on to win the match after kicking out of a gore and hitting and Axe kick, but the it wasn’t about the winner, this one. It wasn’t even about the match. This was far more Sports Entertainment than wrestling, but that’s not a bad thing. Pure, unadulterated fun, and everyone had a blast watching it.

Lastly we saw Joe and Abyss, but not before Kurt had appeared like the night before, only to get an even wilder reception this time, causing him to cry. I know Kurt cries all the time, but it’s usually after winning titles and Olympic gold medals and stuff. Not stood in a ring in another country at a house show. Angle got the love, and even a USA chant, before cutting a great promo putting the company over, and not himself.

He gave a nod to Dixie, and elicited a couple of winces from her for bashing the competition a bit strongly. He also drew a mixed reaction when he talked about some of his past opponents – Eddie and others were received well, but it was a surprise to hear Kurt mention Chris Benoit.

Joe and Abyss had a brawl which was both pretty and not pretty at the same time (That’s a complement by the way) which Joe obviously won. Joe was so over, and just has such a great presence, as well as being a sterling competitor.

Post show came the fans meet and greet again, although a revisions so that wrestlers toured the ringside area and visited other parts of the theatre to make it easier for everyone to get what they wanted.

What a show. What a couple of days.

I want to say thank you to Steve and Dixie (and everybody) for their hospitality, and to say that it is a victory for WRESTLING if this company is a success. They really, really deserve it.

I’ll close with the words the fans spoke directly at the end of the Joe v Abyss contest (amongst others)

“That was awesome! *clap clap clap clap* That was awesome! *clap clap clap clap...” (Fade out)

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