For those wrestling fans who cannot recall the original ?Monday Night Wars?, I imagine the hoopla and fanfare surrounding this past Monday’s festivities ranked as something to behold. It’s fair to say the industry whipped itself into quite the lather over the prospect of vicariously revisiting one of the most fondly remembered (and warmly regarded) periods in professional wrestling history. At a time where disaffection reigns with the WWE product and dashed hopes are the order of the day with TNA, it was a welcome change of pace to witness a week which felt different; vital, even.
Alas, perspective must be retained. This was but one week that, like so many weeks taken for granted back in the day, promised much and delivered intermittently. The build-up to Bret Hart’s on-screen return was elegantly accomplished, and the pop was to be expected. The sight of ?The Hitman? rolling back the years in jean-shorts and a custom ?Hitman? jacket as he walked the aisle, was truly a moment long overdue. Bret summed up proceedings perfectly with the following comment: ?I guess Hell froze over.? Indeed. Having vowed for years never to return, Bret slipped seamlessly into the narrative with his awkward ?WWE Universe? references and surreal blurring of fantasy and reality. I have no doubt a myriad emotions crossed a myriad minds as Bret stood in the WWE ring. When he called out Shawn Michaels, his despised enemy, to face him and discuss the past, it was truly awesome. Given Shawn’s religious misgivings to playing heel and Bret’s relentless preservation of his legacy, it stood to reason that their confrontation would be concise and conciliatory. For a man carrying such hatred, Bret maintained his dignity with conviction and you could almost begin to accept it as a genuine cessation of hostilities. That is, until Bret and Shawn shared an unremittingly awkward hug that appeared about as genuine as Adolf Hitler when he said he wouldn?t invade Czechoslovakia.
Bret’s return to WWE is all about Vince McMahon – or more to the point, persuading Vince to have Stu Hart inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame – so they dispensed with the tension of Shawn/Bret immediately. Whatever the implications of this exchange, this writer will settle for Bret and Shawn never discussing Montreal (or each other) ever again. Most of the people I have discussed watching this episode of Raw with agree it was all about the beginning and the end. WWE bizarrely sought to deemphasise the impact of Bret when he wasn?t onscreen and proceed as though this was just another episode of Raw. That was how it was presented and thus how it came across. When Bret wasn?t around, everyone might as well sat on their hands.
Save for the Unified Tag Championship match ? which featured four capable and ?over? veterans ? the show was a complete bore that reaffirmed the dire state of the WWE roster at the moment. By the time Bret and Vince had their longwinded and strangely muted confrontation (which was again laced with truth and fabrication), the end couldn?t come soon enough. Vince belted Bret squarely in the bollocks and left, as Bret looked on with a mildly inconvenienced expression on his face. It was a limp and peculiar denouement that left everyone deflated and unsure of events going forward. Clearly, WWE has begun the journey to Wrestlemania and a Vince/Bret ?match? of some description. So be it, but my overriding feeling was, having finished watching the return of Bret Hart, catch-up was blown out of the water by the thrill of the chase. I?d be lying to you all if I said I knew precisely what I?d been hoping for. I just know it wasn?t what we all witnessed on the January 4th Raw. I?m quite certain there are wrestling fans who?d swear blindly to the contrary, but nothing TNA could muster was going to top ?Bret Hart on Raw? for pure shock value. Goodness gracious they gave it a go though. The Monday Night Impact was akin to an endless highlight reel of shock and awe in the form of endless debuts and revelations. It is ironic that as many associated with TNA claimed a new dawn was upon them, they presented a wrestling show that resembled a Vince Russo wet dream. Naturally, the biggest debut of all belonged to an NWO-referencing Hulk Hogan, who alongside dancing partner Eric Bischoff spent large amounts of air time making dramatic proclamations and laying down capricious mandates.
One thing the so-called ?new? TNA could immediately do without is the apparent hiring of Scott Hall and Sean Waltman; two men with egos far greater than their collective usefulness. For the sake of TNA they had better be there to talk trash and fall on their arses, lest TNA degenerate into a clone of all the worst bits of WCW. If Hogan’s grand plan is to run a retread of the NWO, I?m personally worried already. Ever since the one-off that was the original New World Order propelled WCW into the stratosphere, wrestling has been obsessed with capturing lightning in a bottle for the second time. Gang warfare is a proven commodity and, done properly, a likely winner. The problem is TNA has already tried and failed with the Main Event Mafia. Given the egos and idiocy involved in this new, (or rather old) smouldering brew of malcontents, I hold out virtually no hope that it could be something other than a codger’s gravy train. One has to hope that’s Hogan’s ?inspiration? extends further than a tired NWO retread.
This genuine instance of fear aside, this writer is of the overall opinion TNA offered a far more entertaining show than WWE on Monday. Though the aforementioned ‘shock values? statement rings true and foreboding, the truth is as a one off it made sense in a grandstand way, and certain debuts/returns promise much. As always, it was fun to see ?Nature Boy? Ric Flair looking as only he can look, receiving the richly deserved ‘superstar treatment?. As a personality, Flair’s value borders on endless. However, as a wrestler he offers virtually nothing. Theoretically, Flair versus any number of TNA performers will provoke genuine interest and draw ratings and money. Sadly though, Ric Flair is beyond finished as a wrestler and it will take a genius to preserve his image once he steps through those ropes. Kurt Angle is perhaps the only man capable of hauling Flair to something worthy of his legacy. I take no pleasure in confirming that truth.
Alas, given the length of contract Flair has apparently signed, we will see him in the ring. It will be beautiful until he takes off the sequinned robe and perpetrates yet more damage on his peerless legacy. I just wish that throughout his Stylin? and Profilin? prime, Flair had kept the other ?Nature Boy? holstered once or twice. Maybe then, he wouldn?t find himself in the position of being sixty years old and financially incapable of retiring. For all he gave to the business, Ric Flair deserved more. Likewise, an though he is clearly a huge risk, TNA inducing Jeff Hardy to renege on his alleged verbal commitment to return to WWE – and re-sign with TNA – was quite stunning. That Jeff was seemingly pitched at the X-Division, having wrestled in the main event of the second biggest WWE show of the year in 2009, is all the more incredible. If Jeff’s legal woes fade (unlikely) and he’s committed to TNA (even less likely) he could be a major asset in luring fans away from WWE. It is an undeniable truth that by the end of his last WWE run, Jeff Hardy was the most popular personality in the whole league. I for one am quite astonished he’s elected to return to TNA, and I dare say there’s more to this than meets the eye.
In the end it wasn?t the return to the glory days hyperbole dictated, but January 4th 2010 will still be remembered as a major day in the affairs of professional wrestling. Both shows drew strong ratings, with TNA Impact garnering the highest rating it’s ever achieved with the Monday night debut. There is apparently tentative talk of a permanent arrangement, pitting Impact against Raw every Monday. This is a tenacious but risky gamble that will succeed only with lots of luck and a clear, focused and audience-friendly battle plan. Like every other wrestling fan I pine for the days of the Monday Night Wars and I hope TNA reaches critical mass and becomes genuinely competitive for the good of the business. It will be advantageous to the boys and to the fans alike and it may very well provide WWE with the stern kick up the posterior the group (and Vince ?Nero? McMahon) strongly requires. Truth be told, that can only be a good thing.
Daniel R. Browne.