For many, professional wrestling exists as an escape. A guilty pleasure. A testosterone-fueled soap opera. Shakespeare for the masses. For Jeff Jarrett, professional wrestling has been his family’s business for more than a half-century.
His paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather were both “in the business.” His father Jerry was both a wrestler and a promoter, running promotions throughout the South. And Jeff himself has been in the ring since graduating from Goodpasture High School in Madison in the ’80s, first for his family’s businesses, then for national promotions like the then-World Wrestling Federation (now WWE, pro wrestling’s largest company) and World Championship Wrestling (gone since 2001, a victim of mismanagement, the changing landscape of cable television and the hubris of the first dot-com boom.)
Technically, he’s not supposed to be here — “here” being the offices of the pro wrestling company he helped found 10 years ago, TNA (Total Nonstop Action) Entertainment, in Cummins Station in downtown Nashville. But in this world, real and “real” collide with nonchalant regularity.
So while he was “fired” from the company in December — in an episode of TNA’s flagship television product, Spike TV’s Impact Wrestling — Jarrett remains hard at work behind the scenes, most recently shepherding the company’s newest international property, Ring Ka King, a partnership with global TV giant Endemol, for one of India’s largest broadcast networks, Colors.
Ring Ka King’s debut episode, easily found on YouTube, featured all the bells and whistles of modern event-television programming, along with one of India’s top pop stars in Rika Singh, and sponsorship by Tata Prime, the country’s largest auto manufacturer.
“We had two or three Indian companies contact us over the past several years with different kinds of ideas, but it was almost more of a consultancy,” Jarrett said. “Endemol was a completely different story, and a great tag-team partner. They came and said, ‘You’re the experts in wrestling, we’re the experts in the country, the culture, the contacts, production elements, all that.’ We sat down and played to each other’s strengths and got out of the way of the other stuff.”
And then there are the wrestlers, some very familiar to American fans, introduced and pitted in the ring as fan favorites vs. villains (or “face” vs. “heel” … see sidebar). Production values aside, pro wrestling will always come down to the universal theme of good vs. evil … and more often than not, much to fans’ both chagrin and delight, evil wins.
In the case of TNA, a company run with both experienced hands and fresh eyes, simply being around for 10 years is a win unto itself.
Let’s recap for the folks at home, shall we? The second-largest professional wrestling promotion in the U.S., a company whose television products are seen in more than 100 countries and in 17 languages worldwide, is headquartered in Nashville.
Some of the business’s biggest names are employed by TNA, like veteran multi-time world champions such as Ric Flair and Sting. There are wrestlers who made their names at other companies, such as Kurt Angle, Jeff Hardy and the company’s top monster heel, Bully Ray (formerly known as Bubba Ray Dudley in WWE, and before that, Extreme Championship Wrestling). And then there’s the biggest name of them all, the man synonymous with the term “pro wrestling,” Hulk Hogan, who joined TNA in October 2009.
But part of TNA’s overall strength and recent successes have come via a stable of home-grown talent, men and women who’ve stuck with the company through good times and bad deals — while other players came and went, elevated (perhaps disastrously) only to duck out with their paychecks.
The talented stalwarts include performers like the versatile A.J. Styles, the hard-hitting Samoa Joe, the monstrous Abyss, the reliably offbeat Eric Young, the recently returned tag team Motor City Machine Guns or the beautiful but dangerous Angelina Love and Velvet Sky. And most notably, the two men who were scheduled to face each other for the TNA World Heavyweight Championship this past Sunday at Municipal Auditorium, in the pay-per-view event Lockdown — “The Cowboy” James Storm and reigning champ (and Storm’s former partner) Bobby Roode.
(Results of the bout were not available at press time. No, seriously.)
The significance of this moment, where so much of the company’s fortunes — both via the pay-per-view event and the valuable television time leading up to it — are placed squarely on the shoulders of the company’s loyalists, isn’t lost on Storm, who’s billed as the contender out of Leiper’s Fork and who cut his pro wrestling teeth, both as a fan and as a participant, here in Music City.
“We call it ‘taking the reins,’ ” Storm said. “To come back to Nashville for this event and being able to wrestle for the world title, it shows how much the company believes in guys like me and Bobby to carry the torch. They’re basically saying, ‘It’s you guys’ time ... go out there and do your job.’ ”
But with the headline slots come a lot of responsibility for both men, something their most experienced peer notes shouldn’t be taken lightly. “You’re the main event, and it doesn’t fall on anybody else’s shoulders. You’re the guys featured, and you’re wrestling for the world championship,” said Ric Flair. “If there’s something on the show better than that, then they’ve got the two wrong guys in the ring for the main event.”
When TNA ran its first show at the Von Braun Center in Huntsville, Ala., in June 2002, observers both in and out of the business wondered how long the company would be around. The previously well-funded WCW had been a longtime part of Time Warner’s portfolio under the interested eye of cable TV pioneer Ted Turner, who used wrestling to help grow his superstation WTBS in the mid-’80s. But WCW vaporized in March 2001, leaving WWE the undisputed champ of nationally televised pro wrestling.
Jarrett spent the summer of 2001 taking his first real break as an adult, collecting checks from the now-defunct WCW on the balance of his contract. During the downtime, a number of conversations took place that convinced him there was an opportunity to help fill the competitive void, giving both talent and production people a place to ply their trade. He partnered with his father to work on creating a new company from the ground up.
Jarrett tapped his contacts outside the wrestling world, as well, getting a then-on-the-rise country star to appear on the very first show. “Jeff told me the idea, of having Toby Keith coming out and suplexing him, about a year before it took place,” said Jeremy Borash, who worked with Jarrett as an interviewer in WCW and was one of TNA’s first employees. (He now wears multiple hats as ring announcer, on-screen host and producer.) “And that’s exactly what happened that first night. So from his standpoint, his wheels were always turning, and that was the point where I knew he was a bit of a visionary.”
But as is the case with so many startups, wrestling or otherwise, Jarrett soon ran into problems with funding, after his primary backer dropped out due to legal issues. Two months into the company’s existence, he met with his vendors to bring them up to speed on the project, and tangentially, to ask if they knew of any other cash sources he could tap.
“I was excited to see him, because I was really into what we were doing, and the look on his face was not positive,” said Dixie Carter, a veteran Music Row operative whose Trifecta Entertainment had been hired by Jarrett to work media relations and promotions for TNA. “He said, ‘We’ve lost our investor, so if you know of anybody ...’ I said, ‘How much do you need?’ He said, ‘Well, who do you know?’ ”
It wasn’t who Carter knew, but who she was related to. Namely her father Robert Carter, head of Panda Energy, a privately held global energy production and trading company. Over the next week, Jarrett and Dixie Carter pulled together a presentation for Panda, convincing the company of the viable marketplace for a new player in the pro wrestling landscape.
“I didn’t have a clue about her relationship and Panda Energy’s business,” Jarrett said. “To say it was a unique turn of events is an understatement. It was divine, it was destiny.”
Panda purchased a majority stake in the company in October 2002 and acquired the rest in 2009. And while the privately held company doesn’t reveal details of its bottom line, both Jarrett and Carter, now TNA’s president, said the current company — with domestic and international revenue sources from television, merchandise licensing and live events — is profitable.
“This was a completely nonstrategic investment,” for Panda Energy, Dixie Carter said. “But I have to give credit to my father, who saw the opportunity from day one, when the rest of his company truly thought he was a lunatic.”
In the pro wrestling world, sometimes lunatic thinking is exactly what is required, especially when launching a professional wrestling organization in a rapidly changing entertainment environment. TNA’s original exposure opportunities came via weekly two-hour pay-per-view events, the bulk of which were produced at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in a building that came to be known as the Asylum.
There’s still a certain reverence for the company’s earliest home base. “It’s a cool thing to be part of something that came from a tin shed in the middle of the city,” said Eric Young, currently one-half of the TNA Knockouts tag-team champions, who moved to Nashville from Canada just to be part of TNA’s earliest days. “The first time I walked in, I thought, ‘My God, this is way smaller than I thought.’ I couldn’t believe it, but they put out a really great product there, a lot of five-star matches and promos came out of there.”
But as different as the weekly pay-per-view concept was — along with a move to a nontraditional six-sided ring and a rotating mix of established stars and new talent — more than two years in, the company wasn’t getting any traction trying to promote a new entity without regular television exposure.
And there was a limit to how good the Asylum could look on television, so TNA moved its television base south to Orlando, Fla., and a handful of soundstages on the Universal Studios theme park lot. They started forging traditional cable television deals, first with Fox Sports Net for a weekly one-hour show on Friday afternoons (the only timeslot the regional sports network could clear across 100 percent of its affiliates), and then with Spike TV in late 2005, as well as a slate of monthly three-hour PPV shows.
But even after TNA’s three years of producing weekly television, Spike wasn’t completely ready to roll the dice with another wrestling partner, having recently been abandoned by WWE and its flagship show Raw. Spike stuck the one-hour TNA Impact! into a Saturday late-night slot, and over the next two years, the show slowly migrated up the timeslot ladder, to late-night Thursdays, to primetime Thursdays, to finally expanding to its current two-hour incarnation in late 2007.
TNA continued to reinvest in its primary product, making the jump to all high-definition programming in 2008, which called for significant capital outlays at the Impact Zone in Orlando, as well as creating an in-house HD production facility at Cummins Station. All of TNA’s television products, including the Ring Ka King shows, undergo post-production in Music City, with engineers and editors working nearly round the clock to prep and distribute Impact, the internationally syndicated Xplosion and other advertising/promotional pieces to the company’s various television partners.
Still, conventional wisdom held that Monday nights were pro wrestling’s most fertile field, what with the then-WWF’s Raw and WCW Nitro spending the latter ’90s slugging it out on that night. With Hogan’s signing in late ’09 and his debut scheduled for January 2010, TNA and Spike decided it was time to reignite those Monday night wars with WWE. Hogan’s debut (along with the reintroduction within TNA of former Hogan allies Kevin Nash and Scott Hall) took place on a live three-hour edition of Impact on Monday, Jan. 4, and drew the highest Nielsen ratings in the company’s history, though still less than half of what WWE’s Raw did for the night.
Those numbers suggested TNA could compete on Monday nights, so the move was made in March, with the company alternating between live and taped shows every other week. But the business being what it is (with Internet sites running spoilers for the following week’s show, WWE counter-programming Raw using stars like Stone Cold Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels, and some of the newly acquired TNA talent not working out as hoped), Impact’s ratings on Monday nights took a nosedive, and the show moved back to Thursdays, where it has remained since.
In both Jarrett and Carter’s minds, the Monday night move needed to happen to show the company’s ability to compete. “Everybody who was a long-term wrestling thinker thought if we just went head-to-head with WWE, we’d be great,” Carter said. “We did one live show, got great ratings, the network thought they wouldn’t have to advertise it, the audience would just come. They didn’t come,” she added.
“Going into it, no one knew not only if we would succeed, but if we’d fail, fail miserably, fail a little bit. The unique thing is that we never left our Thursday night audience,” Jarrett says, referring to the Monday Impact episodes being replayed in its traditional Thursday timeslot during most of the experiment. “And there were certain other elements, like if we’d gone live every Monday, would it have changed something? Would things have changed if we have abandoned Thursdays completely for a month? Who knows?”
So would either Jarrett or Carter do the Monday shift again? “With the data we have now, I’d be crazy if I told you yes,” Jarrett said.
Carter’s reply is a little more succinct. “Hell, no. Would I love to counter-program a different show with different expectations on a different night? Sure. But I think our fan base is solidly Thursday nights, and it’s a good night for us,” she continued. “To have done the Monday thing and survived, and been back up to our ratings from before after six to eight weeks, is almost unheard of. It’s such a testament to our fan base.”
All the production bells and whistles can’t hold the fan base’s attention without compelling characters for TNA’s ever-evolving, hard-hitting morality play.
Every TNA wrestler we talked to across two days spent at the Impact Zone expressed a similar appreciation of the rejuvenation his or her career has experienced with the company, whether it’s the respect Flair commands, Sting’s character reinvention, the undefeated streak for hard-hitting newcomer Crimson, valuable television time for performers in the high-flying X Division, or even the chance to blow up that moment, as demonstrated by Bully Ray.
The taping for the March 22 edition of Impact Wrestling (the rebranding of TNA Impact! as Impact Wrestling took place in May 2011) featured a four-way X Division title match that Bully Ray hijacked after a particularly crowd-pleasing spot, jumpstarting the feud between Ray and current X Division titleholder Austin Aries.
Bully Ray, who’s a no-nonsense New Yorker both in and out of the ring, has long been known for his ability to incite crowds to do whatever he wants — in this case, to loathe him. “I took the happiness out of the room,” he noted. “When the people were at their highest, that’s when I picked my spot and destroyed all four guys in the ring. I put the spotlight on me and made sure I was the most hated guy there.”
That’s not to say Bully Ray (formerly Brother Ray of the tag team Team 3D, after he lost the rights to the Bubba Ray Dudley character upon leaving WWE) can’t be beloved. But in this moment, and for as long as it makes good business sense, his best role is the unrepentant villain. “I can take you on any roller-coaster ride I want to,” Ray said. “But the one where the roller-coaster crashes at the end is the one I like the best.”
On the flip side of TNA fans’ love/hate spectrum is Jeff Hardy, another performer who made his name (in this case, his real one, hence his ability to keep using it) in WWE. Over the past few years Hardy has ping-ponged back and forth between the two national promotions, usually as personal issues colored his service in one or another.
Even his publicly played-out meltdowns, such as his painkiller-induced inability to perform in the main event slot against Sting at last year’s Victory Road PPV, coupled with real-life legal issues, haven’t hampered fans’ ability to adore the tattooed, face-painted, improbably pliable superstar.
“I needed that to happen publicly,” Hardy said of the Victory Road incident, about which he doesn’t remember much. “I needed to see that on a pay-per-view with one of my role models, to come out in that shape. I can use court as an excuse all I want, but that should’ve never happened. I went home and I changed ... dramatically.”
Other, perhaps lesser-seen but also important contributions are happening via talents like Valerie Wyndham, better known as SoCal Val, a striking, vivacious redhead who started out as a valet/manager in California-based indies as a teenager. In spite of being hired for similar roles in TNA more than seven years ago, she always wanted to do more. So she’s taken on new responsibilities behind the scenes, hosting and producing segments for various international incarnations of TNA programming, not to mention scores of promotional appearances for the company.
“I’ve always wanted to have some longevity in this business,” Val said, “and there is that in the hosting and the co-producing. I’m really happy to have been given opportunity after opportunity, rather than just ‘OK, your storyline is done, we can’t use you anymore.’ ”
The process of producing 52 weeks of television within the Impact Zone has been more or less honed, but many think TNA’s logical next move involves taking the television product, whether it’s PPV events or weekly cable shows, outside the studio environment. Sojourns to Knoxville and London over the past year suggested there’s a fan base in other cities, ready and willing to fill stands for TNA television product, a prospect that energizes talent and crew alike.
“We have some of the greatest talent in the world right here,” said Sting, the longtime WCW stalwart who started with TNA in 2003. “If there’s any one thing that’s holding us back, in my book, it’s that we need to go out on the road.
“The London experience reminded me of way back when. It’s the only time with this company I’ve gotten that taste,” he continued. “It’s all right there; we just make an effort to go out there and do it.”
For her part, Carter agrees with the idea that more trips outside Orlando could help the company’s visibility; it just needs to be smart business for it to happen. “It’s absolutely a top priority. There’s a plan in place, we’re just going to do it smart,” she said. “I have hundreds of people who work for me, and I take their livelihoods very seriously. There’s a plan in place, but it’s gotta be the right plan, and it’s gotta make sense fiscally as well as how to grow our live events business to support it.”
You can’t fault Carter for wanting to protect the long-term viability of TNA; what began as Jarrett’s family business has become a very public part of her family’s business. She may have started as an outsider, but she looks at professional wrestling as a family and she wants to present it, and the talented people she works with, in the best possible light.
“When I first took TNA on as a client, wrestling had a stigma. It was almost a dirty word in some senses,” Carter said. “The one thing we’ve worked very hard at is changing that perception, at least through the things that we control. We do a lot of great things out in the community. There’s a way of doing this business that you can be proud of, and I’m so proud of this, to be in professional wrestling. I love the company we’ve become.”
That’s not to say she could have predicted the position she’s now in. “I went to the Harpeth Hall of Dallas, Hockaday [School]. I was a sorority girl at Ole Miss,” Carter said. “You don’t sit there and think, ‘One day, 70 sweaty, good-lookin’ guys are going to work for me.’ That part is a little surreal.”
Surreal? In professional wrestling, that’s a family tradition.