Last week on iMPACT Wrestling, former TNA World Heavyweight Champion and recently former TNA X-Division Champion Austin Aries cashed in his title belt to exercise his right to Option C at Destination X. And just in case you didn’t get to watch the match, here’s your spoiler: Aries was unsuccessful in his attempt to beat Bobby Lashley and become the TNA World Heavyweight Champion again.
I believe that last week’s loss was the best thing that could have happened to Aries.
Professional wrestling is an interesting business to study – particularly the interaction between promoters, fans, and performers. If you’re an old school promoter like Vince McMahon, Verne Gagne, or Jim Crockett, then you are always concerned about your big money wrestlers being promoted to the audience in the best light possible. In other words, you always want Hulk Hogan coming out on top, you always want Ric Flair walking away with the championship, and you should always book the Undertaker to win at WrestleMania. Those endings make the fans feel good. They make the fans want to stay invested in the main event talent. They make the fans care about how those performers progress. They make the fans tune in to the weekly television show to see who the next big challenger is going to be and how their favorite wrestler is going to rise to the new challenge.
That investment sold pay-per-view buys, it sells house show tickets, it makes people tune in on Monday, Thursday, and Friday nights, and the WWE hopes that it sells WWE Network subscriptions. Promoters want fans to be emotionally invested in their top-tier talent because that’s good business.
If any part of that triangle stutters, stops, or just fails, then this entire study falls apart. Consider a promoter who doesn’t respect the investment that his fans have made in one of the wrestlers. Neglecting the fans’ emotional investment turns that emotion from appreciation and excitement into rage and anger. The practical outcome of rage and anger is that fans stop watching television shows, they stop buying house show tickets, they cancel subscriptions, etc. On the other hand, consider the scenario where a promoter invests his time in a character and a wrestlers gives their best effort to make that character a success – and then the fans just don’t care. This may be one of the deepest pitfalls for a wrestler to overcome as well as one of the most demeaning. Not only do they have to climb up out of a hole that they likely had no hand in creating (bad gimmicks are bad gimmicks), but they have to shed any semblance of that former persona in order to win over the fans. Wiping the slate clean in professional wrestling is incredibly hard to do!
And finally, consider what happens when a wrestler is being heavily promoted and the fans positively emotionally invest in their storylines – and then that wrestlers fails. Failure can take the form of falling to drug addiction, succumbing to physical injuries and needing to be shelved at the height of their popularity, or just simply not living up to the hype and performing poorly in the spotlight. Fans feel let down, promoters get angry that they invested their money in someone who didn’t live up to their potential, and the wrestler can very easily begin to spiral down into a very dark place.
I bring up this triangle arrangement because this is the reality of professional wrestling. Wrestlers need good promoters and invested fans, promoters need well-equipped wrestlers and engaged fans, and fans… well, we want everything!
Aries cashing in Option C at Destination X and losing to Lashley begins to weaken the triangle. Last week was the third time in a row that the reigning TNA X-Division Champion cashed in his title for a shot at the TNA World Heavyweight Championship, the second time that Aries cashed in the title, and the first time that the X-Division Champion didn’t come out of the match with a new championship belt.
Executing Option C three years in a row begins to make it seem less like an option and more like a given, which begins to weaken the promoter’s portion of the triangle. Repetitive story arcs just aren’t fun after you’ve seen the same scenario played out year-after-year. Having the same wrestler win the X-Division Championship and cash it in more than once also weakens the promoter’s end of the triangle for the same reason. The same story arc is the same story arc, period.
Put the fan part of the triangle aside (remember, we want everything) and you have the wrestler’s leg of the tripod. If we’ve learned anything from the “hangover” era of wrestling (the period after WWE’s Attitude Era demolished the competition – from March 2001 through today), we’ve learned that you can’t always have the same guy win and expect the fans to remain emotionally invested. It hasn’t worked for John Cena and, frankly, having AJ Styles constantly at the top of the card didn’t elevate the viewership numbers for iMPACT Wrestling. Fans want more than that from their investment. They want performers who are versatile. They want someone like Steve Austin – someone who can absolutely dominate his competition in the ring and then be a comedian in the backstage area. Fans want someone like Daniel Bryan – someone who gets beaten, battered, and abused and yet still finds a way to come out on top when it counts.
I believe that Aries losing to Lashley last week actually elevates him in the eyes of the fans.
That’s right – I think that by not becoming the TNA World Heavyweight Champion last week that Aries has maintained the strength in his part of the wrestling triangle. The fans are maintaining their emotional investment in Aries. Now it’s time for TNA to do their part. It’s time for TNA to book Aries on an epic run to the world championship ending not at Bound for Glory this October, but at Bound for Glory the following October – all the way into 2015. The fans are invested in Aries, so TNA should give the fans want they want. TNA should feed the hunger that the fans have for Aries and build him up over the course of the next year and two months as the man who would be champion… and then make him the champion in October 2015!
Unlike Aries’ seemingly insta-win of the world title a few years ago, TNA now has a chance to make the fans salivate and stay invested in one of their favorite characters for the next 14 months. The fans are in it for the long haul and Aries – maybe more than any other wrestler under contract to TNA right now – can outperform his opponents in the ring like few can do throughout the entire industry. The ball is in TNA’s court. Will they give us the slow, 14-month build that will transform Aries into the type of megastar that he can be? Or will they bungle his promotion after last week’s loss and weaken their part of the triangle beyond repair?
I don’t know about you, but I’m invested in Aries – and TNA – for the long haul and I’m interested in seeing how this scenario plays out!