April 22, 2011
A Lethal Roster Cut
Was I surprised by the news that TNA had released Jay Lethal? Yes and no. I was taken off guard, certainly, but the more I thought about it, the less surprised I was. He hadn't been used in a while and hadn't been used well in even longer. But TNA have plenty of people on their roster that hardly see the light of day and they're still getting paychecks. Hell, the REAL shocker is that a talent like Lethal, who had so much to offer, got released, while worthless scrubs like Murphy, Rob Terry and Orlando Jordan are still employed.
I take this as the biggest and best proof so far that Dixie Carter is no longer running the company. She's always been so incredibly hesitant about firing people, even when they need to be fired. But if roster cuts are starting to happen... yeah, Dixie's probably not there right now.
How do I feel about this? To be honest, I've got mixed feelings. Lethal is undeniably talented. And management clearly saw something in the guy if they were willing to put him over in a feud with Ric Flair (the Woo-off was one of the highlights of 2010). And if you've got a young star who can not only go in the ring, but also hold his own with Ric Flair on the mic, that's not somebody you hold back.
On the other hand, despite his immense talent, something about Jay Lethal never totally clicked with me. For one thing, I often found his character problematic. He could be really entertaining when imitating a legend, but the Black Machismo gimmick went on way too long, and I mean about 2 years too long. As I understand it, Lethal moved a lot of merchandise with that gimmick, but the writers dragged it out so far passed its shelf life that he started coming off like a one-trick pony.
It became hard for me to take Jay Lethal seriously as a character after a while. There came a point where I got tired of him trying to be the next Macho Man and really just wanted to see him focus on being the first Jay Lethal. There's a reason why characters that aren't taken seriously rarely get main event pushes and that's what I felt was going to happen to him.
When I really felt this becoming harmful to Lethal's career was when he and Consequences Creed were feuding with the Motor City Machine Guns. Sabin & Shelley were the heels in that feud, and yet the fans supported them over the faces more often than not. I remember one angle where the 4 men shook hands in the ring, then the Guns turned around, kicked Lethal & Creed in the balls, flipped them off, then flipped off the audience. And what did the crowd do? They cheered for the Guns!
My theory about this was that the Guns had more support because they were so much cooler. They were more serious, they had a gimmick and persona that fit them perfectly, they knew exactly who they were and what got them over. Then you had Lethal Consequences, who pretty much came across like geeks. Goofy, babyface geeks, yes, but geeks. That's when I knew the Black Machismo gimmick really needed to end.
Eventually, after several years, quite a long time after the gimmick ceased being over, they ended it. Unfortunately, they didn't have anything new for Lethal after that. Sure, the man did an uncanny Ric Flair impression that was good enough to convince the writers to give him a win over the Nature Boy, but after that he went back to being himself. He dropped the gimmicks and settled on just being this good natured, humble kid from Jersey who loved his family and was living his dream of being a pro wrestler.
This brings us to the real problem I always seemed to have with Jay Lethal. He can be hugely entertaining when imitating a legend like Randy Savage or Ric Flair, but if he's not doing this, if he's just being himself, then he's boring. And imitating a legend is only going to take you so far. Maybe if there had been more variety with the gimmick it might have been different. Maybe if they'd had Lethal impersonating a different legend every week they could have done something with that. Hell, if WWE was able to milk some laughs out of a similar gimmick with Charlie freaking Haas of all people, TNA could have made it work with Jay Lethal. Perhaps if they'd given him enough different people to impersonate, he might have eventually found a personality of his own that was interesting enough to roll with, but it just never materialized.
I think the key to bringing out that star quality was that Jay Lethal needed to be someone other than Jay Lethal -- not a legend impressionist, but a new original character. IMO, they should have kept him off TV for a while and then reintroduced him as someone else. History has shown that, as himself he was forgettable, but give the man a character to play and you get magic.
I guess the real tragedy here is that TNA had a guy with so many of the pieces necessary to be a star in pro wrestling, but they just couldn't figure out how to fit them all together. And was the writing and booking largely to blame for this? YES! But it did seem like they were really trying at times; they could just never get out of their own way enough to make it work. Wins over Kurt Angle and Ric Flair, big victories at Bound for Glory, and it just never really came together. I mean, good grief... they gave him more X-division title reigns than anyone except AJ Styles, but every single reign was either horrendously booked, embarrassingly short, or both!
To this day, I still call Jay Lethal the worst X-division champion of all time because of this. Don't get me wrong -- Robbie E, Sheik Abdul Bashir and Johnny Devine are way down there, but nothing is going to top the sheer number of runs Lethal had with the belt, coupled with how disastrously bad every single one of them was. Despite the man's talent and charisma, something just wasn't translating.
Maybe TNA management felt the same way. Maybe since they clearly had no plans for Lethal right now, they felt it was a wiser business move to let him go. Roster cuts really do need to happen after all. I know we were all hoping that they would cut the dead weight and non-talents (seriously, why the hell is Rob Terry still there?) instead of someone like Lethal, who has so much potential. But in their own misguided, ill-conceived, half-baked, horribly booked, Russo-concocted way, they really did try to make this guy a star. You can't say he didn't have opportunities, but for whatever reason, ultimately it just didn't work.
In the grand scheme of things, while I regret TNA's decision to part ways with Jay Lethal, since I felt like they hadn't tried everything with him yet and there's really no reason why someone as talented as him can't be a star, in the end, I think I'm okay with it.
If Lethal can iron out the issues with his character and find an original persona that works for him, TNA should welcome him back with open arms and push him to the moon. But for the time being, I think it's for the best that company officials stick a 'Wait and See' label on this guy and focus on the people on their roster that have already figured that out.