October 10, 2012

Shadows and Light

Logo by FXTVE-Rebooted

When JSO first approached me about participating in a 3 part joint blog to commemorate the five year anniversary of the Knockout division the first thought that entered my head was, "What? It's been five years already? How the crap did that happen?" The second was, "What in the world does he expect me to write about? Doesn't he realize that I've already examined this division in practically every way any writer can?"

So I took a couple days to think about it. I thought and I thought and I thought until something dawned on me. I realized that I had to work so hard to come up with something because unfortunately the Knockout division is just very uninteresting these days. I don't like saying it, but the sad truth is the only time I ever found it less compelling than I do now was that interminable year that the division revolved around Madison Rayne and the Title Reign That Would Not End.

It's a shame that this lull the division is experiencing coincides with its five year anniversary, but those are the breaks. A few bright spots aside, the last year has been pretty rough for the ladies of TNA. The new creative direction causing their screen time to be greatly diminished, the lack of memorable storylines, several notable departures with more probably on the way, Eric Young...

I'm hard pressed to think of a time when the Knockout division was less relevant. Dixie Carter has always been its biggest supporter, so I continue to hold out hope that this is only temporary, that the division is just waiting for its turn while Prichard's team rebuilds/restructures the heavyweight and tag team divisions (and the X-division if it even still exists), but for the time being, we are where we are, so let's talk about that.

The lack of interesting angles and feuds have played a large part in this, but if we're talking about why the Knockout roster has felt so stale in recent months, the biggest culprit is the roster itself IMO. With the current creative regime focusing on a fewer number of talents at any given time the relevance of many of the women has dwindled. And dwindled. And while one or two have benefitted greatly from this new direction,  most of them haven't been so lucky.

-Gail Kim- The godmother of the Knockouts, the woman who, in 2011, returned to TNA to save the division from Velvet Sky. Gail, the first ever Knockouts champ, had a hell of a year. She recaptured the title mere weeks after her return to the company, plowed through every challenger put in front of her and pretty much ran roughshod over the division. Everything was coming up roses for Gail... then she lost the title at Slammiversary and she hasn't done a damn thing since.

Though it had its critics, I found Gail's title reign enormously refreshing, though a lot of that may have been due to the creative shift calling for less interference and fewer stupid gimmicks. Finally the Knockouts had taken the spotlight back from Karen Jarrett and were allowed to @#$%ing wrestle and have good matches unencumbered by overbooking and all the other innumerable Russo pratfalls, and I was loving every minute of it. But once the novelty of booking that didn't make me want to pull my hair out slowly wore off, I did eventually acknowledge that Gail's title run was never really about anything other than her beating the challenger of the month over and over again. While she certainly succeeded in bringing some badly needed stability and credibility back to the championship, the only truly memorable feud she had was with the woman she eventually lost it to. Since then, she's had nothing going on.

Gail is a great asset who makes every match she's in better, but she's always been better with the wrestling aspect of the business than the other stuff. The problem is that in the last year she burned through pretty much every potential opponent and held both championships for an extended period, so she doesn't have a lot left to do now wrestling-wise. The writers could put her in storyline-related angles if they wanted to, but there's been no effort on their part to do so, perhaps because her true talent has always been in the ring.

Her lack of screen time since she lost the title makes me wonder if the bloom has come off the rose somewhat and, frankly, a part of me is wondering if that lengthy title reign earlier this year might have been Gail's swan song, especially with the elevation of the younger and fresher Brooke Tessmacher.

It's far too soon to know for sure, but TNA have always been so high on Gail in the past. During her previous run in the company she was always at the forefront of the division whether she had the title or not. That doesn't seem to be the case anymore. Only time will tell, but I don't really see her getting another mammoth push like the one she received last year. For Gail, I think her best chance for an interesting program now is if a new Knockout shows up, providing her with a fresh opponent. Other than that though...

-Madison Rayne- What can I say that I haven't said already? People can praise her for being the best "character" in the division all they want, but the bottom line is that this character just doesn't work. It's not over. It's never been over. The only heat she ever gets is glommed from people who actually are over like Mickie James or Earl Hebner. Add that to the fact that her matches remain as painfully mediocre today as they were when she debuted several years ago and I just shake my head every time she's on screen.

I will admit, Madison has been more tolerable since she was depushed and made more of a supporting player, but I still struggle to think of what she offers that makes her worth keeping around. Perhaps her best quality is that she can talk well. She can't draw any heat with a microphone, but she can at least speak with some poise when she's not screeching into it, and being adept in that area makes her someone the writers seem to like to use for things outside of straight up wrestling every once in a while, though the success of any storyline she's in tends to rest almost entirely on who she's played off of rather than Madison herself.

Madison had a very lengthy run (far too lengthy) with the singles title that never got over, and like Gail she's already feuded with pretty much every other Knockout. Plus, I think management has realized by now that Madison is not a talent that works at the top of the card, as evidenced by her most recent title reign lasting a grand total of four days and just being done to put over a referee. I could see her being a tag team champion again, but that's nothing we haven't seen before and it hardly means anything these days either.

So what can she do to stay relevant at this point if the writers care to use her? Probably more stuff like seducing Earl Hebner. She's a dependable utility player as long as she's not focused on too much and isn't required to get anything over on her own, and I suppose the writers can use her as a pawn to move pieces around the board, but don't let the song fool you; Madison is no queen and I can't envision any scenario in which she'll be booked like one again.

-Mickie James- Wow. What happened? Mickie came in with a lot of fanfare, was thrown into the top mix immediately, had a terrific feud with Tara and then... not much after that. She had a dud of a feud with Madison Rayne (which admittedly was not her fault. This is Madison Rayne we're talking about here) that lasted way too long, but thankfully concluded with her ending her adversary's year-long stranglehold on the Knockout division, she had an uneventful title reign due to a lack of good opponents, played hot potato with Winter over the belt for a few months, then was thrust firmly into the backseat when Gail showed up and has been stuck there ever since.

I really have to wrack my brain to think of the last time Mickie was given anything interesting to do, and unlike with some of the other women, in this case I just don't get it. We all know TNA love their former WWE stars, and it wasn't that long ago that Mickie was the top Diva in that company and arguably the most popular female performer in the industry. She's one of the few talents they have with genuine crossover appeal outside of wrestling, and while she might be a bit short of scintillating on the microphone, she's certainly charismatic enough to carry a promo/storyline and has done so successfully plenty of times over the years. So why hasn't there been more of an effort on the writers' part to keep her relevant?

Unfortunately, I think Mickie has been a victim of circumstance in recent months. Though she may not have many interesting feuds on the table, one thing she does have is the option to turn heel which, after being a face for so many years, would be a very interesting avenue to explore. And it looked like the writers did intend to take her in that direction until she vanished from TV for reasons unknown. My guess is the unexpected departure of Velvet Sky threw a monkey wrench into that plan, causing the deck to be reshuffled. I'm hoping the option is still open to her when she eventually returns.

Like the other veteran Knockouts, Mickie suffers from a real staleness due to the fact that she's just been around so long and done so much, but there's still a good deal of mileage in her IMO. As a babyface, there's a been-there-done-that feeling to her, but turn her heel and there are plenty of new interesting story possibilities they could explore with Mickie if they wanted to. But the question is, do they want to? Judging by her current extended absence from TV, I'm not sure.

-ODB- A year later and I'm still trying to figure out why TNA brought this woman back and why they didn't get rid of her when they got rid of Jackie Moore. I've said it before and I'll say it again: ODB is a one-trick pony. Sure, I found her original and amusing back when she first debuted, but it's five years later and she's still doing the exact same thing! Her character has not changed or evolved in the slightest in all that time. As a face, she's a fun drunk, as a heel, she's an angry drunk, and that's it. That's all you get from ODB. And when you add that to the fact that she's another case of 'done everything, feuded with everyone', and I really don't see what the point of her is anymore.

These days, ODB kind of feels like the new Tracy Brooks, the sentimental favorite that TNA keep around just because, but personally, I really wish they'd just cut the cord. She's extremely overrated as a wrestler; hell, the only time she's ever had matches in TNA that I would call good were when Gail, Kong, Roxxi and Taylor Wilde were involved in some way. On top of that, every single one of her title reigns was awful, and aside from when she was teaming with Gail and Roxxi against the Beautiful People or with Gail against Kong, pretty much every feud she's been involved in has been just as bad.

The only thing ODB has going for her is her personality, which casual fans still seem to get a kick out of, but that's really it. And honestly, I think company officials know it. Upon her return last year, she was only used as a foil for Velvet Sky, which was followed by months of her doing absolutely nothing until she inexplicably became Knockout tag team champions with Eric Young of all people. And you'd think that if they were putting a title on her that meant they wanted to do something with her, but you'd be wrong. Her marriage angle with EY aside, they proceeded to leave her on the bench again, keeping her off TV for long stretches of time, occasionally teasing a storyline involving Brooke Hogan being angry with her for never defending her title only to drop it for seemingly no reason. Yes, Eric Young was away filming his Animal Planet show, but there was zero effort on the writers' part to keep her in the fans' minds during that time.

Given the new direction Prichard and co. have gone in, it seems as if ODB is still recognized as being popular with casual fans, but her schtick is not valued as much as it used to be, having been supplanted by more traditional female performers with more traditional looks. They seem to think she works best in small doses; she's someone who pops up every now and then, but never does anything really meaningful. I don't see her ever being the singles champion again. The only real use I think they might have for her these days is occasional comic relief and using the heat she generates to get other people over. Beyond that, I'd say the novelty of this character has long since worn off.

-Brooke 'Miss' Tessmacher- Yay, finally someone interesting! And I'm not exaggerating when I say that. Brooke is just about the only thing about the current division that I find genuinely compelling. She's the only Knockout that feels fresh by simple virtue of the fact that she's been there for the shortest amount of time and her character still has that new car smell -- a stark contrast to the rest of the women on the roster.

I'll admit, I was one of her biggest critics when she first began competing in TNA, but she's made a believer out of me. She's been steadily improving her in-ring skills, she's charismatic enough to get the crowds behind her, and because she hasn't really been around that long, she doesn't come with the same baggage the others have, meaning there are still plenty of things that can be done with her character that she hasn't done yet, so she's got a lot of potential for interesting feuds and storylines, first and foremost among them being her title reign.

It's deceptively simple, but the underdog rookie trying to prove that she can cut it as the champion (against Tara no less) for the first time is an interesting dynamic to play around with -- one we haven't seen since Taylor Wilde was the champ -- and it's more of a concrete storyline than Gail was ever given when she had the belt. And the fact that the writers are playing up something like this instead of simply doing the challenger of the month thing, shows that they think she's capable of more than just straight up wrestling.

I wouldn't have said this a year and a half ago, but Tessmacher is my favorite Knockout these days.

-Tara- This one is harder to pin down than the others. Every time I think TNA has gotten all the mileage out of Tara that they're going to get they find something else to do with her. Though she is getting up there in age, it hasn't effected her work at all, and management seem to think highly enough of her to make more of an effort to keep her character relevant than some of the other women. While I wouldn't call her the greatest actor in the world, she does have a charisma the fans latch on to, and while not all of them pan out, she seems to get a lot more storylines than, say, Gail Kim.

Granted, I'm not a fan of how it's being executed, but her teacher vs student feud with Tessmacher is the only thing going on in the division right now and it's proven to be a ratings draw. And when you add this mystery boyfriend from Hollywood to the mix, Tara's currently working with two different storylines when most of the Knockouts can't even get on TV. Not too shabby.

That aside, I think Tara's best asset is that she's a great ring general who can pull a strong match out of just about any opponent, which makes her quite valuable in the event that they start bringing in new Knockouts with less experience. You could say the same thing about Gail, but judging by what's been going on these past few months, I think Tara being more versatile in the non-wrestling aspects of performing probably makes her more likely to be TNA's go-to girl in that area in the future.

-Taryn Terrell- Not much to say here. She looks awesome in that official's shirt, but was the Knockouts having their own referee really necessary? What real purpose does it serve? I'm not sure. I imagine it will be a gateway to her transitioning into a wrestling role Shane Sewell-style at some point, but from what I've seen of her in-ring work (and this is when she didn't have two years of ring rust), I'm not in a big hurry for that to happen. Like Tessmacher, the fact that she doesn't come with a ton of baggage is refreshing and I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt for the time being, but at the moment I just don't have a lot to go on here.

-Sarita & Rosita- While I like both women, I'm only including them on this list because they're still on the roster page. We haven't seen either of them in so long that the writing is clearly on the wall much like it was for Angelina and Winter earlier this year. It's obvious by now that management has no use for these two anymore and is just waiting for their contracts to run out before bidding them farewell. If we see either of them in TNA again I'll be shocked.

-Knockout Tag Team Championships- These belt could have been something that separated TNA's women's division from the competition or something for the undercard Knockouts to fight over until they were ready for the singles title. But TNA has proven by now that they don't care about making the women's tag titles mean anything, and even if they did, they don't have the TV time or the roster depth to do it.

If the only thing the writers can think to do with them is put one of them on a man (something the Knockouts once considered an egregious insult to them, but now don't anymore for reasons that have never been explained) and let them go undefended for six months straight, then why do those titles even exist? Giving one of them to Eric Young, marking the third title belt he's been inexplicably allowed to turn into a comedy prop, was akin to throwing them in the trash, let alone doing a storyline where he tried to actively avoid defending them only to have management respond by throwing up their hands and saying, "Fuck it, we don't care."

The fat lady has sung. TNA could have made the Knockout tag team division work if they'd tried, but they didn't and it doesn't. Those titles mean nothing, so just do the division a favor and put them out of their misery.

-Knockouts Championship- This title is dead. Most of the blame falls on Vince Russo and his hot potato title changes, but it doesn't matter how much damage control the new writers do at this point. Every Knockout on the active roster (not counting the ones that will probably be leaving soon) has held this championship at least twice. Every single one of them! If anyone and everyone can win it, that means the title is basically worthless now. If the newest and freshest woman you have on the roster is already a 2-time champion, then what's the point? Any prestige it used to have is gone. Why do any of them even want the title anymore? It doesn't mean that the woman who holds it is the best, just that it's her turn in line. This entire championship division has reached its endpoint.

So that's the situation we have now. I wish I could put a better spin on this, but I really can't. Something that five years ago was the best, most refreshing women's division in pro wrestling has become a shadow of its former self. The roster is stale, the championships have been rendered meaningless and nearly all the most interesting story possibilities have been exhausted. As it is, there is nowhere left for this division to go. Happy anniversary, ladies!

I have a solution however. This is going to sound a bit radical and most readers will probably think I'm nuts, but I'm saying it anyway. Are you ready? Here it is...

Clean house on the division. Keep three or four of the current women for recognizability and star power, the ones that have the most left to offer (I'm thinking Tessmacher, Tara, Mickie and maybe Gail), and get rid of everyone else. Cut them. Thank them for their contributions, send them out the door and don't let them back in.

Replace them with an entirely new roster cherry-picked from the independent circuit like the inaugural Knockout roster was five years ago (and redesign the title belts too, while you're at it). No more former WWE Divas who would have just as much baggage if not more so than the current Knockouts (I'm looking at you, Jillian Hall!). These would have to be NEW female talents, women who have never been on a national stage before, who can come in 100% fresh, women who have all the tools, but just need the opportunity.

I could name fifteen indie prospects off the top of my head who would be perfect candidates, but this column isn't about that. Besides, I've already done it anyway. Instead, before I wrap this thing up I'm going to move out of the shadows and draw attention to a few bright spots on the horizon; the lights in the darkness if you will, not to get too dramatic about it. Potential future Knockouts who not only fit the bill I just outlined, but who seem highly likely to be headed to TNA in the near future.

I feel a smug sense of satisfaction about this part because since I posted this column several months back, no less than four women from the list I compiled have gotten their foot in the door. And they are...

-Leva Bates- She recently made a surprise appearance backstage, aligning herself with the Aces & 8s. She was absent the following week, but Leva has been so maddeningly coy about the situation in interviews as well as teasing it on twitter that I think it's a reasonably safe assumption that TNA have signed her. She's another graduate of Team 3D's wrestling school and she lives in the area, so they wouldn't have to pay for her travel (we all know what an attractive selling point that is for the company), so I wouldn't bet against it.

This would make me happy. Macing Hulk Hogan in the face already has her competing with Tessmacher for the title of my favorite Knockout right now. But aside from that, I said recently that new signees needed to be women who were unique and could offer some variety to a division that was feeling increasingly generic, and Leva Bates is certainly unique. She works great as an underdog babyface and I've seen her play a very entertaining comedic heel as well. I don't know how she'd fit in with a badass biker gang, but let's wait and see if she shows up again before we start thinking about that.

-Taeler Hendrix- The first female winner of Gutcheck and TNA's first developmental Knockout. I've been following her progress in OVW and it wouldn't surprise me if she were the first developmental talent to make it to iMPACT. Her wrestling might still be a bit shaky, but in terms of performing, mic skills, etc, she's more ready than any of them and probably more ready than some of the current Knockouts if I'm being brutally honest. I'm not saying I'd push her to the moon immediately, but if the writers wanted to make her a manager or on-screen character of some kind, they could call her up to TV right now and I think she'd do just fine.

She really excels in that area and I'm not sure what else she's going to learn in OVW. Granted, in the ring she's still a work in progress, but if they ease her in slowly and give her people like Tara and Gail Kim to work with, she'll probably improve faster than she will in developmental wrestling the likes of Epiphany.

-the Blossom Twins- Two more products of OVW, representing the female contingent of the British Bootcamp show probably means they're awfully prominent on TNA's radar. I said previously that I believed they'll be signed next year whether they win that show or not, and I still believe this. Aside from the fact that they look great and can wrestle, the twins offer a pretty unique marketing gimmick that you don't come across every day in pro wrestling, and I still think they've got a terrific ready-made storyline in a potential pairing with Magnus.

So there's four nice-looking prospects that could be injecting some life into the Knockout division in the near future. It's not a lot to go on, but it's a start. Given TNA's recent efforts to make more use of their developmental system, I hope there will be more to come. And hopefully TNA can keep this ball rolling so, when the ten year anniversary of the Knockout division rolls around we're not still talking about how dull it's become, but how great it is, just like it was when it began at Bound For Glory five short years ago.

Peace. Out.

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