ORLANDO, FL — It wasn’t that long ago when Mike Tenay had high hopes for turning around the fortunes of his then employer World Championship Wrestling (WCW).
It was early 2000 and the promotion had just witnessed the departure of top wrestling talents Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko and Perry Saturn. Kevin Sullivan had stepped in as the new booker with much controversy and World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) was out distancing their Atlanta-based rivals in the television ratings race.
Still, there was hope.
“If you would see the hours and hours of work we put into every show, there’s no throwing in the towel with the people here, I can honestly say that. It’s the exact opposite. We’re working more hours and working harder than we ever have,” said Tenay in an interview with SLAM! Wrestling in February 2000.
But throw in the towel they did in March of 2001, selling out to Connecticut-based WWE.
Fast forward to the year 2005 and Tenay is still wearing the broadcaster’s headset, still calling professional wrestling matches, still considered to be the best in the business.
At this past April’s Total Nonstop Action (TNA) Lockdown pay per view (PPV), SLAM! Wrestling had the chance to sit down and talk with Tenay. The conversation immediately went to reflecting on his state of mind during WCW’s last Monday Night Nitro broadcast on March 26, 2001.
“That was a real difficult night I think for a lot of people,” recalled Tenay. “For me, seeing the end of WCW as a company was one thing, but I think equally as important was seeing so many people that you had worked with for many, many years — people there that had obviously become, in some instances, closer than family members. All of a sudden, just like the snap of a finger, you’ll never see half of those people again. As I look back on it that was my strongest emotion at that time.”
Not only was it the end of the Monday night wrestling wars, but the closure of an era where Tenay had clearly elevated himself into the subconscious of wrestling fans. Vigorous in his efforts to educate the masses on accurate names and origins of wrestling holds, he had indeed become The Professor of professional wrestling, the man who knew it all and did it with class.
For awhile, it seemed that wrestling fans had seen the last of Tenay.
“I remember when the WWF came to Atlanta and they had mass interviews,” said Tenay in describing the post era of WCW, with talent from the now defunct promotion looking for work with their one time rivals.
“Jim Ross was up on the 30th floor of the hotel. You had a set time — you went up and had an interview with Jim Ross. I went for that interview and there were just certain aspects of the interview at that time that I really couldn’t commit to working for them under the circumstances that were laid out for me. One of them was a move to Stamford, Connecticut. I had moved my family to Atlanta and it just wasn’t in the cards. I even went to Stamford, Connecticut and looked around to see if it would work out for me personally. There’s no question that for that time period, that year plus, I questioned whether or not I would ever be involved in professional wrestling again.”
But Tenay was facing more than just the prospect of not working in his beloved professional wrestling. With WCW gone and the implosion of Philadelphia-based Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), a full scale depression of the industry came to pass and remains so to this day. Many would point the finger of blame at Vince McMahon and his lust for domination over the business, while others would declare it was a naturally-occurring phenomena.
Ask Tenay what he thinks and he will tell that it’s the movers and shakers within the wrestling business that need to face reality.
“I’ve heard that for 40 years, peaks and valleys. You’re going to have those good times and you’re going to have those bad times. To say that it’s self-inflicted makes a lot of sense to me. I think so often you get a person who is in charge of a company and they have big ideas initially. But I don’t think it’s too strong to say that every idea man has a shelf life — you run out of ideas or you get to the point where you’re recycling ideas that worked in the past. That can lead to a slump in the business. The wrestling business has to be the one to say ‘Yeah, we’re the reason why the product is good or bad.’ If there’s a good product out there, the people are going to find it, as long as they have access to it.”
Access has, and still is, the paramount challenge for Tenay’s new employer, Total Nonstop Action (TNA). Launched in June of 2002 with the goal of providing an alternative to disenfranchised wrestling fans, TNA has rowed against the difficult current of garnering the attention of that target audience. Starting off with a weekly PPV show, they eventually steered towards a monthly format. For awhile, the change-up worked, with regular televised TNA Xplosion segments being broadcasted on Fox Sports Net to help boost buy rates for the PPV.
But that program was recently discontinued, leaving the promotion with only a select few stations to broadcast their shows.
“We are looking to take that next level so that we can give them (fans) a product in a primetime slot,” said Tenay, adding that it will be no easy task attracting those who walked away from watching wrestling on their television sets.
“Once that’s out there and the product is good, then you might say the wrestling business has run its course. The hardest part right now is that so much time has past since that WCW golden era and the business has lost so many of those fans. I can’t begin to tell how many times I go to the airport and people say ‘Oh my God, Mike Tenay, I’ll never forget Monday Night Nitro, I’ll never forget WCW.’ Monday night was their wrestling night; it was the cool thing to do. They’re still out there; they remember WCW and many of them don’t know that TNA exists. I hope that we try to go for is recruit a lot of those people back to the table, back to professional wrestling.”
Television woes aside, TNA has developed into a product that is trying to innovate their in-ring product, along with giving many new young wrestlers a chance to shine in the spotlight. In particular, the X Division, featuring fast-paced, cruiserweight competitors has indeed been the crown jewel for the company. From there, the evolution of the Ultimate X matches, where participants tangle high above the ring from cables, inaugurating a new era of daredevil wrestling. Not that long ago, the promotion went from the traditional four-sided ring to a six -sided one.
“What we have been doing to separate us from everyone else is the strong emphasis on youth,” Tenay commented. “It’s never been more evident that you need to have a core group of recognizable talent. At the same time, you need to have new, young, fresh talent that’s being put on your programs on a regular basis. I think from an esthetic standpoint, the visual of people tuning in and seeing a six-sided ring, I think is a big help. It separates us from everybody else. Personally, I like the aspect of it and the different angles that guys can springboard off of and dive off of. If nothing else, it will cause that person who has that remote control to stop and take a look at your product.”
Tenay also noted that the key to TNA’s future is being able to not only work with the corporate giants of the American television industry, but to adhere to ethical standards that are vital to any partnership.
“I said it at that time when we made the deal with Fox Sports Net — that we were going to be held accountable for our product. That Fox Sports Net did not want a product that catered to the lowest common denominator,” he said. “They wanted a product that was athletically based. I think the wrestling business to gain that kind of momentum that we need, to gain the kind of acceptability that we need from mainstream media, by mainstream advertisers; we need to provide an entertaining product, a product that doesn’t cater to the lowest common denominator, a product that highlights the athleticism of the guys involved. Don’t take the easy way out to get the cheap spike in the ratings.”
Battered as the wrestling industry may be in North America right now, it is not unique.
In Japan, where for the longest time professional wrestling reigned with immense popularity and profitability, is also struggling. While the popularity of mixed martial arts cannot be ignored, Tenay, a connoisseur of both Japanese and Mexican professional wrestling, made it clear that there are simply too many promotions competing with each other.
“If there’s a [Tokyo] Dome show, there’s going to be wrestlers from five different promotions,” observed Tenay. “What has caused the slump in Japan, and the mixed martial arts has certainly played a role in taking away a part of that audience, but also, being identified with a certain group. It’s like in professional sports, when you have so many trades or free agents; you lose the ability to identify with a team. For me, and I watch Japan wrestling these days, I do not watch it nearly as much as I watched it in the All Japan-New Japan era. These days, if I read in the Wrestling Observer that there’s a kick-ass Tokyo Dome show that I have to see, I will go out of my way to get a tape.”
As for future prospects that Tenay would like to see join the TNA roster, he remained coy in giving out any specific names.
“I can’t give you a name of somebody who is still on a no-compete (clause). I’ve certainly seen some guys that have been released over the course of the last few months that I think could play an important role here. Other than that, let’s look outside the box; let’s maybe bring in more talent from Mexico and Japan, like we’re doing with Shocker. To me, Shocker is so important to us right now because he gives us visibility with the Hispanic audience. To me, it’s good to have people recycled from other promotions. But at the same time, once we get them booked, then let’s show someone different, somebody that we’ve either created or somebody that we’ve enhance.”
Mike Tenay will be calling the matches once again for TNA at the No Surrender PPV on Sunday, July 17th.