Battle Royale 

Nashville-based NWA/TNA, an upstart wrestling organization, is taking on the giant of the pro wrestling world, WWE

Nashville-based NWA/TNA, an upstart wrestling organization, is taking on the giant of the pro wrestling world, WWE

Guys hitting each other with chairs, crashing through tables and falling from the tops of teetering ladders. Huge bruisers screaming their murderous intent at terrified little men with microphones. Glowering gladiators with names like Sandman, Slash, Shark Boy, EZ Money and the sinister Minister James Mitchell of the New Church. Fans waving signs and gleefully chanting, “Losers! Losers!” at whoever gets knocked around the most in the ring. Flags, beer, blood, bravado, biker vests, shaved heads, rawk ’n’ roll.... All this mayhem and spectacle unfolds at the usually civilized Tennessee State Fairgrounds every Wednesday night, under the auspices of the National Wrestling Alliance/Total Nonstop Action (NWA/TNA).

But the story of NWA/TNA goes much deeper than that. Even if eye gouging isn’t your idea of entertainment, it’s not hard to relate to a scenario that pits a start-up entrepreneur against a monstrous corporation. Seeing the gutsy upstart taking on a fat cat, matching sweat, adrenaline and ambition against piles of money, getting knocked down and getting up again, even dealing with possible treachery from friends...that’s business. That’s America.

Come to think of it, that’s wrestling too—a metaphor for how we view our lives. And that is at least part of what draws fans to their televisions throughout the U.S. and as far away as Israel, Malaysia and Australia, so that they can catch every ref bump, pelvic grind and body slam as it happens live right in our own neighborhood.

In this particular drama, the underdogs are Jerry and Jeff Jarrett, a father-and-son team with roots in Hendersonville and a lot of history in wrestling. Jerry, a soft-spoken gent, has been around the business a long time, since the age of 3, when his mother Christine started selling tickets for legendary Middle Tennessee promoters Nick Gulas and Roy Welch. His son Jerry, buff and blond, is a high-visibility headliner who’s made it his trademark to bash guitars over the heads of hapless foes. Dad is laid-back and understated; son is intense and driven.

Together, they’re the backbone of NWA/TNA, formed under the auspices of JSE, or Jarrett Sports Entertainment. These guys are the “faces”—in wrestling argot, the good guys.

So who’s the bad guy—the “heel”? He’s nowhere near Nashville, sequestered in presumably lavish quarters somewhere in Connecticut. His name is Vince McMahon, and he presides over WWE, or World Wrestling Entertainment, a company whose position in wrestling parallels that of Microsoft in software development. Twice each week, he parades his talent through exploding pyrotechnics and into combat on two cable programs seen around the world; every six weeks or so, he and his organization mount pay-per-view shows that lead to the annual Wrestlemania event, a chaos of bared flesh, blood and psychodrama.

McMahon, a mutant fusion of P.T. Barnum, Rupert Murdoch and your generic playground bully, bought the promotion from his father some 25 years ago. Since then, he has clamped professional wrestling in a stranglehold that, depending on how you look at it, has either made it bigger than anyone thought it could be or squeezed it into a limp effigy of what it once was.

After a brutal contest that peaked in what fans now wistfully remember as the “Monday night wars” between competing wrestling cable programs, McMahon brought Ted Turner to the mat and forced the media tycoon to sell World Championship Wrestling (WCW), the only organization remaining that could defy WWE’s hegemony. With that, literally overnight, a number of wrestlers found themselves out of work.

One of those was Jeff Jarrett. For several years, like other ring warriors, he had bounced back and forth between WCW and WWE (known in those days as WWF, or World Wrestling Federation, until the World Wildlife Fund laid its legal smackdown on McMahon). When Turner pulled the plug in March 2001, Jarrett, like a number of other WCW stars, was left looking at a future filled with a whole lot of nothing.

Today, McMahon remains the T-Rex of wrestling, but his domination is beginning to show signs of weakness. Growing numbers of viewers are burning out on WWE’s weekly programming, in which McMahon’s stars are run through skits involving necrophilia, murder, racism, blasphemy and other ponderously provocative angles. This weariness, measured by WWE’s plummeting ratings, may give NWA/TNA its best chance to bring the giant down.

It’s Wednesday, March 19. As clocks in Washington and Baghdad measure the minutes before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, fans gather at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds’ Sports Arena, waiting to enjoy a night of ersatz warfare courtesy of NWA/TNA. Clearly, this is not the same audience that used to attend wrestling matches in the ’80s, when McMahon, in a stroke of marketing genius, made it hip for college students to turn out for battles involving Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, “Macho Man” Randy Savage and other popular dramatis personae. In those days, going to the matches was an ironic frivolity, a class-conscious smirk. But there’s no irony or arrogance here at the Fairgrounds. These are true believers; wrestling is, for these largely blue-collar folks, a lifestyle.

Passing through the double doors into the arena, which is maybe half the size of your typical middle-school gym, each audience member is handed a tiny American flag—a visual that might have a problematic impact on TV viewers elsewhere in the world. Ahead, past souvenir tables to the left and a garish concession stand to the right, the three red ropes and four padded turnbuckles of the ring gleam beneath overhead lights.

Just before show time, fist-pumping, scalp-tingling alt rock erupts at ear-bleed volume, and a young guy dressed in a car salesman suit leaps into view. This is Jeremy Borash, a key player at NWA/TNA, who juggles multiple roles on and off camera. Here, as seconds tick down toward the weekly live pay-per-view broadcast of NWA/TNA Total Nonstop Action, he’s working the room, whipping up the energy level. He introduces the regular broadcast team—first Mike Tenay, known for his encyclopedic knowledge of wrestling history, and then the bearlike, disheveled Don West, who comes barreling down the entry ramp and joins Tenay at their ringside table. Each man has a sartorial gimmick: Tenay, a.k.a. “the Professor,” wears a sober tuxedo, while West always dresses in some garish, Day-Glo hue. Tonight, his tie and shirt are both a screaming, fire-engine crimson.

“Now,” Borash yells, his voice snapping like a flag in a stiff breeze, “who wants to see some...TNA?”

And suddenly the music cranks up again, and Miss Jessica and LolliPop, each in huge black vinyl boots and microscopic bikinis, step down the same ramp to a reaction that might be compared to what happens when a hunk of meat lands in front of a pack of underfed Dobermans. They sashay around, smiling, waving and obliging requests to lean this way or that.

“Girls,” Borash commands, “to your cages!” With that, they exit the ring, slink up the ramp and slip into the two disco-style cells, where they pass the next several hours swiveling and gyrating throughout the volcanic blasts of music that play between each match.

Borash begins hawking the sale of programs for this evening’s matches. “Shut up, Jeremy!” someone yells from the part of the room set aside for those who support the bad guys—the “Heel Section.”

And then, with the camera crew scuttling into position and the noise level surging in anticipatory hysteria, Borash counts off the last moments. Once again, just like last week and most of the 36 weeks before that, the action is under way. We open with a confrontation between Kevin Northcutt and Sonny Siaki, highlighted by some vicious chair shots and suplexes. The fans, however, are merciless; when both guys feign injury in order to lie inert on the mat for a few seconds and catch their breath, catcalls and a new chant erupt.

“Bogus! Bogus!” the happy mob jeers. They’re hungry for, as the company promises, total...nonstop...action. And over the next two hours, that’s what they get, from a flag-waving sermon delivered by the hyper-patriotic wrestler Hacksaw Jim Duggan (“I got somethin’ to say to Germany and France,” he bellows. “Stay outta my way!”) to a grand finale in which the psycho who calls himself Raven shoots a staple gun into the face of his opponent, A.J. Styles.

That, folks, is as good as it gets in this business.

All of this hoopla—the testosterone circus, the saga of good and evil in mortal collision—began one quiet weekend down in Louisiana. Ted Turner’s WCW had just folded, and the Jarretts had accepted an invitation from an old friend, a pioneering Internet wrestling journalist named Bob Ryder.

“We’d all worked together in WCW, so we decided to go fishing and feel sorry for ourselves,” explains Ryder, who now serves as director of administration and talent relations at NWA/TNA. “We all tossed the question around: What do we do next? It started as a small idea, then everyone pitched in and added things to it. By the time we got back to the dock, everyone was seasick, but we knew we were onto something.”

They came up with a plan so cockeyed that no one else would have taken it seriously—yet one that could work where something more sensible might have failed. They started by isolating the problem: Vince McMahon had revolutionized professional wrestling by pushing his product so hard through cable that the regional promotions, once the lifeblood of the sport, were pulverized. Then, as audiences dropped their allegiance to local favorites and started following the same heroes and story lines that people all over the world were following, McMahon performed a hostile takeover of his only rival, Ted Turner’s WCW.

Was there any way for a new organization to gain a foothold under these conditions? The key seemed to lie in an approach that returned somewhat to the old territorial model, in which fans felt a genuine connection with the wrestlers in the ring, while still making use of the worldwide forum provided by cable. But how? The well-funded WWE was already running its twice-weekly cable shows, Raw on Monday nights and Smackdown on Thursdays, along with non-televised “house shows,” in which two separate stables of wrestlers traveled from city to city, eating considerable travel expenses to motivate fans into buying the organization’s pay-per-view extravaganzas.

A picture quickly clarified: The key to building income was pay-per-view business. The pitfall was the cost of sending wrestlers and production crews out on the road for the weekly cards.

“On that fishing trip, we realized that if you put wrestling as a business on a pie chart, you have seven or eight income streams,” Jeff Jarrett remembers. “You have pay-per-view, you have merchandise, you have licensee products, you have publications. On the WWE and WCW models, pay-per-view was the biggest stream by leaps and bounds. On the other hand, house shows, even in the best of times, are a huge cash cow. And now, with the ad market down, you’re going to get even less money from advertising. So Bob said to my dad, 'Why don’t we do this?’ ”

The skeptic on that trip was Jerry Jarrett, whose views of what would and wouldn’t fly in wrestling went back for decades—back to when he went to work at age 12, selling tickets to matches in Nashville, just as his mother had done. He was 15 when he promoted his first wrestling events, driving his own car to McMinnville, Sparta and Lebanon in Tennessee, and to Columbia, Ky. Eventually, he made enough to purchase the Gulas/Welch organization, for which he worked, and expand its reach into adjacent areas: Jonesboro, Ark.; Tupelo, Miss.; and north into Indiana.

He was, and is, old-school, with a wisdom derived from failures and successes alike. When the McMahon hurricane first hit, Jarrett’s regional empire collapsed, and for the first time in his life, he left the business. He had been running a construction company for eight years when his son invited him down to Bob Ryder’s boat. Having been burned once by WWE, he had little interest in leaping back into the fire. “We talked for five hours that night,” he recalls, “and most of it was me explaining why nobody could break into the business anymore. But the more we talked about building the plan around pay-per-views and scrapping all the rest, the more it started to seem feasible to me.”

By the time the trio had come home to Nashville, they had already decided they were crazy enough to try to make this happen.

For the next year and a half, the Jarretts, Ryder, Borash and the rest of a tiny team cobbled together their operation. Jeff and Jerry scraped up about a million dollars to get things going, but with projected costs of $240,000 per televised episode, other funding proved essential. They found it at first through Health South, which kicked $1.6 million toward NWA/TNA in exchange for a percentage of ownership. Then they assigned BTP Consulting to negotiate a deal with In Demand, a media company that would give NWA/TNA its strongest possible cable launch. The idea was to focus almost entirely on pay-per-view broadcasts, making them available through cable or satellite providers in as many markets as possible throughout the U.S. (NWA/TNA also broadcasts a weekly half-hour syndicated program, NWA/TNA Explosion, taped in Nashville as a warm-up before each live pay-per-view broadcast, largely as an enticement for viewers to buy the next showing of Total Nonstop Action.)

Unfortunately, Jay Hassman, their chief contact at BTP, reportedly failed to disclose his previous business relationship with Team Services—a marketing organization whose clients included Vince McMahon’s WWE. It’s still not clear exactly what happened, but as far as Jerry and Jeff Jarrett are concerned, Hassman’s involvement proved a major liability to their fledgling organization.

In July 2002, the Jarretts filed a suit against Hassman and his associate, Len Sabal, in the Davidson County Circuit Court, charging that BTP had inflated the buy-rate figures for NWA/TNA’s initial PPV broadcasts. Based on these figures, which reportedly indicated that between 50,000 and 100,000 viewers were buying access to each show, Jerry Jarrett had invested up to $250,000 per week in production costs; on learning that the numbers were actually closer to 10,000 to 25,000 some five weeks into the broadcasts, the Jarretts realized that they had gone critically over budget.

Accusations between the two sides were reported at wrestling news sites. Hassman indicated that he had turned his NWA/TNA business over to Sabal, due to possible conflict of interest; the Jarretts insisted they were never informed of his decision. In turn, Hassman and Sabal produced evidence that JSE had in fact reimbursed Sabal for expenses incurred on behalf of NWA/TNA. The Jarretts claimed that they had been hoodwinked either because of some dark complicity between Hassman and McMahon, or for reasons more obscure.

Hassman issued a statement to PWTorch.com, an online wrestling newsletter, but his hysterical tone did little to clarify his position. (“He said, she said, paranoia reigns...,” the statement read in part, “get confused, lose focus, strike out helter-skelter...scream, 'GET THE LAWYERS!’ ”) Sabal, contacted by the Scene, declined to be interviewed and indicated that Hassman, his partner in a new firm called K-4 LLC, would refuse comment as well. (Legal action between the two parties continues, with a hearing on the latest round scheduled for October before Judge William J. Haynes in the U.S. Federal District Court in Nashville.)

As suits and countersuits were filed, the Jarretts learned that Health South, embroiled in its own Enron-like troubles, had bailed on its funding agreement, forcing the cash-strapped NWA/TNA to cancel its live shows on Aug. 27 and Sept. 4 last year and substitute reruns of previous broadcasts. “I called every banker I knew, and Jeff called everyone he knew,” Jerry Jarrett recalls. “But we both thought at the point that it was all over.”

At the last minute, the bailout came from an unlikely source: the parents of Dixie Carter, NWA/TNA’s publicist at Nashville-based Trifecta Entertainment. Bob and Janice Carter run the show at Panda Energy, which controls approximately 10 percent of America’s electricity from its offices in Dallas. Although the Panda deal reportedly whittled the Jarrett family’s ownership of NWA/TNA down to 15 percent, according to PWTorch.com, it also apparently saved the company at the last possible moment. After the two-week hiatus, the show went back on the air and has continued to put on its weekly card since September.

It’s Wednesday afternoon, March 26, at the state fairgrounds, and preparations are under way for the live broadcast later that evening. Up in the balcony, Borash is cutting a promo for next week’s show: “Wednesday night will never be the same, ladies and gentleman,” he barks, sounding like a medicine show huckster pushing snake oil. Wrestlers circle around the room, chatting informally, stretching, catching up on how things have gone since their last meeting.

Gradually, the ring fills with NWA/TNA stars, most of them dressed in their civvies. They’re paired off, working through moves for their upcoming matches. In one corner is A.J. Styles, one of the leading heels, and his opponent, Mike Sanders. Styles bounces off the ropes, catches Sanders in a body scissors; Sanders slams Styles—gently—into the mat. With that, the pair have nailed a “high spot.”

“OK, what do you think about this?” Sanders asks. “I do my snap-mare deal, then I do this,” he says, kicking Styles in the stomach.

“I’ll sell that,” Styles offers, meaning that he’ll react as if he had been impaled by a machete.

“No,” corrects Sanders, “you’re gonna sell the move.” This apparently means reacting with even more agony than would be involved in selling the impact of the move.

“That’s what I was thinking,” Styles says, who illustrates by falling onto his back, grimacing, arching, grabbing his wounded gut and groaning theatrically.

On the far side of the ring, Vince Russo, a controversial “story-line” writer and former major player at WWE, is issuing directions to another knot of wrestlers, including a woman who’s billed as the Goddess Athena. After working out her spot, Athena stoops through the ropes, picks up her purse from the ring apron and leaves for the dressing room.

Elsewhere in this crowded space, an astonishingly athletic youngster called the Amazing Red and a gifted bad guy known as Kid Kash are working through their own routine. Kash kicks up to Red’s head, Red sinks onto the canvas, and Kash aims another boot toward his opponent, who rolls back to avoid contact. “Too many ducks,” laughs Chris Daniels, a baldheaded villain watching the rehearsal. “Hit him every time!”

Kash and Red run through the steps again, in slow motion like everyone else in the ring. The aggregate effect is unexpectedly breathtaking, like watching a ballet executed underwater: more beautiful than violent, and far more about cooperation than competition.

These are mainly young performers, though veterans pass as well through the portals of TNA. Easily the most renowned of those on the card tonight is Dusty Rhodes, billed as the American Dream. For more than three decades, the immense Texan, a 300-plus-pound behemoth, has fought in main events all over the world. He was for years one of the top draws in WCW, and for a while he jumped to the WWE, where McMahon humiliated him by placing him in sketches that involved delivering pizzas and cleaning toilets.

An Atlanta resident now, Rhodes has been flying into Nashville for several weeks to play his part for the Jarretts. At this point in his career, he is well past his prime, yet projects palpable aura even as he stands in the shadows near the dressing room. With his trash-talking gab, his history of gigs from backwater dives to Madison Square Garden, and his battle-ravaged physiognomy, Rhodes is an undeniable legend.

Backstage, the Dream sinks into a minuscule folding chair, his forehead a minefield of scar tissue from “blading”—deliberately cutting himself with a razor blade in the name of bloody realism.

“I believe in what’s going on here,” he says in his strangled Hill Country drawl, speaking in preacher-like cadences. “In Nashville, everybody is a good-lookin’ kid with a cowboy hat, but you don’t find a Vince Gill or a Willie Nelson that easily. When you do, you grab hold of it. The NWA/TNA is that distinctive voice in our industry. Its strength is in everybody’s work ethic. It’s in the old and the new being combined. It’s the good guy trying to beat the bad guy. I want the kids to yell for the young guys, and I want the moms and dads to come in and say, 'Hey, there’s old Dusty Rhodes out there! Hell, I thought he was dead!’

“TNA has that whole spectrum, and it’s on the verge of taking it to the top. I can see them pounding it out. You forget that writers all over the country have told us, 'Hey, wrestling ain’t real,’ and all of a sudden you’re jumping up, man, saying, 'I want this guy to win!’ It’s like saying, 'For these two hours I’m going to a movie. I don’t want to know the outcome.’ And when you leave, you talk about that movie like it was real until you start driving down the road, and then you say, 'I can’t wait to see the next one.’ ”

Rhodes blades that night, as he had the previous week in Nashville and thousands of times before that. For the American Dream, NWA/TNA may be just another stop on a long and rugged ride, but if the story line plays out as planned, it could mean much more than that for a new generation of blue-collar brawlers and fans who prefer an honest fake fight to a squared-circle soap opera.

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