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November 2014: Once You're TNA, Are You TNA 4-Life?

How does one become a professional wrestling superstar? What is the WWE Performance Center and how do you get there? Who is WWE interested in hiring nowadays? How has getting to WWE changed over the years? Is it possible to be yourself within the WWE developmental system? What does it mean for your career if you decide to sign with TNA instead of WWE? It’s these questions I will discuss in this month’s FightBox blog.

Where Do Wrestlers Come From, Anyway?

If you’re not a wrestling fan (and I’m assuming that you are if you’re still reading) you might wonder where WWE Superstars come from. Are they retired American football players? Are they bred under careful conditions in a WWE laboratory? Do they just spring up from holes in the ground? The answer of course is that all of the new additions to the WWE roster in the past several years are products of the new WWE training facility - The Performance Center and it has changed the landscape of how one goes about becoming a star in the wrestling business.

Since the mid 90’s WWE has, in one form or another, been training wrestlers in its own wrestling school after the disintegration of the territory system. In July of 2013 they officially opened The WWE Performance Center - a massive 26,000 square foot, state-of-the-art training facility, fully equipped with seven wrestling rings, a professional television studio and gym, strength and conditioning coaches and more. It’s within these walls that WWE superstars are molded. Training becomes a full time job for new recruits, who sometimes spend years trying to impress their trainers and other WWE officials in hopes of landing a spot on television and in WWE’s year round global touring sports-entertainment brand.

How Making it to the Big Time Has Changed

It has always seemed like making it to the WWE was the ultimate goal for a wrestler. Even in the territory days, working Madison Square Garden as part of the old WWWF territory was considered the pinnacle of one’s career. Later on, it was always wise to use one of the other big wrestling organizations in hopes of getting noticed. Huge stars like Steve Austin, Chris Jericho, Mick Foley and Rey Mysterio all worked for rival promotions like ECW and WCW first in order to try to get the attention of “the big leagues” of wrestling. Later on, Ring of Honor kind of took that role as the stepping stone promotion, producing wrestlers like CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins and Cesaro to name a few.

Nowadays though, it seems like working for the next biggest competitor is more of a hindrance than a stepping stone. The biggest shocker for me was when long time TNA ace AJ Styles was not picked up by WWE when he left TNA earlier this year. AJ worked his way up the ladder from his time on the independents up through Ring of Honor and into TNA where he proved himself by having incredible matches with some of the top talent in the business such as Kurt Angle.

I simply cannot seem to wrap my mind around why WWE is not signing guys like Bobby Roode, Samoa Joe, Austin Aries, Abyss or AJ Styles. Is it that WWE are not interested in talent labeled as “TNA guys” or is it that those same wrestlers are not interested in the WWE? The WWE schedule is definitely a very grueling one that can take its toll on you, as I discussed in the September blog, but most guys who opt for the TNA schedule are those who’ve already had their run in the WWE and are burnt out, not the ones that haven’t had their run yet.

“Reprogramming” in The Performance Center

Another reason may be that, from what I can tell, if you are a top independent wrestler who is not open to being “retrained” by WWE in the Performance Center, you are most likely not going to be successful there. WWE has always had a thing about rebranding previously established talent from other organizations. Steve Austin was brought in as “The Ringmaster”, Brian Danielson was renamed Daniel Bryan and so on, mainly due to the legality of it. Vince McMahon likes to copyright the name and likeness of his characters in order to maximize their value, but it seems like there’s more to it than that. It seems like all the guys coming out of WWE developmental for the past several years are all cookie cutter images of one another. Most guys are between 6’ 2’’ and 6’ 8’’ inches tall and between 230 and 300 lbs with a tanned complexion and a similar ring style. It’s almost like they have a John Cena mold that they are trying to force the talent into, but we all know what happens when you try to force a round peg into a square hole. The conveyer belt of talent being produced by WWE is occasionally successful (Randy Orton, Batista) but more often than not gets lost in the shuffle. Guys like Bray Wyatt are a breath of fresh air.

I think that the thing that made a lot of the talent that WWE cherry picked from other promotions successful was the fact that they were allowed to be themselves. Guys like Jake Roberts, Roddy Piper, Rey Mysterio, Booker T, Chris Benoit and CM Punk all had previously established characters and were pretty much brought into WWE “as is” or with very little tweaking. They found out who they were from years of wrestling all around the world and they were successful both before and during their WWE runs.


Is it possible to find yourself in a place like the Performance Center? Do you have the freedom to be yourself, be creative and take chances or are you just being force fed a character you don’t like, being given lines to memorize for promos and being held under constant, intense surveillance by trainers who can make or break you? It’s a bizarre conundrum the NXT wrestlers find themselves in. They have to try to become the wrestler that the WWE wants them to be, but at the same time they also have to do something to make themselves different and interesting - something that will make them special and unique which will separate them from the rest of the pack. They have to walk on eggshells and try not to rock the boat too much but also do something to shake things up simultaneously.

One thing is for sure, the WWE is seriously lacking star power at the moment. Is the WWE Performance Center going to be able to produce the next big mega star like Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, The Rock or John Cena? Would it be better to give the NXT guys more freedom to find themselves? Would it pay off to hire guys from outside the system like an AJ Styles? If you are a “TNA guy” does that mean that you have significantly lowered your chances of obtaining a WWE contract in the future? These are questions that need to be seriously addressed because the whole wrestling business seems to have been in hibernation for the past five or six years with the exception of the return of big stars from years gone by like The Rock or Brock Lesnar.

Making it Work

For the foreseeable future it seems that there is only one door which leads into the elite level of professional wrestling and that is through The Performance Center. If you are an aspiring wrestler, the odds of making it there are slim to none to begin with and even if you do make it there, you will probably not end up being the wrestler you imagined you would be. Once in the Performance Center, there are a limited number of spots on the main roster and even if you do have all the right tools, there is no guarantee that “creative will have something for you” or that you will get the call up to the main roster anytime soon thereafter.

But let’s face it, WWE does know what they are doing. They did not become the number one wrestling promotion in the world by accident. They have grown from a regional territory into a 24-hour, corporate, global, sports-entertainment machine, a machine which is fed by talent. Every year scores of potential wrestlers are evaluated in hopes of finding the next big star which will again change the industry. Who will be the next? Many will try, few will get signed to a developmental contract. Of those, a handful will get a full time spot on the roster and only a select few will ever go on to main event a WrestleMania.

I just hope that the powers that be in the WWE haven’t put all of their eggs in one basket when they opened up The Performance Center and become too close minded in regards to finding new stars. At the end of the day the goal is to find a talent that can reignite the appeal of pro wrestling / sports entertainment and bring it to the level that it was at during the Attitude Era or in the 80’s when it was as hot as it ever was, but with no other companies really having the money, television or resources to compete with WWE, it will be difficult to cultivate that new star if it’s not within the confines of the WWE system.

- Daniel Austin (Don Roid)



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