If a person were going to judge TNA on the basis of their WRESTLING prowess, how well would they score? Would they score higher 5 years ago? What I'd like to explore in some depth is whether or not the actual standard has changed in terms of wrestling QUALITY for the business in general, but for TNA specifically.
I suppose the best place to start is from the beginning....2002; June 19th, to be exact. The very first show NWA: TNA launched. If anyone wants to throw out the term "WWF has-beens", they could have started on the PPV that night. Psicosis, Jerry Lynn, Christian York, Joey Matthews, Ken Shamrock, Brian (Grandmaster Sexay) Christopher, Konnan, Rick Steiner, Buff Bagwell, Scott Hall, K-Kwik (aka. Ron "The Truth" Killings aka. R-Truth), and Jeff Jarrett all were included on the card. In fact, the list here reads like a Who's Who on the WWF midcard roster list from 1999-2002. You can call it whatever you want, but the collection of talents put together on that night made history. Was every match a wrestling classic? Not in the way you might classify a Chris Jericho vs. Dean Malenko match from 1998, but by virtue of a new wrestling promotion being formed from the dust, so to speak, it was.
In the weeks that followed, the crown jewel of TNA was founded....the X Division. Inspired by the X Games, which had become popular by that time, the X Division had one tagline: It's not about weight limits; it's about NO limits. What strikes me as interesting, however, is that even in the grand stage of the early years of TNA, there was never mentioned a TNA iconic match that embodied the brand until 2005. By THAT time, TNA had secured a TV deal with Spike for a one hour block of first run programming. At the PPV Unbreakable, TNA had their first Match of the Year contender between Christopher Daniels, Samoa Joe, and AJ Styles.
In what can only be described as the HBK Era between 2002 and 2010, Shawn Michaels was a match of the year holder in every year, but in 2005, the voting actually could have gone either way, as another future TNA alum held the other half of 2005's Match of the Year honor, Kurt Angle and Unbreakable's main event between the three competitors garnered some public fanfare. So when TNA signed him away from WWE in 2005, it was TNA's single best investment. In the years that followed, Angle held honors from PWI for feud of the year as a winner or runner-up from 2007 until 2011.
From the perspective of a fan who has seen it from day one, I LOVED the early days, but there was always this hazy cloud as it related to the World Championship scene from 2003 until Kurt Angle came on the scene in 2005. The cloud's name was Jeff Jarrett. I think at Bound for Glory 2005, when Sting won the World Heavyweight Championship, things began to shift for the better in the company's legacy. Why? Because leading into that, TNA was essentially WCW; where the Cruiserweight Division had their place and the Heavyweight had theirs and never the two shall meet. Oh, there was a heavyweight or two that held the X Title on occasion, but by and large, it was a title dominantly held by the cruiserweights on the TNA roster.
Unbreakable in 2005 changed the rules. There is an unwritten rule amongst wrestling promotions that states that the World Heavyweight Title MUST be defended at the top of the card. TNA, at that point, had such a compelling storyline going in the X Division between the three competitors that made it IMPOSSIBLE to play the PPV any other way. That was the night the X Division made the main event their own.
In 2004, TNA began to establish their identity on the televised world stage. King of the Mountain, Xscape, Ultimate X, Lethal Lockdown, Six Sides of Steel, Full Metal Mayhem, and other match types became staples of the brand. While it's true that these matches had been established before that time, many who had not been watching them until their debut on Spike TV finally were able to take advantage of the chance. This may sound like a history lesson, but I DO have a point. If I had to compare the TNA of 2002 with the TNA of 2005 with the TNA of 2009 with the TNA of today, my personal choice is the TNA of today. Why? Because of the position of the World Heavyweight Title as it relates to the brand and how the roster aligns itself to that fact. Let's be real here for a minute....a brand's World Title holder is what garners the most attention among the masses. It, for the most part, is the pinnacle of whatever brand that holds it. Everyone wants to be the World Champion.
Up until nearly two years ago, the X Division was the glass ceiling that most of the competitors that held it bumped their head on on their journey to fulfill their wrestling dream. All that changed with "Option C", which was introduced by Austin Aries. Now, the X Title has an actual street value as the ticket OUTSIDE of the Bound for Glory Series given to the most dominant player in the division. Ask Chris Sabin. Ask Austin Aries. Sabin, Aries, Bully Ray, Bobby Roode, and a great many other top notch performers were allowed to break out and have championship dreams realized AND be the ones to carry the company to boot. Maybe it's just me, but I will take a match between Bobby Roode and Kurt Angle or Aries and Hardy or Sabin and Styles ANY day of the week over one of the 3 minute X Division matches of old. That isn't to say they were bad, but the matured and wisdom laden wrestling TNA has been putting out of late has been well played out, planned with preciseness, and executed with the kind of care one would expect from a company that wants to do good by the fans.