Guest Booker: Yesterday & Today
With Kevin Sullivan & Gabe Sapolsky
Integrating TNA into WWE
Reviewed by Joe Babinsack
I figured it was great timing to roll out a review of another solid Kayfabe Commentaries DVD now. With Chris Cruise’s excellent write up of the JR Speech, future wrestlers have a great insight into how they can improve their chances in the business. (Or, talent can learn from Ricky Steamboat as to why you need to take cues from your audience about going long – whether with a speech or working in the ring.)
With Guest Booker, we have one more two hour glimpse into the minds of significant pro wrestling bookers. What’s a bigger audience for the industry today – potential talent or potential bookers? Look around the internet – every fan is a fantasy booker.
Here’s a great way to learn from guys who do the real thing.
Currently, TNA is supposedly doing some revamps, but with a track record that has mystified wrestling fans for almost a decade, and with aging stars still hogging the spotlights, what good can come of it?
I find it also ironic that Eric Bischoff recently lost a match that means that his name cannot be associated with the promotion.
Oh, the irony!
The ‘impact’ of Bischoff, Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair has merely took a company averaging 1.2 ratings to a ill-conceived challenge of the WWE, and back down to averages more around 1.0. Now that TNA is becoming even less marketable, has Bischoff bailed? Is there any other stip in history that served a guy’s reputation more by losing?
Talking about TNA and the mystifying inability to distinguish itself in the industry, the ongoing second-rate WWE sentiment, the almost invariably insane booking can be something that takes a minute, or a doctoral dissertation.
Sapolsky sums it up best by saying that TNA has never branded itself, and Sullivan makes a great analogy about how ECW was selling motorcycles while the mainstream was selling Lincoln (and being “successful” in doing so.
And today, TNA is selling ten year old Lincolns when the mainstream is selling new ones.
Talking about TNA gets old fast, and the DVD doesn’t rehash the history, the insanity nor does it mention that other Vince at all. (Hey, isn’t Kayfabe Commentaries doing a live Russo Shoot? Oh yeah, June 1st. Put me down for the “Shut Up” vote.)
But talking up a revision of TNA does have some other contrivances.
We go down the Kayfabe Commentaries staple of “What would the WWE do if they….” and in this case, it’s a fantasy purchase of TNA by Vince McMahon, with the requisite merging of the rosters. In the end, whether because you don’t want to just come out and say “we’re firing all the TNA decision makers and doing it right” or some other sort of tap-dance, it just has to be that way.
I’d sooner see a start where Sean Oliver says – you get the book, what would you do, but the question is framed, and it’s rebooking one more invasion angle.
This means that the bookers in question can tackle it with a capability unknown in the WWE Creative Department, let alone in the minds of fantasy bookers across the world.
But these bookers?
Kevin Sullivan is the ultimate politician, and a resume that puts most of his peers to shame. Setting aside the controversy, the negativity and anything else that could be said, Sullivan comes across personably, knowledgeable and engaging.
(Although there is a lot of ‘me too’, but Sullivan definitely knows how to play the game).
Sullivan began booking at the table of Vincent James McMahon, at some point during his tenure with the WWWF (1974-1977, by Wikipedia reference). Sullivan talks a bit about the elder McMahon, expressing things I’ve heard from others, and a few things I would dispute.
The Senior McMahon was, by most references a very nice guy.
In terms of booking, I think McMahon gets far too much credit. Otherwise, Bruno doesn’t get nearly enough for taking McMahon’s plans to the next level. Sullivan relates that booking at that era was done a year in advance, that Vince knew what talent would get how many shots against Bruno, and that Vince would confer at times with Eddie Graham about finishes.
I think there’s a bit of projection there.
Nonetheless, Sullivan is tied back to the Old School, has made decisions with regional, WCW, WWE related companies and of course with TNA. So he is vastly capable and able to make great commentary.
Sapolsky is the main acolyte of Paul Heyman, in terms of booking. Of course Heyman learned from many, including Sullivan, so there’s a lot less of a potential for differing mindsets here than may be implied.
For those who don’t know, Sapolsky is the mind behind EVOLVE, Dragon Gate USA and the long time booker of Ring of Honor. In terms of modern day bookers, he has the longest track record, the capability of commentary from having made several companies notable on the indy scene, and having been associated with various rumors about being a guy that could make waves in the business.
Heck, I’d love to see this combination on the TNA payroll!
Between the two, the decades of experience and the realities of having to produce to survive should not be discounted. Both have also been in and out of situations that give them even more perspective on the business.
One of their shared commentary upon those who book is that they are “in the bubble” and can’t see out. Sapolsky notes that he was in that bubble towards the end of his stint with ROH, and Sullivan has seen that situation at different promotions.
It does explain TNA’s history to a large degree: a sheer inability of decision makers to take a step back, reflect upon what they are doing, and make necessary changes.
Both are anything but “in the bubble” today, with Sapolsky learning a lot about wrestling by watching MMA, and Sullivan seemingly out of the Hogan influence bubble these days, enough to simply say that Hogan needs to go if TNA were to be bought by Vince.
I gained a great deal of insight into the booking world, as I always do with Kayfabe Commentaries, although I’m not exactly going to drink the Kool Aid. While Sapolsky talks up using YouTube, going viral and how the WWE could have gone further with the CM Punk angle of last year, his “Age of the Fall” references seem to fall flat, considering how that long term angle fizzled.
And yet, the booking plans they put together make a lot of sense.
Casting Angle in the Punk angle (er, yeah), Sapolsky comes up with a really cool way to improve upon making someone from the TNA roster even more of an outsider, even more impactful.
While merging rosters and cutting names is the old chestnut of the KC format, Sullivan and Sapolsky sidestep the obvious, and focus instead on using factions, pushing Fortune, trying to book on multiple levels, instead of doing the same old, same old of Vincent K. McMahon’s abuse of new talent.
Sullivan does point out the irony that Vince had little trouble bringing in JYD (and others from the UWF of the time) but these days buries talent not home grown.
A few other interesting points include:
· Sullivan’s suggestion that the Women get their own show.
· Constant reference to the X Games and using the look, attitude and demographics to bring in another fan base. (Sullivan’s daughter, apparently is of the age group that skateboarding appeals to).
· A sense of understanding about going viral, using other media to get an angle across.
· Making stories that make sense to the audience, and educating the audience (or, failing in front of the audience because the product ignores what was already educated).
· Making use of Sting as a focal point of the Invasion, as well as injecting mystery.
Somewhat surprisingly, Sullivan has a very negative outlook for the business. He predicts that there won’t be a WrestleMania 35, unless it’s a brand name bought by a major advertiser.
Wow, for all my complaints about the industry, that’s pretty strong.
Sapolsky, being the guiding force for EVOLVE and Dragon Gate USA, has a much more pleasant outlook, but also puts over a lot of other indy promotions.
Overall, it’s another Guest Booker of note, with booking minds that understand history, trends and what’s wrong with the business today. While somewhat formulaic, there’s never any complaints about learning more about the business from guys who made – and continue to make – professional wrestling their business.
Which of course is what Kayfabe Commentaries is all about.