Twenty years ago, TNA was the talk of the wrestling world outside of WWE. It came into existence in the vacuum that was left following the deaths of WCW and ECW and, like Ring of Honor, sought to create an alternative to WWE’s market juggernaut. But TNA got more attention than ROH (at least at first) because it had something that ROH didn’t: big names.
ROH was composed of indy wrestlers almost exclusively and built itself up organically and from the ground up. TNA was different: it was the brainchild of the Jarretts, one of the biggest names in American wrestling. It was affiliated with the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA). It featured stars from WWE and WCW like Scott Hall, Chyna, X-Pac, and many others. But it couldn’t sustain itself forever by riding established stars’ coattails. TNA had to create its own homegrown stars, which it did…by using stars already entrenched in ROH, the indys, and Mexico. Still, TNA built itself on changing the landscape and doing some of the most creative things in wrestling, for better for worse, which includes this match. But was it a case of ‘better’ or ‘worse’? Read on to find out.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
Not much of a story here. Just four guys competing in a special match to crown a new division champion. Two of them are established stars and two are rising stars. For all of them, the spirit of competition and the promise of glory in the form of a title belt are all they need for this match.
This match originally took pace on June 26th, 2002 on the second-ever NWA-TNA taping. It was rated ****1/2 out of five stars by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
This is to crown the inaugural NWA-TNA X (Division) Champion. It’s a double elimination match with two wrestlers starting in the ring. A wrestler must be eliminated twice to be removed from the match. So all four wrestlers start with two ‘falls’ that keep them in the match. Only two wrestlers are in the ring at once with the other two waiting at ringside. When a fall occurs, the fallen wrestler is replaced with another one. This will keep going until three of the four wrestlers are eliminated and a champion is crowned.
Starting scores: Styles = 2; Low Ki = 2; Psicosis = 2; Lynn = 2
Styles and Psicosis start with a standard headlock/shoulderblock sequence. Styles reverses an Irish whip and goes for a wheelbarrow bulldog but Psicosis counters with a facebuster. Then Styles reverses another whip and goes for a hiptoss but Psicosis counters with a monkey flip. Styles lands on his feet and hits a superkick for a two-count. Psicosis blocks a corner charge and hits a spinkick and a diving guillotine leg drop for a two-count of his own. Styles reverses yet another Irish whip. Psicosis goes for a counter Frankensteiner. Styles counters that with a Styles Clash. One, two, and three! There’s the first fall after 2:01!
Styles = 2; Low Ki = 2; Psicosis = 1; Lynn = 2
Ki enters and starts kicking Styles’ chest in. Styles hits a crazy headscissor from his back out of nowhere. Styles flips over to avoid a back body drop and teases a German suplex. Ki blocks it and lands an enzuigiri. He stiffs Styles with corner chops and goes for a corner cartwheel monkey flip. But just like before Styles blocks and sets up the Clash. But this time Ki escapes and lands a hook kick. Then Ki pops Styles up and sends him face-first into the ringpost. Ki follows with a flip-over camel clutch/dragon sleeper. Styles escapes that and also Ki’s attempt at a Brainbuster. He lifts Ki onto the apron but Ki hits a shoulder to Styles’ gut and a running kick to his face. Ki goes to the top rope for a corkscrew dive but misses yet still rolls out without hurting himself. Styles blocks some stiff shots and lands a lariat. Styles follows with a German suplex rolled into a wheelbarrow facebuster. One, two…and three! There’s the second fall after 4:23 total time.
Styles = 2; Low Ki = 1; Psicosis = 1; Lynn = 2
Lynn rushes in and hits a big clothesline. He follows with a cradle piledriver and gets the three-count. Lynn gets the third fall only seconds later!
Styles = 1; Low Ki = 1; Psicosis = 1; Lynn = 2
Psicosis ascends the top rope and lands a diving dropkick to the back of Lynn’s head. The two trade waistlocks until Lynn lands a jumping snapmare and a tilt-a-whirl headscissor. Psicosis sends Lynn into a corner but Lynn blocks with a kick and lands a diving bulldog for a two-count. Psicosis blocks a powerbomb and counters with a headscissor that sends both of them to the floor. Psicosis follows with a suicide dive to the floor and a diving wheel kicks in the ring. One, two, Lynn kicks out. Lynn counters a scoop slam with a Scorpion Death Drop for another two-count of his own. He goes for a dropkick but Psicosis holds onto the ropes to block it and then goes to the top rope. Psicosis dives…into a standing dropkick from Lynn. Another cradle piledriver gets Lynn another three-count. Lynn eliminates Psicosis from the match after 7:43!
Styles = 1; Low Ki = 1; Psicosis = 0 (eliminated); Lynn = 2
Ki comes in and hits a huge kick to Lynn’s head for a two-count. He follows with a scoop slam into a Muta flashing elbow for another two-count. Then Ki foot chokes Lynn in a corner but when goes charging into a different one Lynn gets his boot up. Lynn tries another diving move but Ki hits first with a rolling koppu kick. Ki hits a Super Frankensteiner. Lynn uses the momentum to roll over and reverse the pin. One, two, Ki kicks out. Ki hits more brutal kicks but Lynn presses on. He catches Ki’s foot and counters with an enzuigiri of his own. After a slow struggle to their feet, both wrestlers trade standing strikes. Lynn hits a back body drop and some short-range clotheslines. Ki sends Lynn onto the apron and tries another through-the-ropes shoulderblock. But this time Lynn dodges it and lands a guillotine leg drop to the back of Ki’s neck. Great counter. Lynn signals the end and goes for another cradle piledriver. But this time Ki blocks it with an upside-down cross armbreaker. But Lynn counters with a deadlift powerbomb. One, two, and – no, Ki kicks out at 2.9. Ki reverses a Brainbuster attempt and goes for his Ki Crusher fisherman Brainbuster finisher. But Lynn counters that with a DDT. Lynn follows with another short-arm clothesline and his third successful cradle piledriver for another three-count. Lynn eliminates Low Ki after twelve minutes of total time. We’re down to two wrestlers!
Styles = 1; Low Ki = 0 (eliminated); Lynn = 2
Styles hits a discus clothesline and gets a two-count. He teases the Clash but Lynn counters with a Frankensteiner, only for Styles to counter with a spinkick for yet another two-count. Lynn counters an Irish whip and lands a tilt-a-whirl backbreaker for yet another two-count. Styles blocks a charge and sends Lynn onto the apron. Lynn blocks being sent into the ringpost and drives Styles’ face into it instead. Lynn hits a sunset flip but Styles holds onto the ropes and stomps on Lynn’s face. Then Styles hits a slingshot twisted splash for a two-count of his own. Styles hits a corner dropkick but Lynn lands a kick before Styles can follow-up. Then Lynn hits a running tornado DDT for yet another two-count. Both wrestlers struggle to their feet and Lynn goes for a suplex. But Styles counters with his suplex lift falling neckbreaker for another close two-count. Styles sends Lynn into a corner and does a running front flip for a Frankensteiner. But Lynn catches him and counters with a running Ligerbomb. One, two, and Styles kicks out. Styles blocks a cradle piledriver with a back body drop. Styles Clash connects! Styles pins Lynn at the sixteen-minute mark!
Styles = 1; Lynn = 1
Special guest referee Ricky ‘the Dragon’ Steamboat comes in for the deciding fall. Both guys take time getting up and then slug it out. Styles tries catching Lynn on a corner flip-over escape but Lynn counters with a sunset flip pin for another two-count. Both guys trade multiple quick two-counts and then hit simultaneous clotheslines. Styles gets up first and hits a standing dropkick. Lynn ducks an apron clothesline and lands a stungun on the top rope and then smashes Styles into the barricade.
Lynn breaks the referee’s ring-out count and irish whips Styles into the side of the ring. but Styles jumps onto the apron, kicks Lynn and hits his Phenomenal moonsault inverted DDT on the ringside mats. Styles gets a two-count in the ring and after another counter attempt by Lynn tries the Phenomenal DDT again. But then Lynn does counter and lands an inverted suplex onto the top rope. Then Lynn hits a top-rope draping DDT, so like a stronger and more dangerous version of Randy Orton’s. Lynn covers…and gets a two-count. Lynn goes for a Vertebreaker! Styles escapes and goes for a Frankensteiner! Lynn blocks that and hits a luge powerbomb-style facebuster. One, two, and – Styles still kicks out.
Lynn goes for a powerbomb but Styles escapes and hits a fireman’s carry neckbreaker/ushigorishi for another two-count. Lynn blocks a suplex and lands a Brainbuster for yet another two-count. Lynn whips Styles into a standing sleeper hold. Styles starts fading but then fires back with a stunner to escape the hold. Styles goes to the top rope but Lynn cuts him off and hits a top-rope superplex. But Styles still kicks out. Lynn tries another superplex but Styles punches him down. Then styles dives with a corkscrew body press/Spiral Tap! One, two, and three! Styles wins the match and becomes the first-ever X-Division Champion!
Winner and INAUGURAL NWA TNA X-Division Champion after 25:56 total time: AJ Styles
This definitely lived up to the company’s name and moniker of ‘Total Nonstop Action’. The match was pure excitement with all spots and fast-paced action. There were no concepts of rest holds, submissions, or gradual build. In fact, it was the opposite; this match started off at top speed and slowed down over time. It was a series of extended sprints without rest-holds or any dips in pacing or tension. It was definitely unique as far as matches go and definitely worth checking out at least once.
TNA tried to reinvent the wheel here with a new take on the elimination match concept. By requiring all two falls to eliminate someone, the match became more unpredictable and exciting. It was impossible to predict who would lose, how, and when. The wrestlers were on their toes at all times and so were the fans. This wasn’t a match that could be skipped through, ignored, or half-focused on; if smartphones were as widespread back then as they are now, no-one would be able to get some downtime because important things would happen out of nowhere here. You had to pay close attention for all 26 minutes. But doing so wasn’t a chore; the action was well-paced and there was enough smooth transition from fall to fall to make this a seamless competition that had all the “TNA” on which the company built itself.
The match’s story was definitely interesting. After Styles pinned Psicosis and Ki, he established himself as the favorite to win this match. But then Lynn spiked Styles with his finisher, taking advantage of his freshness and Styles’ relative exhaustion. Just like that, Styles was put at a disadvantage and had to fight from beneath. Maybe it was Lynn’s veteran experience compared to everyone else’s, but Lynn mowed through both Ki and Psicosis without much resistance. Psicosis basically did high spots and nothing else, and at no point did he come across like a potential winner here. Low Ki was a different story. He was more technical and stiff here with his hard-hitting strikes and more submission-based style. His exchange with Styles was alright but he showed much more with Lynn. He seemed to have counters for everything but Lynn out-foxed him with his veteran experience. Lynn was quicker to catch on to Ki’s biggest moves and was able to turn that into a successful chain of moves needed to take Ki out.
After that, the match reached a fever pitch with a now-refreshed Styles taking on a tired Lynn. They had some great back-and-forth action for the penultimate fall and then went even further with the last one. Styles’ falls were more exciting because he won with two different moves while Lynn only had his Cradle Piledriver as a proven finisher. From there it became a battle of opposing philosophies: is it better/more exciting to build around one finisher that works for everyone or use different moves to keep everyone guessing? Both sides showed the merits of their opposing approaches. Lynn built around his piledriver with head-targeting moves and by the time the final two falls came around it was seen as a clearly dangerous move and Styles had to be extra vigilant and ready to block it. Conversely, Styles had two established moves he could rely on but he didn’t use either for the final fall; he used a third one in the Spiral Tap. He didn’t build up to it as much as Lynn did with his Piledriver but he did gradually wear Lynn down with other moves enough to score the final fall in a way that was surprising yet believable. And if we look at results alone, it looks like Styles’ multi-finish approach is better than Lynn’s mono-finish approach.
Final Rating: ****1/2
There’s definitely a novelty factor in this match thanks to its interesting stipulation and lack of rest holds or slow moments. If you really like nonstop action without getting any breathers, you’ll enjoy this match. It lives up to its reputation as one of TNA’s hidden gems and delivers on the promise that’s marketed in the company’s name.
The match would’ve been better with a bit more coherence and better involvement from the other two wrestlers. The match seemed to be built around Lynn and Styles, with Ki and Psicosis coming across as supporting characters instead of as equal participants. Psicosis was largely forgettable here and Ki came across as a glass cannon that hit hard but got eliminated far too easily. With more compelling action from both of them and a bit more airtight focus, this match could’ve reached that higher, elite level of classic wrestling matches.
But that doesn’t take away from the fact that this match really was different. Going so far down a different path is a big gamble, but in this case, it paid off for TNA and these four wrestlers.