The X Division: Where have we been, and Where are we now?

tna_x_division_championshipAt Slammiversary, TNA and the X Division will celebrate their 11th birthday. Like all 11 year olds, the company has spent the last year experiencing major growing pains and people are left wondering if the product will ever mature, or just remain a petulant little boy in a gangly, man-child body.

As originally envisioned, The X Division was supposed to be the answer to the question “How is TNA different from the WWE? What can I see there that I can’t see on Raw?” The idea was to showcase the athleticism of smaller wrestlers and through workrate and highspots tell a story that was completely different from, but equally compelling as, the heavyweight title scene.

This was inspired by the phenomenally successful IWGP Junior Heavyweight division in New Japan Pro Wrestling between the mid-80s and late-90s. Featuring names like Tiger Mask, Dynamite Kid, Jushin Liger, Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, and Ultimo Dragon, the division was known for its innovative stars and their hard-hitting matches. Frankenstein stitch this together with the prevailing midcard booking philosophy of the Wrestling Boom period in the United States, and you have the X Division.

But things have changed from the time of golden era of junior heavyweight division, when midcarders were good hands that kept smart fans interested with innovative in-ring storytelling and, well, less smart fans entertained with high spots. The cream of the crop amongst these workers — the Curt Hennigs and Rick Rudes — were rewarded with a prestigious belt that literally said to the world “this is the best guy we have on the roster” in plated gold.

In the Attitude Era titles largely became sugar sprinkled on any midcarders lucky enough to get over. During the Monday Night Wars, crowds were rapidly reprogrammed and made to believe that winning a title was something anybody could attain (“Anything can happen here in the World Wrestling Federation! Ha-ha!”).There were European Titles, Light Heavyweight Titles, Intercontinental Titles, Cruiserweight Titles, US Titles, Television Titles, Hardcore Titles, and it seemed like each week at least one of them was going to change hands.

The result of all this hotshotting and title saturation was that the crowd actually became bored when someone had a long title reign, and holding a non-World Heavyweight Title became so “midcard” that very few of the decorated IC/US/European champions of the era (notable exceptions: Chris Jericho and Eddie Guerrero) ever developed into true main eventers who were accepted by the crowd. This exposed the belts as props, and cheap props at that. It was a blow to wrestling from which the midcard still hasn’t recovered.

So imagine that as the world the X Division was born into: a landscape filled with talented workers and loosey-goosey booking that did everything it could to group them together rather than set a small number of them apart as truly special. Obviously TNA’s goals for the X Title were lofty – attempting to redefine midcard wrestling at a time when it was drying up in the WWE. Eleven years later, we can finally begin to draw some conclusions about whether the concept worked. Is there a cohesive, linear narrative told by the history of the X Division Title, or does it represent a long series of minimally successful experiments?

***

A glance at the list of X Division title reigns shows that during the Asylum Era, the title mostly existed to give fans a sense that they were going to see a high-energy match with a serious chance of a title changing hands. In the first 40 weeks of the belt’s existence, the X Division title had nine different champions, each with an average reign of about 36 days. Low Ki, A.J. Styles, Amazing Red, and Sean Waltman all had runs with the belt that lasted only two weeks. For the fans in Nashville, I’m sure this was a very exciting proposition: see high spots, then title change. However, this model was rooted in that Monday Night War philosophy that the only way to get a title over was to put it in the hands of as many exciting wrestlers as possible.

Chris Sabin with the then-NWA X Division Title
Chris Sabin with the then-NWA X Division Title

Although some fans with a cynical view of TNA will say that the X Division only existed to get A.J. Styles over (much like the NWA Title was only there to get Jeff Jarrett over), it was actually Chris Sabin who put his foot on the brakes (although never in the ring) and made the title mean something. Sabin was (and still is) a perfect example of an extremely talented wrestler with a lot to offer who for various reasons is probably better off in TNA than the “big pond” of WWE. One of Sabin’s important intangible skills is his ability to tell a credible story in multi-man gimmick matches. In many ways he was the anchor that kept all the high spots and big bumps from turning into a carnival tumbling show. Sabin and Christopher Daniels helped redefine the X Division and shooed it away from the frenetic, illogical pace of late Attitude Era midcard booking.

After the likes of Sabin, Styles, and Daniels had done everything they could to put over the X Division as a comparable, although completely parallel, entity to the World Heavyweight Title, the X Division was done a great disservice by being pulled into heavyweight storylines. Samoa Joe and Kurt Angle’s quest to unify all the various belts in TNA was a good angle for them, but unfortunately it didn’t do much for anybody else in the company. (It can be argued that Angle gave back by losing the title to Jay Lethal, but watch that match again. It feels more like a wrestler artificially “giving a rub” than an actual competitive match.) Five years into its history, the X Division Title was derailed by the same mistake that has plagued top tier midcard wrestling forever: using it to enhance main eventers.

After this, the title began to feel very, very midcard, bouncing around for a few years, even getting dragged through the mud of the Shane Sewell angle. Petey Williams and his Canadian Destroyer were surely exciting, but the X Division began biting at its own back, building matches towards one signature high spot and piling worker upon worker into their pay per view matches. It was like a group of talented but wide-eyed midcarders had climbed in a time machine and gone back to the year 2000.

After the Eric Young/Shane Sewell silliness, TNA tried to reestablish the X Division Title through a tournament that included Eric Young, Sheik Abdul Bashir (Shawn Daivari), Alex Shelley, Jay Lethal, Chris Sabin, Sonjay Dutt, Consequences Creed (now Xavier Woods in WWE developmental), and Kiyoshi (now a main eventer in All Japan Pro Wrestling). While most of the matches in the tournament were just solid, they successfully told the story that the X Title was something special that smaller, more athletic wrestlers really, really wanted. The finale of the tournament was a pay per view match between Sabin and his Motor City Machineguns partner Alex Shelley. The two had a good match before Shelley feigned an injury and rolled up the overly sympathetic Sabin for the clean, albeit heelish win.

I remember being a huge fan of both Sabin and Shelley at this point and thinking that the X Division was really going to take off again. Unfortunately, rather than have the two finalists in a tournament, one of whom had been cheated out of a title win, engage in a big, hot angle, the powers that be decided that Sabin was fine with the chicanery and was “happy to be there” with his best buddy as champion. Then, when it seemed like things couldn’t make any less sense, TNA decided to use the X Title to promote the TNA iMPACT! [sic] video game.

The game was a miserable failure because dying studio Midway rushed it to market at breakneck speed due to their impending bankruptcy, and TNA was saddled with the masked character Suicide. Suicide was X Division veteran hand Frankie Kazarian, then Christopher Daniels, then Kiyoshi under a skull mask, and his gimmick was that he performed high impact moves that none of the aforementioned men could actually do very well.

When Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff arrived in TNA as 2009 became 2010, one of the very first booking moves of the new regime was to put the X Division Title onto veteran worker Doug(las) Williams. Williams had been under contract to TNA for several years, but had been used sparingly, only appearing in World X Cup matches. Williams represented an experienced wrestler with a polished in-ring style who could effectively stand as a “gatekeeper” above a crew of younger, hungry stars. It looked like a step towards a well-executed rebuild of the division. Then, after months of looking like a strong champion, Williams was used to put over Jay Lethal, a younger although still-veteran star who received big on-screen rubs from Hogan and Ric Flair. About seven months later, Lethal was gone from TNA and the wisdom of putting him over the built-up Williams looked suspect, at best.

TNA attempted to hit the reset button again by putting the belt on Frankie Kazarian, mercifully playing himself this time. Kaz was the master of having pretty good matches, but there was always something missing in him personality-wise, and while he was a great as part of a mix, there was absolutely nothing about him that said “star champion.” (Note: Given the character he plays as part of Bad Influence, I think Kaz could be a convincing singles title holder now, but his character in 2011 had absolutely none of the edge that makes him entertaining these days.) Kazarian’s reign ended when the lumbering Abyss won the title to show that Eric Bischoff was smarter and better than undersized midcard wrestlers. Okay, maybe that’s a little smarmy to say, but it was smarmy booking.

The chosen one to save the X Division from Frankenstein’s Monster turned out to be Brian Kendrick, who was playing what seemed like a babyface combination of “Loose Cannon” Brian Pillman and Shoko Asahara (look it up!). Kendrick won the title and while he held it for only two months, he did something truly important to the modern history of the X Division Title: he lost it to Austin Aries.

Aries’ attitude upon his arrival in TNA was something like Steve Austin coming to the WWE: mad as hell that he hadn’t already become a big star, and confident in his abilities to do so given the right platform. Aries went on to have the single longest reign in the history of the X Division at 301 days. His matches contained the high-energy, high-impact style that the division had originally been built around. He was a different wrestler than is usually featured on national TV: a good worker who’s allowed to be a good worker; simultaneously a smaller guy who does big guy moves and a decent sized guy doing little guy moves. It also helped that he could talk himself up without reducing his opponent to nothing. His promo and in-ring abilities made him the best all-around X Division Champion of all time. The only problem? He was main event good.

To elevate Aries without making him lose the title, TNA came up with a pretty good idea: Aries was allowed to cash in the belt for a one-time-only shot at the World Heavyweight Title. Aries agreed, but cut a promo in which he was set up as an X Division hero, saying that he would only agree if each year the X Division Champion would receive a similar opportunity to cash in at the Destination X pay per view. It was a great hook, and hopefully one which TNA will honor, although it’s hard to say with their reduced pay per view schedule.

After Aries surrendered the title, it was won by Zema Ion in a signature X Division multi-man “what does this even mean?” match. Ion represented a concerted effort to inject some youth into the title, which made sense. What didn’t make sense for a second was Rob Van Dam winning the title from him at Bound for Glory. Had the X Division existed in 1996 or 2000, this could have been a good fit.  However, what Van Dam represents now — an older guy resting on his laurels doing his three spots we all recognize and looking blown up most of the match — was exactly the kind of tired shenanigans the division was envisioned to avoid. Granted, Van Dam has a name and a reputation, but whether it was due to age or decreased motivation, Van Dam seemed absolutely incapable of making the younger, faster men he was wrestling look good. There was almost an early-90s Ric Flair feeling to his matches: selling just enough to take care of himself and make the crowd ooh and ah at his signature bumps but not really enhancing the other worker at all. The X Division Title felt like a “Career Achievement Award” for Van Dam, a nod to the fact that he once was on par with guys like Styles, Sabin, Daniels, Kazarian, or Williams. Van Dam’s reign didn’t give “big time superstar” rub to the title, rather it dulled the “intense, hungry guy” shine that Aries had spent the better part of a year putting on it.

Kenny King is the face of revamped X Division -- at least for now!
Kenny King is the face of the revamped X Division — at least for now!

And so here we are at the modern X Division: the champion is Kenny King, the man who defeated Rob Van Dam back in February. The division is a combination of young, fresh faces like King and Ion coupled with popular X Division stars of the past such as Sabin, Sonjay Dutt, and Petey Williams. In an attempt to get back to the title’s original goal of being “different,” TNA recently shook up the rules of X Division competition: the champion now always defends the title in triple-threat matches. The man who takes the pin is eliminated from title contention, and kicked back down into the qualifying stages in which men compete in another set of triple-threat matches to determine who has the right to wrestle the champion and the survivor of the previous triple-threat (who is effectively a number one contender).

It all seems a little over-booked, but it creates some interesting scenarios. What if one man keeps his spot in the championship triple-threats for a long time, but never wins? TNA could easily build a huge feud between that wrestler and the champion. On the other hand, what if a heel champion like Kenny King struck up a long-standing alliance with one of the contenders to help protect his spot as champion? Also intriguing! The question is do we as fans have any faith in TNA to make the stipulations mean anything, or are they just complicated window dressing to spice up the midcard?

As Slammiversary nears, the X Division Title situation isn’t completely clear. Will there be a triple-threat match on the pay per view, or will TNA use the next three weeks of television to create a one-on-one personal issue between Chris Sabin and Kenny King? Will the story be about King holding onto the title through the pro-heel psychology of multi-man matches, or will Chris Sabin have a big moment holding the belt high in celebration after two years lost to injury? Will the match be intense and athletic and dynamic on a night being main evented by Sting, or will the X Division workers be asked to hold back so as not to eclipse the featured match? A lot is up in the air.

I come back to the question I asked earlier: Is there a cohesive, consistent narrative to the history of the X Division, or is it a series of minimally successful experiments? I’m not sure. You tell me.

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