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The Comeback - From Where?
Recently Austin Aries returned to Ring of Honor. It was featured on the second ROH pay per view special, Driven, but many new viewers may be in the dark on the conflict between himself, ROH and TNA that caused his absence. It?s obviously an emotional on the show, but there?s a great deal of backstory ? in failed angles, politics and TNA?s bizarre use of contracts. Why did one of ROH?s biggest stars disappear to do nothing but sit at home for TNA? Here?s the story.
Pay To Play
Very few TNA performer contracts have downside guarantees. In WWE, virtually all performers have downside guarantees ? they ensure that wrestlers will be paid at least a certain amount, regardless of whether they wrestle, are off a show while the writers come up with something, or are out injured. Even most wrestlers suspended for drug violations receive their downside guarantee pay.
TNA does not have downside guarantees for most of its wrestlers; their contracts are based largely on pay-per-appearance. The major reason so many characters appear on TNA Impact every week is that those guys don?t get paid for that week unless they?re on the show ? TNA has to book as many people as possible just to make sure their talent is paid. Even with the recent debut of a two-hour show they rush backstage segments and send push dozens of people to run-in on matches. As the pay-scheme is set it does not matter that two or three weeks of television are taped in one day; guys are only paid for the weeks they appear on TV.
The other problem with pay-per-appearance deals is that if someone is suspended (like Austin Starr was) or if someone is injured and unable to work (like Ron Killings was) they don?t get paid. This is a huge problem for people at the bottom of the card who get paid very little in the first place. Many fans are deluded by reports of Sting making $500,000 a year ? most of these guys get paid so little that they have to work indies just to get by. This deal is an even bigger problem for injured wrestlers who suddenly won?t have the income to pay for medical treatment or surgery. TNA?s big answer seemed to be giving its wrestlers loans to have surgery, a low even WWE hasn?t stooped to.
Because wrestlers are treated as independent contractors rather than employees in TNA (and WWE, for that matter), the company doesn?t have to provide health insurance, so someone like Ron Killings, who was injured while wrestling for TNA, is on his own while recuperating. Someone could try to bring TNA to court over its treatment of independent contractors, but when you?re worried about getting fired and struggling just to find the money to see a doctor, you can?t really afford a quality representation to fight a company like Panda Energy.
Legally, independent contractors can work for whomever they want. Construction workers are usually independent contractors; they have a contract with you to work for a certain period towards certain goals for a certain sum. You have no control over whomever they work for at any other time. From the beginning the bulk of TNA?s roster exercised that right, wrestling for independent promotions on the side to supplement their income and keep their wrestling skills sharp.
In contrast to independent contractors, employees can only work for whomever their employers consent them to. Employees are entitled to certain benefits, including mandatory vacation time and health insurance; benefits that no American wrestling company wants to provide. In recent years TNA has exercised an employer-like privilege over its wrestlers, charging indies fees to book ?their? guys, and even managing what indies they would be booked for, like an agent. This year TNA prohibited any of their contracted wrestlers from working at Ring of Honor or Pro Wrestling Guerilla, citing not wanting their guys to be on pay-per-view shows and DVD?s sold by certain companies. Never mind that they didn?t care when Samoa Joe, AJ Styles, Alex Shelley, Chris Sabin, Kaz, Homicide, Austin Starr and Christopher Daniels worked for these promotions and were featured on their DVD?s sold through the same distributors for years before this ? TNA once again exercised a distinctly employer-like authority. It became particularly problematic for one wrestler in particular.
When he went to TNA he didn?t want to sign over the name, so they re-dubbed him ?Austin Starr,? and trademarked that instead.
Austin Aries was a big star on the indies, going to the finals of ECWA?s Super 8 and ROH?s Survival of the Fittest. He was championship material in a host of companies, and ROH selected him to dethrone Samoa Joe?s 21-month World Title reign. He became a fixture of their singles and tag divisions. Like many other talented and successful indy wrestlers, TNA scouted him. Much of their X-Division came from indies like ROH, and were allowed to keep working them while TNA used them on television.
In late 2005 and early 2006 TNA brought up Roderick Strong and Austin Aries to start a faction with Alex Shelley, in something extremely reminiscent of Ring of Honor?s 2004 Generation Next storyline. They bucked authority and looked to feud with veteran-types, until the faction disappeared after a problematic night in February.
On February 11, 2006, a host of TNA wrestlers were in Long Island for a Ring of Honor show. The show had a lot of problems ? they lost their dream match of Roderick Strong Vs. Low Ki when Low Ki (?Senshi? in TNA) quit over disagreements with management. In short order Abyss and the Japanese superstar Milano Collection AT also left ROH. That day a blizzard hit New York, closing many airports and turning the roads into hazard zones. TNA called the remainder of its wrestlers on the show (Jay Lethal, Homicide, Alex Shelley, Roderick Strong and Austin Aries) and told them to pull from the booking and get to Orlando as soon as possible. It was the night before a TNA pay-per-view and TNA management didn?t want to risk them no-showing; other TNA wrestlers on other indy shows the same day pulled out with the same couple of hours of notice to the bookers. Homicide and Shelley apologized to ROH?s booker and jumped in a cab with Lethal, heading for Orlando. Strong and Aries stayed.
Shelley?s departure cancelled the main event, a hotly anticipated ROH World Title match with Bryan Danielson. With the two big matches cancelled and six favorite stars disappearing off the card, Strong and Aries stayed to wrestle their matches for the paying crowd. Strong wrestled a friend, BJ Whitmer, and Aries had one of the best Pure Title matches in the history of the belt with Nigel McGuinness. Immediately after finishing their matches and amidst furious fanfare from the crowd for their loyalty, the two hit the road. Despite the harsh conditions they made it to Orlando in time to wrestle the Naturals (ironically on a show called ?Against All Odds?). Afterwards they were suspended for arriving late (they were in time for the match, but not as early as TNA wanted) and for not obeying TNA?s order to pull from the ROH show.
It looked like Strong and Aries were done in TNA. They were suspended for two months, and weren?t brought back at the end of the suspension. Their stable with Alex Shelley was forgotten and Shelley was shuffled into a deal with Kevin Nash. Strong and Aries had been working the indies long before signing with TNA, so they went back to doing what they normally did. In particular the duo had great success in Ring of Honor, where they had a landmark tag team championship reign. Aries also began a relationship with the Japanese promotion Dragon Gate.
In late 2006 TNA had a change of heart. They began airing promos for Austin Starr, who would be played by none other than Austin Aries. It seemed that like Low Ki, Aries didn?t want to sign the rights of his name over to TNA, and so they created the new name for him. Most fans were just surprised to see him back. In October 2006 at the Bound For Glory pay-per-view, he entered and won the Kevin Nash Open Invitational X Division Gauntlet Battle Royal, bringing him into the Paparazzi Productions stable. Things went well for a couple of weeks, but he quickly became just another cruiserweight in Kevin Nash?s vision of the X Division.
When his momentum slowed, rumors sprang up that he had a bad attitude backstage or showed little loyalty to the company. None of these rumors were confirmed (they rarely are, despite being reported as fact on many websites). One rumor read that Aries wore an ROH shirt at a TNA fan event, though Aries denied it later. He was suspended again in May 2007, with a corresponding rumor of a snafu with TNA management over being called in to shoot skits on a vacation day he?d scheduled far in advance. According to the Wrestling Observer he came in anyway, but TNA management disapproved of what they considered a bad attitude. Presumably he was replaced by Chris Sabin in the ?My Walk with Mr. Backlund? skits.
In Ring of Honor, Austin Aries had just started his own stable, The Resilience, to feud with his former friend and partner Roderick Strong. The feud was billed as ROH?s big storyline for 2007, which would elevate young talent and cement Aries and Strong as top dogs. Aries was in main events, fought for the world title, and was coaching newer stars that were just getting their breaks. Then came the end of April.
Ring of Honor announced it was going to do pay-per-view shows beginning in June. TNA immediately banned all of its contracted wrestlers from working for the promotion, so that April 28?s farewell show for Colt Cabana retroactively became the last appearance for Homicide, Christopher Daniels, Chris Sabin, Alex Shelley and Austin Aries. TNA extended its influence by threatening to pull their talent from any other indy promotions that sold their DVD?s through certain online retailers. PWG would have been seriously damaged financially to do so, and thus they refused ? and lost all TNA-contracted talent in the process. Aries had worked infrequently for PWG in the past. It?s well-known that while ROH and PWG do not pay as much as TNA (indies almost never do), they are two of the best-paying indies in the market.
So by the end of April, Austin Aries was no longer allowed to make his supplemental income off of ROH or PWG, and he was suspended from TNA TV. Because he wasn?t appearing on TV, he was no longer receiving weekly pay like the other wrestlers. TNA was effectively using his contract to force him not to make a living.
Resilience and Resurgence
In the June 25th Newswire on Ring of Honor?s message board, Gabe Sapolsky wrote:
?June 25th: Austin Aries is back to stay in ROH!!! Aries has signed his ROH contract and will be on every show after ROH's tour of Japan. Aries has made it clear that he is after the No Remorse Corps of Roderick Strong, Davey Richards & Rocky Romero. The Resilience now have their leader back and faction warfare is back on ROH!!!?
The next day, Aries opened and closed the ROH videowire ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNWdO-lXG_k ).
Over that weekend ROH had done a seemingly small angle. On Friday night Austin Aries sat in the crowd as a paying fan, and was targeted for jeers by his former enemy, Roderick Strong. The promoter ran out and shut off the cameras, and quickly the message boards were buzzing over whether this was a shoot or an angle.
It became clear on Saturday night, when Aries not only reappeared in the crowd, but hopped the guardrail, went after Strong and cut a promo that can be seen on ROH?s Driven pay-per-view. Over the house microphone he quit TNA and signed a new ROH contract in the ring and mixed the frustration of both the person and the character and not being in the promotion. In one night the former champion harnessed all of the indy scene?s loathing for TNA and turned it into a huge positive for himself and ROH, not unlike the way characters would stir anti-big-league sentiments in ECW. The live crowd was euphoric, and fans were immediately listing Aries as one of the top names in the company just for his show of loyalty.
Since then Aries has done more things than in his entire TNA run. His feud with Roderick Strong and his faction re-ignited and will be featured on the next two ROH pay per view specials, and a third stable has risen up to challenge them both. He once again became the mentor for two up-and-comers, Matt Cross and Erick Stevens, serving both as a manager and a source of motivation for their bids in the Race to the Top tournament. He?s in a best two-of-three series of matches with his old rival Bryan Danielson, bringing him back into the World Title picture ? and as he?s only wrestled new champion Nigel McGuinness once in singles competition, this is a fresh storyline waiting to happen.
In reality, his decision probably wasn?t pure chivalry. It was reported that TNA was sick of him, and that he wanted to go somewhere where he was appreciated. Anyone who ordered Driven saw that, if nothing else, Aries got that. And he set a precedent. Since then many TNA wrestlers have requested their releases for their own reasons.
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