365 Wrestling, Day 57: No DQ, AJ Styles vs. Sandman (NWA-TNA, 2/26/03)

365 Wrestling, Day 57: No DQ, AJ Styles vs. Sandman (NWA-TNA, 2/26/03)

365 matches in 365 days, each from that specific date on the calendar? Challenge accepted. Welcome to 365 Wrestling

The early years of Impact Wrestling provided a method of storytelling we haven’t seen yet, or since, from a major wrestling promotion. Then known as TNA (or NWA-TNA, specifically, since it was affiliated with the National Wrestling Alliance), the promotion aired a two-hour pay-per-view each week, in the middle of the week, for about 10 bucks.

Did it work? Financially, no. As he wrote in his book, Jerry Jarrett — the longtime promoter in Memphis who started NWA-TNA in partnership with his son, Jeff — observed that the pay-per-views needed to generate 55,000 buys a week for the company to break even. The first three events yielded 50,000 boys — total. “We have been producing shows, but the public, in large part, does not know we exist,” Jarrett wrote.

As a business, the weekly pay-per-view model didn’t work well. Creatively, however, it yielded some interesting stuff. Each event was its own standalone product, but the goal was to get people to come back and buy the next one, and the next one, and so on. It always reminded me of old Memphis wrestling: except, rather than trying to use a studio show to induce fans to come out to the Mid-South Coliseum on Monday night, these pay-per-views were a larger-scale version of the studio TV and a smaller-scale version of the arena event, all wrapped into one.

In this entry of 365 Wrestling, we look at a match from this era that only happened once: the only match ever between AJ Styles and Sandman from the 34th weekly NWA-TNA pay-per-view, held on February 26, 2003.

You can watch this match on Impact’s YouTube channel. For your convenience, it’s also embedded below:

The Context

All of the weekly pay-per-views aired from the same location, the state fairgrounds in Nashville, TN. TNA called this venue The Asylum and it had a raucous crowd with a good share of regulars.

Vince Russo is part of the creative team at this point and, surprise surprise, he’s also a prominent character on screen, heading up a faction called Sports Entertainment Xtreme (or SEX for short, get it?) Russo is trying to recruit as much top talent to his faction as he can. Earlier on this event, both AJ Styles and Raven want to be part of SEX (and hey, who wouldn’t, right?) Aj and Raven get into an argument about which of them, and which style of wrestling, is better. And so Russo puts Raven in a match with an X-Division wrestler and books Styles to wrestle Sandman. This is all pretty solid except for the group name, which is like hanging a neon sign that says “Look how edgy we are!”

AJ is probably one of the top five wrestlers most synonymous with the TNA name. He appeared on the very first of these weekly shows and stayed with the company for more than 12 years, through the end of 2014. Sandman made his name in ECW and at this point he’s been engaging in his cigarette-smoking, beer-drinking, cane-swinging shenanigans for TNA for a couple of weeks.

The Match

I like seemingly random, unique matches that don’t happen often. The pairing of AJ and Sandman is definitely an odd one, but it works. They show good chemistry working together. After a flip dive to the floor to abruptly end Sandman’s length entrance and beer-spraying circumnavigation of the ringside area, AJ gets to show off his amateur background early on, wrestling circles around Sandman on the mat.

They don’t get a lot of time here, but they make the most of it. Most of the highlights consist of AJ taking a beating: the Sandman blocking a drop toehold into a trash can, then bouncing said can off Styles’ face; AJ launching for a top rope splash to put Sandman through a table on the floor and coming up empty; and Sandman propelling Styles into a chair wedged in the corner with enough force to put AJ through the seat. One of my favorite moments was watching AJ flip, duck, and dodge his way out of attempted Singapore cane shots by the Sandman.

Sandman gets a lot of grief in certain circles for a perceived lack of wrestling ability, but here’s the thing: he knows his limits and stays within them. He’s already got the crowd with him before any physicality happens here. Once the match starts, he struggles just enough during AJ’s mat wrestling to make you buy in, and he uses the weapons as a structure for the rest of the match. AJ is out of his element using this type of plunder in a match, giving the edge to the veteran.

Things go off the rails a bit at the finish. The referee takes a bump that is awkwardly set up, for no reason. And speaking of no reason, Raven runs in and wallops Sandman with a chair, helping his rival Styles position himself for the win. The actual finish, however, is pretty spectacular. Styles hooks and delivers a Styles Clash from the second rope. Note how Sandman struggles and flails before getting dropped to the mat… a nice little accent.

Random Thoughts

–We are deprived of “Enter Sandman” because of good ol’ music copyrights and so instead we get the video game load-screen version of Sandman’s theme song. If that’s not awkward enough, Sandman’s entrance reaches full cringe level in a hurry. You see, at this point, The Asylum featured dancers who would gyrate in these small cages adjacent to the wrestling stage. Sandman gets right in one of these cages with one of the dancers, Lollipop, grinds against her, makes out with her, gropes her, and then heads for the ring. Later camera cuts to Lollipop show her smiling at Sandman but this screen shot captures her initial reaction, and mine:

Eww.

–That referee bump is one of the more nonsensical ones I have seen in a while.

Final Rating: 5.9

This is a brisk little match that goes less than 10 minutes and doesn’t overstay its welcome. The matchup is unique and they played off their contrasting styles (no pun intended) well. The handful of high spots are memorable, especially the second-rope Styles Clash. There’s plenty to like here in spite of the bad booking. I also noticed all three TNA/Impact matches I have watched as part of the project have ended up with the same final rating. It sums up a lot of this company’s wrestling for me: good enough to watch, but not memorable enough to stick with you or really break into higher tiers of excellence.

Here’s the complete, ongoing list of matches in this project.

Up Next

We look at one of the early excursion matches of one of the current New Japan Dads.

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