TNA wrestling is picking a fight with WWE, and Chicago is in the middle of it.
If Total Non-Stop Action Wrestling is going to be a true rival to the WWE empire, building its fan base in the Windy City certainly will help. TNA's "Impact Wrestling Live" will be broadcast live on Spike TV on Thursday from the Sears Center in Hoffman Estates. The last time the organization held a show in the area was in 2008 for a pay-per-view event.
"It's been a long time since we've been back up in the Midwest, unfortunately," said wrestler Chris Daniels, 42. "It wasn't up to me; if it was, I would have been there a lot longer. I've got ties in Chicago. I was trained there. I've got a lot of family and friends. … And I don't get a chance to visit them as much as I should because of the schedule."
TNA typically televises "Impact" from Orlando, Fla. The Nashville, Tenn.-based organization has a roster of talent that includes names such as Daniels, Austin Aries and Bobby Roode, along with superstars like Hulk Hogan and Kurt Angle.
The presence of these ring veterans has helped raise TNA's profile and has had a positive effect on the athletes in the locker room.
"You see someone like Kurt Angle, who has had immeasurable success in professional wrestling as a whole, going out there and doing his best to try and make people aware of the product—you can't help but give 110 percent in that same respect," Daniels said.
Lisa Marie Varon, aka "Tara," made the switch from WWE to TNA in 2009 and relocated to Chicago in the process.
"I lived here [in Chicago] in the '90s and lived here for five years, but I had to move to Kentucky for wrestling," said Varon, who lives in Lincoln Park. "[My husband and I] opened a pizza place there and a custom car shop. Once that closed down, I saw my husband looking at Chicago real estate and said, 'Oh my God, are we going to move back?' and he said 'Do you want to?' I said, 'Absolutely!' "
Varon dismisses the notion that there were any challenges in switching wrestling organizations.
"I had a lot of freedom going to TNA," she said. "They told me to do what I do best. And I wasn't used to that, having so much freedom. … Don't get me wrong, I loved WWE too, I learned all my craft and psychology—how to be fierce in the ring—from [WWE trainer] Fit Finlay. I don't have any hard feelings. [But] I wasn't used to getting that much time on TV. Having Dixie Carter—our boss—who is very pro-woman [helped]. She gave us a lot of time on TV."
Daniels said TNA faces an uphill battle trying to compete with WWE.
"The truth of the matter is sometimes it's hard to be different from the WWE when you're trying to gain those same viewers," he said. "Sometimes there's a tendency to sort of follow in the footsteps of the WWE. And so it's sort of a fine line where you want to be recognizable as professional wrestling but you also want to set yourself apart from what some people consider the standard of professional wrestling, which is the WWE."
In the long run, putting TNA in the same league as WWE falls on the talent in the ring, Daniels said.
"I think the challenge for us as individuals is [to] try to stand out," he said. "Try to get people talking. Try to get that word of mouth out about our product. Not just ourselves but the entire roster as a whole. Trying to get people talking about the differences in our talent. The differences in terms of the stories we're telling in the ring. Trying to get some buzz about the things that we're doing."
Elliott Serrano is RedEye special contributor.
"TNA Impact Wrestling"
At Sears Centre, Hoffman Estates
7 p.m. Thursday, Spike TV
Tickets: $15-$125, searscentre.com
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