Austin Aries: The Latest Heel Champion?

After watching this week's edition of Impact Wrestling, it's become abundantly clear that the current TNA World Heavyweight Champion, Austin Aries, is on the verge of a heel turn. Personally, I think this is a terrible idea, as the notion of Aries as Champion has barely taken hold, let alone enough to turn it on it's head and have him be the exact opposite. But on the flip side, I could understand if TNA management began to worry about the lack of traction Aries has had as a Face Champion, especially in the build up to the main event of the biggest pay-per-view of the year, Bound for Glory, with no clear antagonist in sight. I suspect A-Double is about to turn for two reasons - his promos and the match itself.

Firstly, his promos. While not overly villainous, I have begun to notice Aries throw in small jabs at the crowd's expense. On this week's episode alone, he commented how he would love to have the crowd follow his every whim like sheep, just like Jeff Hardy's fans do. Being a smart mark, I got a huge laugh out of that crack, because Jeff Hardy fans ARE sheep. The man has done nothing worthwhile in years besides screw up big opportunities. Even his matches are dull, featuring the same repetition of moves (whisper in the wind, twist of fate, swanton bomb) week in, week out. Yet fans still flock to him by the droves. They paint their faces in ridiculous manners, they wear tattered sleeves on their arms, basically mimicking the worst possible role model. So Austin Aries is basically right, why shouldn't he want that unquestioning adoration. But still, calling the fans "sheep" isn't exactly going to win anyone over!

Another questionable promo choice was towards the end of the night, after calling Bully Ray out for Open Fight Night. Bully Ray was pacing around the outside of the ring cutting his own promo, when a fan happened to touch him. Taking exception to this, Ray insisted the fan must be supporting Austin Aries to be so obviously stupid. Aries, rather than defend the fan, agreed with Bully Ray and threatened to punch his lights out too! Once again, you could make the argument that it's all subjective and maybe Aries was only intimating he wouldn't have liked the fan to get to Ray before he did. But no matter which way you look at it, you've got your World Heavyweight Champion threatening to sock a fan in the face!

Finally, the match itself. The ring work from both men was exemplary as usual, but the ending draws much concern for the fan suspecting a fast approaching heel turn. Basically, Aries took the loss due to illegal weaponry and poor refereeing. Huge hallmarks for a frustrated face who's about to turn. Look at last year's Bound for Glory main event featuring Bobby Roode. He lost the biggest match of his career due to a cheat on Kurt Angle's part, leading to a spiral of doubt and frustration, resulting in his turn on long time tag partner, James Storm. TNA nailed that storyline to such an extent, it dominated Impact Wrestling for close to a year. Who's to say they won't try the exact same thing with Austin Aries? But even if history isn't repeating, it wasn't just one man who got to stand over the World Champion wielding his Title, but two! First, Bully Ray lorded it over Aries by grabbing the belt and threatening to lay him out with it. Then second, Jeff Hardy, despite making the noble safe, doesn't hesitate for a second to grab that belt and hold it on high. Much to the Champion's chagrin.

So much of Austin Aries' World Title reign has come down to this unjustified "fluke" label, it's no wonder the Champ has taken offense and is verging on turning. He's the longest reigning X Division Champion turned World Heavyweight Champion, who beat Samoa Joe, Bully Ray and Bobby Roode is short order, just what part of Aries' resume reads as a fluke? On some level, for the past few months I've wondered whether this weak Title run was down to the booking committee simply not believing in him as the face of Impact Wrestling. He's done absolutely everything that's been asked of him, yet he's coming out the losing end of every conflict. For someone who got such notoriety through winning everything, these last few months have been downright miserable.

I don't usually like to draw parallels to the WWE in these columns, but so much of this Austin Aries title reign reminds me of Vince McMahon's current treatment of CM Punk as WWE Champion. Last summer, Punk put the world on notice with a stunning shoot promo and what resulted was lightning in a bottle that frankly the company didn't have the slightest clue what to do with. With every passing show, Punk gained popularity. Not because of anything the company had planned, but because of genuine skill, both in the ring and on the microphone. At the time, Punk was actually a heel and pretty much overnight turned face because there wasn't a chance in hell anyone would boo him. But rather than capitalise on this, the face turn never really took off and left the hottest commodity in professional wrestling floundering for a solid storyline. Now, a year later, Punk's in the awkward position of never being the top face (due to John Cena's strangle hold), yet forced to become a half-assed heel who can't rile up the crowd because people like him too damn much.

How much of that rings true for the self-proclaimed "Greatest Man That Ever Lived"? Through sheer talent and skill, Austin Aries has risen through the ranks of Impact Wrestling. It was never the booking, always him.  This gained him an overwhelming surge in popularity, yet he's not quite trusted as the top dog. Now he's in the awkward position of never being an effective top face (due to Jeff Hardy's strangle hold) and forced to become a half-assed heel who can't rile up the crowd because people like him too damn much. Oh my god, how can both top tier professional wrestling companies botch these fantastic Champions at the same time. My mind boggles at the thought.

That's not to say A-Double can't turn it around though. He was a fantastic heel upon his re-debut with the company at Destination X 2011 and continued to be so for the rest of that year. If anything, it's probably his natural fit. Just like CM Punk currently, I see him performing his heel duties to the best of his ability. I'm just sad to see yet another breakout superstar of the wrestling business get bogged down by bad booking.


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