Benoit case could slam promoter growth plans

MIAMI - Total Nonstop Action Wrestling unveiled its expansion plans last week before a governing body that could greatly affect how the strategy will unfold.

Speaking at the Association of Boxing Commissioners meeting in Miami, TNA live events coordinator Craig Jenkins announced the promotion's plan to become a nationwide touring group a la World Wrestling Entertainment. Besides the planned expansion of its Impact show to two hours every Thursday beginning in September or October, TNA is to run 96 live nontelevised events in 2008 as well as at least eight pay-per-view shows .

"We couldn't be any happier with where we are as a product and brand right now," said Jenkins. Ratings for one-hour Impact episodes have shown slow but steady growth in 2007. "Quite frankly, it's time for us to get out on the road."

But the landscape for TNA and WWE may be drastically different next year if state athletic commissions become involved in drug testing pro grapplers.

Stemming from the murder/suicide of Chris Benoit and his family in late June, Congress asked WWE last week to supply information on its drug-testing program for review. An autopsy showed Benoit had an elevated level of testosterone in his system as well as other prescription drugs when he killed his wife, Nancy, and 7-year-old son, Daniel, before hanging himself in their Atlanta-area home. There is speculation that heavy, long-time steroid abuse contributed to Benoit's mental state.

If congressional hearings are held and the effectiveness of WWE's steroid and wellness policy is considered unsatisfactory, state athletic commissions may be asked to become involved in testing and enforcing suspensions.

Association of Boxing Commissioners President Tim Lueckenhoff said his group supports installation of a testing program.

"It really needs to be random, and we all need to be together on this," said Kansas boxing commissioner Aaron Davis, whose state regulates pro wrestling despite the genre's status as "sports entertainment."

"This is something we want to do inclusively and not have to monitor them like they're our kids. But we need to ensure it's being done. Right now, we just can't be sure."

Armando Garcia, executive director of the California state athletic commission, said shortly after the Benoit murders/suicide that his group would voluntarily test pro wrestlers for steroids if asked. California's drug-testing program has had positive results from 82 boxers and mixed martial arts fighters since March 2006; nine were for steroids, which the state began testing for in April.

MMA fighters failing steroid tests include stars such as Royce Gracie, Phil Baroni, Hermes Franca and Sean Sherk, the Ultimate Fighting Championship's lightweight kingpin. Sherk and Franca, who tested positive after fighting each other on the UFC 73 pay-per-view show last month in Sacramento, have Monday hearings in Los Angeles to appeal their results. If Sherk loses on appeal, he will likely be stripped of his UFC title while suspended.

Garcia had to revoke his invitation to pro wrestling promotions because his state doesn't regulate the industry. He believes California should reconsider that stance.

"I just think it's a clear health and safety issue," Garcia said. "(Steroid use) is completely rampant in combative sports. People are literally getting hurt and dying."

The TNA Wednesday said the promotion has "an active and strict drug and alcohol policy" but "due to its privacy policy, TNA cannot comment publicly about any specific tests administered to members of its roster." Jenkins said the company is reviewing its current policy.