Billy Corgan: Creative voice behind TNA Impact Wrestling and its future

After making his name in Smashing Pumpkins, Billy Corgan is putting his energy into being the creative force behind a wrestling project. Ron Elkman/USA TODAY NETWORK

Billy Corgan is a very busy man.

The outspoken frontman of iconic alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins remains a thriving musician, business owner and philanthropist. Lately, however, he estimates that 80 percent of his days are spent strategizing about an entirely different passion as the president and creative voice of TNA Impact Wrestling.

Corgan, 49, a lifelong wrestling fan, is no stranger to sports entertainment.

The Chicago native spent plenty of time around ECW in the 1990s and founded his own independent promotion, Resistance Pro Wrestling, in 2011. He was announced as TNA's new senior producer of creative and talent development last summer, and one year later, he's exclusively calling the shots with plans in the works to potentially purchase majority ownership of the company.

Corgan recently spoke with ESPN.com in the early morning hours from Los Angeles, where he's recording a solo album with legendary producer Rick Rubin. He was preparing for another long day of juggling his two favorite interests, with plenty of creative work still to be done ahead of TNA's Bound For Glory pay-per-view on Oct. 2.

As Corgan sees it, he has been called to "different passions for different reasons at different times" and isn't concerned about public opinion when it comes to linking his brand with another as polarizing as pro wrestling.

"People have a very myopic view of what a rock star is," Corgan said. "My version of rock star has always been I'm going to do what I want to do however I want to do it. Whether it's having my own tea house, the charitable work that I've done, to pursuing a life or a career in professional wrestling -- I think this is the American dream.

"To me, I can't think of a better way to live anybody's life. You should do what you want to do. Life is such an incredible opportunity."

Corgan has found common ground from a producing standpoint between music and wrestling, from similar dialogue to a focus on amplifying the performer to present them in their best light. But he's quick to dispel the reputation of being a dictator that he acquired in the music business.

"I've always been a listener and a communicator, I think I just have a very strong opinion of how to make that thing best," he said. "I think you need vision when you are dealing in the creative arts."

As a wrestling promoter, Corgan is old school, preferring the booking style and storytelling that first hooked him as a fan during the territory days of the 1970s. He doesn't like to rush through angles or speed up the pace of a match. There's a reason, he says, why you can watch a Humphrey Bogart movie today and the finish still works.

"I think people want to be engaged, and when they are engaged, they want something to never end," he said. "When you think of the classic feuds, you really don't want them to end."

Corgan believes you can grab people's attention in wrestling just as easy as you can in music, but it's keeping it that remains the ultimate challenge. It's something he believes won't happen with TNA unless it can continue to build its own young stars to package around its more recognized talent.

TNA has experienced plenty of highs and lows since its 2002 debut. At its best, the company provided industry leader WWE with competition as a legitimate No. 2 promotion, often using former WWE stars to do so. Recent years haven't been as profitable, with the company fighting to stay relevant.

"Many times in the past, TNA has made the mistake of bringing in WWE people to sort of create a buzz that didn't sustain," Corgan said. "But success is building a culture that is distinctly your own, with your own identifiable signature. If everything you do doesn't feed into that, you are making a big mistake that history shows does not work."

Corgan is proud of his roster's talent and depth, but he admits it needs to find stability, calling TNA very much a "work in progress." He's also invested in changing its culture from a company he believes has been too willing to live in the shadow of its competition. To move out that shadow, he will need to improve TNA's overall health, which means attracting sponsors, talent and restarting live events, along with weighing the promotion's television future (TNA currently airs weekly on the cable channel Pop TV) against recent trends of fan consumption on the Internet.

There are no quick fixes, Corgan admits. But helping TNA shape its long-term vision is a challenge he accepts with confidence, citing his history running a successful music business for nearly 30 years.

"Obviously, I was part of one of the biggest music revolutions in the history of contemporary music," Corgan said. "We found pop success where people said you would never find pop success. How we crossed over that kind of music had everything to do with a combination of substance and style. So I believe that."

Corgan's pride and joy since joining TNA has been "The Final Deletion," an innovative and absurd segment starring former WWE stars Matt and Jeff Hardy. It was filmed guerrilla-style on location at Matt Hardy's North Carolina home, with an incredibly unique avant-garde feel, blending pro wrestling with elements of horror and low-budget movie action.

Not only was Corgan hands-on in the filming as a de facto producer, alongside Jeremy Borash and James Long, he worked with ownership behind the scenes to greenlight the idea.

"I have been pushing from the beginning that we needed to do what I call out-of-the-box and out-of-the-arena type segments," Corgan said. "I really saw this as the future of wrestling on television."

The response was overwhelming, with TNA becoming the talk of the wrestling world upon the July 5 airing, producing its highest rating to date since debuting on Pop TV last November.

Corgan saw the reaction and instantly knew they were on to something. The next day, he fired off emails stating that TNA not only needed to make more, but it needed to go bigger.

"This is lightning in a bottle," Corgan said. "I've seen this before."

Talk quickly turned to how this might change the dynamic of TNA's business strategy, and whether this was a concept that just worked for the Hardys "because of their gift" or whether it could be expanded. While TNA's September sequel, "Delete Or Decay," drew weaker ratings and less positive reviews than its predecessor, it became a setup for the Oct. 2 PPV match between the Hardys and Decay.

"So maybe like super hero movies, we get the Hardys as the center of the universe and start to use them to sort of branch off in other directions," Corgan said. "We are making it up as we go along and that is sort of the fun part. It's really exciting because we are hopefully writing a sort of new golden dawn in terms of how wrestling can be presented on television, and I think that's fantastic."

Corgan admitted the idea of turning the Hardys' saga into a full-length movie is "in the works," but said he was unable to share more. But it's clear even WWE took notice, releasing a vignette of a backyard brawl on Raw between The Wyatt Family and The New Day just one week after "The Final Deletion" that looked alarmingly similar.

"You know, imitation is the greatest form of flattery," Corgan said. "Look, everybody copies everybody, whether they want to admit it or not. I don't think that's a critical issue. I think innovation is the critical issue. The business in general is still living off the fumes of what was the creative revolution of 'The Attitude Era' of WWE, and by some extension ECW. No one has innovated as much since."

While Corgan has made a series of what he calls "incidental" on-screen appearances for TNA, he would prefer to stay off television altogether, and has begged his creative partners to agree. So don't expect to see any exploitative use of his celebrity name, including musical performances as bait to draw viewers.

"We call that hotshot booking," Corgan said. "If I've got to do something really dumb to get people to watch our product, it's not going to last. I would prefer that I'm not a character on television. I would rather use that oxygen for our talent."

Part of Corgan's reluctance is his belief that the role he would be most natural at playing, a heel owner, is largely played out on television, adding that no one is ever going to do it better than Vince McMahon.

"I have spent 20 years being a heel in music; I have a lot of experience poking people's buttons," Corgan said. "I'm really f---ing good at it, obviously, if you look at some of the headlines coming out about me, including me looking sour at Disneyland. It's right out of wrestling.

"But I don't think there's really that much interest from wrestling fans in me being that character. It only works if they are going to get their sort of comeuppance at the end, and I don't really want to be in the ring second guessing whether me getting blasted with a chair is going to affect my ability to go out on tour with a very active music career."

An artist at heart, Corgan wants TNA to be different and unique, which is why he embraces out-of-the-box ideas like "The Final Deletion" and the infamous six-sided ring (which he says will stay). But he's realistic on what it will take to actually compete with a "big box" promotion like WWE.

"I think when you are dealing with something that is on the edge, at some point it needs to come in from out of the cold," Corgan said. "You cannot maintain your rebel status forever. I have a vision of how this can be done differently and new and fresh, but if you build something that cannot mainstream, you can't succeed at the highest levels."

To that regard, Corgan says TNA will be aggressive in the marketplace to attract a wider audience with signings like former WWE stars Cody Rhodes and Damien Sandow who mesh well with TNA's locker room and overall vision. But not all free agent signings are exactly alike.

So when the name of fellow Chicagoan and recent UFC debutant CM Punk came up, whom he respects and knows personally, Corgan not only shared an obvious interest in the idea of welcoming Punk to TNA as an in-ring performer, but for the value he could provide creatively as a booker or agent.

"I hope that someone who is so gifted comes back to professional wrestling if he wants to be there," Corgan said of Punk. "So of course I would just love to see him in a ring. If it's our ring, even better. Even if he just wanted to be involved, I would love to have that conversation with him."

Much of Corgan's plans are dependent upon whether he ends up purchasing the company, which he calls a "very complicated situation" with many moving parts. He has secured the resources to do so, he says, and hopes to have a resolution in the next three weeks as a signal to talent regarding the company's true direction.

"Even if they don't like the direction or even if they have mixed feelings about the direction, I think it's important to the talent to say this is where we're going," Corgan said.

His first move as owner would be to change TNA's name in order for the company to truly move on and begin a new era.

"The ultimate success in business is really carving out a singular identity so that when people think of that identity, even if they don't like it, they see that as your own," Corgan said. "I think that is infinitely more valuable than, 'Yeah, I like them too.'

"I never wanted to be in a band where people said, 'Yeah, I like them too.' You are either going to love us or hate us, but being in between is just not interesting to me."