Making an Impact
On 18th July 2020, Impact Wrestling aired the 2020 edition of their annual Slammiversary pay-per-view event. For the first time in a long time, there was a genuine buzz around an Impact event. This was thanks in no small part to their viral marketing that one or more of WWE’s recent batch of COVID-19 firings would be debuting at the show.
Slammiversary absolutely delivered, with the highly publicized returns of many of the company’s former big names. The show saw the Motor City Machine Guns, Alex Shelley and Chris Sabin, return to defeat The Rascalz in a high-octane opening bout, before challenging current Tag Team champions The North to a championship match. In a shoot-work promo, Heath Slater arrived to declare himself the hottest free agent in wrestling. During the main event, former Impact World Champion Eric Young returned to the company in a losing effort for the top title. New champion Eddie Edwards celebrated with the debuting Good Brothers, Karl Anderson and Doc “Luke” Gallows, of The Club fame. And finally, EC3 made his anticipated return in a post-show teaser vignette.
It was undoubtedly a landmark night for the company once known as TNA Wrestling. However, what many wrestling fans may not be aware of is the fact that Slammiversary wasn’t just a bolt in the blue. This wasn’t just a throw-everything-at-the-wall approach to get some attention in a rapidly crowded market. In fact, the episodic Impact shows, airing on AXS TV and Twitch Plus each week, have been consistently some of the best wrestling on all of television for years now. Slammiversary is just the continuation of that work.
There is a pervasive stigma in the wrestling community when it comes to TNA Wrestling. A number of questionable decisions throughout its history have led to an unfortunate in-joke, often shared on forums and social media – “LOLTNA”. It could stem from early booking decisions like bringing in Vince Russo or giving Jeff Jarrett six World title reigns between 2002-2006, or the debut of Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff to recreate some of WCW’s lowlights (such as the “we’re-the-nWo-but-as-bikers” faction, Aces n Eights.) In later years, there was the over-booking of Dixie Carter as a heel authority figure, the failed merger with Jarrett’s GFW, and the over-reliance on WWE cast-offs. The company also was treated like a hot potato between owners, from the Jarretts to Panda Energy to Billy Corgan to Anthem Sports, as well as television stations. In the space of five years it moved from Spike TV to Destination America to Pursuit to its current home AXS TV.
The long tenure of Impact, which began life as NWA:TNA in 2002, has led to a lot of instability and changes in the company’s makeup and structure. Compared to the WWE, with its sole McMahon family leadership over the decades, TNA always looked like it might be on the knife-edge of survival. But survive it did, despite an increasingly diminished fanbase.
Wrestling With Attitude
What many who abandoned Impact Wrestling in its TNA years may not understand is that the company’s leadership structure was dramatically changed in December 2017, with the day-to-day operations handed over to Don Callis and Scott D’Amore. Both men brought decades of valuable backstage experience to the company, and for the first time in a long time, provided a wrestling mind to the booking of the product.
Almost overnight, the quality of the Impact Wrestling product changed. The branding was overhauled, the ring was reverted to a traditional four-sided set-up, and the roster was given a shake-up too. Impact began to push new talent that hadn’t been given a global platform. Helmed by World Title feuds between Austin Aries, Johnny Impact (aka. John Morrison), Moose and Killer Kross, the product also featured exciting new characters like Su Yung, Pentagon Jr., Brian Cage, Sami Callihan, The Crist Brothers, Eddie Edwards, Rey Fenix, LAX, and Tessa Blanchard. You will notice that only one of those names was ever given a main event platform with WWE, and so for the first time since its early days, Impact Wrestling felt like a fresh product that wasn’t made up of WWE has-beens and never-weres.
The roster wasn’t the only change to the way Impact approached its product. With the introduction of D’Amore and Callis, Impact began to focus on its characters and storylines above all else. That trend hasn’t changed, and even in 2020 the product that Impact puts out feels the closest that pro-wrestling today gets to the Attitude Era style of booking. That isn’t a reference to shock television like sexualization and ultra-violence, instead it’s a nod to the ways that Monday Night Raw and Monday Nitro once pushed its roster as a cast of personalities in edgy personal feuds and vendettas, rather than participants at a genuine sporting event.
Cast of Characters
For years now, modern pro wrestling has trended towards the latter. Even main-roster WWE shows, which put out a family friendly character-orientated product, still feature long 20-minute matches with no stakes beyond both competitors wanting a victory. Meanwhile, the “Wednesday Night Wars” between NXT and AEW feature companies placing a heavy emphasis on competition and “workrate” matches, with the majority of their rosters made up of athletic competitors who just want to be the best. For this reason, characters like Karrion Kross and Orange Cassidy stand-out on their respective products. These are wrestlers built around being a compelling and unique persona, and viewers crave to see them in situations and feuds that make those individual personalities react.
The WWF Attitude Era was full of such personalities. Nobody would accuse Val Venis of being a technical wizard, or Gangrel a workhorse, but both men stand the test of time as memorable characters in the minds of older wrestling fans. Even John Cena, who took his seat at the head of the company when the Attitude Era came to a close, reached the heights he did through connecting with his audience rather than wrestling sixty-minute classics.
Impact Wrestling in 2020 understands this concept. That’s why an average episode of Impact on a Tuesday night sees the undead bride fighting with the demon assassin over the soul of a friend. It’s why the delusional 80’s guy is trying to get close to The Ultimate Finesser to maintain his relevance in the business. It’s why a computer hacker is feuding with a tag team consisting of Mr. All Ego and The Walking Weapon. The hottest up-and-comer in the company is Ace Austin, a sleazy street magician whose bodyguard is a self-professed madman.
Despite their character-based writing, Impact has a roster consisting of some of the best technical wrestlers in the world. It can’t be accused of not pulling its weight in the in-ring department. New World Champion Eddie Edwards is a man who held the Ring Of Honor World Championship and competed in a tag team with mat technician Davey Richards as The American Wolves. Impact Wrestling in 2018 gave him an unhinged personality and estrangement issues to prevent him being a generic dude in green trunks. The Rascalz, a stable consisting of Dezmond Xavier, Trey Miguel, and Zachary Wentz were lighting up the indie circuit in 2017 with their high-flying style. Impact Wrestling gave them a smoke-filled Treehouse skit and let them turn up their stoner personalities to 11. Even long-time veteran Rob Van Dam has recently been allowed to try something new, changing his usual tired gimmick to that of a self-absorbed lady’s man.
At times, Impact’s stories go too far and can become farfetched. Much like the WWF of 1998, Impact Wrestling is willing to take that risk. It isn’t afraid of falling on its face, and this daring often leads to hilarious moments and intriguing scenarios. It feels like the management of Impact is willing to focus on the writing and storytelling, whilst letting the wrestlers worry about the wrestling. This gives them a great in-ring product featuring some of the best untested talents from the independent scene and lets genuine mic skills and character work propel its workers to the top. There is a no more recent example than “The Virtuosa” Deonna Purrazzo who was squandered in squash matches on NXT’s roster since 2014. With just five weeks of build, Deonna debuted on Impact, cut some of the best promos of her career, put on one of the most technical matches the Impact women’s division has seen in years, and credibly captured the Impact Knockouts championship.
I highlight all of this in such detail to give just a sample of the creative ways in which Impact Wrestling is booking its product, attempting to tell new stories with fresh characters rather than just two men or two women fighting over a belt for the betterment of their careers. When All Elite Wrestling began to build towards the debut of their flagship program Dynamite, they touted that they would be a sports-centric product, making wins and losses matter. Impact Wrestling is unafraid to do the opposite and have flourished for it. They understand that to stand out in today’s wrestling scene, they need to take risks — not just in controversial signings and blood-letting, but in daring to show larger-than-life personalities and telling consistent and logical stories, linking feuds together and assuming their audience do have a memory.
Impact have embraced their diminishing size and oft-raided roster, filling smaller arenas, trialing fresh talent, and downsizing their production. Instead of trying to regain the glory days of Total Nonstop Action, they are embracing what makes them Impact Wrestling. With the recent bout of signings, they are also looking to give a new platform for talented young performers who didn’t get that chance to shine on the big stage. It’s yet to be seen if the acquisitions breathe new life into the product or detract from the “fresh new faces” feel of its past few years.
If anything that you have read here resonates, or if you ever found yourself dismissing the company because “LOLTNA”, then I implore you to give them another try. Watch the Slammiversary 2020 pay-per-view, currently being touted as one of the best wrestling shows this year. Better yet, tune in to Impact Wrestling on a Tuesday night (AXS TV and Twitch simulcast, 8pm EST/1am BST, or Fight Network UK at 9pm BST, or sign up to the free trial of Impact Plus) and let their storytelling suck you in.