If you’ve read about Impact Wrestling before in this space, you mostly haven’t read anything flattering. The wrestling promotion, which launched with weekly pay-per-view events in 2002 as TNA and is still widely known colloquially by that acronym—Total Nonstop Action, if you were wondering—has long been something of an industry laughingstock. Some terrible creative moves turned it into WWE-lite and tales of financial mismanagement and questionable worker treatment trickled out on a regular basis.
The promotion was clearly not in good health, in short, and a dizzying parade of stories about the company’s level of debt in Fall 2016 sealed the deal. Impact was real, but it felt something less than legit. This wasn’t quite new, either—the promotion had long occupied a strange space in which, regardless of who worked there, it was near-impossible to draw paying fans even if Impact talent could draw significant interest outside of the company. A.J. Styles showed this to be true when he left in 2014 and swiftly became one of the biggest wrestling stars in the world. The story of his rise was, in part, the story of how stymied he was by his old promotion. That story has changed. Today, for the first time in a long while and in defiance of recent trends, Impact Wrestling is surprisingly but undeniably enjoying something of a renaissance.
On Sunday night, Impact broadcast its annual Slammiversary pay-per-view event live from the REBEL Entertainment Complex, a nightclub and concert venue in Toronto. Just the change in venue was a notable improvement over the last few years, which were defined by shows taped at a dark and largely empty soundstage at Universal Studios in Orlando. Even the promotion’s non-Orlando tapings—basically all of them until the move to St. Clair College in Windsor, Ontario last month—were at venues that had been dressed to resemble Orlando’s desolate “Impact Zone.”
Even with new ownership, a regime change, improved creative, and a restocked roster, the TV product still looked like the work of the company everyone loathed—that is, until the Windsor shows started airing. REBEL was brightly lit, had a cool look, and was filled with enthusiastic paying fans—a huge improvement in every way. It’s promising that the building will be the venue for the next several weeks of Impact’s Thursday night TV show on Pop TV.
The show itself, if you were wondering, was also pretty damn good. That improvement comes down to both the promotion’s new management and a replenished roster that mixed the standouts in Impact’s existing stable with the best contractually available wrestlers that Impact could find. Some wrestlers are exclusive to Impact for TV and some are not, but the good news is that Impact seems belatedly aware that they’re rebuilding and is focusing on putting together the best wrestling show it can, and doing so in a style that feels nothing like WWE.
The potential bad news for Impact is that MLW, which has gained something of a foothold with a TV deal on BeIn Sports, is building around much of the same talent. MLW’s TV special taping last week in New York, for example, which I attended and airs tonight, featured several wrestlers who were featured in prime slots on the Impact show three days later: Fenix, Pentagon Jr., Homicide, Sami Callihan, and John “Johnny Impact” Hennigan. Hell, at Slammiversary, Pentagon and Callihan borrowed a sequence, move for move, that Jimmy Havoc and Brody King had done at the MLW show three days earlier. Right now, this isn’t a problem, exactly. But it’s something that, given the way that the wrestling business works, could become one in the future.
But let’s worry about that later, because Slammiversary was awesome. With the wrestling operations of the company now run by executive vice presidents Don Callis and Scott D’Amore, creative director Sonjay Dutt, and other support staff like wrestler/writer/producer Jimmy Jacobs filling out the team, the storylines had fans pumped for the show in a way that Impact never really had before in the social media era. In particular, the implosion of the Latin American Exchange stable, with Konnan and Eddie Kingston cutting scathing promos on each other, was a significantly more engaging piece of storytelling than most televised wrestling has seen of late. The video package for the feud, put together by resident production genius Kevin Sullivan (no relation to either the wrestler nor the wrestling writer of the same name), also blew away all recent efforts by his increasingly complacent WWE counterparts. The other matches weren’t too far behind, either, and even if you don’t like the style of a lot of Impact’s backstage segments, which are often dependent on the invisible cameraman syndrome that can permeate wrestling shows, they’re still visually striking and evocative in a way that WWE’s aren’t. Boosted by social media run by Garrett Kidney, who went from fan to employee, this was the most anticipated Impact event in who knows how long.
With the matches booked, it was clear that the show would at least be good enough to satisfy expectations. But, basically everywhere and in some ways that were truly unexpected, Slammiversary consistently blew those expectations away. This is the consensus best wrestling pay-per-view of the year, and it had just about everything. There were exciting athletic exhibitions in the first of the high-flying four-way opener, Brian Cage’s X Division Championship win over Matt Sydal, and Austin Aries retaining his world title over ex-NFLer Quinn “Moose” Ojinnaka. Some solid women’s matches featuring a mix of veteran and younger talent. The card’s three big storyline matches were just as good, and shot through with some truly balls-out violence. That approach could have bordered on overkill, but here the matches were all done differently. Eddie Edwards vs. signature ECW star Tommy Dreamer was more about teased violence—this match in particular made a lot of hay with the mere threat of certain moves—while the LAX vs. OGz tag title match was the chaotic table-breaking match. Sami Callihan vs. Pentagon Jr. was the wild and visceral bloodbath. When the show ended with Aries retaining his title in a match that somehow topped everything that came before despite of iffy expectations (Aries is a generational talent but Moose still needs work), the tide had clearly turned. Impact Wrestling, somehow, is must-see stuff.
Because of how reliant Impact’s success is on featuring the best performers not currently tied down—to WWE, to New Japan Pro Wrestling, or to Ring of Honor, MLW, or even Evolve, a WWE-affiliated indie promotion—there is the question of just how sustainable the current situation is. All the marketable indie talent is seemingly signing on somewhere every week—just in the last week or so, ex-Olympian Jeff Cobb signed with ROH and former UFC prospect turned top indie star Matthew Riddle appears to have signed with WWE. (That “appears” caveat is because the industry leader demands wrestlers say nothing until they announce it, even if it becomes obvious when the talent cancels major independent bookings for no apparent reason.) WWE, in particular, keeps hiring more wrestlers than they can even use, but the allure of working there is too great for many, many people in the business to resist. And with multiple indie groups already having ill-defined ties to the biggest promotion in the world plus steady rumors of more to come, a lot of wrestlers already have their own loose WWE ties. If that keeps escalating, the consequences won’t just be felt by televised groups like Impact, ROH, and MLW. The entire non-WWE wrestling business will feel the impact.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: In a year’s time, Impact has gone from something of a laughingstock—they changed the company name twice in two months due to legal issues—to the promotion that just put on the show of the year. While there’s still a whole lot of work to be done, Impact has become very much worth your time. If you’re looking for something different from what WWE does that you can easily tune into each week, it has officially cemented itself as one of the quality alternatives available on TV. Let’s just hope that nobody does anything to shake it up, and maybe let’s also at least try to stop calling it TNA.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.