Impact Wrestling still has a problem. I’ve read a ton of devil’s advocate pieces recently about how Impact is righting the ship. None of these earn a reprieve for the devil.
The Final Deletion. Impact’s biggest positive buzz in at least a year. Their biggest viewership numbers since hitting Pop TV. But where is this going? Six months from now are we going to be excited to watch the next chapter of #Broken Matt Hardy, still obsessing about Brother Nero? Is this a storyline that will bring new weekly watchers to Impact Wrestling? It’s a long, long shot at best. It’s unique, it’s fun, but it will run out of gas just because it can’t be consistent. It has a place as a sideshow but that on its own won’t re-establish Impact’s credibility and long-term viewership.
Edwards vs Lashley, title vs title. Destination X episode. Option C. In the past two weeks, Impact has done its best to hype this match up as a Big Deal Main Event. Yet it’s only been in their hype machine for that two weeks. Both of these guys are new to their titles, Edwards gaining the X Division strap just a week before. The X Division has been one of the weakest-booked Impact Wrestling titles in recent memory. The effort simply wasn’t there to make this what it should have been on paper. Ultimately, they hotshotted this week’s match — at Destination X, one of their landmark shows — to set up a cage match on next week’s regular episode of Impact. Moose was introduced after a ridiculous bout of interference by Mike Bennett which accomplished nothing but a reset of the ground. If the purpose was to show Impact’s level of competition, it showed that there isn’t enough respect to let that competition play out. If it was to show the intensity of the storylines, no story that was part of the match was really that intense, and the rivalry between Bennett and Edwards seems petty rather than heated. If it was to build intrigue, it proved that the ‘cunning’ character in this mix (Bennett) actually has no idea how to get the most out of a plot. The only real plausible reason I can see is that Bennett hit the ref cause if he hurt Edwards and then Lashley pinned him, it’d be much harder for Bennett to regain the X title. But if that was the idea, why not try to set it up so that Edwards would win, then Bennett could get both the World and X titles in one go. So, again, if we’re supposed to admire all the crazy schemes people will do to get ahead, instead we’re left wondering why these guys are so dumb.
And if the purpose was to put Dixie over as a hardass boss, you’ve just sacrificed 10 minutes with three of your hottest acts and perhaps the hottest free agent in wrestling today in order to put over probably the least popular character on the entire program.
No matter how you slice it, Impact Wrestling has a problem. It simply is not delivering anything that can really hook a viewer. In my opinion, they believe (like WWE does) that the Attitude Era model is the one with the most potential for cash, so they try to tie every week’s episode to the next one, they throw together car crash matches and car crash angles, everybody attacks everyone else, etc. Do you know the real difference between Impact 2016 and Attitude WWF? The talent. What made Attitude WWF work was not the car crash booking, and in fact it’s my opinion that the way their show was booked probably restricted the heights they could reach. What made it work, what made it thrive, was the fact that they were led by Steve Austin and the Rock, they had luminaries like the Undertaker who could take on any role, like Chris Jericho, like Mick Foley, the Acolytes, Edge & Christian, the Hardyz and the Dudleyz, they had charismatic side acts like Too Cool & Rikishi, Lita, the New Age Outlaws, Steve Blackman (in his own way…), and Trish Stratus. The talent is why Attitude WWF was what it was.
Impact may have a good crew but it does not have that crew. And that, for Impact’s current philosophy, is a very bad thing. This is also one of the reasons that I often write about Impact, though. It is a company where even now when we might say that Impact has everything banging on all cylinders relatively speaking, it’s not really at the level it puts itself over as being. It so clearly needs a little something that, for me, it makes a great blank slate to think on. It also highlights a problem that I think really digs at the back of the minds of a lot of wrestling observers, namely ‘How in the heck did the Attitude Era get so big when everything seemed so wrong?’. Again, they had the talent. So what do you do when you don’t have the talent? Well, if you’re me, you try to figure out Impact Wrestling.
My fanciful idea is basically that if you can take what Impact Wrestling is now — generously we’ll call it substandard — and make it a real success (without adding any major new elements) then you’ve got something close to the ‘booking key’ in your hand.
What I’m gonna do here isn’t that, but it’s on the road to it. In watching Impact Wrestling there are several points that I feel could be huge in shifting their presentation to accentuate all the positives possible there. One of the core issues is, in my mind, that Impact doesn’t think about each talent’s individual skills, so its match booking really suffers. It also tries to do the same type of story with every person regardless of who is good on the mic and in what setting, which again makes their product dull. With that in mind, let’s talk about major changes that would make Impact more dramatic.
- Focus: Impact Wrestling’s alternative style. Impact can well be accused of hopping on the bandwagon of cruiserweight-type wrestling, using the X Division early on as a showcase for the ‘flippy guys’ while keeping them away from the world heavyweight title. X wrestling did eventually grow in importance and the X Division started to challenge the world class guys on the regular, up to the point of today’s Option C. Lots of other places do cruiserweight/indy/hybrid stuff a lot better than Impact these days, it’s true. With Ring of Honor gaining slowly but steadily in reputation, with New Japan’s juniors becoming more accessible, and with the simmering popularity of Lucha Underground, it isn’t like in the mid-2000s when Impact had the benefit of commanding a certain part of the audience. Still, it’s that tension between heavy & fast that no one else has, and that’s what Impact really needs to lean into. I’m making this the first point because it’s what I’m going to keep in mind throughout the rest of them.
- Titles: The hierarchy. Right now, the King of the Mountain title sort of floats around, as does the X Division. Aside from the world heavyweight strap which is the most important, it’s difficult to understand where everyone is. I would set the X Division Championship and the King of the Mountain Championship as opposites. X Division is about no ability limits, high speed, extreme agility, explosive power. The currently undefined KOTM belt would then be about no endurance limits. No countouts, no disqualifications for weapons use at the very least. Last man standing matches, bring your own weapons, and other assorted matches frequent. The X Division champ is the most electric guy, the KOTM the baddest mofo. X Division for lighter, KOTM for heavier. And then, above both, the best of the best duke it out in regular, professional rules for the world title. That emphasizes that, even with all the crazy gimmicks and different styles, the best way to see who is the better wrestler is to have a clean match in the ring. Most likely, the KOTM belt would be considered a half-rung below the X one, but there should be a sense that both champions are the #1 contender to the world title any time there isn’t an officially named contender.
- Titles: Option K. Impact was a pioneer in the field of women’s wrestling. Was. Lucha Underground has taken things into intergender ranks with women defeating men for undifferentiated titles. Speaking of pure women’s divisions, WWE’s main roster women and its NXT women have both far outshined what Impact is currently offering. One huge step in the right direction towards re-asserting Impact’s place among women’s wrestling companies is to give the Knockouts champion the same chance that the X Division champ gets, ‘cashing in’ her title for a shot at the world title. The Knockouts title should be viewed on the same par as the X Division and KOTM belts, and giving women the same opportunity will help them get there.
- Role: James Storm = NOAH Misawa, King Gatekeeper. Thinking back on everything, this is probably the one role that is most important to me. James Storm is a legend without a backstory. Yes, he’s been everywhere and he’s done everything, but usually just once, and he’s never been the main guy. He’s a good powerful wrestler and he’s got the name value. Right now that puts him in a perfect position to sort of center the whole operation, but that requires attention to putting him over as the guy that you have to beat if you want to mean anything. In this role of King Gatekeeper, Storm is the big bad, the final test, the one that makes people’s careers. He definitely needs a bit of retooling to fit it. The Cowboy gimmick is great, but he needs to be in main event robes whenever he’s heading to the ring, dressed with casual class when he isn’t. He needs to look and act like a guy who is carrying the company on his back. And he would be, no doubt. He is the Undertaker without so much fanfare. Within the next two years he should be world champion again, if only for a few months. He’d dominate the KOTM title for the rest of his run. He should be picking every damn thing up. And most of all he can work exactly the sort of heavyweight style that I want to see more of in Impact.
- Ring Style: Heavyweight Toe-to-Toe. One of the biggest reasons I see Impact Wrestling suffer in the ring is that they put on exhibitions of special moves. This works with aerial spots because they are impressive and dangerous enough that they can easily top themselves while being cool at every stage. With heavyweight spots, the exchange of finishers and counters is less athletically thrilling. I also feel that it works against the fortes of guys like Tyrus, Lashley, and EC3 who would benefit from a more straight ahead style. For these guys, I would start to book them in somewhat slower paced but heavier contests. Pitting power against power in the lock up or having exchanges of punches, the outcomes being the major decider of who gets to be in charge of the next part of the match. Focus on standing one’s ground rather than being in motion. Grinding holds slowly building up to rapid action, fighting out of the headlock forever until a sudden twist out, a lariat that’s whiffed, the second one connects but the guy gets back to a knee, recovering, before an elbow puts him down. Build up the idea that any of these moves from these guys could be the finish because of the power game. Plus, this helps to heighten the contrast between a KOTM-style and an X-style wrestler and adds tension to meetings. It also lets some people become known as ‘hybrid-style wrestlers’, and exotic billings are always interesting.
- Role: Up Heel Corgan, Down Dixie Carter. I am not anti-Dixie Carter in a full-stop kind of way. I think she’s fine as an authority figure. Problem is that she’s also publicly tied to a lot of the major failures of Impact Wrestling. Being the good guy on TV isn’t going to make people forget that, it’s just going to make people associate whatever she does now with those screw-ups. There’s an old adage, ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’, and that’s where I’d go with Dixie. I wouldn’t put her off TV entirely but I’d definitely downplay her position. The storyline that would make this really pop is having Corgan doing some kind of powerplay which diminishes Dixie. If Corgan can get heat on him (and having him as the shadowy mastermind of a bad guy stable should do the trick) then whenever Dixie finally steps up to reassert herself, she’ll probably get the cheers that she’s been looking for. It can’t happen overnight, though. More than anything else, allowing people to disassociate the Impact Wrestling brand from Dixie Carter The One Who Ruined It All (i.e, the general perception of her) can only help their brand seem more legitimate.
- Story Style: Reality TV + Realistic Scheming. I think that Impact will get the most of all its elements if there is a strong storyline to carry everything, but let’s shelve the Final Deletion nonsense. That’s fun but it can only go so long, and honestly, I wouldn’t want to see it becoming Impacts ‘thing’. One element of their production that I always thought was interesting and unique was their old emphasis on reality-style backstage segments, with camera shots peeping through cracks in doors, camera operators almost becoming part of the action. The thing is that Impact used that to basically show a weirdo wrestling promotion. Like I said before, all the backstage attacks are ultimately pretty off-putting on a week-to-week basis, so that shouldn’t be the lesson to take from the Attitude Era. The best use of the reality-style format is to sell a dark, intrigue-based storyline. The world of contracts and boardrooms is full of tension and, rather than trying to create some wild & outlandish reasons, let’s focus on cutthroat dealmakers. Mad Men, Empire, the West Wing, the list goes on of famous shows that are about what goes on behind the scenes and all the drama that unveils. I don’t think that Impact should go the whole hog and start doing intense walk-and-talks or counseling segments, but that sort of mindset of dark suits, big money, and corruption is something that hasn’t really been explored long-term in wrestling yet.
- Role: Jade as the Knockout Supreme. More than any other part of Impact Wrestling right now, the Knockouts need a real centerpiece if they’re going to get noticed in the current US women’s wrestling scene. Jade has all the skills and I think she’s got the crowd support to be that. The addition of Sienna, Allie, and I’m sure others that Impact has their eye on can only help them. But even with all that, there needs to be someone to build this around. Jade has been around for a bit but isn’t an ‘original’ by any stretch, and that’s why she’s great here. She could be the standard-bearer for a new generation of Knockouts. A weird rivalry between her and Gail Kim exists right now, weird because it’s never really been either one’s top focus, but this could (hopefully) be reworked into a strong torch-passing storyline. No one’s in a hurry to retire Kim, of course. But right now my feeling is that Gail Kim is still the ace of the division and the fact that she was the ace 10 years ago makes the scene feel stagnant. Kim should definitely still be in the mix and possibly even hold the title again, but Jade should be positioned as the new generation’s top star.
- Push: Trevor Lee. Trevor Lee is the only guy with real breakout potential on the Impact Wrestling roster. He will eventually break out and big. The only question is where. Impact should keep Trevor Lee strong, make sure he is always seen as a winner, and give him a nice contract where they make sure they pay him on time. If they want to be relevant again he’s the guy they need. In 2016 he is not The Man yet, though. A rivalry with Eddie Edwards is just about where he should be and, if Impact was smart, they would devote a bit more time to building up a big deal Lee/Edwards match that would definitely make some people sit up.
- Role: Jeff Hardy as Icon Sting, Matt Hardy as James Mitchell. I’ve poured a bit (lot) of scorn on the Final Deletion so far but I won’t deny that it was a fun escapade. The weirdo #Broken character Matt Hardy is running right now was unexpected but there’s no reason to trash it. The only thing I’d say is that the Hardyz feud needs to get resolved and these guys need to do their own things. Impact in general has gotta move on from featuring stars that first got over 15 years ago and are not now considered world class talent. What the Hardyz do have is name value, though, and the ability to lend that value to the rest of the roster. I’m sure that’s what they had in mind with the Final Deletion, using the Hardy name to draw eyes to Impact. What I think would be more effective is actually using the skills of these two performers. Jeff Hardy is not going to put on a five star classic in 2016, or at the very least he hasn’t approached anything like that in a long while. But he does still excite the audiences and he has a huge fan base. Sting, for his Impact run, was positioned at the top of the card but really he was always a legacy figure. He was always presented as someone who had already proven himself and didn’t need to any longer. Jeff Hardy should have the same basic thing. He’s there to pop the crowd with his entrance, to provide a high-profile spoiler in a tournament, keep a belt warm at times, and most of all to make the big save and to send the fans home happy. Matt Hardy, with Reby at his side, would be great as the microphone behind some of their upper talents who aren’t too talented on the mic, guys like Lashley and Drew Galloway. Even better, whereas James Mitchell was a more traditional hellfire-and-brimstone type evil maniac, #Broken Matt Hardy is this strange cyberpunk necromancer who is granted his powers by a Nine Inch Nails song.
- Titles: Tag Teams, the stepping stone. I am a big fan of tag team wrestling, especially with established and fluid teams like the Wolves. Thing is that in Impact today there is really just… the Wolves. Decay are themed together and the BroMans have teamed up for a while but neither has anything close to the cohesion or popularity of the Wolves. This brings me to another love of mine, 90s Japanese wrestling. Regular themed tag teams like are common in the States never really sprang up in Japan men’s wrestling, and even though there were teams such as the Beauty Pair for the women even this was rarer than all the named teams we see in the States. Instead, tag team wrestling was mostly used as a way for younger wrestlers to make a name for themselves and for older wrestlers to stay in the mix. That philosophy can make the most out of a tag title situation like Impact’s where they don’t really have the tag talent to make that division one of their standouts. Don’t worry about that so much, is my response. The tag titles can take a backseat for a while, perhaps with the Wolves basically ruling the roost and becoming 200 time champions in between others gaining their moments of glory. Not every title has to be presented as the end-all. And if a strong, permanent tag team division does begin to develop, the title can be raised back up by being featured and having top acts hold the belt. It certainly isn’t being helped by the Decay facing the BroMans as a top title rivalry.
- Business: Leverage Impact. Impact Wrestling has established name value, and even though there is a lot of bad feeling towards it, the name is still more widely recognized than Ring of Honor or WWNLive. Impact Wrestling needs to use that to its advantage and there are several avenues for this that I can see. Creating some sort of umbrella system with Impact at the top would be a huge step. It doesn’t need to be as intensive as an NWA system. Perhaps at certain intervals, guys from these ‘feeder’ feds come onto Impact and get a title shot. Show that these places are important and that there is great talent there. What does Impact gain from the deal? A larger pool of talent to work from, for starters. When Impact needs to find its new talent, where better to look than a place already associated with them? If the association is strong there will be fewer headaches involved. Secondly, it would help to establish the Impact Wrestling brand with fans of these local promotions. It may seem small but word of mouth is still a big deal, even if that word is transmitted electronically. Knowing that their favorite local wrestler could be fighting every week for a chance to be featured on Impact Wrestling is going to increase the prestige of Impact in the eyes of these fans.
- Business: Talent Booking. What I mean here is the actual act of negotiating for a wrestler to be on a show. Impact Wrestling has never been great at this. I can remember many reports of Impact guys having to cancel shows last minute because Impact needed them somewhere else (EC3 recently in London); the reports of this for ROH are much fewer, and ROH generally doesn’t have people no show it for something else, either. I have to believe that this is because Impact doesn’t view booking its talent as its core business. Historically, booking talent has been the most profitable aspect of running a wrestling organization; the booker takes a cut of the fee and ensures the talent gets more work. Impact should have a huge base to work from and lots of demand for guys like Galloway, EC3, etc. I believe that some guys really do want to handle their own bookings but, really, I think that most simply want to make sure that they are making enough money, however that happens. The issue that talent have always had with Impact handling bookings in the past, and the reason that Impact has had to allow more freedom recently, is that Impact generally doesn’t book enough shows for these people to make a solid living. How do you deal with that? Book them to other promotions. Get a staff that can handle this part and actually run a booking agency. Hire Bill Behrens if you really need to, and most likely it will be worth the money. A lot of these guys have other promotions they work as well, Galloway being a prime example with commitments in EVOLVE, a relationship with PWG, and his old Scottish stomping grounds. Impact should by no means try to cut these guys off of promotions like that. Instead, work with the guys and more importantly use those connections to build a relationship with the promotions. And keep everybody booked. If done well, Impact controlling the talent’s booking a bit more could help their entire business grow and mature.
- Business: Establish in a Region. Territories are dead and Vince McMahon killed them. That’s what people will always say. It’s not true. Yes, territories in the sense of places that you couldn’t violate by promoting ‘across borders’ do not exist any more. But the idea of a business’s territory is alive and well, for one simple reason: movement of people. If Ricky Nobody lives in Gainesville (GA) and he wants to see some live wrestling, he’s not going to see the show that’s going on tonight in Texas or in New York. He is going to see something local. The way to build an audience from the ground up is to build up the diehards, the ones who see the show every week. You can’t do that unless you are around most of the time to really build up that audience rapport. Impact has never really professed to be a ‘traditional’ promotion in the sense that it has been laser-focused on its TV product and little else for a long time now. Its house shows were more a matter of pride than of business; they were never really run in a volume that would support the wrestlers economically, as I said earlier. That’s got to change because, as Impact is learning, they are very little without a base. They have been knocked around from TV contract to TV contract, having no leverage because the TV companies know that without the contract there is no Impact. Lucha Underground should be an object lesson for Impact: they are a promotion with absolutely zero infrastructure as far as a wrestling promotion goes and they are spending ridiculously to earn low ratings despite wrestling historically being cheap to produce. More than that, on the subject of prestige, it is clear from watching Impact that the audience in the building is not particularly enthused. What Impact should do is find somewhere they can run cheap and they can run weekly, and run that place weekly. The show shouldn’t be filmed for TV as if that is the episode. This would be a weekly house show focused on presenting exciting wrestling and connecting with a local crowd. Impact could probably extend this pretty quickly to a small region, and work out from there. For a year or two, Impact should make this a priority so that by the end of the project they have a place where they know that they can draw and draw well. And yes, I understand that Impact does have obligations to tour places like the UK and India, and they should not shirk those. As far as a regular schedule, though, they can’t do the big touring deal that WWE does and, unless reports are way off base, they can’t even pull off the circuit that ROH is running. But if they don’t start small and start soon, they’ll never get anywhere.
- Role to Fill: The Ace. The term is borrowed from Japan but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t always understood the idea. The king in waiting. The champion, regnant or uncrowned. The guy who always delivers, the biggest star. It’s a complex of traits but that one word, ‘ace’, seems to fit them all. Does a promotion need a single ace? That’s hard to say. I don’t think you can book somebody to be your ace; rather, you tend to figure out who the crowd is choosing and then book them hard. They’ve got to have the talent to carry it, and the bearing. They have to scream ‘ace’ or ‘champion’ when they walk out from behind the curtain. You can’t plan on all that. So no, I don’t think it’s necessary strictly. Instead, I think that the level of competition and the spotlight tends to bring out the qualities of an ace in the roster. AJ Styles was the undisputed ace of Impact for the longest time; the only guys to approach him there were Kurt Angle and Samoa Joe, but they lose points cause Styles had already been made and was still around during most of their Impact runs. Even when he was low on the card, you could not escape AJ Styles. And during that time, Impact was seen as a company that had real quality. Styles wasn’t just himself, he was a standard bearer for what Impact was. Since he’s been gone, no one has made their name like that. Perhaps in a year or two Trevor Lee will ascend that mountain. Aside from him, there’s no one that I see. Like I said above, Jeff and Matt are past it. EC3 and Drew Galloway simply don’t have the sort of match accolades that make me believe they’ll rise to an ace-like position. Same thing with Lashley and Bennett. If you want to throw out the example of Hulk Hogan to counter that, all I can say is that no one can really explain why Hogan got so over, he just did. It’s not a situation where you can just give someone else all of Hogan’s basic traits and they’ll replicate his success. A clone of Ric Flair, Bret Hart, Steve Austin, they would stand a shot in any era. If Impact can get that sort of talent with that sort of credibility on board, I think it will be the sign of a strong new era. As long as they can’t, they’ll be second-rate at their very best.