“Myself and every Knockout in the company at the beginning worked so hard to build up a credible women’s division in TNA, so finally holding the title meant so much to me. Winning the Knockouts Championship I can say is a moment I will always remember for the rest of my life.” -Gail Kim
Hi folks! Today, we are celebrating 20 years of (TNA) Impact Wrestling. And yes, before you start, I’ve heard all the insults. From “LOLTNA!” to “You Still Watch That ****?!”, and vintage lines like “That Company Won’t Last Another Year”. It’s safe to say it hasn’t always been easy to be a fan, but I will not sit here and boldly claim it’s the greatest wrestling company of all time.
It’s very far from that… and you’d have to be delusional to think so! But I think it has charm, like a Spike Dudley, or a Rey Mysterio. That little underdog guy who probably shouldn’t be stepping in the ring with super heavyweights, but does it because why not? Live a little.
It’s likely never bound to challenge the big guys, but yet, it’s nice having an alternative. Somewhere you know that these men & women are doing all they can to get noticed. Impact is not the place wrestlers have childhood dreams about. It’s often a stepping stone to greater things, but for many, it’s a place full of fond memories. Impact is far from perfect, will never be perfect, and you have to take its shortcomings before you can see the positives.
And what better positive has their been over the past 20 years, than it’s women’s division, otherwise known as the Knockouts Division? A place where women are pushed into main events, draw ratings, and often are the most viewed talents on YouTube and social media pages.
The Knockouts Division has always enjoyed a great deal of freedom, and in return, it has given back to the company for placing its trust in them to deliver. Just don’t Google the match between Jenna Morasca and Sharmell, because that’s a prime example of how not to deliver! The rest of the time, nobody pushed for a women’s division.
Fans weren’t begging management to make it happen. There was no “women’s revolution”. The consensus in America was like, huh… what if we take women’s wrestling seriously? There’s no chance that would work… the fans only care if they are getting their kit off.
It was a foreign concept which you’d only find if you traveled to Japan. TNA Impact Wrestling took it upon itself to kick-start this and pave the way for women’s wrestling in America. It’s hard to disagree with that statement, and it was so far ahead of the game it probably doesn’t get the credit it deserves.
You wouldn’t hear someone like Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer praise this, because it hated the company for the longest time, and probably still does because they aren’t based in Japan. I’m here to set the record straight by telling you, as a long-time fan, what made the Knockouts Division worthy of recognition. With that said, let’s look through the greatest hits of the Knockouts.
On May 10, 2002, a new promotion called NWA: Total Nonstop Action opened its doors. The company founded by Jerry Jarrett, Jeff Jarrett & Bob Ryder, served as an alternative to fill the void left by WCW & ECW. Vince Russo joined the creative team in July. He coined the name “Total Nonstop Action” as a play on the crude abbreviation “T&A”, to go with the edgier product they would air on weekly pay-per-view specials.
As the company didn’t have a TV deal, it sold all of its weekly specials online. By Spring 2003, Panda Energy had bought a controlling stake and appointed Dixie Carter (Robert Carter’s daughter) as president.
The early days of NWA: TNA focused on male wrestling, with women playing minor roles. Like WCW Nitro, they employed dancer to perform seductively in raised cages around the venue. Some of them worked in the ring as well as being valets.
The first form of championship was the title of “Miss TNA”, which didn’t include a title belt, but at least there was something to fight for. Trinity was the most active wrestler of this time, who you could say, was like TNA’s Chyna because she’d wrestle for the X Division Championship in 2003.
And then there’s Goldylocks, who started out as a backstage interviewer. Her attitude against sexist comments and other misdemeanors made her a popular figure, and she soon transitioned in to becoming a manager for the likes of Erik Watts, Alex Shelley and Abyss.
She was the first woman to get a regular full-time gig without having to dance or work as a side act valet.
Many others made a name for themselves in this era, like Traci Brooks, who we’ll talk more about later. Lesser known talent include dancer girl Lollipop, Desire, Nurse Veronica, Athena, and Disciples Of The New Church valet BellaDonna.
While they never get mentioned when Impact looks back on its history, it’s important to note their contributions.
There are so many others we could name, but the biggest of these would have to be Alexis Laree. As a member of Raven’s stable, The Gathering, she accompanied him, Julio Dinero and a young CM Punk.
After working several matches, Laree was impressive enough to get picked up by WWE. She worked in OVW for a short while, before debuting on WWE’s main roster as Mickie James.
What many don’t realize is that TNA’s women’s division wasn’t originally coined Knockouts. This came much later. In 2006, the company released a DVD called “Knockouts: The Ladies of TNA Wrestling“.
This was a special showing of some of their photoshoots in outdoor locations. Much like the term “Diva” stuck in WWE, Knockouts became the term used for TNA’s women’s division from then to the present day.
By 2006, TNA had moved to the Impact Zone, acquired a new TV deal, and its popularity grew on the back of the hard work of everyone involved. The Knockouts Division expanded, with the additions of Gail Kim, Christy Hemme, Jackie Gayda, ring girl SoCal Val, and backstage interviewer Leticia Cline (who later posed for Playboy).
Despite this, the women of TNA were still viewed as nothing more than valets who rarely wrestled. However, something bright was on the horizon.
Knockouts Cross The Line
In 2007, TNA brought in veteran former WWE Diva Jacqueline. With her, Gail Kim, Jackie Gayda, Christy Hemme, and indy wrestler Sirelda, the women’s division got more time to showcase their ring skills.
Kim often accompanied Jeff Jarrett & America’s Most Wanted. Sirelda was with AJ Styles & Christopher Daniels. Jacqueline was with Beer Money Inc (after James Storm split from Chris Harris). Traci Brooks also managed Robert Roode around this time. This changed when Jacqueline and Gail Kim began a feud early in the year.
TNA finally decided in late-2007 that they would have a gauntlet to crown the first Knockouts Champion. Gail Kim won the 10-woman gauntlet by last defeating Roxxi Laveaux. This officially began the Knockouts Division, after over five years of women getting by with whatever they could get.
TNA finally had a focus on women’s wrestling, and in doing so, it recruited many fresh faces. Some of the biggest signings included: Awesome Kong, Angelina Love, Velvet Sky, ODB, Taylor Wilde, Sharmell, Karen Angle, Raisha Saeed (aka Cheerleader Melissa) and Shelly Martinez.
Unlike WWE Divas, the TNA Knockouts immediately wanted to show that women’s wrestling could be on a par with men’s wrestling. Knockouts matches often drew the biggest ratings, and some of the rivalries are still talked about to this day.
The biggest feud was between Gail Kim and Awesome Kong, with the latter being so big and strong you could believe her beating up guys. So it was amazing to see Gail Kim, who despite being half the size of Kong, take it to and defeat her more often than not.
The chemistry between them was such that I can’t remember a better feud anywhere else between two women. There have definitely been better matches elsewhere since then, but there’s something about Gail Kim vs. Awesome Kong which was must-see.
The Knockouts Division has since aspired to reach the same heights, but Kim & Kong set the bar high. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen again, but Impact would need to find two extraordinary talents with the same fire, and that’s not something you can manufacture.
What Gail Kim and Awesome Kong did was prove that women’s wrestling could be a ratings draw. It can make history. Kim & Kong crossed a line that no women had before, and by doing so, forever changed the landscape of women’s wrestling in the United States. And they weren’t finished, because other Knockouts were ready to become stars in their own right.
Gail Kim made what turned out to be the wrong decision to return to WWE (assuming they would take women’s wrestling seriously), and this meant others had to step up to Awesome Kong.
Taylor Wilde was the first to do this in one of the most shocking wins in Impact Wrestling history, by defeating Awesome Kong for the Knockouts title. However, while women’s wrestling was flourishing, something sinister was shaking its booty and making a mockery of it. A stable formed which, like no other, was bringing the sex factor to TNA.
They only cared about looks and representing a new generation of superficial, fake, and obnoxious personalities. They were The Beautiful People of Angelina Love & Velvet Sky, and they were “cleansing the world, one ugly person at a time.”
Let The Pigeons Loose
We’ve talked a lot about women’s wrestling and how the Knockouts focused on taking it seriously, but there was one act which laughed in the face of this. The Beautiful People were almost like a parody of Divas, except it took things to the extreme. If you want to make things about sex, then The Beautiful People will shove it in your face whether you like it or not.
The fakery and bitchiness made for an amazing heel stable with a mixed reaction. On one hand, you had those who appreciated their figures, but then you had the other seeing through all that. It was cheap, but it worked.
This is not how women want women to be represented, though. They wanted some class and respect, but The Beautiful People were catering to the lowest possible denominator. In the early days, Billy Gunn managed the team, and he helped by always putting the spotlight on them.
By the time he moved on, they were pretty over and could do it by themselves. What the stable did was create something for the other Knockouts to fight against.
They wanted women’s wrestling to be respected, but The Beautiful People were actively working against that goal. And the thing is, despite being heels, they drew a lot of fans in because other shows weren’t willing to push the envelope in the way they would.
When they added Madison Rayne to the mix, I think the group reached another level because they could make better use of the numbers game, which brought even more heat.
By putting up a mirror to society, it showed the world how it had perceived women’s wrestling for so long. It was hot, but it was outdated, and it needed someone to stamp that out. The Beautiful People still have some of Impact’s most viewed YouTube videos, although it hasn’t been together in years.
There were some groups in other companies which tried to capture the magic they did, but it couldn’t be emulated. The Beautiful People cleansed the world one ugly person at a time, and by doing so, it brought a new dynamic to the product.
What made the Knockouts Division so great between 2007-2009 was how different everyone was. It had serious wrestlers, powerhouses, superficial hotties, dark characters like Daffney, crazy fun personalities like ODB, and loyal originals like Traci Brooks. There was depth like no other women’s division I’ve ever seen, and it kept on being a major selling point for TNA.
That is until things changed around. There was a major mix up around the corner. But just before it did, TNA introduced Knockouts Tag Team titles. Sarita & Taylor Wilde became the first champions in a tournament, but it was all downhill after they held it.
The company ended 2009 by holding a special four-hour, all Knockout episode of Impact! titled New Year’s Knockout Eve. Also, Traci Brooks got seriously close to becoming the first Knockout (wrestler) to appear on the cover of Playboy, but instead had her photoshoot sold online.
Hogan & Bischoff Era
I’m not here to rant about what happened during the Hulk Hogan & Eric Bischoff regime. Any long time readers of mine knows how much I hated this era. It was terrible, and it affected everything, including the Knockouts Division.
We should remember that Vince Russo was one of the Knockouts’ main backers, and his creative influence took a major hit with Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff around. Let’s pick up on some of those points from 2010:
– Tara (Victoria) became a major player. She had been around since May 2009, but the new regime often felt she was more of a draw than any of the TNA Originals.
– The Beautiful People split up. Angelina Love had to leave TNA because of a visa issue in 2009, so she was replaced by Lacey Von Erich, who was so green Rob Van Dam would have smoked her given the chance. When Love returned, they did not welcome her back in to the group.
Instead of pushing Velvet Sky (the logical choice), Madison Rayne exchanged the Knockouts title with Love twice. In fact, Rayne won the title three times that year. Velvet Sky, despite easily being the group’s most popular star, had to wait another year to get hers. This version of TBP won the tag titles, and it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either.
– The division saw several departures, as it lost Awesome Kong, Roxxi Laveaux, ODB, Traci Brooks, Alissa Flash, Tara (for a short time), and more. In its place, it got Miss Tessmacher, Cookie, and Winter (aka Katie Lea Burchill).
It still had serious wrestlers like Hamada and Taylor Wilde, who became tag champions together, but they were rarely featured despite the fans appreciating their skills. Many of the departed would later return for short stints, but it was clear Impact was looking for a new direction. Lacey Von Erich, Hamada and Taylor Wilde left by the end of 2010.
– For a short time, Eric Bischoff appointed Miss Tessmacher (fka Brooke Adams in WWE) as the General Manager of the Knockouts. Why? Because he was crushing pretty hard on her, and you can figure out why. Traci Brooks had served as the commissioner a year before, so this wasn’t a new concept.
– Because there was more emphasis on male wrestling, along with stable warfare between Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair and others, the Knockouts took more of a backseat. They were rarely the main event in this period.
There was an improvement, notably because of Mickie James and Gail Kim returning. Impact lost Daffney because of serious injuries and settled out of court after she sued them for a dangerous work environment.
Karen Jarrett returned and was named the Vice President of the Knockouts. Mickie James and Winter held the Knockouts title for most of the year, before moving on to Velvet Sky and Gail Kim.
Rosita (now known as Zelina Vega in WWE) got an opportunity and won the tag titles with Sarita. Miss Tessmacher started wrestling and teamed with Tara. Despite formerly being rivals, Gail Kim & Madison Rayne formed an alliance and ended the year with all the titles, making Kim the first to hold both championships.
This was the beginning of building her up as the greatest Knockout of all time. She’d spent time away in WWE. It hadn’t worked out, and she was back with a vengeance to prove her worth. There was bitterness, along with wanting to give back to the company who believed in her.
By the end of 2013, Brooke Hogan had done a not so stellar job as vice president of the Knockouts. ODB and Eric Young won the Knockouts Tag Titles and held them for so long with no one seeing them, that Brooke had to call them out and force them to relinquish.
This meant abandoning the championship, while also admitting the company had zero clue what they were doing with it. Meanwhile, Miss Tessmacher got a massive push as the Knockouts Champion, although I never understood why.*
*That’s not me insulting her. I just got no sign that she was over before they pulled the trigger. Her title reigns didn’t change how fans thought of her. She was good, but the division had better.
Luckily after this, the title bounced around the bigger names like Gail Kim, Angelina Love, Mickie James, and Tara, before the Hogan regime crawled toward its end. Vince Russo was gone too, so the Knockouts were doing what they could without firm backing.
Impact was on death’s door, as a merger with Jeff Jarrett’s Global Force Wrestling fell through, and Billy Corgan’s attempts to buy the company were ignored despite paying for shows.
To The Present
Since 2015, Impact has been on damage control. It jumped from network to network before its debt became clear. Anthem Sports bought the company in 2017, and it has since put all its efforts in to raking back the debt while making the promotion profitable.
This meant they couldn’t afford the same level of production, nor the same compensation for its talent. Therefore, the roster lost many of its biggest stars, and Impact Wrestling had to make do with who they could afford.
Gail Kim kept on being a prominent contender, ending her career with a record 7 reigns. Taryn Terrell took the mantle for a while and played a pretty mean heel champion. Rosemary got the title in 2016 and has been one of Impact’s best characters ever since. Allie, Su Yung and Jordynne Grace added their names in to the history books.
Taya Valkyrie remains the record holder for the longest single reign, lasting 377 days. Deonna Purrazzo came close to beating that record with a reign of 344 days.
And then there’s Tessa Blanchard, who, after winning the Knockouts title, went to the main event of the Hard To Kill PPV and defeated Sami Callihan for the Impact World Heavyweight Championship. No other company can say they booked a woman to beat a man for their World Championship. Impact did it very well, although it wasn’t without its critics.
Whether you like Tessa, she worked super hard with Callihan to pull it off. They even had a champion vs. champion match, with Tessa Blanchard facing the Knockouts Champion Taya Valkyrie in the main event of an episode of Impact.
Once again, Impact broke down barriers. It dared to do what nobody had done before. They put women at the forefront, ahead of the men, but not in spite of them. Intergender wrestling has always been a touch taboo. Although professional wrestling isn’t sport, many perceive it as such. They think having a man wrestle a woman is like glorifying man on woman violence.
No, I don’t think anyone is condoning that. To understand this, you have to see wrestling as a dance, similar to a ballet routine or figure skating. You have one man, one woman. They do their routine and are judged accordingly. Wrestling is the same, except it simulates a fight, which is where it crosses the line for some fans.
In the present day, Tasha Steelz sits on top of the Knockouts Division. The tag titles are reactivated and treated better. Gail Kim is in charge of the division and always complements the talent by not hogging any spotlight. She is in the Hall of Fame, as is her former nemesis, Awesome Kong.
Mickie James represented the Knockouts as the champion in this year’s WWE Royal Rumble. The Knockouts have been involved in their first Ironman match and Ultimate X. The first Queen of the Mountain match is scheduled for Slammiversary. What more can you want?!
After 20 years of Knockouts, it continues to innovate and break down barriers. Nobody else in the United States can say they have done it better. Nobody is given the same creative freedom or airtime to flourish. Almost everybody who joins the division leaves it happy and better than they were.
Impact is under the best management it has ever had with Anthem Sports and Scott D’Amore. They are trusting, creative, and open to cross-promotion. It’s a shame the company still gets flack for past discretions which they didn’t cause.
If there is one constant in this company, it’s the inspiration shown by the Knockouts. Long may it reign as the prime example of how to run a women’s division in the western hemisphere. You may not like the company, or haven’t seen it in forever, but there should be some acknowledgement.
For without Knockouts paving the way, would we have seen a women’s division in NXT to inspire a women’s revolution? Would AEW have launched with an emphasis on women’s wrestling? It’s hard to say. A small part of me wants to claim that without TNA’s example, we might have got these things. But boy… it would have taken so many more years to happen.
I know so much about the Knockouts Division that I could sit here and write another piece, but I think the basics will suffice. If there’s anything I’d like anyone to remember after reading this, is that Impact Wrestling’s Knockouts have, and always will be, a credit to this business.
My life is better for having known them. And if this piece somehow reaches any current or former Knockouts, I really hope I have done you justice. Sadly, I couldn’t name everybody, but thank you for inspiring me. Thank you for inspiring yourselves, all the young kids out there who dream of becoming wrestlers, and anyone else who dreams of being anything.
You prove that sometimes dreams come true, and you can make a positive impact on the world. Yes, that pun was intended.
What are some of your favorite moments from the history of the Knockouts? Who is next in line to become champion? And do you think we’ll ever see a group like The Beautiful People again? Please leave a comment below with your answers. Thank you for reading!