While the world is enraptured with yet another pro wrestling war – as AEW and WWE’s proxy NXT duke it out for superiority on Wednesday nights – today marks the tenth anniversary of the start of the last wrestling war. January 4 is more synonymous with New Japan Pro Wrestling’s annual dome show and Wrestle Kingdom but it was also the night TNA, in their infinite wisdom, decided to take on WWE.
A company with an audience of 1.5m people every week sought to tackle WWE’s market dominance. It was a ridiculous idea – instead of using Hogan and associates to grow their audience on Thursdays they opted to try and take on a company with three times the viewers – and it ended as emphatically as you’d expect. TNA was trounced, WWE barely even flexed a muscle.
There are many lessons to be learned from that fateful night ten years ago and the nine-week “war” that ensued after. Lessons about brand identity, the value of nostalgia, obsessions with the past, striking while the iron is hot and picking fights you can never win.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane and revisit the train-wreck that was the 2010 Monday Night War.
The Game Changes Now, Brother
On October 27, 2009, Dixie Carter strolled into Madison Square Garden with Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff in tow and announced that the Hulkster was coming to TNA. That was a declaration of war in and of itself. Walking into the spiritual home of WWE and announcing the acquisition of Vince McMahon’s biggest creation was a statement of intent. TNA was ready for a fight. Hogan made it official on December 5, appearing on The Ultimate Fighter: Heavyweights series 10 Finale to announce that iMPACT! would go head to head with Raw on Monday, January 4.
The episode itself was a captivating train-wreck. It opened with Mike Tenay and Taz running down a card featuring Abyss vs. Rhino in a Barbed Wire Massacre match and Beer Money vs. The British Invasion in a Full Metal Mayhem match. An hour in Eric Bischoff ripped up the script and both those matches were off. That really set the tone for the chaos that would ensue.
Then we transitioned into complete farce – a now-infamous Steel Asylum match that sits high in the rankings of the most idiotic lolTNA moments kicked off the action for the night. Homicide couldn’t escape the cage and spent over a minute desperately struggling to get out. You really felt for the poor guy as the camera sat squarely on him as he squirmed at the top of the giant red bird cage all while the crowd chanted “This is bullshit.” That this all happened after Homicide was disqualified for attacking everybody with a baton underlined the stupidity of it all. It was agonizing. He was thankfully put out of his misery when Jeff Hardy returned to TNA, waffled Homicide square in the head with a steel chair and then sat atop the cage as IMPACT’s first segment came to a close. Don’t forget, Jeff Hardy was one of the hottest wrestlers in the world in 2009, coming off a red hot year where he finally reached top babyface status in WWE – his TNA return couldn’t have been more strangely executed. This first segment of this “new era” of TNA was one of the biggest train-wrecks in company history. It was remarkable really.
The show featured the returns or debuts of Eric Bischoff, Scott Hall, Sean Waltman, Sean Morley, Orlando Jordan, The Nasty Boys, Jeff Hardy, Shannon Moore, Ric Flair and *sigh* Bubba the Love Sponge. Hulk Hogan’s fingerprints on the show were undeniable from the outset. Everything anybody had achieved with the company prior to that night didn’t matter, it might as well not have happened. This was the Hulk Hogan and friends show. Any identity TNA had was gone, in fact, two weeks later the Six Sided Ring was banished as Hulk Hogan declared it could only take the company so far. He stood in the middle of the ring as the crowd chanted “We want six sides!” and booed him furiously. The reason people liked the show in the first place didn’t matter. Hogan knew best.
ODB defeated Tara to win the Knockouts Title, while Awesome Kong and Hamada bested Taylor Wilde and Sarita in a cracking match for the Knockouts Tag Team Titles. If you wanted the old stars of TNA, you got them…in very small doses. Desmond Wolfe followed up his PPV series vs. Kurt Angle with a three-minute loss to The Pope, Matt Morgan and Hernandez squashed Raven and Dr. Stevie while Samoa Joe beat Abyss. The likes of Legends Champion Eric Young or Beer Money were reduced to cameos, greeting Ric Flair as “The Nature Boy” made his debut.
And then Hulk Hogan arrived in the iMPACT! Zone. His music hit and an absurd amount of pyro went off as The Hulkster stood on the stage with his arms crossed. An entire 4th of July fireworks display seemed to go off behind him. It was absurd. Hogan milked the applause for absolutely everything it was worth (and in fairness, in this instance it was worth quite a lot). Hogan gave a standard rah-rah promo before he was interrupted by Scott Hall and Sean Waltman – this then prompted Kevin Nash and Eric Bischoff to make entrances to add their two cents and we were full 1997 WCW Monday Nitro. A whole lot of old guys talking about an awful lot of nothing in an angle that went nowhere. I’ve watched this back twice and I still have no idea what it was about. Something about Hogan wanting to change wrestling while Hall and Nash wanted things to stay how they used to be but I have no idea what anybody really wanted. It was very bizarre.
Later in the show, Jeff Jarrett came to the ring to deliver a stirring speech about how this was vindication for everything he and TNA had worked for. The eight years prior built to this moment as the company he founded was on a bigger platform than ever. The crowd understandably ate it up, the beloved man responsible for TNA was taking his victory lap. It was a lovely feel-good moment. Hogan then appeared on the big screen and literally said: “So what, nobody cares.” Hogan proceeded to bury Jarrett for running the company into the ground as the crowd turned on Hogan and chanted “Bullshit” for the second time of the evening. It was a truly baffling misread of the audience that was made even stranger when it was revealed Jarrett and Hogan were in cahoots all along when Immortal’s master plan was revealed.
The big saving grace of the show was the Kurt Angle vs. AJ Styles main event. Dramatically better than anything on the competing Raw show, it was the best match the two ever had and was just voted by IMPACT fans the second-best IMPACT match of the decade. This was a bizarre show, in many ways reflective of the best and worst of TNA. Kurt Angle vs. AJ Styles was a classic while Kong and Hamada vs. Wilde and Sarita was worlds better than the women’s wrestling WWE was presenting at the time. All the debuts and returns certainly lent energy and newsworthiness to the show – but a narrative incoherence and heavy reliance on names from the past pervaded every element of the broadcast. It was a show very representative of what TNA was but far from the show representative of what you would have wanted TNA to be.
Well I Guess Hell Froze Over
“Well I guess hell froze over.” Bret Hart quipped as he returned to WWE for the first time in 12 years. WWE counter-programmed TNA as strongly as possible. Bret Hart appeared on WWE Monday Night Raw for the first time since the Montreal Screwjob. He made amends with Shawn Michaels. Vince McMahon feigned burying the hatchet before low blowing “The Hitman” to set up their comical WrestleMania program that involved a faked car accident. WWE couldn’t have brought out a bigger gun to counter iMPACT!. It was bizarre that the biggest night in wrestling since the death of WCW was highlighted by Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair and Bret Hart. The stars of the 80s and 90s were the crutch both major companies leaned on to capture the attention of the mass audience in 2010.
That would become a trend that would define the decade – as WWE rolled out The Undertaker, Kane, Batista, Goldberg, Sting, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Triple H and others whenever they had an important role to fill. The stars of yesteryear trumped the stars of today. But on that night it seemed surreal. After all that went down in 1997, to see Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart embrace for a hug in the middle of a Raw ring was a remarkable sight. WWE talks to death about creating moments, this truly was one.
Other than that it was mostly just a Raw. An aggressively 2010 episode of Raw with the Guest Host era in full swing, really devoid of anything else remarkable. There was a four-way between “up and comers” MVP, Mark Henry, Jack Swagger and Carlito. A pretty sad reminder of the lost decade that the last ten years has been for WWE’s midcard. That lost midcard continued to rear its head with appearances from Evan Bourne, Cody Rhodes and Ted DiBiase. Evan Bourne was the most depressing of those because he did an interview about how all he needed was an opportunity against Sheamus because he was great and held back. So of course when Sheamus gave “little Evan Bourne” that chance, Bourne lost in less than two minutes.
Maryse and Brie Bella had a bad match. DX were still around, beating JeriShow with help from their then mascot Hornswoggle. In the most 2010 match possible (and a feud that was called back to in 2019), Randy Orton defeated Kofi Kingston in a fun match. The person from this show that had the biggest bearing on the decade to come didn’t even make the air – Bryan Danielson wrestled Chavo Guerrero in the pre-show dark match. This was an episode of Raw that happened to have the return of Bret Hart but little else really felt like WWE was fending off a challenger for viewers. They knew it was a war they could never lose.
A Cosmic Fluke
5.62m viewers watched the two hour Raw while 2.19m people watched the three-hour iMPACT!. While that was a landslide victory for Raw, it was seen as a strong result for TNA. Not only was it considerably higher than was expected (Spike had anticipated 1.5m viewers) but it still stands as the most-watched episode of TNA iMPACT! of all time. In fact, it was watched by more people than a number of 2019 episodes of Raw which would have seemed unfathomable at one stage. The rating peaked at a whopping 3.36m people as Hulk Hogan made his entrance. Those are completely insane numbers. Based on just that one night there may have been a war on our hands. At the very least an opportunity for TNA to dramatically increase their viewership.
But this is a story about TNA – of course, it’s mostly a what-if scenario. Rather than go all-in on the war or even follow up promptly – TNA went a full ten days without a new episode. A replay of the January 4 episode aired in TNA’s regular timeslot on January 7 and the next new episode of iMPACT! didn’t air until January 14. And most crucially, still on Thursdays. All the momentum from the January 4 episode dissipated. The numbers on Thursday began to normalize. By the time TNA relaunched the Monday Night Wars in earnest on March 8, it was too late. Rather than their audience growing against WWE, they got crushed.
The April 26 episode was the true low. The WWE Draft crushed IMPACT head to head. Despite a Ric Flair vs. Abyss main event, WWE won with 4.62m viewers to TNA’s 739k. That was the lowest-rated episode of IMPACT on Spike TV to date, lower even than the worst-performing episode when the show aired at 11pm on Saturday nights. It was over. TNA hadn’t just lost, they were obliterated. After just nine weeks, they tucked their tail between their legs and retreated back to the uncontested comfort of Thursdays. It was less a war than a minor skirmish. Maybe things would have been different had they followed up January 4 and immediately moved to Mondays full time. Maybe if they had struck while the iron was hot, with the upcoming debuts of Mr. Anderson and Rob Van Dam still in their pocket, things would have been different.
We’ll never know.
The Monday Night Wars in the 90s was some bizarre cosmic fluke. Logic should dictate that if two competing companies go head to head at the same time, they’ll split the audience rather than grow it. That’s what happened in 2010. That’s what’s happening now with AEW and NXT. People will have to choose a side. The idea that two shows go head to head and the competition (and resources to throw around) result in each show getting better and growing their total audience is extremely unlikely. That it happened in the 90s, that the war lasted as long as it did and that wrestling reached the peak it did is truly remarkable (even if one company did eventually win out and the other went out of business).
TNA was never going to beat WWE. The resources and institutional advantages WWE had were far too vast to overcome. The very idea of going to war in the first place was completely absurd, a losing battle from the very start based on a freak of nature success in the 90s. For one night on January 4, 2010 though, something magical happened. WWE went head to head with TNA on a Monday night and both companies grew their audience. It only took the return of Bret Hart and the debut of Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair to do it, but for a single night the magic of the original Monday Night War returned.