Throughout the month of June, we will be celebrating 20 years of TNA/Impact Wrestling with our #Impact20 series of reviews, columns and podcasts. One particular series will look at a handpicked selection of the best TNA/Impact Wrestling Matches of All-Time. 

Hair vs. Hair
Ethan Carter III vs. Rockstar Spud

IMPACT Wrestling #556
January 31, 2015

Within wrestling fandom, we often work with matches as the seemingly natural building blocks of the genre. Our notebooks are collections of them and from Cagematch to Grappl, the very way we think about wrestling is through the paradigm of shows as collections of bell-to-bell bouts. Occasionally, however, TV wrestling manages to break free of the pseudo-sport aspect of the genre and deliver episodic storytelling that rivals any “real” TV show. So when I say that EC3 vs Rockstar Spud is a five-star affair, I’m not simply referring to the 16 minutes and 48 seconds of time between one bell ringing and another, but to a multi-layered story a year in the making, one that encompassed everything from comedy to moments of high pathos.

What the public is looking for here is the gradual construction of a highly moral image: that of the perfect ‘bastard’.”- Roland Barthes, the World of Wrestling.

Ethan Carter the Third debuted for TNA in 2013 as Dixie Carter’s nephew, a spoiled trust fund douchebag who used the world as his plaything and threw money and tantrums at anything or anyone that got in his way. It was the perfect archetype of a character that drew on America’s shared cultural understanding of elites, one recognizable from The Great Gatsby, Dallas, Good Will Hunting, and Keeping up with the Kardashians. You may never have met someone like EC3 in real life, but you knew exactly who he was. Even the name itself seemed perfectly crafted to raise ire, with the Third playing up dynastic pretensions and subtle eugenics of the American upper-class.

Despite debuting as a vaguely comedic nitwit, TNA management obviously had Michael Hutter scouted as someone who would eventually take this character forward to the main event. Early on Carter was still something of a protected asset, even in his early moments as a cheating heel. Racking up wins against Sting, Eric Young, Bully Ray and Kurt Angle, as well as an unpinned streak that would last three years, Carter was clearly earmarked for something more than a mid-card comedy gimmick. Nevertheless, it was his comedic timing and tongue-in-cheek attitude to wrestling that won him fans early on. Hutter had already demonstrated a flair for levity during a mostly uneventful WWE run as Derrick Bateman, in which he was perhaps best known going on a double date with the Bellas and his mentor Daniel Bryan. The short-lived Danielson and Hutter partnership also led to mischief when the two would shoot rig a ‘know your mentor’ contest in rebellion against the mundane gameshow version of NXT.

James Curtain, later known as Rockstar Spud, was born in Birmingham UK, just two months before Michael Hutter was born in Ohio, USA. Prior to TNA, Rockstar Spud had spent a decade or so on the UK indies, plying his trade at FWA and IPW:UK as well as making an appearance on BBC’s Snog Marry Avoid. A standout star of TNA’s British Bootcamp, Spud found himself in the decidedly un-rockstar role as Dixie Carter’s chief of staff, a role that would eventually morph into being something akin to EC3’s butler. Early TNA Spud was perhaps the furthest thing from a pro wrestler you could imagine. His small size seemingly pigeon-holing him into a cowardly manager rather than fighter. To his credit, Spud stuck with it and managed to carve out a place for himself, one whose journey to more serious bouts would be all the more meaningful given the distance it would take.

Spud and EC3, the arrogant snob and the quirky, twitchy manservant, quickly became must-see segments of Impact, at least for those who enjoy comedy in their wrestling. TNA, perhaps under the direction of Jeremy Borash and a few others, had a knack during this time for producing comedy segments that in contrast to WWE, were actually funny. One such segment was The Hunt for Willow , a sort of Blair Witch Project knockoff featuring Carter and Spud roaming the Carolina backwoods looking for Jeff Hardy’s bizarre alter-ego. These skits were showcases for the charisma of both wrestlers, helping them to connect with the audience, which would make what was to come all the more special.

By the summer of 2014, Carter was slowly getting more serious both in and out of the ring. At the Manhattan tapings. Bully Ray was on a mission to put TNA boss Dixie Carter through a table. Carter assigned himself and Spud with protecting Aunt D. When he failed to do so, threw a tantrum, leading commissioner Kurt Angle to bring in the cops to arrest him in a classic segment. It was from there that the characters of EC3 and Spud would diverge. With the manner of someone who has never been told they are wrong, Carter began to blame everyone except himself for his Aunt’s unfortunate encounter with hardwood. Inevitably he would end up turning on Spud.

Spud, in what world are we friends?”- EC3, October 1, 2014

Wrestlers are trained to communicate with their bodies, to reach out over the ropes to the audience to tell a story. It’s unsurprising then, that the series of face-to-face promos between Spud and EC3 over the autumn and winter of 2014/2015 featured acting (yes I said the A word) that was much more theatrical than cinematic; playing to the crowd, waiting for the pauses, and letting the crowd hang on every moment of what was becoming a very bad breakup. It began with Carter berating and bullying a confused Spud, who believed that their time spent chasing umbrella-twirling demons had been a bonding experience among friends. Carter, reverting to type, reminded Spud that he was purely an employee and that he wouldn’t fit in with Carter’s other friends with their ‘trust funds and yachts’. It was a story that wove personal relationships with social commentary and Spud shifted naturally towards an underdog babyface, while Carter became increasingly deranged, adding a dash of his former namesake’s American Psycho to his demeanor.

As I said in the beginning, this isn’t about one match, bell to bell, but a story that was told over 10 months. And if there’s a key emotional fulcrum in this story it’s on October 8, 2014. Berated and browbeaten, and repeatedly goaded by EC3, Spud finally cracks and fights back with a right hand that has the crowd leaping to their feet in pure joy. It’s a moment that could only have come through months of hard work from everyone involved, work that expertly captured that perennial story of the bully against the underdog and put it in a wrestling ring. It’s the moment when hope flies in and starts to nag at our own circumstances. A classic morality tale, told on canvas between three ropes.

As Barthes notes in his classic essay, wrestlers “have a physique as peremptory as those of the characters of the Commedia dell’Arte, who display in advance, in their costumes and attitudes, the future contents of their parts”. This insight rings true for this story, as you cannot imagine either playing the opposite role. Spud was never one to let his height stop him, and yet here in this story it works to his advantage, bringing him sympathy against the much larger EC3. And while wrestlers cannot change their height, they can change the very dynamics of their posture. And so Spud’s metamorphosis over the winter was not merely restricted to the addition of fighting words to his vocabulary but a new physicality representing his newfound courage. Gone are the slouched shoulders and the cringing eyes, to be replaced by fiery expressions and the stance of a scrappy bare-knuckle fighter. Carter too, begins to alter too; a mean streak shifting to outright brutality when he gets the upper hand.

A cast of supporting characters joins in. Eric Young, who himself had gone through a transition from comedy undercard to main eventer, offers Spud wise advice on standing firm. Tyrus, in what was undoubtedly his best role in wrestling, becomes EC3’s new right-hand man, his bulbous and lumbering physique in stark contrast to Spud’s more slight frame. Mark Andrews, TNA’s latest Bootcamp winner, debuts on Impact in the new year, helping Spud take out Tyrus. Ken Anderson also gets involved on team Spud, as does Jeremy Borash, who takes a haircut from EC3 in January.

Months and months of build all lead up to a hair vs hair showdown at Wembley, England. The first singles match between EC3 and Rockstar Spud in front of 4,500 fans. On a rewatch, it’s a match of pure melodrama and kitsch; Spud marches to the ring in an England football jacket and then sings the national anthem. He even does a hulking-up comeback spot late in the match. Moments like these would be cringy in any other context, but here they are on-brand with Spud’s homespun heart-on-sleeve sentimentality. The match is a mad brawl in and out the ring and there’s interference galore from Tyrus, Anderson and JB, all in front of a rabid crowd who are firmly in Rockstar Spud’s corner. There’s a do not adjust your set moment when Spud acquires a crimson mask that gushes so bad the TNA censors have to switch to black and white.

JB hits EC3 with a low blow and Spud hits a stunner for a near fall that everyone buys. But fittingly it all ends in high melodrama. Spud’s resilience in the face of EC3’s onslaught appears to break the seemingly impenetrable fortress that is Carter’s heart and as a bloody Spud struggles to his feet, Carter delivers the One Percenter with a face that suggests that not only has Spud won his respect, but that the months of feuding have all been a big mistake. After the pin, EC3 grabs a mic to put over Spud’s fortitude and finally acknowledges they were best friends at one time. A heartwarming end to a bloodthirsty feud. But it’s all just a ruse and EC3 attacks Spud again, and then puts him in the tree of woe to shave his head, before leaving to deafening boos.

I know we can never go back to the way it was, we’ll go our separate ways..shake my hand, let’s end this on good terms”- EC3 March 31, 2015

In my opinion, EC3 vs. Spud is one of the best pure stories in American wrestling and it manages to excel on multiple levels. Firstly, it’s a compelling story, told by two wrestlers who had amazing chemistry. It may not have had a happy ending on the night, but the arc was not about the result of one pinfall, but the story of an underdog standing up for himself and pushing himself to the absolute limit. Secondly, in terms of the wrestling meta, you have to applaud the TNA bookers for taking what was essentially a midcard comedy duo and crafting a journey that took them to a natural main event slot without a belt in sight. Thirdly, the talents of Hutter and Curtain, undervalued for so long, had the freedom to reach a high watermark for both heel and babyface promos and a match built of pure fire.

The legacy of the match is clear. For EC3, it was the stepping stone to the world title scene, where he would essentially carry the company through the rest of the year. For Spud too it was proof that he was no mere sidekick and he would go on to have acclaimed bell-to-bell matches with Kurt Angle and Austin Aries later that year. A few years later, both would end up in WWE.

If you’re looking for key structural and artistic differences between TNA and WWE in the 2010s, it’s that TNA held the creative reins a lot looser than the micromanagement of Titan Towers. Of course, this didn’t always result in success, but when wrestlers with talent were given more freedom to express themselves it resulted in something much more organically special. EC3’s run in WWE was characterized by almost criminal misuse: a wrestler renowned for their promos made mute by the idiosyncratic diktats of the “creative” team. Rockstar Spud was renamed Drake Maverick and did little of note either.

Nowadays Spud works in WWE creative and EC3 has put his creative energies into Control Your Narrative, a sort of indie arthouse promotion with a nod to Fight Club. I hold out the hope that somewhere down the line they can capture the lightning of this story again.