Although Josh Alexander defending the Impact World Championship against Bully Ray is the nominal main event for Hard to Kill, Impact Wrestling’s first pay-per-view of 2023, the only match in my mind that should be going on last is between Mickie James and Jordynne Grace.

The natural culmination of the Last Rodeo storyline, this match has a very simple premise – either Mickie James wins the Knockouts title for a fifth time or she loses and her professional wrestling career comes to an end.

Clichéd this statement may be but the best wrestling stories are the ones that carry a strong emotional resonance and make you feel something. Retirement storylines can be quite hit and miss, often because they don’t feel that believable and retirements usually don’t mean a lot in wrestling so it’s hard to get too invested.

This one, though, has felt different from the outset. Every element of it has made it seem entirely plausible that Mickie James is happy to walk away from professional wrestling. To that end, the title match at Hard to Kill feels like it can go either way and that’s the best possible outcome for the viewer. It also means that it’s the match I’m most invested in by some considerable margin.

While their outcomes have been predictable, the matches during the Last Rodeo have compelled and they’ve all come about organically. Every opponent, be they face or heel, a first-time opponent or an established rival like Chelsea Green or Deonna Purrazzo, has wanted to be the one to end her career. In every match you’ve been able to glean a sense of James’ abilities somewhat diminishing but her having just about enough fighting spirit, heart and determination to get over the line. Every time, though, it’s seemingly been a bit tougher and you could buy the idea, from a wrestling point of view, of the current champion, a dominant one at that, just being a bridge too far.

Cementing the excellent build to this match was the Mickie James career retrospective that Impact aired this past week. Although video packages are divisive in these parts, this one was perfect and sets out a number of plotlines for the Hard to Kill match.

The first key element of the video is that positioned the significance of TNA/Impact Wrestling in James’ 20+ year pro wrestling career. While she herself notes that her first WWE run and her feud with Trish Stratus was what established her as a “made woman,” TNA/Impact was always there for her when needed.

TNA/Impact was where she got her first proper break alongside Raven. TNA/Impact was where she came back to in 2010 and developed the Hardcore Country gimmick, something she felt was organically her at a time when her career was seemingly at a crossroads. TNA/Impact was where she met the love of her life and the father of her child. TNA/Impact was also where she openly admits she came back to during the pandemic in order to write the final chapter of her career.

Ultimately, the video signified Impact a promotion where she’s felt at home, been herself and enjoyed career satisfaction. It also added plausibility to the idea of her retirement because by her own admission, she’s had one foot out of the door for the last 18 months, not just the last six.

The video’s other key theme was one of family and, again, something that hits at the heart of the story’s plausibility. Mickie spoke with real emotion about her family, touching on:

  • How linking up with OVW was the first time she’d moved away from her family
  • The importance of her marriage to Nick Aldis and their son Donovan
  • How getting into wrestling was her way of ensuring that her family had a better life

The closing section of the video in which James talked about wrestling being the thing that stopped her Mum, Dad and Stepdad having to work two jobs and being the thing that kept the lights on at home tugged at the heartstrings. The final line, the notion that if her career had made one person’s life better, she’d be happy, was almost the perfect line to end a career on.

Factoring all of the personal stuff (including the loss of her brother and niece late last year) together with the presentation of her wrestling career having come full circle makes it wholly believable that having this final title shot is the way James wants to go out.

While I don’t doubt that other matches on the show will peak higher in terms of sheer work rate, all of the emotion and story coming into this match makes it the most captivating thing on the entire Hard to Kill show.

It feels as though it could genuinely go either way, which is great, and all outcomes are good. If James captures the title again clean, you’ve got a popular veteran catching lightning in a bottle one last time. If James cheats to win, all the raw emotional fire in that retrospective video sets the stage for a good heel run; maybe James had second thoughts about retiring and changed her mind but was too committed, so she had to cheat to keep going, or maybe she decided that no one was going to take the thing that had made her family’s life better away from her.

Any sort of victory that retires James puts Jordynne Grace over but if Grace cheats to win, then she’ll have great heat for the heel turn her Impact run has been crying out for.

Whichever way they go, this is the match I care most about at Hard to Kill and I think they’d be doing the storyline a disservice by not putting Mickie James’ Last Rodeo on last in front of what’s sure to be a hot Georgia crowd on January 13.