The Strange Legacy of the TNA Knockouts Tag Titles
In 2009, IMPACT Wrestling, then known as Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA), set out to capitalize on a segment of their roster that consistently attracted their highest television ratings. According to Nielsen ratings and several TNA executives, including then-President Dixie Carter, the Knockouts division perpetually drew the best ratings on Spike TV.
Their Knockouts Championship matches featured contests that gained critical acclaim as well featuring the likes of Gail Kim, Awesome Kong, and Tara. Thus, TNA branched out and created another championship featuring their impressive women’s roster in an attempt to highlight them more on television. The TNA Knockouts Tag Team Championship lasted less than four years. Although brief, its history has had several high and low. Some of these turns of events reverberate to this day and, perhaps, hold more influence than many truly recognize.
Rumors of the Knockouts Tag Team Championship dated back to the initial success of the Knockouts singles championship. The titles became a reality on the Aug. 20, 2009 episode of IMPACT!, when Christy Hemme, Sarita, Tara, and Taylor Wilde took part in a backstage interview in which they announced TNA would hold a tournament to crown the inaugural champions.
The inaugural Knockouts Tag Team Championship Tournament
The tournament featured eight pairings of some of TNA’s best workers. Names like Awesome Kong, Daffney, Madison Rayne, Nikki Roxx (under the name Roxxi), and Tara bolstered the list of participants. Independent wrestling standout, Cheerleader Melissa, took part in the tournament under the guise of two different characters. Melissa participated as Awesome Kong’s “handler”, Raisha Saed. She also teamed with Daffney as a wrestler named Alissa Flash.
Ultimately, the team of Sarita and Taylor Wilde conquered Madison Rayne and Velvet Sky of The Beautiful People at No Surrender 2009.
With the first Knockouts Tag Team Champions crowned and a competitive tournament behind them, TNA now had the challenge of booking the championship week to week in a meaningful way. This may not have seemed like a difficult task for a team that had written a weekly two-hour program for nearly a half-decade at that point, but there were certain factors that left the future of the championship uncertain.
Despite the Knockouts division often garnering TNA its highest ratings week after week, the women rarely served as the main focus of the show. While TNA put more effort into their women’s division and established them as more of a vital part than their Connecticut counterpart, the Knockouts were still seen as a midcard act. With TNA now crafting stories for men and women’s tag teams along with the respective singles championships, many watching still remained skeptical about how TNA would execute this new, creative, and novel idea.
Another aspect that worried fans of the Knockouts was the departure of Dutch Mantel. Dutch Mantel molded the women’s division of TNA into the success that it became. A majority of the credit, of course, lies with the women in the ring, but Mantel was the man behind-the-scenes lobbying for the women to get the proper time on television.
Mantel made it a priority to show these women could have important matches with high stakes instead of mimicking the philosophy of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and its Divas division. Mantel respected the women of the TNA locker room and wanted the world to see what they could accomplish. Mantel proved instrumental in bringing in above-average talent like the aforementioned Awesome Kong and Cheerleader Melissa.
However, in 2009, just before the announcement of the tournament, Mantel parted ways with TNA due to creative differences. This left the women’s roster in the hands of people that didn’t take ownership of the division the way Mantel did during his six years with the company.
Even with the loss of Dutch Mantel and the difficulty of telling detailed stories for multiple championships with a finite amount of time every Thursday, audiences seemed more than willing to give TNA a chance given the level of talent that still remained with the company. Sarita and Taylor Wilde befit the role of inaugural champions and provided stellar matches to cement the titles as an integral piece in the weekly edition of IMPACT!. On the Jan. 4, 2010 episode of IMPACT!, Sarita and Wilde would go on to drop the title to the makeshift tandem of Awesome Kong and Ayako Hamada. While the pairing seemed haphazard, both women had the respect and admiration of fans for their consistently solid performances.
The first sign of things to come
Hamada and Kong’s reign denoted the first instance of the championship’s checkered existence. Shortly after winning the championship, it was revealed that Kong had allegedly attacked radio disc-jockey, Bubba the Love Sponge, while he was at a TNA show after he made derogatory remarks regarding charity efforts for a recent earthquake in Haiti.
Following the incident, Kong requested her release. TNA granted her release, and the Knockouts Tag Team Championship was vacated for the first—but most certainly not the last—time. While the situation with Kong and her contact unfolded off of television, the championship entered a state of dormancy. With its absence from IMPACT!, the title’s relevancy began to wane.
The Knockouts Tag Team Championship received a dose of vitality when the team of Madison Rayne and Velvet Sky defeated Angelina Love and Tara and Sarita and Taylor Wilde in a match to determine new titleholders. Rayne and Sky, along with Lacey Von Erich, made up The Beautiful People. The stable of heels that gained notoriety for cheating, blindside attacks, and giving gruesome “makeovers” to opponents.
Fans and pundits alike agreed that The Beautiful People added a different wrinkle to the Knockouts division in comparison to the hyper-competitive matches demonstrated by other roster members. The Beautiful People’s appeal came from their character work and theatrics, and it elicited a fervent reaction from crowds and viewers. The reign of The Beautiful People was also unique due to the fact that the three women utilized the Freebird Rule that allowed any two of the three women to defend the titles.
The memorable reign of The Beautiful People ended when Hamada and Taylor Wilde captured the championship on the Aug. 5, 2010 episode of IMPACT!. Hamada and Wilde were the first two-time champions. However, a contractual situation forced the championship into a state of flux again. In October of that same year, Ayako Hamada returned to Japan and requested her release from TNA. Once again, TNA obliged and released Hamada and she vacated her title. The title took a backseat to real-life dealings behind-the-scenes again.
The emergence of Winter
A four-team tournament was announced to crown new champions. Excitement surrounded the tournament due to the reunion of Angelina Love and Velvet Sky as the original incarnation of The Beautiful People. A shadow was cast on both the reunion and the tournament, though, when a new character was introduced. Winter (formerly Katie Lea Burchill of WWE) joined the Knockouts division as a character with ambiguous intentions regarding the well-being of Angelina Love.
It was heavily implied that Winter possessed supernatural abilities, which she used to manipulate Love. There were also veiled allusions that Winter was drugging Love. The final match in the tournament would have seen Love and Sky oppose Madison Rayne and Tara to crown the new champions. However, a pre-match attack on Velvet Sky left Angelina Love in need of a partner.
Winter replaced Velvet Sky and captured the Knockouts Tag Team Championship with Love. The ending left a bad taste on everyone’s palate due to the inconclusive reunion of one of the division’s most beloved tandems and the questionable direction of this new character. Sadly, the championship would never escape from this level of poor storytelling despite the effort of the talent to put on quality matches.
Not only did the championship suffer from strange stories and poor character development, but the entire Knockouts division also became the lowest common denominator form of entertainment during their segments on IMPACT!. This drop in quality came when the creative direction of TNA was given to Eric Bischoff and Hulk Hogan.
Long gone were the days of Dutch Mantel and the immense respect he displayed for the women in the ring. Now, Bischoff and Hogan’s tone-deaf portrayal of women saw these strong athletes reduced to backstage segments that saw them fighting each other for no reason other than the insulting “women be crazy” cliché and shouting hateful comments at each other. These weren’t the competitive, spirited, athletic contests and personal feuds fans had grown accustomed to in the infancy of the division. Now, fans had to endure sub-Jerry Springer level hair-pulling and clothes-ripping segments and women calling each other names that destroyed the characters’ credibility. It seemed the Knockouts division was doomed under this new regime.
A glimmer of hope
Some bright spots during these dark times included the introduction of new stars and the return of a former pioneer of the division. Long-time roster member, Sarita, turned heel and aligned herself with the stable known as Mexican America. She was given a new tag team partner named Rosita. Rosita would later go on to be known as Zelina Vega in the WWE—a role that has earned an overwhelmingly positive reception.
Former WWE Women’s Champion, Mickie James, joined TNA in 2010, and although she never captured the Tag Team Championship, she breathed new life into the women’s segments on IMPACT!. The inaugural Knockouts Women’s Champion, Gail Kim, returned in 2011 and won the Tag Team Titles with Madison Rayne. Unfortunately, the efforts of these talented women were not enough to save the Knockouts tag titles. For its final days drew near.
Near the end of 2011, former Knockouts Champion, ODB, aligned herself with comedic character, Eric Young. The two provided some humorous segments on IMPACT! and their chemistry earned them admiration from the fans. Due to their popularity, ODB and Eric Young were given a chance to challenge for the Knockouts Tag Team Championship despite the fact that Eric Young didn’t identify himself as a woman.
ODB and Eric Young captured the title from Gail Kim and Madison Rayne on the March 8, 2012 edition of IMPACT!. Following their victory, the Knockouts Tag Team Championship became little more than a prop for the duo’s comedic hijinks. Insensitive, homophobic, and transphobic jokes were made in an attempt to make light of Eric Young holding a championship intended for women. ODB and Young held the titles for a record-breaking 469 days but rarely defended them. This caused the title to become forgotten.
In 2013, Brooke Hogan was named an authority figure over the Knockouts division. On the June 20, 2013 airing of IMPACT!, she stripped ODB and Young of the titles, claiming simply, “It’s a women’s championship, and Eric Young is a man.” The following week, TNA’s official website removed any and all mention of the Knockout Tag Team Championship. This became an act of assisted euthanasia for an experiment that needed to be put out of its misery.
Seven years later, the company now known as IMPACT Wrestling has rebounded rather well. Their Knockouts division returned to the competitive presentation that highlights the women as athletes and wrestlers rather than catty, one-dimensional caricatures without focus or determination. There has been little to no mention of the Tag Team Championship since its demise, and it seems Impact has no intention of returning to those days.
With an influx of new talent including Jordynne Grace, Deonna Purrazzo, Kiera Hogan, Tasha Steelz, and Kimber Lee, a secondary championship for the women of Impact may not be a bad idea. The execution of the TNA Knockouts Tag Team Championship went in a poor direction, but its creation wasn’t without reason. The women’s division of the promotion deserved to be highlighted beyond one, singular championship that could only focus on a small portion of the roster.
By expanding the division with a second championship that could give more wrestlers proper screen time, company officials demonstrated a commitment to the women’s roster. The title may be remembered for a creative low-point in IMPACT’s history, but it should be seen as a gesture of gratitude for a women’s roster that worked tirelessly to prove they deserve more.
With the time that has passed, the Knockouts Tag Team Championship also seems to have served as an inspiration for other promotions to invest more in the women on their roster. WWE introduced its own Women’s Tag Team Championship in 2019. All Elite Wrestling (AEW) announced an all-women’s tag team tournament in the summer of 2020.
Also, while the involvement of Eric Young was intended for comedic purposes, intergender wrestling has become more prevalent in several promotions around the world with wrestlers of all genders choosing not to be limited to the number of opponents they can work with in the ring. The Knockouts tag team titles may not have been the sole inspiration for all of these events, but it certainly deserves to be part of the discussion. Who knows where the wrestling business will be in the next seven years and what will influence the years to come.
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