Loaded with talent, but having struggled at times to reach the masses. More than 15 years into the wrestling game, but still as motivated as ever to compete, grow, and entertain. Ever-evolving, and pushing the entire industry to do the same.
Not only do those words describe Impact Wrestling, they also fit the company’s newest champion—Austin Aries.
Six months after his release from WWE, the self-professed “greatest man that ever lived” surprised the wrestling world by returning to Impact, and on his first night back, defeating Eli Drake to capture the heavyweight title. But more than just the latest championship victory in a career laden with gold, Aries said his Impact homecoming marks an opportunity to help transform the wrestling business, while also giving back to a company that believed in him when few others did.
“Obviously, returning to Impact Wrestling was a big surprise to a lot of people—and maybe even to myself a little bit,” said Aries, whose previous stint in what was then TNA ended in 2013. “Everything lined up and I’m happy to go in there,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to do. Nobody has any illusions about the work that has to go into repairing that brand … To be able to go in there and help in that way was a great opportunity.”
Aries’ January 10 return to Impact came as the company continues to undergo several changes related to its purchase by Ontario, Canada-based Anthem Sports and Entertainment just over a year ago. In recent months, Impact has launched a new streaming video service, the Global Wrestling Network, shed some recognizable talent, including EC3 and Bobby Lashley, and put together a new management team of veteran wrestling minds. The company even ditched its signature hexagonal ring for a traditional four-sided one.
“I wouldn’t have come back if I didn’t things were really different, because I had been there a long time through different regime changes. And the conversations I had with Scott [D’Amore], with Sonjay [Dutt] and with Don [Callis] about what their vision is and how they want to go about doing their business right and treating their talent right—that’s what made the difference,” Aries added.
Among the most welcome changes in Impact’s business approach, Aries said, is its new openness to working with other wrestling companies—both by co-promoting events featuring Impact Wrestling stars, and by allowing talent to accept independent bookings. For Aries, who works regularly with promotions in the United States and United Kingdom, including House of Hardcore, Defiant Pro, Major League Wrestling, and Insane Championship Wrestling, the change means more money in wrestlers’ bank accounts, and, equally important, more freedom in their lives.
“It’s funny that somehow in this country, where we revere our independence, somewhere along the way, when it came to pro wrestling, being an independent was somehow looked at as a bad thing,” said Aries, who has spent much of his 15-year wrestling career competing in the indies. “Independence, at the end of the day, is something that we fight for. So to be able to have it and be able to do something that you love and travel the world, but take a weekend off when you’re neck ain’t feeling right and you need a little rest and relaxation so you don’t run yourself into the ground physically and mentally, there’s a lot of benefit to that. And I’ll gladly exchange that for not having catering.”
Aries is no stranger to big-time corporate wrestling, having just a year ago challenged for the WWE cruiserweight championship before 75,000 fans at the biggest wrestling event of the calendar, WrestleMania. Just three months later, Aries was released from his WWE contract, he says, because the company “just didn’t have anything for me creatively.”
For his part, Aries said he holds no ill-will toward his former employer and would be interested in one day returning—even in a non-wrestling role—to WWE, where he turned some heads as a color commentator for the upstart cruiserweight division.
However, Aries says he does feel like WWE missed an opportunity, not only in its handling of him, but its 205-pound division in general.
“I’ve been a heavyweight champion before. I’ve never been a heavyweight a day in my life. So, to me, to have weight definitions and then to not actually use them, is silly,” said Aries, objecting to WWE’s treatment of the cruiserweight division as less prestigious than its main roster. “Conor McGregor is not a heavyweight. Floyd Mayweather is not a heavyweight. Those guys have done all right for themselves. If you’re world class, you’re at the top of the cards.”
And it’s not lost on Aries that, back in 2011—when he was at a career-low point and couldn’t even get cast on WWE’s reality competition series Tough Enough—it was Impact that not only hired “A-Double,” but pushed him to the top of the cards. A year later, Aries defeated Bobby Roode to win the company’s heavyweight championship. Aries said the opportunities that Impact gave him created a sense of loyalty that stayed with him all these years later.
“I’ll always be grateful to TNA, which is now Impact Wrestling, and the people who were there at the time. And there are some people who are still there that are part of it,” said Aries, who wants to make it clear that, despite very much valuing his status as an “independent contractor,” he sees his Impact return as more than just another paycheck. Rather, it’s an opportunity to elevate his own status, and the status of a company he still holds close to his heart.
“I think anybody who knows me knows I’m pretty passionate. I care about this and I’m not afraid to voice my opinion,” Aries said. “For a while there, I wasn’t allowed to go out and give the best version of myself. A lot of WWE fans never got to see all of Austin Aries. I feel rejuvenated, motivated, and fired up.”