The Hardy brothers are the latest to run afoul of the push and pull over creative control in pro wrestling, and theirs is shaping up to be a particularly ugly clash.
Creative control is a perpetual tug-of-war. On one side are the wrestlers, the men and women who give characters life and are forever tweaking them, because to have any success in pro wrestling, a gimmick must have a link to the internal life of the actor slash stuntperson slash athlete portraying them. It's method acting meets car-crash physics, with the risk historically being borne almost exclusively by the wrestlers: the psychological risk of losing yourself in the strange world of kayfabe, as well as the physical risks of a lifetime of jumping, head smacks, and lifting heavy things.
On the other side are the promotions. Large or small, their role is basically the same. A promoter provides a platform for the wrestlers to work, whether that's a television show or a rented space. At the bigger promotions—think WWE or the now-defunct WCW—the promoters or their handpicked creative teams will come up with gimmicks for wrestlers to portray. The early 1990s were notorious for this, particularly in WWE, where Vince McMahon fell in love with giving everyone simple, cartoony gimmicks based on career choice or lightly considered readings of Greek myth.
The tension between who owns a gimmick, the wrestlers or the promotions, is a constant one, and it worms its way into all sorts of strange places, right down to wrestlers' names and title belts. Names are a particular source of conflict, and one WWE has been especially nervous about. That's how well-known indie wrestlers like Tyler Black and Bryan Danielson become Seth Rollins and Daniel Bryan (respectively) once they enter WWE. It's also how Cody Rhodes, the son of Dusty Rhodes, found himself unable to use that surname once he left WWE; however famous Dusty and his family are, the Rhodes name is claimed, at least in Cody's case, by WWE (the family's real last name is Runnels).
The Hardys are the latest to run afoul of the push and pull over creative control in pro wrestling, and theirs is shaping up to be a particularly ugly clash with Impact Wrestling (as the newly rebranded TNA is now known). To get to the root of the animosity that has exploded between the two sides over the past few days, you have to understand just what a rut TNA/Impact Wrestling has been in and just how good the Hardys have been despite it all.
For the past year and a half or so, the Hardys have been one of the best acts in wrestling. Real-life brothers Matt and Jeff Hardy worked a long, slow-burn angle that centered on Matt losing his mind and becoming something resembling a comic book villain. He began to affect a weird, faux-European accent and wear ostentatious, baroque clothing. The brothers had a blood feud and then a reunification, which leaned heavily on ironic extended vignettes and matches shot in a "real" TV style, all done with a wink and a nod toward pro wrestling history.
It was wildly successful and, against all expectations, never got old. It was heartwarming, in all honesty—two brothers who started young, got old, went through some dark times (including well-documented substance abuse issues), before getting clean and creating a second act in one of the weirdest, most fun angles this decade.
The Broken Hardys storyline basically buoyed TNA when it was at a financial and creative nadir, and probably saved the company from folding last year. And TNA's brass, to their credit, seemed to understand just how important the wild Broken Hardys roadshow was: the Hardys were given what was rumored to be unlimited creative freedom in creating their characters and were allowed to work independent dates (a common thing in TNA, admittedly) at indie promotions, including Ring of Honor.
TNA was ceding the argument on character control to the wrestlers, something increasingly rare at larger promotions. Matt Hardy even financed some of the more complicated vignettes out of pocket. (Presumably, the financial incentive for independent investment on his part was the fact that he had a character he could use to book those extra indie dates.) There was an uneasy equilibrium to the approach, a fairness to it, given just how much risk pro wrestlers bear.
Fast forward to early March and it all fell apart. The contours of the controversy are hazy in the specifics, but very clear in outline.
The purchase in January of TNA by Anthem Sports & Entertainment, a Canadian company, culminated in the rebranding to Impact Wrestling on March 2, which roughly coincided with several lapsed contracts for some of its bigger stars, including the Hardys, whose contract had expired on February 27. Anthem saw that their biggest stars with the best story were going to walk, so they demanded that they stop using the gimmick.
The demands that were being leaked seemed onerous, yet simple: a demand to stop using the word "Broken" in connection with their names, to not reference the TNA portions of the storyline, and to refrain from using the "delete" catchphrase. Impact Wrestling claims that the "Broken Universe," which the Hardys created, is theirs and that the Hardys can't use it freely. The Hardys, on the other hand, are already working dates with Ring of Honor.
All of which is ugly enough, but then Impact reportedly sent cease-and-desist letters to cable companies carrying Ring of Honor's 15th Anniversary Show on the basis that the newly freelance Hardys were showing up as their Broken personas. Dish Network even acquiesced, canceling the pay-per-view—one of ROH's most important—with little notice.
That's ugly, ugly stuff by Impact, and it hasn't worn well among other indie wrestlers. Supposedly, Anthem just want a cut of whatever money the Hardys make with the Broken Hardys gimmick, but that sort of low-class rent-seeking seems almost worse than WWE-style jealousy over names. And make no mistake, WWE looms large over this entire sordid situation: the money to be gained from the Hardys showing up in the indies pales in comparison to the cut Impact could demand from a potential (and likely, though not yet certain) contract from WWE.
It's a sign of deep weakness on the part of Impact, and the promotion is playing an extremely dangerous game. Wrestling fans aren't stupid, and the savvy fans who pay attention to this sort of thing make up a sizable chunk of the non-WWE audience. The Broken Hardys gimmick helped propel the brothers to the status of beloved elder statesmen. People root for the Hardy Brothers the men, not just the characters. Once that happens, it's not so easy to turn back any groundswell of ill-feeling toward Impact that might be building. For pro wrestlers, meanwhile, the situation is a big red flag for anyone considering signing with them. Why in the world would you want to go to Impact Wrestling if this is the price of getting popular there?
If Impact sees a drop-off in both audience and pro wrestlers willing to sign on, that could finally spell the end for the promotion, even after the influx of money and the insistence that Impact is not the bad old TNA. It would be the most TNA ending to this story imaginable, and it would be richly ironic.
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