“Tonight, a very special evening, it’s an evening that revolves around history and history on so many fronts.” With those words Mike Tenay ushered in a new era of professional wrestling as NWA-TNA presented it’s first ever show on June 19, 2002 from The Von Braun Center in Huntsville, Alabama. In a building named after the man who helped us reach the moon, TNA launched a different kind of odyssey. An odyssey that over the twenty years to follow would feature some of the biggest names, brightest stars and most memorable moments in professional wrestling. On that night legendary names like Scott Hall, Ken Shamrock, Jeff Jarrett, Dory Funk Jr. and Ricky Steamboat joined forced with young upstarts like AJ Styles, Chris Harris, James Storm and Ron Killings to lay the foundation for a whole new wrestling experience.
2002 was defined by the birth of the X-Division. “It’s not about weight limits, it’s about no limits!” became the rallying cry for a new wave of genre-defining, fast-paced action. That division was built on three pillars, three pioneers: AJ Styles, Low Ki and Jerry Lynn. Styles was the modern evolution of the cruiserweight style, blending smooth high-flying with explosive maneuvers to create a whole new style. Low Ki brought stiff strikes for a more martial arts fueled approach to the squared circled. Jerry Lynn was the established veteran, the man who was X-Division before there was even an X-Division, the man who revolutionized that style of wrestling in the first place alongside Sean Waltman a decade earlier.
Together they created magic. Joined by Psicosis, they battled in the first X-Division Championship match on June 26th, 2002. That night the four-way elimination match came down to Styles and Lynn. Both left it all out there to make history as the first ever X-Division Champion – the youth and dynamism of Styles vs. the guile and experience of Lynn. Styles connected with the Spiral Tap as Ricky Steamboat raised his hand in victory. Mike Tenay couldn’t have said it better: “Remember the name ladies and gentlemen – AJ Styles, the future of our sport has arrived.”
Low Ki would capture the Championship in a three-way dance on August 7 before Jerry Lynn became Champion in an incredibly innovative high-risk Ladder match on August 28. While Sonny Siaki and Sean Waltman would also hold the Championship in 2002, the foundation of the X-Division was laid by the incredible series of matches between AJ Styles, Jerry Lynn and Low Ki. The spirit of competition and willingness to push boundaries created the identity of the X-Division that would persist long into the future.
The heavyweight division carried on the iconic legacy of the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. The lineage of the title held by names like Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat, Harley Race, Terry Funk and so many more would continue exclusively in TNA. A Gauntlet for the Gold crowned a brand-new champion on June 19 – after the favorite Jeff Jarrett was eliminated by country music superstar Toby Keith (as revenge for Jarrett interrupting Keith’s performance earlier in the night), it came down to Ken Shamrock and Malice. The MMA legend and former UFC Champion vs. the destructive giant representing James Mitchell’s Disciples of the New Church. Shamrock slayed the giant with a belly to belly suplex to join the luminaries of the past in the record books.
While Jarrett was pre-occupied in a dispute with Scott Hall, a new contender emerged through the ranks. Charismatic and cocky in equal measure, Ron Killings – originally known as K-Krush – immediately made waves in TNA. Shamrock made successful defenses of the Championship against Sabu, Malice and Takao Omori, but was dethroned by Killings on August 7 as Killings backed up all of his talk. “The Truth” had reached the top of the mountain.
Chris Harris and James Storm entered TNA as singles competitors. A strong tryout match against each other prior to the launch of the company earned them a spot on the first show. They had never teamed before. After The Dupps had to withdraw from a match against The Rainbow Express, Harris and Storm were thrown together and quickly found chemistry as a unit. Harris overcame skepticism surrounding James Storm’s cowboy getup and America’s Most Wanted were formed. After the NWA World Tag Team Titles, first held in the TNA era by Jerry Lynn and AJ Styles, were vacated after a controversial double pinfall, AMW emerged victorious in a Gauntlet for the Gold to become Champions. Simultaneously a throwback and modernization of the 80s style of tag team wrestling defined by teams like The Rock ‘n Roll Express and The Midnight Express, AMW would become the defining team of 2002 through memorable matches with teams like The Disciples of the New Church and The Hotshots.
While legends like Curt Hennig, Roddy Piper, Percy Pringle and Ricky Steamboat graced the TNA ring in 2002 along with big name celebrities like the Tennessee Titans and Chris Rock, you can’t talk about 2002 without some of the sillier aspects. There’s Puppet’s…extra-curricular exploits backstage, The Johnson’s…striking appearance, and of course The Dupp Cup. The Dupp Cup featured an absurd series of rules where you got points for putting your opponent through a table or stuffing their head in a toilet or by attacking Jeremy Borash at ringside. The Dupp Cup may not have lasted too long but The Dupps’ matches against Ed Ferrara and Teo were certainly memorable.
A central conflict sat at the center of TNA in 2002 – a war between the traditions of the NWA and a push for more extreme sports entertainment. That came to a head on the November 20 show as Jeff Jarrett defeated Ron Killings to become NWA World Heavyweight Champion with the unwanted assistance of the debuting Vince Russo. That set in motion a conflict between Russo’s Sports Entertainment Xtreme and Jarrett representing tradition. Vince Russo chopped down the TNA logo with an axe in a striking declaration of war. It would become a war for the very soul of TNA, but more about that in 2003.