The NWA represented honor and respect and tradition in professional wrestling. That’s the legacy NWA World Heavyweight Champion Jeff Jarrett looked to carry on into 2003 in TNA. But one force opposed him, one group that stood against those values in every way – Vince Russo’s Sports Entertainment Xtreme. Russo recruited stars like Triple X, Chris Sabin, Glenn Gilbertti, Sonny Siaki, Mike Sanders and more to take control of TNA by force. Interrupting broadcasts, ruining anticipated matches – they’d do anything to destroy the traditions of the NWA. While Jarrett was the focal point of the resistance, soon a leader would arrive to ally with Russo and become Jarrett’s biggest rival.
Destiny. No word defined TNA in 2003 more. When Raven made his shocking arrival on January 22, he insisted it was his destiny to become NWA World Heavyweight Champion and would stop at nothing until he made that happen. While he wasn’t always on the best of terms with Vince Russo and S.E.X., they were a useful asset to help him get what he wanted – a shot at Jarrett. Jarrett and Raven represented two polar opposite personalities representing either side of the tradition vs. sports entertainment war. And on April 30 they finally faced.
Jeff Jarrett vs. Raven was the biggest match in TNA history so far. A ravenous sold-out Asylum had lines waiting down the block as people eagerly awaited the huge championship match. In a match where the stakes were so high, there were many interested parties. Raven’s allies Julio Dinero and Alexis Laree (later known as Mickie James), tried to interfere on Raven’s behalf. Representatives of the NWA and of Sports Entertainment Xtreme cancelled each other out. Even a group of Raven’s old extreme associates featuring Justin Credible, The Sandman, New Jack and Perry Saturn tried to turn the tide in Raven’s favor only for Sabu to intervene. But when it all came down to it and all the outside interference was cleared out, Jarrett retained the Championship with a Stroke. Raven’s destiny would have to wait.
From there Jarrett and Raven would go in different directions. While Sports Entertainment Xtreme would disband, Russo struck up an alliance with AJ Styles and together they defeated Jeff Jarrett on June 11 to hand AJ Styles the first World Championship of his career – cementing his place in history as TNA’s first Triple Crown winner. Styles would make successful title defences against D’Lo Brown, Low Ki, Jerry Lynn, Raven, Frankie Kazarian and Dusty Rhodes before Jarrett regained the gold on October 22 when Styles’ relationship with Russo fractured. Jarrett would end the year as he began, holding the ten pounds of gold, but he would no longer stand for tradition and respect – from here Jarrett would be out for himself.
Raven found himself in a bitter blood feud with James Mitchell’s Disciples of the New Church for the remainder of the year. Raven, forming The Gathering with his own disciples CM Punk and Julio Dinero, regularly had the advantage for much of their dispute but James Mitchell had a plan. Ever the tactical mind, he introduced Shane Douglas to TNA to match Raven’s cunning and Vampiro to match Raven’s sadistic side.
This culminated on September 17 in a brutal Hair vs. Hair match between Raven and Douglas. Vampiro finally revealed himself to help “The Franchise” score the victory. Raven, despite the unfair circumstances of his defeat, accepted the consequences with honor as James Mitchell brutally shaved his head with shears to the point of removing sections of Raven’s scalp. The image was unforgettable. While Raven seemed to vanquish Mitchell for good in a Last Man Standing match between the two on November 5, Mitchell had the last laugh convincing Punk and Dinero to betray their mentor and join his side.
America’s Most Wanted were TNA’s defining tag team in 2003 but a force emerged in the division that was more than their equal. In fact, the Triple X unit of Low Ki, Christopher Daniels and Elix Skipper used their numbers advantage to thwart AMW time and again. Triple X would capture gold from AMW on January 22 and used the Freebird rule to their advantage. Their numbers domination allowed them to regain the titles after briefly losing them to Amazing Red and Jerry Lynn. Every time AMW would attempt to topple Triple X, the numbers advantage allowed Triple X to escape with victory. That would all change on June 25 – AMW would finally get Triple X inside a solid Steel Cage with the titles on the line. In a stroke of irony, after an incredible match Elix Skipper was trapped outside the cage and it was finally AMW that had the numbers edge. AMW struck down Christopher Daniels with a breath-taking Death Sentence from the top of the cage to become NWA World Tag Team Champions for the third time. Throughout the rest of the year, Simon Diamond and Johnny Swinger would defeat AMW in a memorable series of matches to become Champions before they were dethroned by the extremely popular 3 Live Kru unit of BG James, Konnan and Ron Killings.
A new generation of the X-Division stepped up in 2003. While AJ Styles moved on to chase the Heavyweight Title and Low Ki formed Triple X, a new era of talent emerged to fill their shoes. Athletes like Chris Sabin, Frankie Kazarian, Michael Shane, Paul London, Kid Kash and Amazing Red joined the ranks alongside the ever-reliable Jerry Lynn. These men took the division to a whole new level when Don Callis introduced his brand-new match idea: ultimate danger, ultimate drama, Ultimate X. Poles would be constructed in each corner of the ring with steel cables criss-crossing the ring. Wrestlers would have to navigate the wires and pull down the title belt to emerge victorious with only one rule – no ladders.
On August 20, three men stepped into the battlefield and made history. Defending X-Division Champion Chris Sabin battled two of his biggest rivals Michael Shane and Frankie Kazarian in the first ever Ultimate X match. Each fall from the cables drew gasps from the crowd as all three men took the drama and spectacle of the X-Division to a whole new level. In the end Frankie Kazarian was closing in on victory only for a bloody and battered Michael Shane to swoop in out of nowhere to pull down the gold and become X-Division Champion for the first time. Ultimate X continues to be the signature match of the X-Division to this very day and returns at Slammiversary on June 19.
The other big development in the X-Division in 2003 was the inaugural Super X-Cup. Competition in the X-Division gained an international flavor as the best wrestlers from around the world joined X-Division staples to crown the best X-Division athlete. Mexico’s Juventud Guerrera, Canada’s Teddy Hart, England’s Jonny Storm and Japan’s NOSAWA joined Jerry Lynn, Chris Sabin, Frankie Kazarian and Michael Shane to battle to determine the very best on the September 3 one night special. It came down to Chris Sabin vs. Juventud Guerrera in a sensational final match as Sabin proved exactly why he went by the moniker “The Future” by scoring a historic victory.
And to round out 2003, one of the biggest appeals of the weekly PPVs was the surprise factor. Following on from surprise debuts like The Road Warriors and Roddy Piper in 2002, many fan favorites would make their surprise debut in 2003. Names like Mike Awesome, Dusty Rhodes, Nelson Frazier, New Jack, Lex Luger, Mad Mikey, D’Lo Brown, Tony Schiavone, Perry Saturn, Mike Barton, Kenzo Suzuki and so many more would shock the wrestling world appearing in TNA. The biggest of these guest cameos was the debut of “The Icon” Sting. The Asylum broke their decibel record as The Stinger arrived in TNA to team with Jeff Jarrett and face AJ Styles and Sean Waltman on June 18. While it would be a few years before Sting would call TNA his full-time home, his appearances in 2003 proved that he was a firm favorite in the hearts of the TNA faithful.