Tuesday night on Impact Wrestling, Eric Young won the Impact World Championship in a brutal match with Eddie Edwards. Edwards had only held the belt since Slammiversary in July, which was the same show where Eric Young made his return to the company. Prior to that, if you’ve encountered Eric Young in the past four years, it was probably as the leader of the apocalyptic faction Sanity, which ran roughshod over the NXT roster back around 2017.
After a memorable NXT run, Sanity got called up to Smackdown, but left behind Nikki Cross, who many felt was the performer who held the group together. Without her, the group never found its place in WWE and was unceremoniously broken up. Alexander Wolfe went to NXT UK and joined Imperium. Killian Dain went back to NXT for the solo run he’d never gotten. Nikki Cross teamed with Alexa Bliss and dominated the Women’s Tag Team Division for a while. But Eric Young never really got anything to do, aside from occasionally being part of the comedy mob in some 24/7 Championship segments. So it was no great surprise when he was part of WWE’s layoffs in April, and now he’s Impact World Champion.
The Impact Knockouts Champion, Deonna Purrazzo, who held a Black Tie Celebration on this week’s show, was also released from WWE in April, although the fact that she still had an NXT contract enabled her to show up on Impact a lot sooner. EC3, Curt Hawkins/Brian Myers, Heath Slater, and the Good Brothers have also recently moved to Impact in the wake of those WWE layoffs. EC3 is already in a storyline involving Moose’s revived TNA Championship, and it’s only a matter of time before Anderson and Gallows get a run at the Tag Team Championship.
But it’s not just Impact that’s getting the most from former WWE Superstars. Just a week ago Saturday on AEW Dynamite, Brodie Lee (FKA Luke Harper) won the TNT Championship from Cody Rhodes, who himself helped found All Elite Wrestling after leaving WWE. And of course the AEW World Championship is held by Jon Moxley, once a top WWE star as Dean Ambrose. Moxley won the belt from the inaugural Champion, Chris Jericho, one of the biggest WWE Superstars of all time.
So you have to wonder, does it hurt these other companies to rely on former WWE talent as their biggest stars? That’s an accusation that’s frequently thrown AEW’s way recently, but it’s also been the number one thing people make fun of about Impact for years.
To be fair, Eric Young is kind of a different situation. He was in Impact first, and was treated like a big star there. Even with the Sanity stuff getting over in NXT, you could argue that Impact did more to make Eric Young a star than WWE ever did. The same is definitely true of EC3. So those guys aren’t really imported WWE stars in Impact, they’re Impact stars returning from an extended visit to WWE.
AEW is in a different situation. They’ve only existed for slightly more than a year, and have been on TV for slightly less than one. So while they’re obviously working to build stars out of wrestlers from the indies and Japan who most of America hadn’t heard of, the only people who showed up with substantial name recognition are the ones who came from WWE.
So it makes sense to put championships on those guys to start. On the other hand, it’s been a year now, give or take, and both of AEW’s men’s singles championships are on their second title holder, and all four champions are WWE alums: Brodie, Cody, Mox, and Jericho. It might be about to time to show confidence in one of their homegrown stars and put at least the midcard TNT Title on them.
Bu there’s something else going on here too, which I think is worth considering. When you push certain ex-WWE wrestlers like Brodie Lee, Eric Young, and Deonna Purrazzo (or the Good Brothers, FTR, and EC3), you give a sense of satisfaction to those “smart mark” fans who have long been saying these wrestlers could do so much more and go so much farther than they were allowed in WWE. It’s a kind of shine that comes from having been in WWE, not because of fans who love WWE and therefore love you for having worked there, but because of the idea that WWE held you down, and now that you’re in another company you’re your best self.
Even stars like Cody and Moxley, who got plenty of TV time and ultimately left by choice, have similar narratives about how WWE wouldn’t give them the freedom to be the characters they knew they be best as.
Wrestling is what it is, and promoters and performers alike will generally take whatever goodwill fans have to offer, including the “thank god you escaped from Vince” kind. That doesn’t mean these narratives aren’t true, just that they’re being used the same way that both truth and fiction are both used in wrestling: to get us to cheer and boo the right people.