BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) — Ethan Carter III dropped to his knees and clutched his freshly won TNA heavyweight championship, the reward for grinding through a title tournament without a loss.
TNA's franchise player, Carter has never been pinned in a singles bout.
Unlike the champ who was never asked to lose, TNA Wrestling could only wish it always stood victorious at the end. TNA — Total Nonstop Action — has bounced around networks, burned through numerous reboots, and tossed money at past-their-prime stars in a bid to solidify a spot as a true competitor to sports entertainment heavyweight, WWE.
Those days appear over.
TNA's latest chapter in its 15-year history started Tuesday night in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania on a new network, a new day and with a new champion.
And a promise of not making the same old mistakes.
"It's amazing we're still alive," TNA star Kurt Angle said. "There have been some crazy things that we've done."
After an ill-fated year on fringe network Destination America caused ratings to crash, TNA signed a multiyear deal with Pop TV that will air "Impact Wrestling" at 9 p.m. Tuesday nights. Pop mixes pop culture favorites like "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Dawson's Creek" with original series including "Schitt's Creek" and "Big Brother: After Dark," the sister to the CBS reality show.
"We celebrate pop culture and we love wrestling as opposed to snarkily pointing at it," network president Brad Schwartz said.
TNA aired on a tape delay Tuesday night, but was set to tape three more weeks of television episodes this week at the Sands. There is a live "One Night Only" pay-per-view on Friday night at the arena.
Carter pinned Matt Hardy in the championship finale and cut a promo for nearly 1,000 fans sitting on folded chairs.
"Some of you like me, some of you don't, and that's OK," he said. "What you guys did here tonight, that energy you brought to our debut on Pop TV, bring that (Wednesday), bring that Thursday, bring that Friday!"
The company wants more than energy — it needs eyeballs. "Impact Wrestling" drew as few as 280,000 total viewers late last year as a lame duck show, far removed from five years ago when TNA hit 1 million viewers on Spike, a distant second to the 3.75 million viewers for WWE's "Raw."
"This is an event that just 12 months ago was doing 1.3 million viewers every week on Spike," Schwartz said. "It's something you have to watch every week. It's appointment TV. It's not something you can watch on Netflix three years from now."
"Impact Wrestling" will be available on VOD each Wednesday. The show drew 255,000 total viewers for Tuesday's episode, according to Showbuzzdaily.com.
"Whatever the number for the Pop premiere is, TNA should accept it and simply try to better it slowly but surely," Prowrestling.net editor Jason Powell said. "There's not a quick fix that will solve their problems. They simply need to consistently produce good television."
Unlike Spike's wider reach, Destination America was available in just under 60 million homes since launching in 2012. Pop TV is in roughly 80 million homes.
"Distribution is key for us," TNA president Dixie Carter said. "Our fans need to be able to watch our show."
Fans watched even as TNA was criticized for signing some of WWE's biggest stars, bringing in Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Booker T and others at the expense of developing its own talent.
TNA champions Samoa Joe, Sting and Bully Ray all moved on to WWE over the last 16 months.
"We've always been criticized about taking WWE talent and I think it's pretty interesting how the roles have been reversed," Dixie Carter said. "Our competitors, our competition have been after our talent."
Dixie Carter paused Tuesday night as she watched the action from her box, the surprise return of TNA star James Storm after a brief dalliance in WWE's developmental system.
"A lot of times they come back," she said. "The grass isn't always greener and what we have here is very special."
TNA counted on EC3, Drew Galloway, Bram, Tigre Uno and Mike Bennett to anchor the company in its comeback year.
"As far as competing head on with WWE, they're top dog in the game," EC3 said. "We need to provide an alternative and focus on ourselves. I don't think signing big names in wrestling is what fans are interested in as much as seeing new characters develop into something out of nothing."
Angle, the 1996 220-pound freestyle wrestling gold medal winner in the Atlanta Games, has wrestled for TNA since 2006 and announced Tuesday he would step away from the company following its shows next month in England.
"It's not my retirement," Angle said.
The new blood on the roster and greater availability on cable should only help boost TNA's status in the wrestling world.
"We're trying to get back to more real things, things that come from a place that doesn't seem fake or scripted or robotic," Dixie Carter said.
TNA's true A-lister works behind the scenes: Smashing Pumpkins lead singer Billy Corgan joined TNA's creative team last season and lent an unreleased song for "Impact Wrestling's" opening credits.
"It's pretty interesting that a world-famous rock star knows more about wrestling than I do," EC3 said. "It doesn't hurt to have a famous musician's number just in case you need to call on him."
Corgan saw a scene at the Sands not unlike at one of his concerts, with fans dressed as their favorite wrestlers and chanting along to catchphrases. The rowdy crowd was perhaps a sign that fans may gave TNA another chance.
"There have been growing pains," Angle said, "but I'm excited about the new deal. It might be TNA's time."