It’s uncharacteristically cold outside on an early November afternoon in Astoria, Queens, and it’s not much warmer inside the 1,000-plus-capacity Melrose Ballroom, which is still hours away from filling seats anddimming lights for that evening’s Impact Wrestling TV taping. Former WWE cruiserweight Rich Swann is keeping warm by taking practice bumps in the ring, and Knockouts champion Taya Valkyrie is running frantically in search of her Postmates lunch delivery. Play-by-play announcer Josh Mathews arrives appropriately bundled in a waist-length winter coat and scarf, while nearly 300-pound slab of human Rhino defies the frigid conditions, sauntering in from a nearby bodega in a T-shirt and shorts. As with any traveling wrestling show, they are a motley bunch—half restless crew members and half colorful performers, most of the latter stereotypically larger than life. But sitting quietly in a folding chair by the side-wall-spanning bar, outfitted in a biceps-hugging sky-blue top and black stretch pants and hunched just enough to shrink her 5-foot-5 frame into an even more inconspicuous posture, is Impact’s biggest star: Tessa Blanchard.
At only 24 years old, Blanchard is inviting comparisons to greats from other sports. As Women of Wrestling and L.A. Lakers owner Jeanie Buss suggests in an email, “She is the LeBron James of the wrestling industry.” Her burgeoning career has inspired the kind of buzz that comes along once in a generation, the type of noise Ronda Rousey caused among MMA fans en route to crossover cultural celebrity. Though given Blanchard’s family history, it’s more like once every generation. The Charlotte, North Carolina, native is the daughter of WWE Hall of Famer and NWA legend—and original Four Horsemen member—Tully Blanchard, whose father, Joe, was a noted territorial-era grappler and promoter. But that’s not why she’s such a hot commodity. Like 10-time WWE women’s champion (and fellow North Carolinian) Charlotte Flair, whose father Ric was also a Horseman, Tessa is so much more than the sum of her pedigree’s parts. If Charlotte helped usher in a revolution in women’s wrestling by headlining WWE pay-per-views against opponents like Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks, Tessa has taken the onus on herself to make gender moot by credibly competing for both Impact and numerous worldwide promotions against not just female, but also male adversaries of all styles and profiles—from hypersexualized goofball Joey Ryan to current Impact world champion and death-match provocateur Sami Callihan, whom she will face for his title at Impact’s Hard to Kill PPV on January 12.
Her showdown with Callihan is, on Impact’s part, a calculated effort to steal some thunder away from the dueling powerhouses that are WWE and All Elite Wrestling, the latter of which emerged insurgently this year under the auspices of Cody Rhodes, his Elite cohort, and billionaire backer/NFL franchisee Tony Khan and quickly usurped Impact as the industry’s de facto no. 2 promotion. That imperative has been hastened by the recent majority acquisition of AXS TV by Impact’s parent company, Anthem Sports & Entertainment. The Mark Cuban–founded network now broadcasts Impact every Tuesday at 8 p.m. as a cornerstone of its combat-sports block, which also boasts weekly airings of New Japan Pro-Wrestling and Women of Wrestling (for whom the ever-busy Blanchard was, until recently, an undefeated world champion). For Blanchard, the match is an opportunity to concretize her following and seduce skeptics.
“How you’re booked is a huge indicator of how a company or someone perceives you as a talent,” she acknowledges. “I’ve definitely had to work my way up at Impact, and to now be challenging for the world championship is a huge honor and a privilege.”