For years now, in my mind dating back to the Samoa Joe/Finn Balor feud of 2015-2016, the most tedious part of NXT has been the men’s title scene. This is less due to the performers involved in the championship picture (although I was less than enamoured with the runs Messrs. Roode, McIntyre and Cole had with the strap) and more because it has historically been the part of the show most susceptible to the malign influence of NXT’s most enduring running storyline.
You know how it goes. The heel cuts about the place doing down the fans and saying they don’t matter, generally acting like an entitled, self-centred prick. Then the face (let’s say Johnny Gargano, but for the purposes of the angle it doesn’t matter who) wins the belt, and on the next show does an earnest and ever-so-slightly cloying promo proclaiming that he was able to overcome his challenges through the support of the fans, because – as Triple H likes to say at the start of a Takeover – WE! ARE! N! X! T!
Now, that’s not how it goes on the main roster. You never get wrestlers proclaiming “I Am Raw” or “We Are Raw”, and not just because of the unfortunate double entendre. But “We Are NXT” is centred as a slogan – even, at times, a mantra – because NXT’s selling point is that it somehow sits in aesthetic and discursive opposition to the other wrestling content produced by the same company. The true genius of NXT as a brand is to have convinced wrestling fans to “rebel” against what they don’t like about the core WWE product by consuming another WWE product. One is very much put in mind of the UK Christmas No.1 battle of 2009, wherein music fans mounted a concerted effort to “stick it to the man” by buying “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against The Machine in their droves, successfully beating out the commercialised scourge of X Factor winner Joe McElderry, with whom – as it turned out – RATM shared a record label. In both cases, surface-level acts of resistance to mass-market culture have ended up enriching the same corporate overlords. If you’re a record executive, adding a band like RATM to your portfolio of artists belies an understanding that there is money to be made by commodifying the language and aesthetics of rebellion, in the same way that it is smart business to try and make sure that hardcore wrestling fans burnt out on Raw and Smackdown are likely to seek an alternative not in the independent circuit, but in a facsimile of an indie promotion with a glossy WWE sheen.
This is not to say that NXT has always been a bad product. In fact, for most of its life it has been good-to-great. I would pinpoint the Golden Age as beginning with Adrian Neville winning the men’s title in February 2014 and ending with Bayley, the last Horsewoman standing on the brand, losing the women’s strap in April 2016, but the genuine buzz surrounding NXT would not have been possible without the groundwork laid by the initial run of tapings in 2012. These shows are very interesting to watch back, not so much because they look especially different to now (they don’t), but due to the kind of personnel involved. Firstly, it was clear that WWE brass had little faith in the product itself to draw even an audience of a few hundred to a soundstage on a college campus. Every taping would feature an appearance from a main roster superstar, as if to say to the punters, “Look, we know these guys aren’t ready for TV yet, but if you stick around to the end you’ll get to see Sheamus!” Eventually, however, this was phased out as Triple H and his crew realised that, contrary to expectations, developmental products such as CJ Parker, The Ascension and Bo Dallas were drawing in and of themselves.
I’m not saying that “indie darlings” weren’t part of NXT at this point; after all, the inaugural men’s champion was Tyler Black. But wrestlers with established pedigrees on the independent circuit were few and far between. Nevertheless, fans excused the fact that much of the talent was rough around the edges technically because the shows were fun, digestible and different from Raw and Smackdown, with seemingly more regard for storyline logic than Vince McMahon was willing or capable of offering. There was a real “Island of Misfit Toys” vibe to the whole enterprise, and a clear sense of what NXT was and what it was for. Because it was very clearly positioned as “developmental”, there was enjoyment to be had in seeing a cult favourite learn the ropes and grow as a performer in a very public setting, in a way that is very familiar to fans of Japanese wrestling. In Japan, it’s understood that wrestlers will start out being a little tentative and clumsy, and by restricting themselves to simple manoeuvres such as Boston crabs and dropkicks, they performatively get across their status as a beginner through their moveset just as much as their movement, positioning and transitions may express the same (whether they want it or not). You grow attached to them even though they’re winning few – if any – matches, knowing that they’ll be off on excursion soon, after which they’ll come back calling themselves The Rainmaker or EVIL or Master Wato, and show you what the sum total of their learning has brought them. It’s part of the joy of being a fan of someone. Part of the reason some Stardom fans I know feel more of a connection to Saya Iida than Utami Hayashishita, as talented as the Big Rookie may be, is because she was elevated to a main event spot very soon after her debut, thereby robbing the audience of experiencing the development of her skills in kayfabe alongside her real-life in-ring improvement.
This bargain between NXT and its audience meant that every featured performer on the roster had a built-in arc that was accepted by the vast majority of fans. They debuted, squashed a few jobbers to establish them as A Thing, were either elevated to the main event or settled into a role as enhancement talent, then got sent to the main roster or future endeavoured. Even though the litany of early NXT call-ups who got wasted on the main roster is long and depressing – Tyler Breeze and Emma stick out most egregiously – you at least got closure on the whole “developmental” process, in and out of kayfabe. If someone was deemed “ready” for Monday Night Raw, then away they went, and although you knew they were probably going to be booked badly by Ol’ Vinny Mac, you at least knew they’d done everything they could in the minor leagues. And this kept things fresh, in the same way that Abdullah the Butcher knew never to stick around in the same territory long enough for his shtick to become stale.
It might sound perverse to describe a period characterised by the debut of numerous ultra-talented indie wrestlers and international superstars in NXT – which can really be attributed to the success of CM Punk and Daniel Bryan as main roster main eventers just as much as NXT’s popularity – as a relative Dark Age, but this is what the last few years have undoubtedly been, for my money. The recent move from one hour to two hours hasn’t helped my enjoyment of the show, but the weekly programmes were becoming more and more of a chore to sit through long before that. At the root of the creative malaise is the fact that NXT no longer has that strong “developmental” identity. The main question has become not who “is NXT” (as Gargano might have it), but what is NXT.
The lengthening of the weekly broadcasts is just one aspect of WWE’s push to elevate NXT as being of equal importance with Raw and Smackdown, in a bid to stop Tony Khan’s AEW (which also airs on Wednesday nights) from siphoning off viewers. For another example, see the results of last year’s Survivor Series, which featured seven contests between stars representing Raw, Smackdown and NXT, of which NXT won four. See also Charlotte Flair’s decision to challenge for – and win – not the Raw or Smackdown women’s belts, but the NXT one. When seen through the lens of WWE kayfabe, each of these storyline developments invited questions that illuminated the muddled identity of present-day NXT. If NXT is still, officially, the developmental territory, why is Charlotte Flair using her Wrestlemania title shot (which has propelled numerous superstars to a main event slot at the Showcase of the Immortals in the past) to go for its women’s championship, particularly as she had already won it when she was an NXT regular? And if the wrestlers are, in storyline, good enough to best Raw and Smackdown in a majority of inter-brand matches, why are they still in developmental? But if NXT isn’t developmental, why do its shows take place before an audience of hundreds rather than thousands? Why were only two out of the thirty places in this year’s men’s Royal Rumble reserved for NXT talent? Why are superstars called up from NXT far more frequently than Raw and Smackdown acts are sent down to Full Sail (and even then, you get the sense that the likes of Charlotte and Finn Balor are only there for a short stint to remind you of better times)? This somewhat nebulous main roster-developmental power level hierarchy was present in previous years – remember Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens taking John Cena to the limit while part of “developmental”, and in Owens’ case beating him – but has become exacerbated in the era of the Wednesday Night Wars as WWE, in an attempt to show that its third brand is more must-watch than the best AEW has to offer, has muddied the very category of a “third brand” to the point of obliteration.
All these questions, of course, have simple answers once you remove kayfabe from the question. NXT both is and is not developmental because that is exactly what NXT-as-product needs to be. It stays at Full Sail because it’s cost-effective to run there, but also because the pseudo-indie aesthetic needs to be retained if it is to maintain the illusion of being a true “alternative” to the main roster. Charlotte challenges for the NXT women’s title and appears on the weekly show for a few months to try and pop a rating. Popular, clearly main roster-ready acts like The Undisputed Era, Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano, who in years gone by might have had only a year or two at Full Sail, stay seemingly indefinitely because they’re bankable stars for the brand: which creates another problem, as without the inevitable end of the “developmental” arc, the wrestlers stick around long past the point where it feels like they’ve done everything there is to do in NXT. I understand the rationale for all the broad-brush decisions that are being made regarding personnel and scale. But the end result of it all is that the reliable inbuilt story arc of growth and graduation is no longer there, to the brand’s ultimate detriment.
I’m not asking for a return to some prelapsarian state before the categorical boundaries between NXT and the main roster collapsed. NXT’s popularity and quality (however you quantify that) as a wrestling product now takes precedence over its function as a mechanism to prime green talent for success on Raw or Smackdown. That’s not changing any time soon, and neither is the weekly broadcast going back to one hour. But the show wasn’t good in 2012 because the talent were mostly Performance Centre projects rather than indie stars. If you got rid of the Undisputed Era, Timothy Thatcher, Keith Lee, Oney Lorcan, Santos Escobar, Io Shirai, Mia Yim, Candace LeRae and Tegan Nox, and replaced them with ex-football players, martial artists and fitness athletes who have never trained anywhere other the WWE system, NXT wouldn’t get better: probably the opposite. But what the brand can do is begin once again to do things well that it was doing in 2012. The shows being two hours long doesn’t mean the extra time needs to be filled with matches that serve only to keep performers in the audience’s mind, rather than further a storyline or build someone’s credibility for a Takeover appearance. The fact that, say, Dominik Dijakovic or Cameron Grimes have an existing reputation from the indies doesn’t mean that less effort needs to be put into making the audience care about them than was lavished upon Big E Langston or Chad Gable. “I wrestle good” is not a character in and of itself. Those are just a couple of suggestions. I don’t hold out any hope that NXT can reach its old heights without a strong identity outside of “WWE-approved pseudo-indie”. But maybe things being slightly less bad is all we can hope for at the moment.