NXT: When The Student Becomes the Master

Before we get too into this article, let me tell you a little bit about what you can expect here.  I know a lot about sports, but since most of the stuff that’ll get posted on this site will involve real sports, I figured I could use this space to talk about sports entertainment.  So, I’m gonna try to talk about that once a week here.  If there’s nothing to write about or something monumental in some actual sport happens, I’ll talk about that instead, but this will mostly be a wrestling-exclusive blog.  Also, if you’d like to see more of me talking about wrestling stuff, check out The Haymakers on Youtube.  It’s a podcast that I’m a part of with two of my friends, Calkos and ToonKritic.  We do predictions, reviews, best of/worst of lists, and other random wrestling-related stuff I’m sure you’ll love.  Click this sentence to check it out.  So, with that out of the way, let’s get started.  

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Wrestling is in a weird place right now. People are interested in getting into wrestling, thanks in large part to the rise of people like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, who showcased a technical, more nuanced side of wrestling, and demonstrated that the sport is more than just a couple of large men in thongs doing a little tussle.  Plus, the popularity of some wrestling-based memes also brought some much needed positive exposure to the business, like the “RKO outta nowhere” Vines and the “AND HIS NAME IS JOHN CENA” videos. On top of that, WWE has a myriad of amazingly gifted athletes and charismatic characters that could all steal the show on any given night.  WWE should be going through a second renaissance right now, built on strong characters and exceptional athleticism, right?  Wrong.

WWE’s brand of wrestling is boring, predictable, without much at stake, and too centered around one wrestler: Roman Reigns, who also happens to be the cousin of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. It’s a chore to watch Monday Night Raw start to finish nowadays, because Raw plays like it’s going through the same checklist every week, and the ratings are reflecting that. The November 23rd Monday Night Raw (the one that happened the day after Survivor Series, one of their biggest PPV’s of the year) pulled in an abysmal 2.16 Nielsen rating, and the most recent Raw (December 7th) went even lower, with a 2.15, the lowest rating Raw has had since before the Attitude Era, and the ratings have been hovering in the low-to-mid 2’s for months.

So, what’s a curious outsider to do about getting into wrestling? This has been asked to me a couple of times, and I usually ask that person whether they want silly, ridiculous wrestling or technically great wrestling with good stories. For the former, I’d suggest Lucha Underground (which we will talk about soon), Japan’s Dramatic Dream Team promotion, or CHIKARA, which is basically “if wrestling were in a comic book”. But, if you want great wrestling, with relatable characters, and interesting stories, all you have to do is look at WWE’s developmental territory, NXT.

NXT started as just another wrestling-based reality show that WWE loves to crank out, where young prospects show what they got in a series of bizarre challenges and, occasionally wrestling matches. It just felt by the books and formulaic, though, and after 5 seasons, the competition based show ended, and their Florida-based development league, FCW, was turned into the new NXT, which played like an actual wrestling show, just for people in development. From there, things played out on NXT like they would on any decently run wrestling show. And over the last three plus years, it has turned into the most consistently fantastic wrestling show that you’ll find in the States, even more so than the show these guys are trying to ascend to: Monday Night Raw. But how did such a counter-intuitive thing happen? Well, I can think of a few reasons.

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Reason #1: It’s not run by an out-of-touch 70-year old man.

Vincent Kennedy McMahon is the brainchild behind WWE, and has been for the last 30-plus years. He’s done a lot of great things for the product; he was the man behind “The Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection”, he created WrestleMania, which became the biggest show in all of wrestling, and he was one of the most important characters of the Attitude Era. Vince has done a lot of good for professional wrestling.

However, he’s been shown as just a little bit out-of-touch with today’s wrestling fan. This was no more apparent than in an interview with Stone Cold Steve Austin, when he described most of his roster as “lazy millennials” who “don’t want to grab that brass ring”, picking out Cesaro in particular, saying that “he just doesn’t connect with the fans”, despite the crowd clearly showing how much they love his work.  Vince, however, isn’t involved in the production of NXT. Instead, it’s run by Paul “Triple H” Levesque, former WWE Champion and current COO of the company.

 

Reason #2: There’s only one hour of NXT per week

Monday Night Raw lasts three hours every single week, and regularly runs about ten minutes overtime. Thursday Night Smackdown is another two hours, and WWE Main Event is another hour. That’s more than six hours of content per week, not counting any pay-per-views or interviews that show up on their YouTube page or website. No incoming fan is going to devote six-plus hours of their week to a product they’re just getting into, especially if the product isn’t that great right now. However, NXT is just one hour per week, meaning the potential fan won’t have to deal with a mountain of content from the second they decide to watch. And the best part is, since NXT is on the WWE Network, WWE’s online streaming channel, it’s available at any time on demand. This also helps prevent the show from becoming stale by not showing all of their wrestlers every single week. Now, the WWE Network does cost $9.99 per month, but I would say it’s worth it because…

 

Reason #3: NXT has some of the best wrestlers from around the world

Ever since NXT’s rebirth from FCW, wrestlers who made their names on the independent circuit have flocked to NXT in order to try to break through to the big leagues. It started with former Ring of Honor Champion Seth Rollins, who became the first NXT Champion, and eventually upon moving to the main roster, WWE World Heavyweight Champion. There’s also been Adrian Neville (formerly known as Pac), Luke Harper (Brodie Lee), Cesaro (Claudio Castagnoli), Sami Zayn (El Generico), Finn Balor (Prince Devitt), Hideo Itami (KENTA), Kevin Owens (Kevin Steen), Samoa Joe, Apollo Crews (Uhaa Nation), and Asuka (Kana) who’ve moved from the indy ranks to make names for themselves in NXT. These guys have consistently put on amazing main event quality matches on a weekly basis since they arrived in Florida.

 

Reason #4: NXT also builds up their own home-grown talent.

There’s a lot of quality wrestlers that you can find in other promotions like Ring of Honor or Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. However, NXT is still a development brand, and as such they do make their own stars as well. The most notable example of this is Big E Langston, now known as simply Big E. Before he got to WWE, he was a world-class powerlifter, holding several national and state powerlifting records. He signed a development contract with WWE, which was his first involvement with wrestling in 2009, and when the new NXT was formed, he went on a tear through NXT, going undefeated for several months, winning the NXT Championship, and holding it for five-and-a-half months, before moving to the main roster. You can also look at people like Tyler Breeze, Bo Dallas, Enzo Amore, Colin Cassady, Jason Jordan, and Chad Gable as success stories of WWE’s development program.

 

Reason #5: You want a Diva’s Revolution? It’s in NXT

For the last five months, WWE has been boasting that they are in the midst of a “Diva’s Revolution”, claiming that women’s wrestling is back and they are at the forefront of it. Never mind the fact that most of the matches are still insultingly short, everyone is still acting like a bunch of catty psychopaths, they still use the term “Diva” to describe their wrestlers, and that their championship belt looks like a tramp stamp. It’s a revolution in name only, a corporate-approved moniker for wrestling that looks barely any different than what it was back when we were complaining about it.

But, NXT is making their women’s wrestling actually matter. And how did they do that? Quite simple: they took stories that would normally go to men, and had the women do them. Surprisingly enough, if promoters just take women’s wrestling seriously, the fans will take it seriously too. Ain’t that something? As a result, NXT’s women have been able to put on amazing matches at every Takeover (NXT’s version of pay-per-views), culminating in an “Ironwomen” match between Bayley and Sasha Banks, which many people are calling Match of the Year. Not Women’s Match of the Year, just Match of the Year. The main roster may have a “Diva’s Revolution”, but NXT has a Women’s Revolution.

 

Reason #6: All of their divisions matter

It’s not just the women that get the opportunity to shine in NXT, tag team wrestling is getting a major boost down in the development league. At the last Takeover (Takeover: Respect), the NXT Championship wasn’t even on the line. Instead, it chose to focus on the Woman’s Championship (with the aforementioned Ironwomen match), and a Tag Team Tournament (meant to celebrate the recently deceased Dusty Rhodes). Despite the lack of an NXT Championship match, Takeover: Respect didn’t feel any less important or compelling.

Any given week, something new could be main-eventing NXT. This week, the main event was Samoa Joe vs. Tommaso Ciampa. In the previous two weeks, it was Bayley defending her Women’s Title, before that, it was a Tag Team Title match. On Raw, any matches for a midcard, tag team or women’s title would be relegated to the top of the second hour of the show. In NXT though, all the titles matter.

 

Reason #7: If someone unexpectedly gets popular, they aren’t punished for it

Let me tell you about a wrestler named Zack Ryder. Zack Ryder was a rarely used low-carder destined to be released without fanfare. However, he started a web series on WWE’s Youtube channel called “Z! True Long Island Story”. This got him over in a major way, and while his efforts earned him a brief run as United States Champion, he lost it less than a month later, and was made to look like a total joke for months before being taken off TV. He was never able to regain his momentum, and he now splits his time between being a jobber on the main roster, and tag teaming with Mojo Rawley in NXT. Zack Ryder got over on his own, and was effectively punished for it.

Let me tell you about another wrestler named Blue Pants. Blue Pants was just meant to be a jobber who helped make other wrestlers look better, but her look and her independent wrestling cred helped get her over with the crowd. At least, I think that’s what got her over, because I don’t know for sure, and neither does Triple H. He’s said that he has no clue how Blue Pants got so over, but she did. Was she punished for it? Nope, as a matter of fact, she got the opportunity to manage the super-popular Vaudevillains when they won the NXT Tag Team Championships. It was a prestigious opening, and Blue Pants got it.

 

Reason #8: If someone unexpectedly doesn’t get popular, they have the flexibility to make it work.

Eva Marie is a reality television star, and one of the reasons that Total Divas is as popular as it is. She’s also one of the worst wrestlers I’ve ever seen. She has no understanding of ring psychology, she tires out quickly, her finisher looks ridiculously fake, and she botches the most basic of maneuvers. She is awful, and they tried to make her a good guy, and the crowd was having absolutely none of that. If they would’ve continued pushing her as a babyface, the crowd would’ve probably rioted.

So they did the most logical thing possible. They made her a corporate heel who used her Total Divas fame to get what she wanted. She aligned herself with the bruiser Nia Jax, who got heat by association, and they made it so the refs were in her pocket. She’ll probably never be a technical master in the ring, but they’ve properly used her to get real crowd heat.

I could talk about how Roman Reigns is in a similar situation on the main roster, but again, we’ll discuss that another time.

 

Reason #9: They understand the value of jobbers

Jobbers can do many things. They make their opponents look strong, they don’t require you to make anyone else look weak, and when they’re ready to move up the card, they can cause the massive upsets that keep wrestling exciting. NXT understands this, particularly among the women’s division. Recently, they signed a bunch of new women to development contracts. Those women will job to the current stars of the division, and some of them will eventually become stars themselves once others move up. The main roster hasn’t used jobbers for a long time, and as a result, they always have to either make someone look weak or book everyone evenly, which does nobody any good.

And jobbers aren’t just people at the bottom of the roster. If someone moved up to the main roster, but isn’t doing much there, they may make a surprise appearance to help put someone in NXT over. The Ascension have done this a couple of times for the tag team division, as has Adam Rose. They’re big names in NXT, and they can use that popularity to help get others over.

 

Reason #10: If someone gets injured, there’s someone behind them who can fill the role.

This is a huge problem on the main roster right now, as they are bereft with injuries. Daniel Bryan, Randy Orton, Seth Rollins, Cesaro, Sting and others are all injured. John Cena is taking time off to film a TV show. Brock Lesnar and Undertaker work part-time schedule with limited dates. There is so little talent at the top of the card. Part of that is WWE putting so much focus on one person that they neglected the rest of their roster (ugh), but the injury bug has still been a particularly cruel mistress lately.

However, in NXT, thanks to the jobbers keeping everyone strong, those who get over on their own get rewarded, and that they don’t make anyone look like a joke, then if things get hairy, anyone can move up the card and contribute right away. Tye Dillinger or Elias Samson may not be competing for the NXT Championship tomorrow, but they can step up and have a rivalry with one of the bigger stars for a few weeks while someone recovers.

NXT may be the development league of the WWE, but they have a better understanding of wrestling storytelling, put on consistently better matches, and just overall feel more important than the matches on the main roster. It may be a little more expensive, but it’s well worth it.

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Nicholas Viola has been working for Cumulus Broadcasting since February 2011.  He’s been a sports fan all his life, and a wrestling fan off-and-on since 2006.  All thoughts, viewpoints, and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Nicholas Viola, and are not expressed by Cumulus Broadcasting.