NXT, almost single-handedly, got me back into professional wrestling after the terrible, WWE post-brand split product drove me away in 2004. I literally paid zero attention to pro wrestling for over a decade because of WWE’s bad booking and, of all things, a developmental brand got me to care again. Okay, I was intrigued by the Shield break-up and ascension of Seth Rollins after seeing a few articles online that made it sound like the most interesting storyline in quite some time on WWE programming. Regardless, I kept hearing about NXT and how I absolutely needed to watch, specifically because of the women’s division. I even wrote a love letter to NXT less than a year ago on my other blog. So, this opinion piece comes from a place of love, at least love at one time, but also serves as my “break up letter” from the NXT product.
It all comes down to the booking
I’ve been apologetic in my NXT recaps saying things like “it’s a squash, but I’ll allow it” or “it’s a squash, but it’s Nakamura so it’s okay”, but really… the weekly programming WWE has been releasing in NXT – especially since TakeOver: Dallas – has been subpar. I can only watch Nia Jax squash so many women before I don’t care. And looking at things like that, you can see it’s just how they roll now. I remember when Bull Dempsey went on a similar squash streak that did his character absolutely no favors. Hell, they built Baron Corbin’s entire persona around that, to the point that the fans turned on him, and see where that’s got him on the main roster so far? It’s not just lazy squash matches though. Who are Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa beyond “guys that are really good at wrestling”? I mean, Graves makes fun of Ciampa’s look and Gargano gets a “Johnny Wrestling” chant – but really, why should I as a fan care if those guys win or lose? NXT has given me no reason to care. Same goes for Apollo Crews. He was promoted to the main roster with literally no character to speak of and I’m sure management is shocked that the main roster crowds do not care about the guy. Well, it’s because, just like when he was at NXT, the entirety of his character is he “smiles a lot” and is a great athlete. For every decent angle that NXT builds right now, like the current Aries / Nakamura feud that seems to stem from a tag match they worked together and may actually define Aries’s character on WWE TV, there are dozens of matches – even TakeOver matches – that are just “Regal said these guys have a match so it is happening”. For every one of those that turns out to be a Zayn / Nakamura “match of the decade”, there are a great number of matches that are as easily forgettable as the undercard on the main roster PPVs.
We want (good) characters
Another reason I’m giving up on the NXT product is we haven’t gotten any good new characters in a long time. I’m not counting someone like Nakamura who comes with a pre-installed character. I’m talking about the Elias Samson types – what is he? A homeless guy? An annoying guy with a guitar? I don’t know because NXT has made no real effort to develop a reason why he is “the drifter” beyond putting him in random matches with Balor and Nakamura and elevating him in the process to a position he’ll get called up to the main roster and be… a homeless guy? An annoying guy with a guitar? See? Back in the “heyday” of NXT, everyone, who mattered at least, had clearly defined characters. Sure it may have taken a while for someone like Becky Lynch to develop hers, but she wasn’t a carbon copy of everyone else. The current women’s division is loaded with a bunch of women that are just women wrestlers. The main exceptions being Asuka (came preloaded with a gimmick), Nia Jax (who still doesn’t really have a character), Alexa Bliss (arguably the best all around female talent at NXT currently), Carmella (a gimmick tied to Enzo & Big Cass), and Bayley. And honestly, I could see the majority of those women called up if WWE decides to span the women’s division over both Raw and SmackDown and/or introduces a women’s tag team division.
For the most part, the main roster has failed the NXT talent
Sure, there are guys like Enzo & Big Cass that will get themselves over in spite of how WWE books them. They’re currently spinning their wheels in a feud with the Dudley Boyz, and even with Enzo out for three weeks they’re still one of the most over acts on the entire roster. They are the exception. Not the rule. Tyler Breeze was incredible in NXT. He was easily one of the most underappreciated workers in the company. His call up to the main roster was long overdue. And, he’s done nothing there except get lumped into the terrible “Golden Truth” angle and have a break-up angle with Summer Rae. Way to waste such an amazing talent!
Look at how the Four Horsewomen have been used. Bayley didn’t get called up even though she should have been – so now we get a Bayley character that is depressing to watch and I don’t care about. Yes, you have made me not care about Bayley. Nice work, WWE. But beyond Charlotte, who honestly was a shoe-in to get a massive push at some point the moment she signed with the company, WWE has failed Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch. Sasha was saddled with the lesser of three factions, Team BAD, in the idiotic faction war to debut the NXT women. Becky Lynch, arguably one of the best female workers in the business right now, has been reduced to the “Brie Bella loses to everyone on TV” role, but at least she’s getting TV time unlike Sasha. The first major NXT call up, Paige, a few years removed is hardly ever on the show any more despite being healthy. Again, for every Charlotte, there is a Becky, Paige, Sasha, or Emma that is lost in the shuffle for no reason. Why should I have faith that a magical “brand split” will do any of these women the justice they have earned?
The current flavor of the month at NXT is the terrible “No Way Jose” who, mark my words, will the be the next Adam Rose if he gets called up to the main roster. Remember how Rose was the hottest thing at NXT for a while, was called up with his gimmick intact, and then failed miserably? That is “No Way Jose”‘s future – though a best case scenario for that guy is he lands a niche low card spot and is used like Fandango is now. Another perfect example of NXT’s gimmicks not getting over on the main roster are the Vaudevillians. Gotch and English are excellent in ring talent and not too shabby on the mic. But, WWE (and NXT for that matter) never bothered to explain their characters. Are they time travelers? Are they hipsters? Do they just really idolize 1800s strong men? We never really know other than the fact they are “men” and do “manly things”. That works when you’re catering to a few hundred people and you’re preaching to the choir. But why would casual fan Joe, who WWE keeps claiming is their target audience, care about these guys when they’re given absolutely no back story? They lost to New Day at Extreme Rules and prompted disappeared the next night. Likely the only thing saving their careers will be the brand split otherwise they’d suffer the same fate as the Ascension. The extent of WWE’s push of the NXT call ups for the most part has been the announcers saying “these guys were good at NXT” which, sad to say, is a show that the vast majority of their audience does not watch.
I get wanting to do surprise debuts, and with complete packages like Nakamura, Enzo & Big Cass, and a few others – you can do that. But for everyone else, debut them via vignettes – a tried and true method over the years to build excitement for a new character. Show us a sizzle reel of a guy dominating people using NXT footage. Have them cut specific promos on main roster guys they will feud with and force the main roster guys to respond back. You have 5 hours of TV time each week, devoting a few minutes to building up a debuting wrestler shouldn’t cut into that too much, honestly. Instead, it’s just Apollo Crews debuting on Raw for no reason, getting no crowd reaction, and the entire promotion angle being Michael Cole saying “he was a standout at NXT” on commentary during a squash match and maybe a ten second montage of him doing random spots to guys coming out of a commercial break.
You can’t have it both ways – Is NXT developmental or a third brand?
It’s really time for WWE to either crap or get off of the pot with NXT. Is the show developmental or is it their unofficial third brand? If it’s developmental, then use it to actually develop the talent so when someone is called up to the main roster he or she is capable in the ring, comfortable delivering a promo, and has a clearly defined character with goals and aspirations. Don’t worry about putting on PPV events that will sell out the Barclay Center. Worry about prepping the talent there for the big show.
If the show is a third brand, then own that. Only use “ready for TV talent” on the weekly show and have the green people work the house show loops. Do more PPVs, reduce Raw to two hours, and convince USA Network to give the third hour of Raw to NXT. Promote NXT as a third brand that is on equal footing with Raw and SmackDown. This brand split would be the time to do that. Of course, that would require them not filling out Raw and SmackDown roster spots with the long overdue Samoa Joe, Finn Balor, Shinsuke Nakamura, Bayley types – because if that type of mass call up happens – NXT will fail as a third brand and would prove itself to just be developmental.
I almost feel like in a way, the success of NXT during the boom of last year is what did the company in and has made it nearly irrelevant. It became too important financially to keep it as developmental, the original purpose. As result, the product has suffered and the talent that has been promoted has suffered as well.
Last night, Triple H made this ominous tweet about the next TakeOver, now, equally ominously called “The End”:
Where do we go from here?
— Triple H (@TripleH) May 26, 2016
If I’ve learned one thing over the past year following WWE it is that nothing ever turns out as good as it could, or rightly should. I have no idea what WWE has planned for NXT after TakeOver: The End. And honestly, I don’t care. They’ve lost me as a fan of the product. Reverting it to purely developmental is not something I’d be interested in watching. Keeping main roster ready talent there in order to squeeze more money out of the fans seems like a disservice to everyone except the office. Whatever happens, I won’t be watching. It’s high time to start checking out some other promotions that could use the eyes and coverage in place of whatever WWE considers NXT to be this week.
I’ll leave you with a modified quote from Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” that came to mind while I was brainstorming this piece:
Strange memories on this nervous afternoon in California. Has it been five months? Six? It seems like a lifetime, the kind of peak that never comes again. NXT in 2015 was a very special time and place to be a part of. But no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time in the world. Whatever it meant. There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not on a TakeOver, then on the weekly show, or even at a live event. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.
And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of old and evil. Not in any mean or antagonistic sense; we didn’t need that. NXT’s energy would simply prevail. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than one year later, you can go on to the WWE Network and watch NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn 2015, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.