It’s a fascinating time to be a wrestling fan. Not just because the long running Ross and Rachel-esque ‘will they/won’t they’ break up between Kane and Seth Rollins appears to have reached its long time coming conclusion (they won’t, for now).
No, there’s something even more entertaining and magical than that going on in WWE. Slowly but surely, grizzled and sarcastic smarks, who had given up the belief that WWE was still for them, now have real hope that one day they might be able to come back to the warm and comforting bosom of sports entertainment.
There’s a not so quiet revolution going on in WWE these days. In a corner of Florida that has been claimed back from the alligators and crazed redneck meth heads, NXT has risen from the ashes of FCW to become the hottest thing WWE have had on their books since Maria Kanellis.
This not so quiet revolution is spearheaded by one the IWC’s once most hated figures. From the man who held down every single favourite of the IWC, to the man who will now one day save WWE from Vince’s evil clutches, HHH has worked the mother of all turns with his most vocal group of critics.
Thanks to the last year or two of success with NXT and his recent recruitment policy, The Game now stands atop our smark kingdom, shiny Conan-style crown adorning his head (and it’s not even WrestleMania season) as a man who can do no wrong. It’s almost got to the point that even if Vince lives to his predicted age of 127, when HHH finally does take charge of WWE, the smarks will actually be happy.
Ok, ok, we all know smarks will never be happy. We don’t do satisfied when it comes to WWE. HHH could sit some of the IWC’s most vocal bitch-fitters in front of a collection of the greatest matches from WWE history, feed them their go to snack from the cleavage of the their favourite diva, and they’d still complain that WWE had screwed up the dip and should have been pushing the cheese and chive instead of the hummus.
While the weekly three hour RAW watching war of attrition has turned many WWE fans off (yours truly included), down in NXT an alternative to the main WWE shows is gathering pace and making the future look brighter than Jerry Lawler’s highly polished teeth.
When you think of a wrestling school or a developmental territory a few things spring to mind: shitty matches, shitty promos and shitty gear. It’s just the nature of the beast. When you’re learning to do something (especially something as difficult as pro-wrestling) you invariably suck at it.
The whole point of going to school is to learn. Wrestling school, or a developmental territory isn’t supposed to be a place for great workers and finished articles. It’s supposed to be a place where dudes learn the basics of pro-wrestling, work tirelessly to perfect those skills, and then move onto bigger and better things.
NXT is supposed to be WWE’s pre-school. The place where wrestlers can figuratively finger paint and learn the wrestling equivalent of the periodic table of elements, while also acquiring the skills and experience to help them when they eventually move on to ‘big school’ and into the big bad sports entertainment world of RAW and Smackdown. That’s what NXT is supposed to be, but over the last year it’s morphed into something very different.
Yes, there’s a developmental element to it, with the performance centre and all the great pro-wrestling training that goes on there. Not to mention the work they do with production and social media with Full Sail University (hey Gary, how you doing?) But the core of what has made NXT the hottest thing in wrestling today is so far and away from the traditional notion of what a developmental territory is, that it feels like you’re doing NXT a disservice by calling it that.
NXT is now a brand of WWE. The hottest brand they have. They have stars. They have great merch. They tour. They have a great TV show. They are one of the true success stories of the WWE Network and they’ve become this by being everything WWE had supposedly forgotten about.
NXT’s brand is designed to appeal to the disenchanted late teen to early 40s, card carrying member of the IWC. It’s an indy work-rate promotion, with some of the biggest and best names of the last five years on the indy/world-wide scene on its roster. It has top level WWE production values. It’s a smarks wet dream and it’s ushering in a new way of doing business for WWE and a new way of developing talent.
The last great WWE developmental success story – the 2005 OVW crew – were a bunch of green guys who were straight up learning their trade. They didn’t tour and they certainly didn’t put on match of the year candidates that had the world raving about them. Then again, none of them had worked on the indy scene for 8-10 years and honed their craft like the guys who have brought NXT to the fore in the past 12 months.
The OVW crew were being groomed to get TV experience, in front of the same small group of fans every week and then learned how to work other crowds when they came up to WWE. Kind of like how you learn how to pass your driving test, then actually learn how to drive by getting out there and doing it.
That was WWE’s way of bringing in new talent. When you look at it, it’s a miracle (or down to Jim Ross and his excellent recruitment and Jim Cornette/Danny Davis’ hard work) that so many great talents came out of that OVW era and became big stars. Certainly more came from there than came from the FCW era, so you can understand why HHH has looked at both systems and in a way married the two together.
HHH has thrown out the book on what a developmental programme is. Now we have NXT the training ground and NXT the touring brand. A system that takes the training element of OVW and mixes in some more experienced and seasoned workers from all around the world, to produce a TV product that has brought a large swathe of the WWE fan base back to the company.
The move to a touring brand is essential to allow the inexperienced wrestlers to improve their skills. To stick with the laboured ‘learning to drive’ analogy from earlier, you don’t learn how to drive by just going around your own neighbourhood once a week – you need to get out on the open road, experience different situations and travel more unknown and difficult routes.
The NXT tour will allow them to draw money from the indy fans (by bringing the likes of Balor and Joe to town), while also giving the greener guys the chance to work in front of crowds different from their usual home field comfort zone in Florida.
The only downside I can see from this new NXT model is that fans they’re drawing to their touring shows aren’t exactly known for being forgiving and patient when it comes to guys who are learning their craft.
The more NXT becomes an indy work rate style promotion, the more likely the guys and girls who are trying to learn their craft will hear that infuriating “you can’t wrestle” chant. In fact, it’s already happening at Full Sail, where the fans (while smarky to the max) are more in tune with what NXT is and are more willing to give new people a chance.
Then again, if you’re going to make it in WWE, you can’t really expect to have your hand held and appear in front of crowds who are always going to react as the script dictates. Even established stars like Sheamus and Randy Orton get shredded by some crowds for being boring and having the same matches over and over again – but that’s a topic for another day.
With so many experienced and excellent talents on the NXT roster, they’ve got guys who are respected enough by the ROH-type crowd (the hardcore wrestling fan), that they can put on great matches, run a house show tour and receive universal praise for their efforts. Where HHH has really changed things up is the make-up of the NXT roster and it shows the biggest difference from the OVW days.
The NXT roster is now split into three tiers:
- The ‘green as grass’ Guys who are basically right out of a failed NFL career or a career in bikini modelling competitions, who have been recruited due to two factors: their look and their look. You can see most of these guys bumbling their way around Tough Enough every week, or showing up on NXT in the form of a Dana Brooke (get your thieving hands out of Beth Phoenix’s old gear bag) or a Baron Corbin (a man with the saddest and loneliest looking belly face in the world) or a Mojo Rawley (a man so annoying he makes Zack Ryder look like the coolest guy on the planet).
- The ‘we’re almost ready for the main roster, but just need a few more months to get our act down’ These are the folks who make up the core of the NXT roster, guys like Enzo and Cass (the Italian Deli Outlaws), Becky Lynch (hot, athletic, talented, voice like a Dublin pub landlord who smokes 40 a day) and Tyler Breeze (who’s Rick Martel?).
- The ‘why aren’t we on the main roster, oh that’s right you need us to draw.’ This group are the most interesting, because they’re the guys who HHH obviously sees as the here and now of NXT and the potential future of WWE. Guys like Finn Balor (who proves to Jeff Hardy you can use body paint and stay sober – as long as you don’t eat it), Sami Zayn (so good at selling he convinced Eskimos to invest in an ice making company), Hideo Itami (no Vince, he’s not related to Mr Fuji) and of course, the man who has carried NXT for the last few months; Kevin Owens (aka Fnord’s stunt double – don’t worry if you don’t get that joke, only about ten people reading this will, but trust me, they will find it hilarious).
There’s another sub-section of these main event draws, guys like Rhyno and Samoa Joe, who realistically could be plugged into the main event roster and do a great job, but appear to be in NXT to help that brand draw, fill gaps left by the likes of Owens (and the injured Zayn and Itami) and also bring their experience to help the less experienced guys on the crew improve.
It appears the plan is the stars and established workers go on TV, the big tours and the Take Over shows. While the guys and girls who aren’t as skilled or experienced, stay back in Florida until they’re deemed good enough to move up to the main tour. That makes sense and allows people the time to develop in stages: from the smaller NXT shows, to the NXT tour and TV, to finally the main roster. You learn, you improve, and you graduate to the next level. Remember, this is still technically a wrestling school.
Of course the majority of people who are in WWE’s developmental system aren’t going to make it. It’s survival of the fittest and some people just aren’t going to make the cut. That’s why WWE have so many people in developmental.
That’s why I expect a regular pick up of top indy and international talent by WWE over the next couple of years. As they cycle the likes of Owens, Balor, Charlotte and Sasha Banks onto the main roster, they will need to fill those spots.
While the idea is most of them will eventually come from the Performance Centre, if you want guys who are the finished article to draw house show numbers, sell merch and keep the buzz going about how hot your product is, you need established performers who have honed their craft on the indy/international scene for years.
So here’s my top 5 wrestlers currently not in WWE developmental that I think the company should bring into NXT in the next few months (this list is total fantasy and doesn’t take into account contracts, personal issues or the fact that they work for other promotions).
- Adam Cole – baby! Got the look, got the in-ring skills, got the poise, got the mic skills, got the ready-made fan base. Equally adept at playing heel or babyface. This guy is a shoe-in for stardom in WWE and would fit perfectly in NXT today.
- The Young Bucks. What? Oh come on, you’re telling me you DON’T want to see The Meltzer Driver on a WWE show? You’re an idiot. These guys are entertainment personified and even if you think it will never happen – just remember what Kevin Owens did in his first WWE match and NO ONE thought that would happen.
- Ricochet. The best highflyer in the world today. Could be a bigger success story than Rey Mysterio and someone who would shift a fuck ton of merch. Especially if they keep him under his Prince Puma (or similar) mask.
- Kazuchika Okada. One of the most talented wrestlers in the world today. A big star in Japan. A guy who can work a variety of styles. A ready-made, money making gimmick. Too talented not to work on the biggest stage of them all.
- AJ Styles. Probably the best worker in the world today. If they brought in Joe, they should bring in AJ. Plus he could work with all four of the other guys I’ve listed and could have MOTYC with all of them.
While that list is total fantasy booking (and ignores tens of other fantastic wrestlers I’d love to see in WWE) with the way HHH has revolutionised NXT in recent times, the boundary between fantasy and reality is weaker than ever. Some of those names may just end up in WWE one day and if they do, I will expect a full apology from all of you doubters.
Of course, the elephant in the room, in terms of the future success of the NXT alumni in WWE, is Vince McMahon. Thankfully so far (and let’s hope it stays that way) Vince has left HHH to his own devices with NXT. While Vince may indeed live to 127 years old and remains in full control of WWE, he’s certainly changing some of his views on what makes a WWE superstar (Kevin Owens) and HHH no doubt has a huge hand in that.
If NXT and the most recent special from Japan are any indication – the future of WWE looks very bright and perhaps even the bitter, sarcastic smarks like me can finally come back into the WWE universe from the WWE Phantom Zone. Until that day, we’re just going to have to keep our fingers crossed, keep enjoying NXT and keep marking out at each new signing HHH makes that none of us thought he’d ever make. Told you it was a fascinating time to be a wrestling fan.
Well it’s been a while since I’ve written about wrestling and it’s been fun. You never know, I might even start doing this on a regular basis. Ah, who am I kidding? The chances of that happening are as likely as someone deciding their perfect career choice would be a gay tour guide in ISIS held Mosel.
Something else entirely unlikely, but a hell of a lot less distressing than that is a NEW MFX podcast is up! That’s right folks, the chance to hear me and my partner-in-crime Sir Ian Trumps ramble on in a comical fashion about gay marriage legislation, religion, life, love, Jurassic World and pro-wrestling has arrived with MFX123!!
It’s a fun show, with some great stories about Sir Ian’s time as the top heel in a US high school soccer league. As you won’t be shocked to hear – he loved every minute of being the most hated guy there! Plus all the usual MFX fun and games you’ve come to know and tolerate.
So check the show out, spread the word of MFX on social media – couple of clicks of a mouse make the world of difference to us – and be sure to get involved with MFX here with some comments, or by getting in touch with the show at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for reading.
Until next time…