WWE, NXT and the Future of Professional Wrestling

If you aren't watching NXT, you should be. If not, you're missing out on the next true evolution in professional wrestling.

“Where there is chaos, there is opportunity.” -Paul Heyman…after Sun-Tzu

When Rhyno stormed into the NXT Arena at Full Sail University, the crowd exploded. In recent months, NXT had become the answer to many of the WWE’s most ardent fans’ wishes. A promotion filled with exciting young talent and novel feuds, NXT crowds rarely found themselves booing or indifferent, no matter who entered the ring. With rapid fire presentation and and some of the best matches in the world, the arrival of a battle tested, pro-wrestling legend affirmed what they thought in the first place: NXT is the place to be.

From 2007 to 2012, FCW was WWE’s sole developmental territory. During FCW’s run, it became obvious that the WWE was interested in the stars of the Independent circuit, and began to choose their next generation from the best it had to offer. Independent stars such as Bryan Danielson (who had been previously signed in the early ’00s), Claudio Castagnoli, Jon Moxley, and Tyler Black became the focus of the promotion before coming to the main roster. If you think don’t know these names, you actually do: Daniel Bryan, Antonio Cesaro, Dean Ambrose, and Seth Rollins have not even risen to the top of the WWE card (mostly), but they’re among the bright spots on the roster now. FCW was quickly becoming the hottest indie promotion in the country, without being an indie promotion at all.

A year before FCW was created, the WWE attempted to resurrect the 5 years defunct ECW. For a brief period in the late ’90s and early ’00s, Paul Heyman’s ECW provided a national testing ground for talent and, along with the constant trading of talent between the two dominant promotions, had obscured how little opportunity there truly was for new talent to develop their skills. Extreme Championship Wrestling didn’t only provide this opportunity, but it created a new platform to play with the traditional storytelling and the in-ring style of the business.

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In its time, the innovations came through more risque storylines, the introduction of top tier talent from foreign markets and an increase in in-ring brutality. Both the WWF and WCW looked to ECW for inspiration and the once small promotion became the most influential of its time. Various problems led to the decline of ECW and in 2001 its doors were closed. The WWF would buy WCW the same year, and once again the problems would be obscured, but action would soon be necessary. In 2002, the WWE would split its product into two autonomous, “competing” brands : Raw and Smackdown, to hopefully push each other to innovate.

Though there were some early connections to the promotion of the same name, WWE’s ECW was a thinly veiled attempted to create a new step between developmental and the main roster. Though ECW was extremely inconsistent, the highlight was almost always the new talent being showcased every week. It was clear that WWE intended that the use of the ECW name would remind viewers of the intricately manipulated stories of days gone by, but the brand ultimately failed to live up to this promise. The WWE still lacked the spark of change that it was clearly searching for. As interest in the brand waned, the WWE sought to take the time slot and try a new format, something they were calling NXT.

In 2010, NXT would pick up where ECW left off, giving nearly the full program to new talent. Unfortunately, this talent would rarely wrestle. They were subjected to wacky games and tasks, comparable to “reality” shows of the time. This format lasted 4 “seasons”, the length of which was somewhat inconsistent. It was not very popular amongst fans, outside of the introduction of the Nexus, though it took their debut on Raw to truly hit. These seasons generated 16 current Superstars and 2/3 of the competitors would eventually make WWE television. Not forgetting Derrick Bateman, now known as EC3, who would be made quite a big deal in TNA.

That said, only 2 of the 4 “winners”, Wade “Bad News” Barrett and Johnny “Fandango” Curtis,  are still with the company today. By its fifth season, NXT had turned into a strange corner of the WWE Universe, almost existing outside of normal WWE continuity. In August of 2012, FCW disappeared, along with some of its storylines. Many potential superstars found themselves in a new arena, a new promotion calling itself  NXT. This NXT was a different beast than either FCW or the former NXT. With a focus on more traditional wrestling storylines and presentation, the promotion looked like something not seen in years. For the first time, NXT truly looked like the future of the WWE.

Since the rise of the WWE Network, NXT has grown from a scarcely available developmental system to the network’s most praised product, and something more is happening. With recent shows, NXT has caught the eye of the hardcore fan. Stars like Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens are selling merchandise and trending worldwide, just like their competition on cable. Though NXT is not Monday Night Raw, and the typical viewer may not even know it is available, it is becoming the hottest thing in pro wrestling today. When a decade ago, the most devoted fans were comparing the WWE to ROH, CZW and the like, they are now comparing it to another WWE product.

And it seems like that’s the point.

“Vince Mcmahon is such a junkie for competition that when there was no more competition out there, he created competition within…”

Though Paul Heyman was referring to the roster split in 2002 in that quote, it is a recent one. Vince McMahon, in the words of his daughter, “thrives” on competition.  The developmental system was originally seen as a remedy for the lack of exposure modern talents face, but many of the steps over the years, including the often maligned roster split of 2002, showed evidence that the WWE was trying to create an alternative under its own roof. It takes different promotions being run by different minds to truly innovate, this was constant when the WWF, WCW and ECW were active. All borrowed from each other, and the one that used its new ideas and resources best created the most popular version of the product to date.

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As discussed in the excellent Ladies and Gentlemen, My Name is Paul Heyman documentary, even the relaunched ECW was conceived as a nearly autonomous, lower budget and uniquely presented counter program to Raw and Smackdown. At one point, It was going to be a free internet promotion. It’s goal? To develop and test new talent where they could be seen by a national audience and create competition for the Smackdown! and Raw brands.

After years of adjustment, it seems that the WWE has finally created an alternative that distances itself enough from the standard to truly catch the eye of the wrestling fan. In a recent column, former WWF staffer Kevin Kelly theorized that the WWE knows exactly how good NXT is, and that there must be a bigger plan. While I don’t agree with all of his theories, I do have one of my own. NXT is potentially the solution to the WWE’s lack of competition and need to test new stars. A product different enough to stir change on Monday Night Raw, but still under the same roof. If something works, it can be sent to the A-Show without any turbulence. The potential of instant change.

While NXT’s presentation may be traditional, its in-ring work is not. Many of the styles seen in NXT have been prevalent in the American Independent scene and Japan for the last decade or so, but they are new to most of the national audience. This has benefited international wrestling stars like Finn Balor and Hideo Itami, but also WWE picks like Baron Corbin. NXT isn’t just taking proven talent and giving them the stage, its helping make less experienced workers better by giving them the opportunity to work alongside their more refined contemporaries.

Wrestling on NXT simply looks different than on Raw. While the WWE Network may mostly reach the company’s devotees today, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Devoted fans are ever willing to spread the word when they see something they like. They will tell their less devoted friends who will, in turn, tell those casual viewers who are so coveted. Not everyone will make the effort, but some will and with streaming services becoming a large part of everyday entertainment, WWE Network has the potential to be a valued addition to the casual consumer. Being on WWE Network is being on the cutting edge of entertainment in general. Add in the attention that some of the more recent signees have garnered plus the recent additions of established but edgy talent and NXT has the opportunity to spearhead this style of wrestling. This could lead to an incorporation not unlike WWF and WCW’s use of Lucha Libre in the mid ’90s, which has now become a standard of the American product. 

Triple H himself admitted that while NXT is becoming an alternative brand and will be touring the country in the future, it is also still developmental for Raw and Smackdown. The WWE titles are still the ultimate prizes in the eyes of the fans, and thus they root for the likes of Adrian Neville and Sasha Banks to soon hold them. The hardcore fans may believe that the NXT Champions are the real best in the world, but they are hoping that their shot at the more prestigious belts is the result of their work, making these upstarts the canon of the business. When they reach that point, the standard for everything from matches to mic work shifts. Paige is one of the first to benefit from this and I can’t imagine she will be the last.

It is rather unlikely that Monday Night Raw is going to completely flip its format for these new talents, some of what works in the small arena of NXT simply won’t translate as well. The current, devoted crowd of NXT has an innate appreciation for the ambition and risky gimmicks of the talent, and that sometimes distorts how the general WWE audience would react.  Adam Rose has unfortunately felt that, but with the stars of NXT all intended to be the future of the company, things will change. NXT will stir the pot. NXT’s audience may be comprised of mostly devoted fans, but they share a common taste with all wrestling fans, they like seeing something that feels new. Jim Ross put said it best “Fans like ‘new’ even if ‘new’ fails at times.”  And thus, Adam Rose can be forgiven.

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Add in the happy survival of TNA, New Japan’s apparent American Renaissance, the rapidly growing fan-favorite Lucha Underground, and the constant new announcement of small time, but still airing, programming for independent promotions and we may be on the verge of something very big in the business.

Credit is due to TNA for attempting to do this earlier, and to Lucha Underground for doing something quite new themselves, but they don’t quite get the acclaim that NXT has been getting. I can’t help but think that this has a lot to do with the WWE itself. Though imperfect, the WWE is the promotion most people are drawn to. Their contests are held in front of crowds that no one in the United States can match. The WWE World Heavyweight title still feels like the real deal, and knowing that the NXT roster is so close to it makes them that much more intriguing.  

NXT is finally serving a purpose that was potentially theorized over a decade ago. A complete solution to the problems of contemporary TV wrestling.  Within a generation of wrestlers who grew up not just as athletes, but as wrestling fans, it could be the key to invigorating not just WWE’s roster, but every roster. The bar is being raised for TV Wrestling and the wave should soon hit Raw and Smackdown. NXT may share one more thing with ECW when this is said and done; starting a revolution.