Photo:Adrian Neville by Miguel Discart
Coming hot off of NXT R: Evolution, WWE’s fledging NXT brand has been receiving a lot of good press and, more importantly, more eyes on the product. Clocking in at only an hour, a third of the length of Raw and half the length of Smackdown or IMPACT Wrestling, NXT is extremely watchable, hampered only by Sky Sports’ mercurial scheduling of the programme. However, with more and more people tuning in to what had previously been a niche wrestling show, at what point does WWE seek to expand the product?
This month RAW will be celebrating its 22nd birthday. In the time it has taken RAW to become the ‘World’s Longest Running Weekly Episodic Television Programme™’, as WWE loves to boast, RAW has become nigh unrecognisable from its earliest forms. Originally debuting as an hour-long weekly show, usually featuring several squash matches alongside one worthwhile contest, RAW, like NXT is today, was taped weeks in advance of its airdate. Over time, however; RAW changed – both to remain competitive with WCW, as well as to take advantage of how hot the product had become. Whilst NXT is still very much attached to its ‘developmental program’ roots, to a not-insignificant section of WWE’s audience, NXT is facing some of the same challenges that RAW Raw faced nearly 20 years ago
To the hardcore wrestling fan, NXT; with it’s intricate storylines, technically-superb in-ring action and roster of unknowns and former indie-darlings looks more akin to Lucha Underground than anything that the WWE has produced in years. Likewise, with Global Force Wrestling seeking to start its own brand, as well as serve New Japan Pro Wrestling to western audiences, it is becoming increasingly obvious that hardcore wrestling fans – the ‘10 percenters’ as Eric Bischoff once called them – are becoming a very valuable section of the market. A section which some would say has been ignored for too long.
NXT thus far has served nearly as an olive branch to the ‘10 percenters’, providing a respite from the claws of ‘sports entertainment’. It almost feels that by watching NXT, we’re all cheating just a little bit. We, as fans, have been conditioned to think that there are small, necessary evils that we need to grin and bear. We have to sit through the latent racist undertones of the New Day to get to Xavier Woods in-ring work. To get to out Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollin’s matches we have to watch Roman Reigns’ destroy his mystique reading pure nonsense. To see the Ascension bring some heat to the tag team division we have to tune out JBL’s cutting attempts to bury them (MAGGLE!). These RAW and Smackdown staples are anomalies on NXT. Nowhere on NXT do we see repeated sycophantic plugs for artery clogging sponsors, insipid reminders to download a bloated app and agonisingly pointless instructions on how to do so and especially (miraculously, some would say) no pointless, disinterested, dead-eyed ‘celebrity guests’ who look like they would rather be doing something – anything – else. It’s a product wholly unique from the other 7 hours of wrestling which WWE churns out on a weekly basis. Whilst watching all of WWE’s ‘sports entertainment’ would take a full working day, in one short hour NXT offers wrestling – often great wrestling and sometimes downright exceptional wrestling – and it’s a shame there isn’t more of it.
With companies like Ring of Honor and Lucha Underground offering a weekly hour-long presentation of highly athletic in-ring competition, NXT has peers within its genre. It’s quite possible to glean several hours of high quality in-ring action between these companies – but why should WWE seek to share this market? WWE has something which no other wrestling company in the western world has – its own network. The WWE Network could not only support more content; but would be all the better for it.
Currently NXT story structures operate on something of a cycle. Generally a wrestler will wrestle on a show every two weeks if they are being pushed or feature in an angle. Whilst this fosters an patient nature in the fans and gives interest in storylines some breathing room, it does mean that we generally see about 20 minutes (if that) of an NXT star per month. With such a talented roster and so many ongoing storylines, NXT can’t afford to give everyone screen. For instance, in 2013 Sami Callihan, touted as one of the most entertaining prospects in the indies, signed with the WWE. Despite having competed in dark matches, Callihan (now going by ‘Solomon Crowe’) has yet to make a proper debut. Callihan suffered an injury in the interim period between his signing and now, but despite having recovered, we still have not seen his debut.
Another example is the mysterious ‘Shoot Nation’ – an intriguing NXT faction of collegiate wrestlers, brilliantly put together to emphasise their technical ability whilst covering their individual lack of flair and mic skill. This faction has reportedly been working live events for months now, but with new prospects like Hideo Itami, Finn Bálor and Kevin Owens, there simply isn’t time to debut them. Speaking of Itami, Bálor and Owens, even these guys, and numerous other wrestlers on the roster, aren’t being featured as prominently as many fans would like them to be. This makes it abundantly clear that there is a lot of great stuff at Full Sail University, and not enough screentime to show it.
However, whilst a second hour would seemingly make these problems go away, it would bring a load of its own problems to the fore. Firstly, like RAW many years ago, NXT is taped in advance. This means that several weeks worth of shows are taped over a short period of time and as such the wrestlers who feature on those shows must wrestle numerous times. Whilst NXT is home to some of the most gifted athletes in the world, expecting them to increase their workrate to accommodate such an expansion would certainly negatively affect the product.
Furthermore, another hour of programming can, and most likely would, take away certain aspects that the fans have shown such an affinity for. One of NXT’s best points is that there isn’t much filler – it’s all wheat and no chaff. When you essentially double the amount of time that the creative forces behind NXT need to fill, you run the risk of things getting watered down. If you polled wrestling fans on what their dream job is, ‘writer’ would probably be somewhere near the top, though the job itself, by the accounts of former writers and the high turnover rate, is something of a nightmare. In 1999 Vince Russo and Ed Ferrera – two writers who have known their own fair share of controversy, left the WWE due to the increased workload brought on by the addition of Smackdown. Another of the best aspects of NXT is its clear vision. By increasing the workload, the current team could, amongst a litany of other problems, be overworked, their vision could be diluted by spreading existing work too thin, or, if they should find themselves in the need to add more writers, more voices in the creative team could result in having ‘too many cooks’.
At the moment, one thing can be said for sure of NXT – they have their finger on the pulse of the modern wrestling fan. There have been tentative worries that what NXT has been doing can easily be ruined on the main roster. These aren’t unfounded – the first graduates of NXT, names like Big E, Bo Dallas and Adam Rose have had their credibility completely sapped, whereas Paige has been relegated to a bit player in the Divas division to accommodate whatever it is the WWE are trying to accomplish with the Bella Twins. Vince McMahon has publicly voiced his distaste for non-Americans in the past, even going so far as to completely flip the switch on Cesaro’s rise to the top. No American has been near the top of NXT for close to a year; which begs the question how these international stars would fare on RAW. The main roster of WWE is in disarray, and there is nothing about its developmental programme that wouldn’t turn heads if the RAW and Smackdown were to take some of its magic. With Vince ‘I’m not out of touch’ McMahon and a team of wrestling ignorant Hollywood artistes crafting the adventures of John Cena and Co., it doesn’t seem likely that the virtues of NXT are going to be adopted on the main roster. The least we can hope for is that the vices of WWE proper aren’t pushed onto our precious little hour, because here, today, in this one concentrated, pure hour, NXT is truly an embarrassment of riches, and perhaps its best to leave it that way.