WWE’s NXT experiment has thus far been a huge success. Originally conceived as a part reality show, WWE was always uneasy with the level of control they had over the reality formula. After a disappointing few seasons in which it was obvious that WWE would go nowhere with the ‘winners’ of the season, the series was retooled to basically be a more widely distributed and better supported version of the FCW television series that had previously been WWE’s developmental territory. Since 2012 NXT has been receiving high praise for its use of established independent stars and, to a lesser extent, its home-grown talent.
One of the main ways that NXT has been kept fresh is that its wrestlers generally won’t be in NXT forever. They will either ascend to the main roster of WWE programming or be released, but rarely do we see wrestlers spinning in their wheels in NXT. This helps keep the talent roster fresh and interesting. Longevity in wrestling is a tough thing to come by, but too much wrestling is the worst. There are many examples of stars on the WWE’s main roster who have been there for years and years with no development or intrigue. Perhaps this is a systematic problem with the way the WWE promotes its programming – the company’s advertisements frequently take pride in the fact that wrestling ‘has no off-season’, and former WWE wrestler CM Punk has previously spoken about the high expectations the WWE puts on its performers to travel year round, without many breaks, possibly even while hurt.
So its no surprise then that the WWE frequently has a problem with its wrestlers getting stale – familiarity breeds contempt, after all. This is why NXT is so interesting in some of the new things it is trying, but also for something it is trying that is more similar to old style wrestling booking. Quite recently we have seen old WWE faces pop up on NXT programming, such as ‘The’ Brian Kendrick and Rhyno. These wrestler have what I call a ‘Rhyno contract’ – they work NXT shows, but they are not set for main roster debuts and they are allowed to take their independent bookings. These wrestlers already have established names, which many people are willing to tune in just to see. The fact that we haven’t seen these stars in so long is one of the reasons for our fondness when we see them now. Furthermore, their experience can rub off on the opponents that they face in NXT, which is still a developmental territory, after all.
In the territory days of wrestling wrestlers would would a set period in a certain territory, and when they felt their gimmick was getting stale, they hitch up and work a different territory. This allowed wrestlers to hone their craft amongst a wider variety of peers, and also gave audiences a break from certain characters. This is similar to what WWE has been attempting with former talents, but they’ve also broke this mold by bringing in Samoa Joe, who aside from working as a jobber many years ago, has never worked with the company in a featured capacity.
According to Dave Meltzer of Wrestling Observer, Samoa Joe’s current situation is he has not signed a developmental deal, but a ‘Rhyno contract’, which will allow him to fulfill his future dates on the independent scene, whilst also working his current NXT programme with Kevin Owens. Whilst many wrestling fans see this as a negative because Joe is far and above the calibre of most of the WWE roster already and his matches would be ‘best for business’, as the WWE likes to say, there is a considerable upside to this new contracting route.
It’s almost meta how good NXT has become. On the internet fans routinely talk about how being brought up to the main WWE roster is a creatively demotion. And for the most part these fans have a point! For months now NXT has been knocking it out of the park with meaningful programmes, gratifying matches and decent character development – and then the previous NXT stars debut on the main roster with the gimmicks mutated and muted, their first names somehow missing and their screen time cut to pieces. Next thing you know they’re losing to R-Truth on an episode of Main Event. By bringing in talents in this way the WWE can feature wrestlers that fans have been clamouring for in NXT whilst not necessarily having to debut them onto the main roster. Talents can work their NXT programmes and disappear to work Japan or the independent scene for a while and come back afresh without the WWE having the financial investment in them to wring them dry.
Maybe this is what NXT is for. WWE likes to air these commercials for Hulu where a guy talks about not being a wrestling fan, but a ‘WWE fan’. He gets a WWE tattoo and talks about quitting his job at Walmart to watch WWE all day. It’s pretty tragic, but that’s what the WWE is putting forward as the target audience for RAW and Smackdown. This is who John Cena and Roman Reigns are for. This guy probably wouldn’t like Samoa Joe very much. So maybe NXT is for the ‘the other’ people who watch something that isn’t WWE, like Ring of Honor or New Japan or Lucha Underground. Maybe there are certain wrestlers who should get to NXT but would be wasted on the main roster. NXT is supposed to be a developmental system, to try out new things and develop new talents. Maybe the ‘Rhyno contract’ is something the WWE are trying out and seeing how it goes.