The future is always a curious thing to consider when it comes to professional wrestling. Whether as a promoter or fan, we’re always looking for the next big thing, the next 2nd, 3rd or 4th generation superstar to fill the shoes of their parents, or the next greatest luchador, technician, character or powerhouse to take what we’re watching to the next level. The running theme through all three is they need to start somewhere, it doesn’t matter what your name is, where you’re from or who your parents were, everyone who competes in wrestling has a beginning.
For World Wrestling Entertainment, that developmental starting point is NXT. At least that was the notion at the outset, but what we have before us every Wednesday is hardly a developmental promotion. It’s a full-fledged third brand, a far cry from FCW where the likes of the Shield first called home, or OVW where the highly celebrated Class of 2002 was trained.
When you think of “development,” what springs to mind? Growth. Learning. Building. A beginning. That certainly was what OVW and FCW, and even NXT in its earlier post-reality-TV version represented. It was originally conceived as a place to groom the next crops of WWE superstars, build them and give them the tools they’d need to succeed in the future. And for a time, it was just what WWE needed it to be.
FCW and later NXT molded a mixture of young upstarts and indie veterans, especially in the case of the Shield, who fans watched develop and whose members dominated for the better part of a decade. It also gave us, for better and worse, many of the wrestlers we see on television today ranging from Bray Wyatt to Baron Corbin, through Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, right up to Braun Strowman and now Keith Lee. NXT also gave WWE’s main brands one of the strongest rosters of women in professional wrestling, a position contested in truth only by Impact’s and NXT itself in North America. In that respect, NXT has done what it was supposed to.
The specific wrestlers mentioned above are a mashup of two camps mentioned further up, and their numbers on both sides certainly expand beyond those, but they boil down to beginners and novices to battle-tested vets who frankly didn’t need much development by the time they reached Full Sail. But let’s leave them alone for the moment.
Too Many Bodies, Not Enough Lockers (Duck, Duck, Goose)
Up until recently, waning more so in the last few years and coming to a tipping point with this past spring’s releases, WWE has been stockpiling talent from across the globe for quite some time. Of those, for the most part with AJ Styles, Gallows and Anderson being notable exceptions, many have gone through NXT first. The perception being that Raw and Smackdown were places the elite of the company called home, those who had tested themselves against the best within the WWE ecosystem, and coincidentally, many wrestlers who formerly competed on the NXT brand; the same institution where they attended classes, took seminars and grew into themselves under the watchful eyes of the coaches and staff.
As NXT rose to prominence over the last decade or so, in conjunction with the company stockpiling talent and developing new “projects,” the continued use and dominance of old hands within the business — from Goldberg, HHH and Lesnar to modern alpha dogs like Reigns and Orton — has been equally prevalent. Throughout this same period viewership has declined at a steady pace. The precise reason for the decrease in interest isn’t quantifiably ready to be ascertained, but optically if you look at the raw numbers, WWE business is in decline. It isn’t that simple, but that’s what the numbers lean into.
Logically then, in order to increase viewers you bring back your aces in the hole. While HHH has stepped back to seemingly focus on NXT, we’ve seen Steve Austin return a number of times over the last several years for one-off appearances. Goldberg returning has become an annual tradition. Brock Lesnar has held multiple titles hostage during a period where if he wasn’t in the picture other stars that were white hot at varying moments could have been in considerable roles three years ago. By now they could have developed into bigger stars rather than toe-dipping their pushes past their expiration dates. Or in the case of McIntyre, during the difficult pandemic era. Seth Rollins and Drew McIntyre should have been in the Universal Title picture in 2018. But because they weren’t, they were pushed down the card into IC and tag title feuds. Which pushed other NXT callups who had more experience further down the card, which pushed any NXT grad that didn’t meet “Vince Criteria” into oblivion.
The whole of the WWE roster cannibalizes itself without intending to do so, first because Vince desperately wants ratings to increase. And when they don’t that’s when we end up with bad ideas and Lesnar pushes. What further complicates the situation, strolling hand-in-hand with McMahon’s knee-jerk panic bookings are the countless callups of NXT talent either before they are ready, or without a plan for them. Suddenly, the roster is bloated, no one can breathe on television and a host of talents’ primes are wasted away, whether they’re fresh workers or veterans.
With each bi-annual (or whimsical) pillage of NXT, the roster depletes and whittles to a skeleton crew, necessitating restocks of the roster from the indie scene or other companies. This has been further exacerbated with the arrival of AEW Dynamite, airing opposite NXT on Wednesdays. Although NXT has developed handfuls of its own stars for the WWE main brands, it also historically became reliant on veterans outside WWE to fill out the roster and appear in important spots on the card. Curiously, despite their experience, it’s often talent like Corbin or Strowman, or the Shield members whom have benefitted from main roster pushes, while the likes of Cesaro, Owens, Zayn, Nakamura and Balor either are or have languished on the main roster.
The truth of NXT’s existence is that it’s in the midst of an identity crisis. In terms of what it needs to be in order for WWE to develop the future and what it is now to circumvent the very real threat of AEW to WWE’s dwindling base, NXT is stuck in a position where it concurrently is the back end of WWE’s depth chart and a program to teach younger wrestlers. It’s a school AND a third brand, and it can’t functionally be both. And so in service to the latter, in conjunction with an aversion to meaningful steps toward building the future, WWE continues to stop gap the holes in its plumbing in the belief that everything will be OK. Which it isn’t, and the objective reality that highlights that fact with a bright yellow marker are the Wednesday wars in which WWE rarely surpasses AEW’s numbers. AEW viewership is doing well in the U.S. and exceptionally well in the U.K. compared to WWE programming. There are many reasons why this is the case, but systemically the company has cultivated an environment that isn’t conducive to future-building, is over-reliant on the past and does not function as a true training ground in the spirit of OVW, FCW and NXT itself in its earliest days.
A Little Too Sweet
We’ve discussed a few examples of signings contrary to development philosophy that are a little more Hulk Hogan than finding the next Kurt Angle. These two forthcoming examples further highlight the reality of what NXT has become these last years, and they’re rather appropriate as they’re the longest reigning NXT champions to date.
Respectively in 2014 and 2017, NXT signed Prince Devitt (Finn Balor) and Adam Cole to NXT contracts. If you know your history, or at least theirs, you’re quite aware neither were exactly wet behind the years in 2014 and 2017.
Balor, for example, debuted in 2000 and later trained inside the New Japan Pro Wrestling Dojo. Balor spent 8 active years in NJPW where he won a series of junior heavyweight tournaments, won the junior heavyweight title 3 times and the junior tag title 6 times. He also of course founded Bullet Club. By the time he came to NXT, he had been wrestling for 14 years.
Adam Cole debuted in 2008 and competed on the indies for a number of years before landing in Ring of Honor where he held the ROH title a record 3 times in addition to a host of other belts within the company. By the time he debuted in 2017, he had already amassed a worldly resume and competed in the Tokyo Dome at Wrestle Kingdom earlier that year against Kyle O’Reilly for the ROH title; nonetheless he was a 9 year veteran.
So with this in mind, ask yourself: If you were a 9 or 14 year veteran what further development could you possibly need at the age of 28 and 33 respectively? How receptive are you after a point? That’s the problem with NXT — at some point it stopped being the developmental system for WWE, despite that it’s still treated like it. It has evolved into a waystation for upstarts and veterans competing for spots on the big show when the focus should entirely be on creating the next Cena, Lesnar and Orton. That isn’t to say the Balors and Coles of the world can’t succeed on Raw or Smackdown, but all the same they haven’t or might not because of the creative voids in the current booking processes in combination with a relaxed desire to step away from old models; especially when they’re very out of touch with modern-day wrestling fans’ expectations.
Get With A Program… Any Program
Something became fairly clear after recently listening to a Chris Jericho podcast from 2019 featuring current Bullet Club frontman Jay White. Over the course of their chat spanning a little over an hour, White talked about how he broke into wrestling from earnest beginnings in New Zealand to finding work in the U.K. prior to a chance meeting with Finn Balor at a local show.
The NJPW Dojo, which is essentially a harder edged, serious variation of what the performance center is, is notoriously difficult to get into. White talked about how Balor had watched him work, recounting his belief that it wasn’t anything he did in terms of ringwork that caught the current NXT champion’s eye, it was just his work ethic. The kind of work ethic you need to survive the Dojo in Japan, in an environment that instills respect and expects hard work before you ever have a chance to appear on a NJPW show.
White discussed in length how Balor recommended him to fellow Dojo graduate and Bullet Club mate Bad Luck Fale, also from New Zealand. On that recommendation White moved to Japan and lived inside the dojo where he trained, lived and did everything expected of a “Young Boy.” There he learned the fundamentals, learned to respect the business and veterans, and developed into a strong professional wrestler before going out into the world on excursion to learn other styles in the U.S. It’s the same for anyone who makes it through the system.
The Dojo concept is successful because it operates with the clear understanding of what it is to New Japan Pro Wrestling. It isn’t recruiting anyone and showcasing them on TV in matches right away. You have to learn and earn. It teaches the basics from the ground up, prepares wrestlers and later helps them evolve. It’s no wonder with that foundation why WWE so often raids NJPW, or why they’re reportedly after White. It’s because there’s little they can’t do. In a matter of pure function, the dojo has more in common with any other wrestling school across the world that isn’t WWE branded than the PC itself. Because it’s run with an understanding of what its purpose is and specializes inside that narrow scope before allowing its young talent to branch out.
Where NXT more recently has leaned into signing “names” with some experience as opposed to development projects, what that ultimately results in is signing, say Cameron Grimes, who has already spent time on the wrestling scene and has picked up a variety of personal habits like any person would in the same situation. This contrasts, say, a Bliss or Strowman who exclusively trained and developed inside the PC. NXT developmental therefore is less of a teaching environment now because it inherently presumes you know what you’re doing; it’s at the very least the majority of cases based on what we see. Even still, if you essentially wrestle the same as you would outside WWE, that rarely has translated to main roster success in recent times because you’re adapting to the WWE style as opposed to learning it outright from the ground up.
For as long as NXT is treated like a farm system in its current state, it’ll be part of an eroded ecosystem that reciprocates the same problems from the top of the card to the bottom; it solely needs to develop talent from the ground up in the WWE mold, more in the vein of OVW than the current situation.
What we’re seeing week to week is the effect of a systemic infection that can’t be fixed without considerable effort. NXT cannot be a third brand competing with AEW AND develop new talent, many of which flounder on Raw or Smackdown because they don’t fit Vince’s McMahon’s wholly obsolete criteria of what wrestling is and can be when they come from the indies.
WWE developmental territories were successful in the past when they actively developed talent and didn’t expect them to put on a live show every week. That allowed them to develop at their own pace until they were ready, and more importantly it built stars within the WWE blueprint that was then conducive to success under Vince. That hasn’t been the case with NXT because it tries to do too many things and wear too many hats. In doing so it’s lost focus of its identity and what the company needed it to be.
When you consider how NXT functions, it needs to be one or the other. If that means NXT stays as a third brand, then the only recourse is set up another developmental territory. It otherwise needs to revert back to being a developmental entity. Regardless, the N(e)XT move necessitates a shift of its philosophical identity back toward the basics of what made Cena, Orton and Lesnar work.