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It has often been argued that, once “promoted” from NXT, it is all downhill from thereon. There are obviously some instances where that has been the case. Prestigious former NXT Champions who either end up the butt of a long term joke, or are forgotten entirely. Some have weathered the storm better than most, when you consider the Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, and Four Horsewomen of the world. However, when you start to take stock of those who earned their stripes in Full Sail before venturing out into the big world, the argument begins to weaken.
At the time of writing, both Raw and Smackdown’s active rosters equate to just over one hundred people. Of that number, a staggering seventy-plus boast NXT credentials. Given enough time on the roster, something lost in fans’ expectations today, the cream will normally rise to the top. For some perspective, two of the best of all time in Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels took nearly a decade to get their hands on that fabled winged eagle belt. But the practice of patience is a lost art these days. And with that mindset, it’s no wonder, then, that such a number will fail to be perceived as utilised and presented as successfully as they once were in Full Sail. A wrestler’s end product has frequently been an issue within WWE proper. Long before Triple H’s vision for an in-house developmental system came to be.
Regardless, the narrative still exists. A narrative that some have evidently bought into. Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa immediately come to mind as wrestlers who’d rather ply their trade in the place that made them stars. Undisputed Era, too, have been on NXT for an inordinate amount of time. It’s a wonder the stable remains fresh where it is, considering the potential afforded it as a main roster powerhouse. These decisions to stay on NXT, however, pose their own problem. One that your more tenured Superstars probably wanted to avoid if moved to Raw or Smackdown. That of finding themselves as nothing more than mid-card acts. Facing the wrong direction in the revolving door that has been NXT’s modus operandi for years, now. An irony in itself.
Those who dominated NXT’s main event for several years now find themselves in a different place entirely. Be it staring at the lights for the next generation. Or using social media as a place for accountability, while ensuring Creative has something for you. In their place, younger, less stale, maybe even hungrier talents are occupying the spotlight. One which is theirs both by tradition, and by right. Such is the successful system that WWE developmental has honed over time. Normally, when the new breed ascends the hierarchy, yesterday’s main eventers have already upped sticks to pastures new. This time, with some deciding to stay in the place they call home, that balance of power is flipped on its head. Because of that, this particular time of change in NXT feels more pronounced than previous iterations. Of which there have been many.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy to see Cameron Grimes, Bronson Reed, and personal favourite Dexter Lumis be in with a chance at North American Title glory. Or see even Io Shirai stand atop the women’s division at the expense of someone like Rhea Ripley. Whose own brush with stardom was surprisingly brief. In the same breath, it would be ignorant of me to not see those already with name value being offered up as a sacrifice. To not see the eyebrow raising booking decisions for which the main roster is often heavily criticised. Ripley offered up as fodder in a multi-women setting, so as to keep Charlotte Flair looking strong. A white hot Ciampa, fresh back from career threatening injury, whose flame now has all but petered out. A missed opportunity if there ever was one, considering his was a redemption angle that wrote itself.
This phenomenon, which is new to the brand, does not exclusively befall those who have only wrestled in NXT, either. For there are some who breathe life into that earlier spoken of narrative. Where the main roster hasn’t met their personal goals, and a fresh start is in order. Take Finn Balor, for example. He played an integral part in pushing NXT towards the arena Takeover era. His contribution to the brand is arguably unprecedented, possibly only equalled by Bayley.
Yet, things haven’t gone exactly as planned for WWE’s first ever Universal Champion. With injury to Gargano keeping the Irishman in a holding pattern. The world itself seemed to heap on the frustration, with Coronavirus restrictions suspending any Walter program indefinitely. Furthermore, worrying allegations surrounding Velveteen Dream proved another hurdle for Balor to overcome. Momentum has not been on Balor’s side since his return to NXT. To be fair to him, though, these are all extraneous variables nobody could have realistically foreseen.
Now, Keith Lee has exercised his typical honour by vacating the North American Title for, and I quote, “those who need it”. From the vignettes that have aired of those putting themselves into contention for said title, Balor is top of the list for a wrestler who “needs” something. Who is looking for some tangible thing with which to etch in stone a positive from his move back to NXT.
Balor isn’t the only one who’s not much more than an also-ran in the current landscape. Anticipation was high for a revitalised Killian Dain, after his disastrously empty Sanity ordeal on Smackdown. He’d been presented as quite the threat as NXT neared its USA TV debut. Not long after, he became a bit-part, used to give credibility to the likes of Cameron Grimes and more. With Breezango, injury (once again) derailed the team. They return now, but for how long, before more setback? And does it really matter, considering NXT’s tag division is its weakest? Let’s not forget, too, that Tyler Breeze returned to NXT as a solo act. Just like his main roster run, that, too, didn’t exactly go to plan.
Were those outside forces to blame for Finn Balor et al’s stuttering second runs? If so, have they changed plans so significantly that they already lag behind those who race to the forefront of Triple H’s – and viewers’ – attention? Or is it even that NXT has evolved at such a rapid pace, the value these examples hold simply doesn’t fit anymore? And that their impact on NXT programming is now just as middling as it was on Raw and Smackdown’s?
Thankfully, for the optimists out there, another theory exists. We’ve seen it before in WWE a million times. A star of the past, or one nearing the twilight of their career, works programs with tomorrow’s generation. The sole intention being for the younger of the pairings to gain experience. A potential shot in the arm that might nudge them closer to the destination their opponents reached before them.
Wrestlers’ fictional character arcs aside, what else really is there for the likes of Balor, Gargano, and Ciampa left to do in NXT? Especially when it begins to bottleneck, and the whole ethos behind the brand is to ready performers for the next stage in their career? Balor has literal global experience and appeal. Is sharing canvas and screen time with him enough of a boon for any up and comer? The same could be argued for Gargano. Maybe on a lesser scale, admittedly, but at least in capturing the hearts of a smaller yet more hardcore audience. And Ciampa, who is very public about his dedication to the brand. To the point he’d rather take on a producer role than move elsewhere. Not to mention his neck surely being on borrowed time.
Perhaps, on the surface, how these wrestlers’ are currently presented leaves a lot to be desired. However, there exists the small possibility that they were armed with this knowledge. That they were not just happy to move back to NXT, but to give back, too. To help not only those who are being afforded the same opportunities they once were, but to help the brand as a whole.
The reasons for NXT’s shift in practices may be unclear. They may be open to interpretation and discussion for a long time to come. One thing is clear to me, however. And it is interesting that the timing of its origins coincides with the beginning of a new television era. That if NXT, its wrestlers, and its fans want the company to be on equal footing with Raw and Smackdown, then it has to start playing by the same rules. Now, championship glory is not always the first boss to reach before levelling up. Individual divisions are more congested than ever, and your turn at their heads might take longer, if at all. Lastly, the booking decisions, possibly hot shot and ratings-grabbing in nature, are par for the course. Now, these tropes are not just red and blue in colour, but also black and gold.
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Read my previous Brand Extension columns here.
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