Can you honestly call NXT the “cool third brand” or the “exciting alternative to RAW & SmackDown” in 2021?
The writing was on the wall for WWE’s in-house alternative the moment a truly separate product started airing outside of the company. No longer the place fans are lauding over for its wrestling or engaging characters with arcs of consistency. Compared to WWE’s two main roster brands those two things are still true… but when compared to a product outside of the McMahon system? You realise what a true alternative actually feels like.
NXT is WWE if it was ran half competently, but thanks to its inevitable path has become a land of festered broken promises. A destination out of their control, investment in characters wrenched out of grasp in favour of unfulfilling call ups with no plan or direction. Talents who we’d just witnessed blossoming before our own eyes withering upon the very apparent disconnect between Triple H and Vince McMahon’s worlds.
Over time that pain has an effect as the fan’s faith has been drained. That excitement for the future in 2015 with Finn Balor and Kevin Owens headlining alongside Sasha Banks & Bayley, that hype is no longer generated. Call ups are feared by fans rather than applauded for the shake-up they promise to be, which in no surprise hinders the developmental hype NXT has been trying to produce.
Remember the excitement when Finn Balor was drafted to RAW in 2016?
But with all that said, the yellow show has still been the superior alternative to WWE’s red and blue nights. In spite of the negatives, NXT continued to surge forward into an incredible era circa 2017-2018. With the shift to an apparent indie-rific hiring mantra leading to an overflow of top tier talents like: Adam Cole, Johnny Gargano and Tomasso Ciampa, joining the likes of superstar foreign names in La Sombra (Andrade), Kana (Asuka) and Shinsuke Nakamura (Japanese lad next to the guitar man).
NXT was the brand receiving Meltzer 5 stars, rolling on fire with back to back TakeOvers applauded by fans and critics alike. Veterans started showing up to wrestling’s latest hot commodity, throwing their hats in alongside the promising stars of tomorrow. Sounds familiar to the talk around a certain promotion today.
All capped by Ciampa and Gargano’s feud reaching both a wrestling and narrative apex as comparisons to the industry’s biggest stars began raining down on WWE’s exciting future. “Is Johnny Gargano The New Daniel Bryan?” articles asked.
Then All Elite Wrestling signed a deal with TNT… and the whole wrestling landscape shifted.
An actual alternative with no ties to WWE whatsoever. Imagine a land where those wrestlers you watched become stars on the Network could never result in call up heartbreak? Instead climbing to new heights on top of getting that exposure on live television, where those fans investing time into characters would be rewarded rather than punished in a couple years?
WWE’s response being to also air NXT on TV on the exact same day, they’re a wresting behemoth, they ARE WRESTLING so how could anyone ever contest them? WWE would obviously destroy those piss ants in the ratings and squash this new bug before it ever became a thing.
And what about the call up problem? Well, how about the characters fans have become most invested in don’t get called up? Problem solved! In fact, some names from NXT’s past should even make returns to hopefully draw viewers in… to a developmental show. Surly you can spot a potential issue with that.
I introduce your identity crisis. What is NXT? Purely a developmental? A third brand? A mix of the two? An issue demonstrated perfectly by the fact that you’ll get a completely different answer depending on who you ask. A mix of responses like you’re asking on a mystical entity of faith “And what does NXT mean to you, my brother?”
With everything I’ve just said, is it really a surprise fans on the whole chose AEW over NXT? I wrote a column back in December last year about how NXT felt incredibly inconsequential in comparison to AEW, the primary reason being that a developmental territory obviously has a struggle in building up the kind of investment to compete with Dynamite’s long term philosophy.
Don’t get me wrong, there was still great entertainment on display (a stacked women’s division, ROH lads whipping out bangers, engrossing acts popping up like Hit Row), it just felt inconsequential compared to what was on the other channel. When you look at the state of the latest Killer call up to RAW, should there really be any surprise?
NXT won a few battles but lost the war. Nowadays hitting the same 500,000 to 600,000 viewing numbers they were when competing over what was essentially a 1.3 million share on a Wednesday night. Since moving to Tuesdays the audience has not grown. Those who tuned out have not been switching back on.
The competition’s viewers did, AEW now with pretty much all of that Wednesday night share. Us grapple fans were treated to some great wrestling, but at the end of the day for WWE it was mission failed.
So we’re now left with an inconsequential show, that doesn’t house the kind of wrestlers the owner desires nor trains the style of wrestling they want to employ. So I ask again, what is NXT?
For better or worse, this week we’ve been given an answer.
The era of this past half-decade is over, the idea of employing indie stars to put on 5 star matches for TakeOver events moving on as that value of being the cool alternative also passes over. The prospect of WWE having a third brand or in-house alternative simply hasn’t worked long term… as a developmental.
Which it appears to have been decided to be. As reported by Dave Meltzer on Wrestling Observer Radio this weekend, NXT may be seeing a shift back in its core function. The land of yellow ropes focusing on generating the kind of talent WWE actually wants to use, not the indie in-flux inspired by the rise of CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, but your Big E wet dream of muscly, sweaty men slapping that meat.
I’m not going to draw this shift as a ‘thing = bad’ line in the sand. If WWE wants a certain kind of wrestler then surely it makes sense for the developmental feeder system to reflect that. The future Triple H envisioned was exciting, but when it isn’t one Vince McMahon wants then all you’re doing is building up dreams to only inevitably have to crush them.
Which is exactly what happened this week. It absolutely sucks. The super indie edict hiring incredibly talented people with unfulfillable promise and then fired under guise of ‘budget blah blah’ bullshit.
Something has to change. Is NXT itself the sacrifice?
Or for a company that’s fired over 103 wrestlers on top of many more office staff during a pandemic whilst making record profits, what is this change actually taking into regard? When a youth coach of a team has no say whatsoever as to who gets cut, your focus normally shifts elsewhere.
Whether you like them or not, AEW is now the cool other brand, the exciting alternative to WWE, the place lauded with praise by fans and critics alike. The NXT Era was already dead, now we’re just finding out what WWE want to do with it.
But what do make of this week’s revelations? Is NXT as we know it a brand no more? Or are you more positive towards the change? Comment below! I’m sure plenty of you have words to say on this one (I’ll try my best to pop in and respond).