When Braun Strowman stepped into the ring with Brock Lesnar at Sunday’s WWE No Mercy 2017, it was a significant moment not only for him, but also for the WWE developmental and talent training system.
For the first time since the opening of the WWE Performance Center in 2013, a talent exclusively trained by the Performance Center main evented a WWE pay-per-view in a one-on-one match. And though many variables can account for Braun’s rises beyond his training, it seems like a good moment to consider WWE’s current developmental and training system and their previous attempts at cultivating homegrown talent.
The Performance Center represents the most ambitious developmental project in WWE history. Prior to the late 1990s, it was unnecessary for WWF and WCW to spend time and money developing new talent. The territory system provided a continuous flow of new talent to the national promotions as well as allowing talent from WWF and WCW places to work between runs with the big companies. Even as that system slowly disappeared, promotions like ECW, USWA and Smokey Mountain Wrestling continued to provide the national companies with fertile ground from which to pick talent from.
The Monday Night Wars and the cutthroat competition for talent made it wise for each company to build their own dedicated feeder systems. For WWF, this included small regional companies like WWA in New England, various Memphis based promotions such as Power Pro Wrestling and Memphis Championship Wrestling, UPW in California and IWA in Puerto Rico. In addition, WWF held monthly training camps run by Dory Funk, Jr., Tom Prichard and Pat Patterson known as the Funkin’ Dojo which helped give stars like Kurt Angle, Edge, Christian and the Hardy Boyz additional grooming before they debuted on WWF television.
The demise of WCW and ECW in 2001 left WWF as the sole nationally televised wrestling promotion in the United States for several years and dramatically reduced the available pools from which WWF could draw talent. With large numbers of former WCW and ECW talent joining WWF, many of the developmental territories associated with WWF were dropped in favor of streamlining developmental talent into a singular pool. And while WWF picked up HWA as a developmental territory following the purchase of WCW, that relationship was terminated in 2002 leaving the now rebranded WWE with a singular developmental territory, Ohio Valley Wrestling.
OVW served as the primary developmental territory for WWE for most of the 2000s and had a mixed record of success in producing talent. At the very top level, four of the biggest stars in the company in the post Austin/Rock era-Brock Lesnar, John Cena, Randy Orton and Batista-were groomed and trained for the main roster in OVW. Others, such as Shelton Benjamin, Beth Phoenix and Dolph Ziggler also gained considerable success on the main roster. However, many of the talents who succeeded in OVW did not find similar success on the main roster. Factors such as the changeover from Jim Ross to John Laurinaitis in terms of talent recruitment and wrestlers being called up too soon kept OVW from fully reaching its potential as a training ground for WWE.
Towards the end of the decade, WWE began shifting resources away from OVW and opened new developmental territories in Georgia (DSW) and Florida (FCW). The former was very short lived and lasted less than two years before closing up shop. The latter would eventually succeed OVW as the primary developmental territory in 2008. Given the popularity of Florida amongst active and retired wrestlers, it was natural to centralize training there.
The geographic shift for developmental was followed by a change in the talent recruitment process. WWE had shown little interest in recruiting from independent promotions in the first decade of the 21st century. Talents like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan were exceptions rather than the rule while John Laurinaitis headed talent recruitment. As it became clear that there was a larger talent pool for WWE to draw from that had been mostly ignored, more and more talents who had established themselves outside the WWE were signed and brought to FCW.
2012 proved to be a pivotal year for both developmental and talent recruitment. In June, after nearly a decade in the same role, Laurinaitis was removed as head of talent relations and Paul Levesque (Triple H) formally took over both roles. Shortly thereafter, FCW was disbanded and NXT in its current form was born. The opening of the Performance Center the following summer followed shifting from Tampa to Orlando as the center of developmental.
The extent of WWE’s plans for the Performance Center was evident in the initial press release announcing the project. At a press conference held with Florida Governor Rick Scott, the centerpiece of the new vision of WWE developmental was laid out:
“Opening this summer, the WWE state-of-the-art Performance Center will serve as the new home to WWE’s talent developmental system, recently re-branded NXT and create nearly 100 high-wage jobs in Orlando, Florida. With 26,000 square-feet, seven training rings, a world-class strength and conditioning program and cutting-edge edit and production facilities, the new Performance Center will give WWE the ability to train more potential performers than ever before through a comprehensive program including in-ring training, physical preparedness and character development. The new center will be the training ground for talent that includes former professional and collegiate athletes, Olympians and entertainers, and will offer a best-in-class sports medicine program creating a central location for all WWE talent to receive the best care both in and out of the ring.”
There has been no shortage of praise for the facility itself since its opening. But, not shockingly, not everything has gone smoothly. In 2015, Head Trainer Bill DeMott was forced to resign after numerous wrestlers came forward with complaints about his behavior and approach. His replacement, Matt Bloom, has thus far avoided similar issues and the promotion of Sara Amato to assistant head coach provided the burgeoning women’s division with a strong advocate and coach.
Has this new approach to developmental been a success? It may be premature to ask since many of the talents produced by this system are still in the infancy of their careers. With that said, we can make a preliminary assessment based on how those who have been promoted to the main roster with PC/NXT experience have done.
Amongst the currently active stars on Raw and Smackdown Live, more than one-third of them spent time at the PC/in NXT prior to making their main roster debuts. Breaking down this group further based on how much training WWE is responsible for, the PC/NXT alumni can be divided amongst four groups:
- Established US and International Talent
- Wrestlers who had been trained elsewhere but first gained national exposure in WWE
- FCW and other WWE developmental holdovers
- Talent who have been mainly trained by the Performance Center.
These divisions are imperfect and there are crossovers amongst them. There are also cases like Charlotte, Baron Corbin and others who debuted in the interim period between the switchover from FCW to NXT and the opening of the Performance Center.
The first group has, not surprisingly, had the most success in both NXT and on the main roster.
Since Neville’s NXT title win in early 2014, the NXT title has been held exclusively by wrestlers in this group-Neville, Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Finn Balor, Samoa Joe, Shinsuke Nakamura and Bobby Roode. This speaks to WWE’s recruitment shift and desire to have NXT serve as not only a developmental program, but a viable drawing brand. For many if not all of these talents, NXT was an unnecessary stopover before coming to the main roster.
The case for the PC’s success can better be made by the successes of the talent in the second group. Talents like Bayley, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks and the Revival used their time in NXT/PC to grow both in the ring and as characters. The elevation to their careers from prior to their signing with WWE is quite clear and a positive for the WWE training and recruitment.
The third group is the smallest and one that will disappear shortly as the last vestiges of FCW are either promoted or released. Both Big Cass and Jason Jordan started in FCW just prior to the switchover to NXT and have been both been given big opportunities this year. Cass’s opportunity was cut short by injury while Jordan’s push as Kurt Angle’s long lost son has been viewed negatively by most despite his in-ring talent. The jury remains out on both of their long-term success at this point.
Finally, we come to those trained primarily by the PC including Braun Strowman.
Braun’s journey has been unique as he did not make any appearances on NXT TV prior to his main roster debut. Due to his size and age, his development has been accelerated on the main roster. It is unlikely many others would be given similar opportunities in the future.
The other PC trained talent on the main roster have been primarily in the women’s division including current Raw Women’s Champion Alex Bliss, Nia Jax and Carmella. All are works-in-progress but all have done well in establishing their respective characters. Bliss and Carmella are both under 30 and it would be surprising if they didn’t improve in the ring.
Taken together, it can be said that the biggest improvement to developmental has come from expanding recruiting and harnessing young talent by giving them opportunities in NXT and on the main roster. In terms of training new wrestlers from the ground up, the tale of the tape may not be known until several years from now. With a larger roster of recruits currently training at the PC, including many promising young talent like the Authors of Pain, Bianca Belair and others, the training component may prove to be equally successful.
It is safe to call the PC/NXT a qualified success for WWE. The floor for the quality of talent on the main roster and in NXT has risen significantly in the last four years.
Where the eventual ceiling lands remains to be seen.