In the wake of last Friday night’s dramatic culling of thirteen NXT wrestlers it seems the brand that was once the darling of critics and “hardcore” fans is being gutted. Now it’s set for a reversion to something like the pre-WWE Network developmental territory. While reports of its impending demise may be premature it is nonetheless a good time to take stock of the inhouse pseudo-indie’s ongoing decline, and reconsider what NXT represented within WWE and in the context of the broader wrestling world.
Garrett Kidney wrote an excellent piece here on VOW fairly diagnosing NXT’s failure as an inevitable result of the fact that Vince McMahon never actually wanted his developmental system to be the workrate-based brand that Triple H built. I agree with Garrett that a developmental system designed to supply talent which didn’t meet the demands of the main roster was doomed to fail, but I want to focus instead on the very narrow area of overlap on the Venn diagram of Vince’s vision of what wrestling should be and the vision that NXT actually promoted.
So what was NXT?
Despite the differences, what mutually agreed-upon benefit did it bring Vince and Triple H? What did it actually do, functionally, as a part of the WWE system?
The point at which Vince’s aesthetic whims, Triple H’s career goals, and WWE’s business interests intersected was in the assimilation of competing trends and currents within their industry, and the neutralization of the constant threat professional wrestling poses to Sports Entertainment. For the purposes of this piece, I’ll be using ‘professional wrestling’ as distinct from WWE’s concept of Sports Entertainment. Vince views the enduring popularity of pro wrestling as an affront to his legacy as the innovator of Sports Entertainment, and he tends to undermine pro wrestling wherever he can.
That may sound dramatic, but the threat I’m referring to is a source of tension throughout the industry that Vince McMahon has shaped in his image for 20 years, and we see it all around us. The industry is overflowing with fans, workers, promoters, and journalists who would like to embrace the things about pro wrestling that Vince denies, and many of us resent the changes he’s foisted on us. As Vince’s vision of Sports Entertainment has gotten less and less interested in the things many of us actually enjoy and relate to, NXT has been there to service the underserved “pro wrestling fans” (often dismissed as “hardcore fans”) among WWE’s audience.
But as Garrett Kidney aptly demonstrates, Vince McMahon’s treatment of NXT makes it clear that he does not really care to provide for the wants of pro wrestling fans. Garrett identifies NXT primarily as Paul Levesque’s pet project, and while that’s obviously true, it doesn’t explain why Vince would invest so much in NXT despite his distaste for the style and the brand’s failure to provide the main roster with the type of fresh talent he wants to promote.
To fully understand the purpose NXT served, we have to consider the context in which it grew into a useful tool for both Vince and Triple H as promoters.
Revisiting WrestleMania season 2015 is helpful. Sami Zayn and Adrian Neville had just helped establish NXT as WWE’s very own little indie that could and Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns were returning from injuries just in time for the Royal Rumble. The audience’s overwhelming rejection of Reigns’ push in favor of Bryan was a source of serious frustration for Vince and WWE Creative and it was enough of an issue that plans were changed, depriving Reigns of his planned coronation at Mania. But over the following months, WWE discovered a pressure release valve they could open to disperse some of the audience hostility and get disgruntled fans invested in the product again: it was an injection of pro wrestling courtesy of NXT.
While Vince and his paying customers were engaged in a proxy war pitting Bryan against Reigns, NXT was becoming more and more popular as a workrate-based alternative to the main roster. Soon the PC was crawling with polished wrestlers who’d already made their names in Japan, Ring of Honor, PWG, etc. and were wrestling at a level few on the main roster could match. WWE essentially succeeded in convincing their audience that NXT was an antagonistic force against the main roster, and before long cheering for NXT and the wrestlers who came through it became almost akin to chanting YES! or CM Punk!
The success of NXT’s Sami Zayn/Kevin Owens rivalry bled right over onto the main roster, as reigning NXT Champion Owens was called up to feud with John Cena himself and got over immediately.
For a brief moment, Owens felt like the new smark’s savior, but after some standard 50/50 booking, he became just another solid member of the roster. An upper midcard player who had the credibility of being an indie/NXT favorite but who wasn’t threatening to disrupt Vince’s plans by, you know, inspiring organic enthusiasm in the fans. We wouldn’t want that.
Owens found the Goldilocks zone for WWE booking. By filtering indie wrestlers through NXT, Vince could give the wrestling fans a taste of what they wanted and brush off complaints that it wasn’t enough. Anyone who complained that Kevin Owens wasn’t given a fair shot was just looking for something to complain about- He pinned John Cena, what more could you ask for?! Obviously, a sustained push and star treatment were out of the question, and that’s the point. Those things are reserved for Vince’s guy(s).
Before long it was as if NXT was signing a great indie wrestler every week. The stars of Ring of Honor’s 2013 and 2014 shows became the stars of NXT’s 2015 and 2016 shows. This was largely greeted with enthusiasm in many corners of the wrestling world, as it seemed the glass ceiling had been broken and finally great wrestlers who WWE used to be too narrow-minded to embrace were getting their shot. But in reality, what was happening was that NXT had become the new means by which WWE could poach talent from emerging competitors and increase their market share. It was a redux of Vince’s conquest of the territories in the 80s.
In these ways, NXT was developed, consciously or not, to serve its true purpose: to co-opt the organic enthusiasm pro wrestling fans have for pro wrestling and defang the distaste they have for Sports Entertainment. NXT filtered that enthusiasm back to the Fed in a way they could profit from, while undermining the modest growth of alternative visions of pro wrestling.
Over the five years, NXT ran as a serious third touring brand the US indies were badly depleted of talent, and Britwres was drained even more severely. The standard justification for this was to applaud the hardworking wrestlers for finally getting paid the big WWE bucks. But as we come to the end of NXT’s time as a promising career destination for top wrestling talent, we can say with certainty that this argument overstates the case.
The reality is that NXT rarely paid these top-tier workers at the level deserving of their output, and it often filtered out some talent who would never really get a chance to make main roster money. Many did rise to the main roster, and I sincerely hope they got paid enough to justify all the work they’d done to get there. But as WWE cuts talent at an unprecedented rate during a global pandemic all while it’s posting record profits, it’s time we stop pretending this was some kind of glory period where the corporate leviathan rained money on the salt of the earth workers.
In the end, the thing that ensured the financial security of the greatest number of workers was the advent of a professional wrestling promotion that actually likes and proudly promotes professional wrestling. The creation of AEW and its early success has caused a great tightening of the labor market and wrestlers now have options and negotiating leverage.
WWE seems intent on doubling down on a narrow and short-sighted vision of Sports Entertainment that Vince McMahon has held since Ronald Reagan was president, and I’m actually happy about that. I’m excited as a fan to see the heightening of contradictions between WWE’s bizarre, stale, and repetitive Sports Entertainment product and the multivarious forms of professional wrestling most of us enjoy. I hope all those talented wrestlers WWE no longer has the budget to afford are excited about joining AEW or NJPW or bringing new energy to Impact or ROH or PWG or helping to bolster the indies in every region that could benefit from an infusion of talent.
So while some are lamenting the fall of the only WWE brand that proudly promotes good in-ring work and semi-logical storytelling, I’ll be greeting the end of imitation super indie NXT as a triumph for professional wrestling.