NXT is the backbone of the WWE Network and was one of the top two reasons to subscribe for a long time. Many indies have their own subscription services so it isn’t abnormal. That NXT is a fledgling for the biggest wrestling company in the solar system gives them a slight edge, though. It has grown into an interesting hybrid of indy fed and developmental system that has caught on like wildfire and continues to impress. Last night’s NXT Takeover: Unstoppable was, in my opinion, the second best WWE special event this year behind WrestleMania. NXT’s exposure continues to grow by the way WWE is using their main roster to market their super indy and the results thus far just whets my appetite for more!
I’ve been saying for several months now that NXT’s success would be the competition WWE needed to improve their overall product. Something akin to the Monday Night Wars, but internally. When Kevin Owens showed up, not for a match, but just to play head games and assault John Cena on Raw there were shades of Scott Hall showing up on Nitro. KO even dropped a “you know who I am” type line. Iconic moments like these are born from opportunity and opportunity creates possibility. No fan expected it to be Owens who showed up when Cena issued his open challenge. It was unpredictable, but relevant. Those are the moments that make being a wrestling fan so rewarding. Not only was a story told and a rivalry created, but NXT got free advertising...just like every time someone from NXT shows up on Raw or Smackdown.
I’ve lauded Vince McMahon’s business skills in the past while acknowledging that he’s made plenty of mistakes along the way just like every successful businessman. The man has some cajones, though, and his boldness is admirable. Where he excels most is as a promoter. When someone or something is a focus, you can bet your ass McMahon is going to make sure you know about it. I don’t know exactly how, because allegedly he doesn’t watch all of NXT, but thankfully he’s bought into the product in a way where he sees it as a viable revenue stream, if not a glimpse of the future of wrestling. Raw’s viewership fluctuates significantly week to week, but it stays over 3 million viewers. It’s a safe assumption to say that they are all wrestling fans and over half of them aren’t subscribed to The Network so they don’t watch NXT regularly. Those non-subscribers are getting a little tease every time an NXT talent shows up on a main roster show. It’s a taste of what they are missing out on. Add to that a free month to check out the product, including their special, with the bonus of Payback and Elimination Chamber...the WWE would be crazy if they weren’t doing things this way.
Look who we’ve seen from NXT show up lately: Neville (longest-reigning NXT champ), Zayn (beat Neville for belt, arguably the biggest face in NXT), and Owens (current champion, monster heel). They are giving casual fans the cream of the crop as a hook and not all as perceived “promotions”. Cena’s role can’t be understated. His open challenge is one of the most anticipated segments each night and his work on the mic, especially with Owens, has been stellar. The segment is also creating other opportunities, whether real or imagined. This was an exchange on Twitter between Sasha Banks and Nikki Bella from earlier in the week. Even if it doesn’t happen this week, that there is a slow-burn if it ever does happen is what matters. Excitement and anticipation are being created and fans are being given more to talk about than complain about. There’s a feeling of must-see TV happening again because there is no more post-Mania lull. Every held belt in the company, save the US title, is held by a heel. The IC title has a chance to land on one at Elimination Chamber (cough...Sheamus...cough). We are approaching a time where faces chasing is likely going to be the theme. This is wrestling at its roots.
Jim Ross sums it up succinctly, “people will pay money to see a monster heel get his ass whipped.” Vince was the biggest heel in the history of the company during his feud with Stone Cold during The Attitude Era. I don’t want to hear about how there are no good guys and bad guys now. That’s just board room BS. People watch wrestling to see good wrestling and good vs. evil. There is room for matches pitting two opponents together with no animosity, something that Ring of Honor and Lucha Underground excel at, but the overall theme has to be heels vs. faces to thrive. A new generation of children are getting introduced to new Star Wars canon and new Marvel canon built from my generation’s love and admiration for the originals. Wrestling is in the same category and thankfully seems to be following suit.
Now the creative team needs to start reaching their potential. What we’ve seen recently has been great, but there is plenty of room to grow and plenty of opportunity for a star in creative to emerge and lead the rest of the group. There will always be critics because you can’t make everyone happy, but they have just started scratching the surface of what’s to come. There is potential for scenes that carry the same weight as a pissed-off Lesnar destroying everything and everyone in sight on a weekly basis. They just have to build and book intelligently and use common sense and talent has to stay healthy. This isn’t a knock on Daniel Bryan, by the way. If Perro Aguayo Jr., God rest his soul, taught us anything it’s that any match can be your last. It’s a demanding sport and they work a grueling schedule. This is another reason why having roster depth is a necessity. When someone does get injured you don’t have to scramble for Plan B you already have someone ready to step in who is established. As soon as Bryan vacated the IC title the general consensus was that Neville was in a great position to win the belt and I think this helped ease the blow. Even if he doesn’t win, the chance is there and people have someone newer to root for.
The next step is to have a big name from WWE show up at an NXT show, preferably a live event, but I don’t want to wait another three months for it! Great, now I’ve become a mark. They hooked me… We’ve seen guys crossover rosters before (Kidd, Rose, et al), but it’s going to take a bigger name (maybe Cena will meet Owens on Owens’ turf?) to make it must-see for the casual fans. The WWE has done a great job of not overdoing the NXT on WWE programming angle and that needs to continue. It can’t become an expectation. Cena’s open challenge has to continue to have smart bookings like they’ve done with Slater’s appearances, and NXT talent should be showcased through other angles. Sasha or Charlotte appearing would be a great way to mix things up. WWE seems to be acknowledging the existence of indy feds now more than ever and rightfully so. Hopefully they are building towards a War of the Brands like other indies do (most recently ROH and NJPW had War of the Worlds). This would be amazing! We could very well be witnessing the next evolutionary phase of the WWE and I can’t wait to see where they take us on this journey.