WWE: The Rise & Fall Of NXT – Where Did It Go Wrong?

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The NXT brand has long been one of WWE’s best. Since it moved on from being a faux reality TV show, it started life as another developmental territory, much like FCW before it. With the help of trainers and creative minds like Dusty Rhodes, Triple H & NXT management led a revolution. Vince McMahon gave them the green light to make NXT an alternative to Raw & SmackDown by making it appealing to wrestling fans. It was their project, and while McMahon continued to check in on what they were doing, he wasn’t interfering in its direction on the level of his main shows.

Let’s be honest though, at no point has Vince McMahon never had some input. He’s the boss, and there is no element of WWE he hasn’t looked at. It feels like he appreciates professional wrestling, but has always felt the act doesn’t match up to sports entertainment in terms of global appeal. In his eyes, wrestling is for a niche audience, and you aren’t drawing in new fans by only catering to fans who love wrestling, otherwise promotions like Ring Of Honor would be significantly better off. You need to make the audience care about the wrestler’s, and the NXT brand knew this.

Progress

In the early days of the brand, while the action in the ring was top-notch, there were many future superstars making names for themselves while developing their characters. Some of these names include Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Big E, Finn Balor, Bray Wyatt (& Family), Adrian Neville, Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Samoa Joe, Shinsuke Nakamura, Cesaro, Rusev & Lana, Paige, Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, Bayley, Becky Lynch, Alexa Bliss, and more.

That’s a pretty heavy list of talent, all of which debuted on the main roster and found varying degrees of success. NXT truly was about the next generation. It had proven it could mold veterans from the independent scene in the WWE style, along with giving relative unknowns the confidence to prove their worth as superstars for years to come. However, the issue with this progression from developmental to the big time came at a price for NXT. With a revolving door of talent, management was having to hit the reset button with every call up. They had to go looking for new talent to fill the gaps left by those now frequenting Raw & SmackDown.


With little competition for contracts, WWE could afford to hoard talent from around the world. NXT UK ensured the increasing popularity of the British independent scene wouldn’t continue, as they stamped it out with the signings of Tyler Bate, Pete Dunne, Trent Seven, Walter, and more. While tag teams like The Ascension made serious waves, their call ups were disastrous and set the precedent that tag team wrestling in NXT rarely crossed over well. When you look at the NXT Tag title history, the only team from 2013 to 2018 who succeeded was The Revival, and we know how that turned out. All other teams either failed to be promoted or were split up not long after doing so.


In Your House

While many will see the Johnny Gargano vs. Tomasso feud as the single greatest feud in the brand’s history, the cracks in NXT had already begun forming by 2017. WWE called up talent like Baron Corbin, Apollo Crews, Nia Jax, and many more before they were ready. Bobby Roode joined the brand with a lot of hype, became NXT Champion for 203 days, was promoted shortly after, only to struggle for air time after winning the United States title. It became evident that NXT was doing “too good” of a job, and this wasn’t the brand or talent’s fault.

The rate of call-ups in this time period was so much so that many were being lost in the shuffle. You could say the only great call up was Drew McIntyre, who quickly won the NXT title and dropped it a few months later, after it became clear he was needed elsewhere. This is where the phrase “We Waste Everyone” came from, because there were so many exceptional talents doing nothing but sitting in catering for months on end. As this was going on, NXT struggled to replace those they had done so well to develop. In came Andrade Almas & Aleister Black, who, let’s face it… weren’t the most popular champions. Something wasn’t clicking there, even though they had some positives going for them.

NXT probably knew it wasn’t worth trying too hard, because it meant losing those who were keeping its business going. Instead, it turned inward and rewarded Tomasso Ciampa & Johnny Gargano by making them the focus, because management knew they wouldn’t be treated right on the main roster, so it was good for business to keep NXT hot with their rivalry. It worked for a while, at least until the novelty wore off. This was most apparent when roles were reversed, with Gargano playing the heel and Ciampa the baby face. Management had taken too much fruit from the tree and left it bare.


Sweet Like Chocolate

After the most dominant women’s champion of all time, Asuka, moved on to (not so) bigger things, she left a void in the division which Ember Moon couldn’t fill. Bless her, she tried her absolute hardest, but she was no Asuka, and neither was Shayna Baszler. The only saving grace of Baszler’s long, arduous reigns was getting Rhea Ripley over. It hasn’t truly recovered since Asuka’s departure, although Io Shirai filled the gap for a while. NXT’s tag teams started getting noticed, as in the Viking Raiders & Street Profits became the first champions to move up and do something substantial.


With NXT doing such a remarkable job, the main rosters were so filled with talent WWE either didn’t have time for, or didn’t know what to do with. It was an unsustainable system, because if you keep shoving chocolate in to your mouth, you’ll reach a point where you can’t hold anymore and choke on it.

WWE rarely made releases because it could afford to pay wrestlers to sit at home, so it would come as a shock when they turned up out of the blue. It made the WWE Universe wonder if they were getting some kind of push. This put a lot of pressure on those working full-time, because WWE could ask them to do literally anything, and they couldn’t exactly say no… because it had an army waiting in the wings who desperately wanted to do anything to be on TV, no matter how lame it was.

Triple Threat

The traps NXT fell in to were unforgivable. I would say the three single biggest blows to the brand included:

  1. The show being extended from one to two hours each week.
  2. Main roster talent used to “boost” ratings against AEW.
  3. The fading out of the mantra “We Are NXT!”.

Allow me to explain why these three points hurt what was easily the most exciting product WWE had. Even now, I still say that making it two hours took away much of its urgency. With one hour, there was no time for anyone to relax, because the talent knew they had to maximize every second of their screen time.

Of course, having two hours gives you more opportunities to get talent over, but as evidenced by Raw’s three hours, more doesn’t mean better. The quality of the show took a hit, because it’s harder to maintain an interesting product with twice as much time. Also, NXT was still using talent who everyone knew weren’t going anywhere (Gargano & Ciampa), along with others like Adam Cole who fans wanted to see move on.


There was a bottleneck in the system, because WWE was choking on all the sweet chocolate NXT had fed it since 2012. It didn’t matter how good someone was, there was no room at the inn. Talent would have to make do with NXT, but this was the preferred option for many, because if WWE called them up, the chances were you’d end up getting paid to eat in catering. They wanted to work on TV, so the whole meaning of NXT was lost. When it’s no longer about the next generation of superstars wanting to make that crucial jump, the whole point of developmental breaks down.

Crossover

When NXT started losing in the ratings battle to AEW Dynamite, WWE took this so personally it brought back alumni for short-term gains. If you may remember, WWE went all in on Team NXT for Survivor Series. WWE was trying to show that NXT had outgrown developmental and become an almost equal third brand. This blurred the lines of what NXT is, and while Triple H and others claimed it was no longer developmental, experts and most fans still regarded it this way. After seeing many crossover stars like Becky Lynch and Team Raw invade NXT (which was its biggest rating ever at 916,000 over AEW’s 893,000) in retaliation, we went to Survivor Series to witness a war play out on three fronts. Check out this show… it’s pretty insane if you think about it!

Lio Rush opened up the tally for NXT by defending his Cruiserweight title against Tozawa (Raw) & Kalisto (SmackDown). While the Undisputed Era didn’t win their match, it was the Viking Raiders who were in NXT not so long ago, who picked up the win over them and The New Day. The biggest surprise is how much WWE put over NXT’s women’s division. Not only did NXT’s team win their Survivor Series match against Sasha Banks and Charlotte Flair’s teams, the NXT Women’s Champion Shayna Baszler went over Raw Champion Becky Lynch (who was super over) and SmackDown champion Bayley in the main event! I still can’t believe it happened, but at least the true winners were Rhea Ripley & Bianca Belair, although it took a while for them to move up after this.


WWE had never contested the NXT Championship on a landmark PPV before, and Adam Cole made history by retaining his title against challenger Pete Dunne. Roderick Strong enjoyed the biggest win of his career when he defeated the United States Champion AJ Styles & Intercontinental Champion Shinsuke Nakamura. The only time NXT suffered was in the men’s Survivor Series match, as Walter, the NXT UK and most dominant champion in all of WWE, was eliminated in less than three minutes. As a British fan following NXT UK since its inception, I was livid by what was clearly a burial of the brand. While the leader Tommaso Ciampa did well, the true winner in defeat was Keith Lee, who eliminated Seth Rollins, and earned Roman Reigns’ respect.

Stepping Back

We have to remember this happened only a few short months before the Coronavirus pandemic destroyed what could have been the rise of NXT. WWE had no choice but to keep talent apart to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. However, just before it all kicked off, WWE brought back Finn Balor and Charlotte Flair to NXT. WWE did not use them with the sole purpose of getting others over. No… they became the champions. Flair went as far to defeat Rhea Ripley at last year’s WrestleMania, just to cement the fact that the next generation isn’t worthy of going over the current.

It was terrible booking, because 1) McMahon didn’t know how to book Balor, 2) Flair had done everything there was to do, so she was stuck in a hole so deep it took her back to her roots, and 3) they were reeling over AEW consistently beating them in the ratings. It went against the premise of NXT, while simultaneously admitting they didn’t know what to do with two of their biggest stars. The only saving grace is it rejuvenated Finn Balor, as he found his confidence, along with a more serious character. Flair eventually put over Io Shirai, who did an outstanding job of bringing the NXT Women’s division back to prominence.


Despite WWE’s best efforts to put NXT over as a growing brand who may one day equal Raw & SmackDown, it didn’t translate to better ratings, as it continued to struggle directly airing against AEW Dynamite. For me personally, I always wanted to watch AEW first, because we see enough of WWE every week. After seeing three hours of Raw, and knowing there’s 2 hours of SmackDown later in the week, it’s a change of pace to see something different. AEW had taken over the mantle of being the true alternative, and that’s not a knock on NXT or any of its talent, because I have always appreciated both shows, and I was a fan of NXT long before AEW existed. I was supporting both, because having options in wrestling is the best thing for the fans and wrestlers.

Togetherness

One thing I used to love about NXT was its mantra of us, the fans, being what makes it what it is. It felt underground, almost like a secret club only true wrestling fans appreciated. We’d scoff at others who complained about the main product, while also refusing to tune in to NXT, when it was miles ahead of anything produced by Raw or SmackDown. There would always be an excuse, even though NXT made us feel for the talent, appreciate creative, along with giving us some of the best wrestling action.

Part of what made NXT was the crowd at Full Sail University, who at every show were red hot from start to finish. TakeOver PPVs could never fail, because the fans were super invested, and there was rarely anything seen as filler. It reminded me of the old ECW mentality, where the loud vocals was accepted and encouraged. Ok sure, they weren’t extreme like ECW fans, but the feeling of family was there. For years the mantra was “We Are NXT!”, and they would drill this in to the fans as they lined up outside for a show. You would see NXT Superstars going out to get them riled up by chanting NXT, as they waited in anticipation for what would always be an excellent show.

The feeling of togetherness was there, and this played in to NXT’s hands for many years. However, around the time the show was extended to two hours, along with the rise of All Elite Wrestling, this mantra faded out for no reason. It could be because Triple H thought that by doing this, it would only fuel ridicule online. Perhaps he thought claiming it as the alternative wrestling product would be counter productive while AEW was making its mark. Instead of continuing to plug NXT as it always had, it changed philosophy and was no longer doing what it did best by bringing the feeling of family to every show. It fell in to line as just another brand under the WWE banner. It lost what made it feel special.

Overhaul

The final nail in the coffin was admitting defeat and moving NXT away from its Wednesday time slot. It doesn’t paint the brand in a good light when NXT Champion Karrion Kross loses two of his three debut matches on Raw. Instead of doing what the old NXT would’ve done, which is stay and fight, WWE had NXT tuck its tail between its legs and run. Doing this didn’t seriously boost ratings either, it only added fuel to AEW’s. They stripped away the core of NXT, and while most of the recent releases were justifiable, this week’s news about its revamp isn’t surprising. Although, doing so by getting rid of older and smaller wrestlers is. It sounds farfetched, like a comment taken out of context.

We’ll have to wait to see, because many of WWE’s most accomplished stars weren’t heavyweights starting in their young twenties weighing over 275 Ib, and standing over 6’2. With all the changes in WWE lately, it’s hard to predict what it will lead to, but clearly they believe NXT lost what made it viable. 205 Live is dead in the water, and frankly, outside of Walter, Ilja Dragunov, Tyler Bate and perhaps a few others, NXT UK hasn’t got the backing to make a reasonable impact, never mind on a global scale. I hear no one talking about NXT UK here, it’s all about AEW.

In saying all this, the last thing I want is for anyone to label me an AEW mark. I’m a wrestling fan. I didn’t make this to insult NXT or its talent, because I remain a fan of everything they do. However, I felt like WWE has mismanaged it since late 2019, and I’d like to see it get back to basics. It remains one of the better shows WWE has, and I don’t want it to get any worse, but I’m also sick of seeing call ups going to waste. The system has needed tweaking for years, and it feels like a better time than any. To get this off my chest has been pretty cathartic, like a healing process.

The Best Is Yet To Come

For anyone wondering about the article’s title suggesting it has gone the way of WCW & ECW, I purposely did this to serve as a warning. What I don’t want to see is WWE pulling the plug on NXT. Ten years from now, I don’t want WWE to be releasing a documentary about the rise and fall of NXT, because the more options we have, the healthier the wrestling business will be. For a massive company like WWE, it’s right to have a developmental system, but it needs to stay that way. As soon as the lines are blurred, it kills everything it has achieved to that point.

Allow the black & gold brand to serve its purpose, and in return, the fans will appreciate it for what it is, and what it should always be. Please let me know how you feel about the state of NXT in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

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