If you have been a fan of the WWE going back at least 15 to 20 years – aka if you became a fan at or around the start of the Attitude Era – chances are you have seen the WWE transform in a lot of ways over the years. From the Attitude Era to Ruthless Aggression to the PG Era to what some dubbed The Reality Era (think CM Punk’s pipe bomb promo) and to the horribly named New Era, the WWE has morphed further and further away from the carnival/circus roots of wrestling to something worthy of being the longest and second-longest running weekly episodic programs in history. The changes over the years all have definitive launch points or reasons – the Attitude Era was in response to WCW’s Monday Nitro overtaking WWE in the ratings. The Ruthless Aggression era occurred on the backs of the vaunted OVW Class of 2002 (Ohio Valley Wrestling, WWE’s pre-NXT developmental system), the PG era was due to both a Linda McMahon senate run and pressure to be more politically correct in the aftermath of WWE going public, the Reality era was due to more realistic storylines and finally the “New Era” which is a result of NXT and WWE’s complete embrace of independent wrestlers in its company. While it would be fun to look at each of the eras – which we may do at some point anyway – we’re just going to focus on the influence of NXT in today’s current product.
NXT vs. OVW, FCW and others
To get started, it would be best to look at some of the major differences between NXT, WWE’s current developmental system and OVW, FCW (Florida Championship Wrestling), WWE’s old developmental systems.
OVW became WWE’s developmental system around the year 2000. This relationship lasted officially until 2008 with WWE still engaging off and on with OVW until February of 2010. In 2008, FCW became WWE’s sole developmental territory. In 2012, WWE dropped the FCW name and titles and transitioned completely to the NXT branding. Before we move on though, check out the OVW Class of 2002.
One of the biggest differences between the old developmental system and NXT is the opportunity for feedback and the audience in which the wrestlers have to perform in front of to hone their craft. In the FCW days, there typically only about 50 people in the crowd. This made it particularly difficult for talent to determine what truly worked vs what didn’t. It also made it difficult to get any sense of how a wrestler was doing because the feedback was so limited.
Beyond the feedback and audience issue, FCW also suffered from a lack of overall quality in production. The environment, the spectacle, the atmosphere of a wrestling match is as important to the development of talent as anything else. The higher the production value, the more attention to building stories, the greater importance an event takes on. For talent who have gone through OVW and FCW only, I am sure they would say that they would have enjoyed and benefited even more from NXT developmental experience. Take a look at this 2012 FCW match between Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose and Leakee (Roman Reigns) for a good example of the points mentioned above.
The match itself is of good enough quality, but the audience is small and the production value is akin to the very early days of televised WWE programming. In other words, no bueno. Whereas, with NXT, wrestlers are cutting their teeth in an environment that is only slightly different in terms of audience size and production quality from the main roster environments. Even moreso, with the inclusion of the NXT: Takeover events, essentially the equivalent of pay per view events, wrestlers are able to also familiarize themselves with the bigger stage, brighter lights settings. For comparison, FCW and OVW would be like a chef learning to cook in their family kitchen whereas NXT is like learning to cook in a small-scale restaurant that mimics almost the exact environment of a larger restaurant thus, in effect, better preparing the chef for real-world scenarios.
Independent Mutual Interest
One of the other key benefits to NXT is the continued interest of WWE in independent wrestlers and vice versa. If you go back about 10 years, so back to the height of OVW, most of the wrestlers coming out of WWE developmental were homegrown talent. Save for one or two guys like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, if you came through WWE developmental you were either someone who tried out and made it or someone who WWE reached out to and made it in. The famed OVW class of 2002 is particularly representative of this fact. Brock Lesnar, John Cena, Randy Orton and Batista – a former amateur wrestler, a former college football player, a second-generation wrestler and a former bodybuilder – there’s not an independent wrestler among them. When you look at all of these guys, they were all either muscle-bound, larger than life or otherwise the prototype for what a Vince McMahon wrestler looks like.
Over time, again maybe as a way to distance itself from both stories of steroids and roid rage and from tragedies such as Chris Benoit (whose double murder-suicide some have attributed to steroids) and Eddie Guerrero, WWE began to have a more open-minded approach to independent wrestlers. I’d offer that due to the near-immediate support, built-in fanbase and success of CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, WWE decided that indie wrestling might be a good place to start recruiting from more heavily. I would go further and offer that because of the eventual good treatment of those two guys, independent wrestlers became less weary of WWE potentially burying them if they came over.
Now, before I continue, I will allow that guys like Cesaro and other indie wrestlers who came in in the interim didn’t benefit from that treatment, but things are sometimes hit and miss. Sorry Cesaro.
With that being said, look at the current main roster in WWE and that of NXT. I’ll list some of the names for you – AJ Styles, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Bobby Roode, Shinsuke Nakamura, Hideo Itami, Seth Rollins, Samoa Joe, Dean Ambrose, Finn Balor, Anderson and Gallows… Ok, I think I’ve made my point. Independent wrestlers clearly have a place in today’s WWE. Look at that list again, nine of the twelve guys mentioned have wrestled in NXT.
One of the issues discussed as a roadblock for indie wrestlers was the ability to adapt to a WWE style. It used to be that indie guys would go to developmental to learn the WWE way. But by not wrestling in front of larger crowds, and without any difference in level of production, they weren’t being thoroughly prepared for the biggest difference between most indie federations and the WWE – the size and spectacle of working on the main roster. By turning NXT into a legitimate brand with live shows, house shows and pay per views WWE is capitalizing on the opportunity to better prepare indie wrestlers for working on the main roster.
The flipside to that is also beneficial. By having younger guys who have less in-ring experience tussle with veteran indie wrestlers, WWE is also able to have their homegrown talent grow exponentially by not exclusively working with each other, older retired wrestlers or part-time wrestlers. WWE is using NXT as a place for independent vets to bring WWE’s homegrown talent further along while also exposing them to the bright lights, big stage feel of WWE.
The balance of that system has allowed for the greater development of guys like Bray Wyatt, Braun Strowman, Roman Reigns and other homegrown, maybe less-polished talent who needed to learn from veteran active wrestlers.
Character Development, Mic Skills & Storytelling
Another critically important component of the NXT experience is the ability to develop and test characters, improve mic skills and learn how to tell stories outside of the ring. Prior to NXT, storylines in developmental were rarely more than a sketched out idea of who a character is and what their motivations are. Again, and this goes back to the size of audience, NXT by being main roster lite, talent is given the opportunity to work a live mic in front of a much larger audience than those who came up in OVW or FCW. Not only that, they are able to test out characters and gimmick ideas in front of a more forgiving crowd and are able to change gimmicks quickly without the same level of scrutiny that such a move would accompany on the main roster. Bray Wyatt is an excellent example of a wrestler being allowed to test out gimmicks until he found the right one. #RIPHuskyHarris
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the major pitfall of NXT when it comes to this particular issue. This is the fact that the Full Sail crowd is so hyped and so non-representative of the wider WWE fanbase that almost every gimmick gets over and it becomes unclear whether or not the same or slightly tweaked gimmick would work on the main roster. Consider the debut run of the likes of Fandango, Tyler Breeze, Adam rose and others. Many of these gimmicks and characters were insanely over in NXT, then fizzled on the main roster. Now, some may blame main roster writing and creative, but at some point, especially as this trend grows, one must consider the negative impact of almost every wrestler getting over in NXT.
Nonetheless, for now it appears that this is more of a strength than a weakness. Outside of Goldberg, Lesnar, Orton and Cena, the list of most recent WWE and Universal champions include AJ Styles, Kevin Owens, Dean Ambrose, Finn Balor, Seth Rollins, Bray Wyatt and Roman Reigns. All of those men have held either the WWE or Universal championship in the last year. That means seven of the last 11 world champions have been either a directly transferred independent wrestler (AJ Styles) or a call up from NXT.
The final benefit of NXT to consider is that of experimentation. Let’s look at the easy stuff first, tournaments. Tournaments have long been one of the easiest and most versatile tools in a wrestling promoter’s toolbox. By setting up tournaments with a title or title opportunity on the line, a promoter gets a series of meaningful matches working towards a goal. Not only that, because of the importance of the tournament you get the ability to spawn multiple feuds as outcomes for the wrestlers or teams that don’t end up winning said tournament. WWE has been very sparse in their use of tournaments in the last few years, at least prior to 2015. But beginning in 2012 with the Gold Rush Tournament to crown the first NXT Champion, NXT held nine tournaments in less than five years. Prior to that, WWE had held roughly one tournament every year or every other year through the previous decade. Since this run of NXT tournaments – and the popularity of them – the main roster has held four tournaments in the last two years. Beyond the main roster tournaments, WWE has also conducted the Cruiserweight Classic, the UK Championship Tournament and announced a 32-competitor Women’s Tournament to take place later this year. This may seem like a small thing, but it’s hard to not correlate the success of the tournament format in NXT with the increase in tournaments on the main roster.
Not only has NXT experimented more with tournaments, but also with match types and main events. NXT has long been a program that tries to balance the focus between its men’s, women’s and tag rosters. A natural outflow of this balance has been the experimentation with main events that are not just whatever the NXT Championship match is. At NXT Takeover: Respect in October of 2015, NXT headlined the event with Bayley vs. Sasha Banks for the NXT Women’s Championship. This was followed up on the main roster in October of 2016 with Sasha Banks vs Charlotte main eventing the Hell in a Cell pay per view in the titular match. Then less than a month later, another Raw Women’s Championship match main evented Raw. Now, this past weekend NXT had their NXT Tag Team Championship match main event NXT Takeover: Chicago. That sort of experimentation on the main roster is definitely an outflow of the experimentation in NXT. Not just that, WWE held an Iron Man match for the Raw Women’s Championship just over a year after NXT had an Iron Man match for the NXT Women’s Championship. This can also be tied to recent women’s matches with Falls Count Anywhere, Steel Cage and now Kendo Stick on a Pole stipulations. (No, I am not going to discuss that last one any further.) I will however drop a highlight video from that Hell in a Cell match.
Oh and this just in…
All in all, NXT has transformed itself from just a developmental system to a legitimate third brand to accompany Raw and Smackdown. Though a move from NXT to either of the other shows still constitutes a call up, there is less and less difference between the quality of NXT and that of the main roster. So as ridiculous as the name of the recently dubbed “New Era” is, WWE has clearly committed to the development of new stars and has clearly transitioned to a time that will be dominated primarily by call ups from NXT. I would challenge WWE fans who have not yet started following NXT to do so as it is truly the breeding ground for the next big thing (outside of Kenny Omega’s eventual signing). But just to be clear, this “New Era” is most definitely brought to you by the good folks at NXT.