It’s weird listening to Bruce Prichard and Tony Schiavone tell behind the scenes stories from WCW and WWE. It’s very clear that the two companies had very different approaches to the pro wrestling product, right down to one company’s insistence on it’s product being called “sports-entertainment” versus the other’s company’s owner proudly proclaiming that he was now in the “pro wrasslin’ business”. One company was a media mogul’s pet project: his attempt at showing that his goose always laid a golden egg. The other company was run by industry royalty, who built his kingdom by being a robber-baron of sorts, eliminating his competition along the way.
What makes this even more odd is that to hear the history of the company run by the media mastermind, a company with free air time and billions of dollars behind it, is that it was ran like a mom and pop organization, subject to the pitfalls of a small business who sees their scope grow beyond the scope of management so quickly that it ultimately collapses upon itself. The other company, the true mom and pop shop which was being run on a shoestring budget at the time, relied on their knowledge of the industry to wait out the hard times, leveraged their young talent, and ultimately won the day.
As the story of what became known as “The Monday Night Wars” has already been written (and re-written by the victors), there is little that hasn’t been stated. How and why all of this went down the way it did is the subject of numerous theories and expositions, discussed at length by both experts and fantasy bookers time and time again. There is very little story “meat” left on that bone. What is interesting is what has happened since and how the lessons and mistakes from the past could impact the future of the industry.
How? Because the ghosts of the Monday Night Wars haunt the present day WWE and how it approaches it’s most prominent competition. Who is this competitor?
No, not Impact Wrestling (they have their own issues).
Not Ring of Honor (incredible, but not in the same league as WWE).
New Japan? The combined forces of the indies? No and no (though these are two huge influencers of the WWE).
The answer: NXT.
So how is the WWE’s developmental system it’s very competition? How could it possibly negatively impact the main roster or the WWE as a whole being that NXT is run and booked by WWE officials?
First, let’s look at NXT’s history and then we can draw the parallels and predict the pitfalls.
Since the WWE launched NXT in it’s current iteration in 2012, NXT has grown into what many “hardcore” fans consider a superior pure product to the WWE. Where WWE can sometimes get stuck in repetitive 50/50 booking with the same 6-8 performers being featured in main events, NXT has focused on developing the right story for workers who can go. At times, WWE can be criticized for pushing the attraction (see: The Great Khali) over the superior performer (see: Ted Dibiase, who never won a major singles championship during his WWE run). In NXT, there have been a number of performers to hold the NXT Championship who don’t necessarily fit the typical WWE mold (hello Bo Dallas and Neville!) but were chosen as title holders because of the quality of their work and how over they were with the crowd.
How NXT has booked the champion is most close to how title holders had been utilized historically. Back when wrestling was a territory-driven industry, the champion had to be equal parts attraction and pure worker. When a champion was slated to appear in a territory, he had to have the star power to draw at the gate, but also the skill to put over the local talent before he left town. Making sure the local challenger looked like a million bucks, even if it was in a losing effort, ensured that the territory’s top talent was left looking strong while setting up the eventual return match the next time the champion came through.
That kind of approach also benefitted the true attractions of the territory era, like Andre the Giant, Abdullah the Butcher, and Bruiser Brody. Because these performers were judged more on their spectacle, their appearances in territories were focused on drawing box office. Often, there would be a special format match like a battle royal, loser leaves town, hair vs hair, 6 man tag, that featured these attractions. They would come in, parter up with the local babyface to take down the strong heel (or add additional heat to the local heel vs the strong babyface), and leave town with little to no impact on the territory championship picture.
In the early days of NXT, WWE would take talent from the main roster and have them work programs in NXT with the up and coming talent. These talent from the main roster who worked these programs were often mid-card performers who were actually quite special, just unfortunately lost in the shuffle for one reason or another and unable to get into programs on the main roster that would allow them to exhibit these talents with similarly built and skilled opponents. Veteran talent such as Tyson Kidd, Natalya, and Antonio Cesaro directly contributed to the rise of such future main roster talents as Neville, Charlotte Flair, and Sami Zayn by having some truly classic matches in NXT.
By treating these matchups as attractions, both the veteran talent and up and coming star were given a platform to show their skill set, grow their base, and gauge the fan’s interest in a potential main program down the road. Like the attractions of old, the main roster talent is able to come in and put over talent with little risk to damaging their overall brand, and return to the main roster unscathed.
Once NXT became a featured part of the WWE Network with it’s own dedicated fan base, the approach was adapted to what is the current approach. While still focused on bringing in and developing fresh new talent, NXT has taken special aim at bringing in proven independent talent. While NXT doesn’t use independent talent from other promotions on short-term contracts to draw as was common in the territory era, it has leveraged it’s status as the waypoint between the true indies and the WWE main roster to create buzz and draw feature performers to WWE’s developmental system. By signing talent such as Finn Balor (NJPW), Kevin Owens (Indies), Shinsuke Nakamura (NJPW), Samoa Joe (TNA), and Bobby Roode (TNA), WWE has shown that they look at NXT as more than just a pure developmental territory.
Brining in more seasoned talent to NXT instead of WWE directly has also allowed WWE to gauge fan interest in these performers, along with affording the talent the opportunity to learn “the WWE way” somewhere other than the main roster. In the past, WWE brought in talent that once brought into the spotlight and inserted into programs on the big stage, only to see them wilt in that very spotlight and get little to no reaction from the crowd. For every CM Punk or Daniel Bryan (which even then were slow builds to great heights), there was a Scotty Goldman (Colt Cabana): a very skilled performer saddled with a unfamiliar name and ridiculous gimmick who the fans never got behind. These perceived failures are what sentenced the main roster to recycled programs involving the same wrestlers, as the main roster product needed to be “protected” from these kinds of risks.
NXT allows the WWE the opportunity to bring in these talents and afford them the opportunity to prove they can develop the kind of promo skills needed to succeed on the main roster while adapting their talent to the WWE work style in a more insulated learning environment, all the while providing a lessened financial risk for the company when signing these talents.
This is not to say that the talent that for lack of a better term “graduates” to the main roster from NXT is guaranteed success. Just as has always been, talent gets over with the crowd when the talent connects with the crowd. Having this built goodwill from NXT offers a certain amount of notoriety, but ultimately making it on the main stage requires additional work. WWE has done a good job of putting NXT stars in position to succeed historically.
One of the first and best examples of this is The Shield. All three performers were featured in either NXT’s forerunner FCW or NXT itself, so there was some name recognition to the hardcore base for all three members of The Shield (Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, and Roman Reigns). For Rollins and Ambrose, FCW/NXT allowed the young performers to adapt the skills honed during their time on the indies to the WWE. Reigns got the added instruction and pro wrestling experience that he didn’t already pickup from his legendary Samoan wrestling lineage while pursuing collegiate and professional football. When The Shield made their debut on the main roster, they were battle-ready and able to assume a high level position with the name talent. Both the hardcore fans who knew them and the main roster fans new to them recognized the talent and charisma immediately and they were an instant success.
The main roster debut and subsequent success of Kevin Owens is another example of NXT’s influence. Just 6 months after debuting in NXT, Owens debuted on Raw as a surprise challenger for John Cena’s United States championship. For both indy fans and NXT fans, the former Kevin Steen was a known commodity. In fact, while in NXT, Owens was able to continue his long-standing feud from the indies with Sami Zayn, who at the time had just won the NXT championship after a long, uphill fight. The familiarity between Owens and Zayn afforded both the opportunity to shine brightly, with Owens able to show his prowess as a great heel. By the time Owens stepped into the ring on Raw with Cena, he was a made man with the fans, with enough fan favor that beating Cena for the US championship in his first match wouldn’t have been a shock (like the Milan Miracle, perhaps).
Instead of having an official match with Cena that night on Raw, Owens beat Cena down and when the two had their first official match later that month, Owens beat Cena cleanly, setting the stage for Owens to go on and have one of the most successful first years in WWE history, cementing himself as one of the top heels and eventually becoming WWE Universal Champion.
Ascending to the main roster doesn’t always mean immediate success. Sometimes it has seemed that WWE has forced a transition too soon.
Adam Rose was brought up after weeks of vignettes showing the character’s “Party time all the time” attitude and featuring catchy entrance music. Unfortunately, the entrance proved to be the most memorable part of the character, as the pseudo Russell Brand-ian schtick fell flat with the fans. After floating around on the mid/low card for a couple of years, Rose was popped for a substance violation and was suspended by WWE. Soon after, Rose found himself in real world trouble after a domestic disturbance incident (the charges from which were eventually dropped by the prosecution) and was released by the company. Ultimately, Rose will be best remembered for a feud with a guy in a bunny suit that was never paid off for one reason or another more than for anything he actually did within the squared circle.
Another performer who seems to be languishing despite a world of potential is Apollo Crews. A highly touted signing for NXT after a successful run on the indies as Uhaa Nation, Crews had a short run in NXT, during which he never challenged for the championship but did have some memorable matches that flashed his impressive skills. After 7 months in NXT, Crews debuted on Monday Night Raw, defeating Tyler Breeze (another former NXT standout who has struggled to find his way on the main roster). Over the next few months, Crews found himself in matches with some of the WWE’s most high profile stars, such as Chris Jericho, Sheamus, and Dolph Ziggler, even challenging The Miz for the WWE Intercontinental Championship at Summerslam only to come up short. Though his talent is apparent, Crews hasn’t made much of an impact on the microphone and his star has yet to rise like many expected and many are beginning to wonder if the promotion was made too soon.
Next up: Why all of this matters to the WWE and how it could negatively impact the NXT and WWE products going forward.