By Luke Raven (@RavenLuke)
First off, calm down. Yes, NXT has always been a developmental or a feeder system for RAW and Smackdown Live. However, somewhere between late 2014 and 2015 NXT surpassed even WWE’s wildest dreams and became the hottest thing in wrestling. Every episode, every Takeover, and every match had meaning and felt like it had the potential to be something special. NXT helped create top talent that gave us unbelievable moments, but something happened. We became spoiled. The talent we loved were moving on to Raw and Smackdown while we watched every Wednesday expecting the same product.
A quick history of NXT might be needed here for those who only know it as the program we see today. At the time the developmental system was Florida Championship Wrestling and nothing like what we see today. Performing in a warehouse in front of maybe 50-100 of the same people every week wrestlers like Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, AJ Lee, Cesaro, Daniel Bryan, The Bellas, and many others trained for their chance on the main roster. In 2010, WWE was looking to replace their Tuesday night ECW show. Thus, NXT was born, but again, not like it is now. Far from it actually. It was half wrestling show and half reality competition. Eight “rookies” were paired with 8 veterans of the main roster. The two most memorable being the Daniel Bryan/Miz and Wade Barrett/Chris Jericho partnerships. A lot of hokey reality show elements were involved like the Immunity Pass, fan vote, and silly competitions that have nothing to do with wrestling. This format lasted 5 years with slightly different variations including being moved to wwe.com and a Redemptions season. (Side note: Please do yourself a favor and seek out the “Crazy” Johnny Curtis (now Fandango) from this NXT incarnation. It’s underrated and supremely entertaining.)
After season five, many changes came to the developmental territory. No more FCW. Everything was moved to Full Sail University and recorded as its own show that would be difficult, but rewarding to find. Combining talents still learning with a few talents from the main roster coming down for a program or two NXT quickly became an underground sensation. NXT was on Hulu for over a year before the WWE Network arrived. Everywhere you looked on the IWC someone would be ranting and raving about how more people need to be watching the new NXT. Seth Rollins was the hardcore/punk hero that everyone loved. Big E was beating opponents so ferociously that he would have the referee count to five. Paige was the anti-diva. And this mysterious, bearded man spoke of revolution and called himself Bray Wyatt. Everything was great.
Then the Network came. Most of the guys from the original Full Sail cast were already on the main roster. Before they left they handed the next group a lighter, pointed to the box of dynamite they had set up, and said, “Light it up.” Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Neville, Finn Balor, Hideo Itami, and many others would endear themselves to us time and time again. Each Takeover special got better culminating in Zayn finally winning the NXT title only to be betrayed by Kevin Owens. Some of the best feuds in NXT history came from this time period, but all good things must come to an end. As the months went by each of our favorites went on to the big time, but were again replaced.
These replacements were different. They weren’t just faces we recognized, but names too. Samoa Joe, Shinsuke Nakamura, Austin Aries, and Bobby Roode were now with NXT. It seemed like now that NXT had established itself as a viable weekly program the WWE would cement its feet by signing already established US talent. This is the era we are watching now. Something FEELS different. We have these big names, but aside from the top program of Joe/Nakamura they don’t interact with each other. Aries is doing his best work with a Hideo Itami that is trying to reestablish himself, Roode is trying to make NXT glorious, and The Revival remain the best tag team in the world right now. But Roode doesn’t really have a rival yet. No one really believes DIY will beat Revival. Other than Asuka, there isn’t an established character on the women’s side of the division. No, I am not forgetting Ember Moon. So far she has been awesome, but nowhere near ready for the Empress of Tomorrow. So far, Andrade “Cien” Almas has flopped. No Way Jose is a one note character. TM61 has a terrible name who has lost too much so far. The Authors of Pain haven’t shown enough in terms of character. Tye Dillinger has tons of charisma and talent, but for some reason have yet to give him any sort of storyline.
This may seem like complaining and, maybe, it is to a point. We became spoiled, remember? However, I look at this as an exciting time for NXT. This is going to be pre-Network NXT. This is the beginning of something new for the brand when characters are learning and developing. I don’t really know who or what Liv Morgan is about, but I’m ready to find out. Oney Lorcan is a TERRIBLE name, but if you know anything about Biff Busick then you’re excited about what is to come. Personally, I really enjoy the double headband wearing Angelo Dawkins. He can wrestle, he has natural bad guy cockiness, and could easily transition to a semi-comedic character.
The night is always darkest before the dawn. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. The stars shine brightest when the night is darkest. Blah, blah, blah. We can spout off as many idioms as we want. NXT right now isn’t what it was in 2015, but that isn’t a bad thing. This is 2013ish NXT. This is NXT’s renaissance. Be prepared.