For about as long as WWE has had a developmental system, that system has blatantly misused, if not outright squandered, tremendous wrestling talents. Steve Bradley was long considered the model wrestler in the farm system during its early days, the wrestler who everyone around him should aspire to be. Bradley was also credited with training Kurt Angle, who quickly became one of the best performers of the business, but all that talent and all that work somehow wasn’t enough to keep him from being passed by. Other standouts, like former American Gladiators champion Rico Costantino and the Basham Brothers, were saddled with dead-end gimmicks that helped kill both their marketability and interest in the wrestling business. Instead of developing talent, WWE’s system somehow seemed to do the opposite.
And it just kept happening, with only the most protected top prospects emerging unscathed. In 2013, after over a decade of paying smaller promotions and wrestling schools a consulting fee to manage the system, WWE moved the system in-house with the launch of their Performance Center in the Orlando area. The lack of cohesiveness should have ended there, but it didn’t. Which brings us to this week.
On this week’s Monday Night Raw, the top four wrestlers on the NXT developmental brand were all called up to the main roster: NXT Champion Tomasso Ciampa, NXT North American Champion Johnny Gargano, former NXT Champion Aleister Black, and former North American Champion Ricochet. The four also appeared the next night on SmackDown, and for whatever it’s worth, won all of their matches on both shows. But outside of those wins—and beyond all four being great in-ring performers who were allowed to have longer matches before a bigger audience than they’d previously enjoyed—nothing was done to give the four a proper introduction or even make them seem special, much less like superstars. Instead, Triple H just kind of ran through their names as graphics appeared onscreen in the arena and Michael Cole read short capsule bios to the television audience. To make matters worse, Raw and Smackdown were both in markets (Lafayette and New Orleans, Louisiana, respectively) that would not be expected to bring in the sort of fans that watch NXT weekly on WWE Network or Hulu. The rest of the TV tapings for the remainder of “WrestleMania season” are all in larger markets that historically have shown a greater familiarity with the NXT talent. WWE opted not to wait.
Oh, and according to a report from Dave Meltzer in this week’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Vince McMahon “made the call without consulting Paul [“Triple H”] Levesque,” the man who is, in theory, the executive in charge of WWE’s developmental and all other talent matters. The scrambling showed. Ciampa and Gargano have a long history, but the former wholesome good guy teammates turned bitter rivals (when Ciampa became a heel) turned semi-villainous tenuous allies (when Gargano became a more gray character), were rolled out on Raw, without much explanation, as a good guy tag team again. Ciampa is one of the best heels around, but for the time being, on Raw and SmackDown, he just...isn’t one anymore. With thinly drawn characterization and zero buildup, only Ricochet was slotted in a way that seemed designed to get fans to like him: On Raw, he ran out to help Finn Balor fight off Bobby Lashley and Lio Rush, leading to a tag team match in which he showed enough charisma and likability—and enough of his cool moves—to win over the live crowd. That performance, or that and Gargano already having taped his title loss to Velveteen Dream to air on Wednesday’s episode of the weekly NXT show, appeared to be the only silver linings in the debuts.
Among the big-ticket call-ups in the modern WWE, wrestlers that start with something vaguely coherent—a story to tell, or a character to portray—unsurprisingly tend to do much better than those that don’t. For the same reasons, the initial overhaul of the women’s division took a good bit of time to click because the new wrestlers were thrown into random, arbitrary teams by the onscreen version of Stephanie McMahon; after a shift to more traditional storytelling, they caught on fast. Kevin Owens was immediately slotted into a feud with John Cena and even beat him right away, instantly making him a major player. Asuka was hyped up for weeks in advance and caught on about as much as expected, while the Riott Squad (Ruby Riott, Liv Morgan, and Sarah Logan) and the former Absolution (Mandy Rose and Sonya Deville) were introduced with some actual momentum because they attacked established stars. For a wrestler that’s being brought in cold, starting them out on the post-WrestleMania (and, to a slightly lesser extent, post-SummerSlam) editions of Raw and SmackDown is their best shot—those tend to draw the most hardcore crowd, and their response will make everyone look like a star.
The alternative is to do what WWE did this week, which is drop a bunch of unfamiliar wrestlers in front of a crowd and hope for the best. This is similar to what WWE did late last year, when various NXT performers were hyped en-masse as Coming Soon, only to be dumped on the shows as Someone New and Thus Vaguely Important and left to fend for themselves. Lacey Evans, whose role so far on the main roster has been to walk to the ring for no apparent reasons and then leave, is a great example of just how shoehorned-in even a talented wrestler can seem if they’re brought up without any kind of tangible plan. And there is no tangible plan, here.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, no, Vince McMahon probably doesn’t watch NXT. Levesque even told The Sun last fall that he doesn’t believe that his father-in-law has ever watched a full episode. So how exactly is a 73-year-old head of creative with the memory, attention span, and weird sleep habits of a 73-year-old supposed to work characters into the shows he writes if he doesn’t even bother keeping up with the sister show on which they appear? Your guess is as good as mine, but it doesn’t seem like Vince has any idea, either.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.