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WWE Is Finally Taking The AEW Threat Seriously

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It took almost a month, but WWE finally seems to have realized that its new Wednesday Night War won’t be won with filler. This isn’t quite the same as saying that WWE is innovating in response to the challenge presented by AEW’s competition, but at the very least NXT has done well of late by leaning on a familiar wrestling trope, deployed in an unfamiliar manner. In the process, they’ve grabbed back the headlines and, for the first time, won the week—in terms of content, if not necessarily in terms of ratings. A heel turn is as standard in professional wrestling as a clothesline, but when Finn Bálor hit Johnny Gargano with a Pele Kick to flip his alignment from goodie two-shoes to bad boy, it felt anything but ordinary:

That’s mainly because of who Bálor is and what his move to NXT represents. We’ve covered this before, but WWE has not really used NXT to its fullest potential as a playground for rebooting performers who have stagnated or gotten lost on the main roster. Recently, though, that has started to change, first with Tyler Breeze and Fandango, and then with Cesaro moonlighting in NXT UK. But Bálor is easily the biggest star yet to make the full-time leap back down to the supposed minor leagues. The man is not only hyper-popular for both his in-ring skill and his flair for the dramatic, but also an accomplished and well-pushed wrestler. He’s a two-time Intercontinental Champion and the longest-reigning NXT Champion of all time. If NXT has icons, he’s one of them.

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Which is precisely why having him slide back down and then turning him heel is brilliant. Bálor had plateaued on the main roster as a good guy, and the whole appeal of his Demon persona wore off when it became clear that WWE would not use it as a stable part of his character, but instead would utilize it at random moments. (Why did he bust it out in a no-build squash against Baron Corbin? Your guess is as good as mine.). And while the character Bálor did stick with at least got him over as a babyface, a pure WWE babyface is just about the most boring thing in wrestling.

Plus, look at him. With his leather jackets and Cheshire grins, the man looks built to be a rock-and-roll villain. His career bears this out, too—Bálor’s indie heel person was the Real Rock ‘N Rolla, and it ruled, and he also started the Bullet Club in New Japan Pro Wrestling, a heel stable of foreigners set on ruining Japan’s wrestling traditions. That conceit eventually became bloated and scattershot, especially since Bálor left for WWE. (The Elite in AEW is the highest-profile separatist faction from the original club, but WWE’s OC is also made up of former Bullet Club members.) At its start, though, both the brashness and some highly memorable merchandise made Bullet Club the biggest thing in wrestling.

Also, it gave us this delightful moment:

He likely won’t bust out the “fooks” in NXT, but it has been exceedingly obvious that Bálor is at his best when playing the heel. So, why is it only happening now? You could point to the aforementioned creative stagnation at WWE, but looking at WWE’s long-running patterns reveals a more plausible rationale. WWE doesn’t change unless it’s pushed, and the company didn’t feel any external heat before now. That meant, as far as its decision-makers were concerned, that it had no reason to deviate course, particularly when it came to a guy who was beloved and sold a lot of merchandise. (That includes his Bálor Club For Everyone shirt, which was supposed to be, and started out as, a message of LGBT inclusion but has, like all things in WWE, turned into a hot merch ticket.)

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Now, though, WWE is being pushed. Three weeks of losing the ratings battle to the hot, new upstart will likely cause a lot of things to change in the future, and that’s for the best. While All Elite Wrestling is putting on a parallel universe WWE weekly show—one in which matches matter and storylines feel familiar but somehow fresh—NXT had just kept on doing what it did before making its move to USA Network and live television. That has meant filling time with matches that were better than what you would get on Raw and SmackDown but still not particularly exciting, and stories that advanced duly through their paces on the way to the next TakeOver show. Sure, NXT’s maiden voyage on USA had a rad Matt Riddle and Adam Cole match, but that show was a de facto TakeOver anyway. It wasn’t until week four, and Bálor’s breakout, that a random weekly NXT felt like a big, must-watch deal.

It wasn’t just Bálor’s heel turn, either. Riddle popped up again right at the start of the show for a stellar match with the fantastic Cameron Grimes, f.k.a. Trevor Lee on the indies. This ran opposite AEW’s new fan favorites Private Party taking on the Lucha Bros. in the semi-finals of their tag team tournament. That’s good counter-programming, and it was only the beginning.

The main event of NXT this week was also one of the best matches, if not the flat-out best, that the show has ever put on its weekly show. North American Champion Roderick Strong of the Undisputed Era took on indie darlings Keith Lee and Dominic Dijakovic, who have been in a bit of a rivalry for the last few months, with some fantastic matches between them. Adding a veteran to the proceedings only improved upon their one-on-one matches, and having Strong to throw around—both Lee and Dijakovic are exceedingly large men, while Strong is a comparatively wee lad—made for some viscerally exciting action. It was a match that could have been the best at pretty much any TakeOver ever, given away for free on weekly television, and with a hot angle at the end to boot. That’s not remotely WWE’s standard operating procedure, but it’s also the only way they’re going to compete with AEW.

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Turning Bálor heel won’t magically fix all that ails NXT. They still should find a better venue for their shows, and there’s still entirely too much water-treading, particularly in the women’s division that has been held in submission by Shayna Baszler while WWE decides what to do with Ronda Rousey’s friend now that Ronda Rousey isn’t around.

But if NXT continues to give fans a reason to check in every week, either through a couple of excellent matches per week or by making story decisions that reverberate far beyond their little bubble of the wrestling ecosystem (or both!), then the promotion will have a fighting chance in this rivalry. If all things were even right now, AEW would still have been in the lead after three weeks based on the product alone; add onto that the fact that it’s new and shiny, and there was no way for NXT to compete head-to-head.

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But this isn’t over yet. Night four was the first one where it was evident that WWE realized its position and, given their history over the last 18 years or so, it’s downright shocking that they decided to pull the trigger on a risk. The execution of Bálor’s heel turn was perfect, and that it’s not the only moment worth talking about on the episode is a step in the right direction. Now, NXT just has to do the hardest thing in wrestling—follow up on a moment and turn it into a story. Before Wednesday, it wasn’t clear whether they would even try. Now there’s hope that these Wednesday Night Wars might begin to match the hype.

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