I guess the folly for all of us was thinking the NXT we loved could last a long time in the world of WWE, if reports are to be believed. I have to admit that I’m biased. While Daniel Bryan was the reason I started watching wrestling again, NXT was the reason I became such a huge fan. But it’s starting to sound like that NXT is gone forever. In my darker moments I probably already knew that to be the case, but seeing it in black and white is always a killer of hope.
Over the weekend, WWE announced yet another host of releases all from the NXT ranks. The biggest names were Bobby Fish and Bronson Reed. Fish didn’t really have a place after the breakup of Undisputed Era, with the other three members either moving on to new paths or possibly up to the main roster in Adam Cole’s case (or to AEW, find out soon!). Fish wasn’t quite as much of the institution to that faction, or to NXT as a whole, thanks to myriad injuries that kept him out during the group’s unmatched run. But it was still jarring to see any member of UE, the most popular and dominant faction that NXT ever had, just simply let go.
Reed was even more curious, as up to a couple of weeks ago he was NXT’s North American champion and just had a match with Cole, which pretty much cements someone at the top of the card. He’d even had some dark matches on the main roster (not on TV), which at the time was seen as something of an audition for promotion. And now he’s out.
What was really disheartening about the reports of these releases was word that Paul Levesque — Triple H to you and me — and Shawn Michaels were not the ones making the decisions. It was Vince McMahon and his cronies. Who, almost certainly, have barely watched NXT, and certainly didn’t when it was good.
In a lot of ways, NXT changed forever (and not for better) when it was extended to two hours and moved from the WWE Network and onto cable, on USA, in a first strike against AEW’s Dynamite. For years, the one-hour format had kept the stories clean and tight, and the show felt packed. And it wasn’t a huge commitment to keep up. Whether you watched it live or on your DVR, finding time for just an hour-long show was easy. Because of how full it was, everyone and everything felt important and it moved things along.
One problem NXT faced with its transition was that, as a one-hour show on the WWE Network, its setting in Full Sail University in front of maybe 100 people worked. It was a secret little club, some hole tucked away that they didn’t even tell the University administration about and prayed they’d never discover. It was for those in the know. It made everyone watching feel like they were in on something. When their PPVs, or Takeovers, would be put on in arenas (almost always the night before one of the big WWE PPVs), it felt like the unpopular kids had escaped and “taken over” the gym before a big basketball game. It was a coming-out party.
While NXT has always been developmental, with the idea of “graduating” its performers to the main roster, in its prime it wasn’t about converting wrestlers into the WWE style, at least not wholly. Whether it was darlings from the indies like Sami Zayn or Kevin Owens, or the promotion’s own Performance Center products like Sasha Banks and Bayley, NXT featured a wide range of performers and styles, who were being developed just enough to keep what made them unique but just a touch more TV-friendly.
From about 2014 until the move to USA, NXT could hardly miss. They gave the world the Banks-Bayley match at Takeover: Brooklyn I, a women’s match that has yet to be eclipsed. Or the reign of The Revival (now FTR on AEW) as tag team champs, a run that saw a couple of classics with Team DIY (Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa). And then there was the split between Gargano and Ciampa and the years-long feud that ensued. And there was Gargano and Andrade Cien Almas pulling out a 30-minute masterpiece from pretty much nowhere. And Asuka’s undefeated run. This list could go on and on, but not only were their shows and especially their Takeovers can’t-miss TV, they were all can’t-miss for different reasons.
While McMahon might deride AEW as not competition, that couldn’t have been the prevailing emotion when he shifted NXT to cable and at the same time as AEW’s Dynamite on TNT. And it failed miserably, with AEW beating NXT so consistently and so heavily that NXT receded from the fight and moved to Tuesdays.
But the move to cable and expansion to two hours meant more filler, and more WWE-style storytelling that didn’t always make sense. And on cable, NXT’s intimate setting looked more rinky-dink than Lucha Underground, especially as it aired simultaneously against AEW, which was broadcasting from various arenas.
Perhaps there was no clearer indication of where NXT was headed than the pivot to their current champs. Which is unfair to Raquel Gonzalez, a fine performer and growing personality. But both her and Karrion Kross are the kind of big monsters with lacking characters whom McMahon has always preferred. NXT had lost the edge, or personality, that made it stand out. It was the indie show that somehow ended up on WWE Network. But when AEW came for the mantle of “Indie Show On Mainstream TV,” WWE didn’t respond by trying to out-indie them with NXT. It made NXT more like WWE, which is what drove fans to AEW in the first goddamn place.
Kross especially is a perfect illustration of where NXT is now and where it was. Kross is basically if you took Aleister Black (now Malakai Black in AEW) and removed everything interesting about him but swelled him up like Bane. Whereas Black was a gothic, kickboxing hell-monk who really did feel like he came from the great beyond, Kross’s character and in-ring style barely paws at any of that. He gets the entrance and the valet in Scarlett, but all of it feels like play-acting versus Black’s persona as a real-life apparition from the dark. And his actual ring work feels more like brawling than actual martial arts adapted to wrestling TV. To put it bluntly, he’s boring as shit.
But he’s easy to get. And at first, he can pop off the screen thanks to his size. And that’s what WWE has always been about. But it wasn’t what NXT was about. Overall, you got the feeling that although Triple H is a company man through and through, he actually watched other wrestling companies and appreciated them. He realized there was room for more than just what he did in WWE, and what WWE has always done. That the art form could take many shapes. And to hear that he’s not even getting a say in who is being let go, and may be removed from NXT altogether, is truly sad.
Because he did create something special under the WWE umbrella. Unfortunately for him, and for all of us, WWE got its claws into it.
Now it sounds like it’ll just be a true WWE minor league, grooming performers to fit the WWE style whenever they get to Raw or SmackDown. Which is exactly what its fans didn’t want, and why they’re watching the other companies more and more. HHH got that, Vince doesn’t, but there’s always only one winner in a fight with McMahon. And it certainly isn’t the fans.