In a promotion not known for underselling, few WWE projects have been more relentlessly touted than the reimagining of the company’s talent development program in 2013. Before that reinvention, the process usually worked like this: a local promotion and its wrestling school would be contracted to help train and develop the next generation of stars, which invariably caused numerous headaches about training methods, how talent was used, and who owned the rights to the footage of developmental shows. In 2013, everything came in-house with the opening of the WWE Performance Center in the Orlando area. WWE now had a wrestling school that featured a state of the art gym and a physical therapy facility. TV, meanwhile, had been moved in-house several months earlier via a reboot of the weekly WWE NXT show.
The Performance Center is designed and equipped to accommodate the huge volume of developmental talent in the company, most of whom do not appear on TV. Many of the people training there, including the aforementioned talent who don’t make the cut on the weekly hour-long NXT TV show, are experienced pro wrestlers like former Impact Wrestling star Chad Lail. By and large, though, the facility is filled with people you don’t hear about—the random athletes recruited into the system, some of whom rarely get ring time in front of crowds even at smaller NXT-branded shows around Florida. Which is a problem, as it happens, because these assorted amateur wrestlers, gymnasts, and football players are the ones who need that experience the most.
Once NXT became a staple of the new WWE Network in 2014, the direction started to change to one that shortchanged the greenest wrestlers. Putting on great major shows became a priority for Paul “Triple H” Levesque, who runs NXT as a sort of scaled-down Vince McMahon. This meant that the best and most experienced NXT talent was often not just at the forefront, but wrestling each other instead of teaching the ins and outs of storytelling to their opponents. The last WWE Network special, NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia, had five matches, and only the Authors of Pain tag team that appeared in the opener were 100 percent Performance Center products. That tag team has shown tremendous improvement thanks to working with great wrestlers constantly for almost their entire NXT run, but they’re the exception, not the rule.
Braun Strowman, who is currently the hottest star in the company, was trained at the Performance Center but barely wrestled in NXT. When WWE brought him up to the main roster, Strowman was with no exaggeration quite possibly the most inept, awful wrestler in the whole company. For a long time, he was kept in simple squash matches in which he quickly dispatched anonymous local wrestlers, before finally being bumped up to the main event level. It should have been a miserable failure, but somehow, he managed to swim, not sink. Strowman had some of the most compelling WWE matches of 2017 against The Big Show, who’s on the verge of retirement, and he also did great as a character despite being written like a horror movie monster.
This is not a thing that usually happens, but everything clearly clicked for him once he started working with and learning from veteran talent. The same thing has happened for Elias, a fellow NXT alum who does a drifter musician gimmick and is currently feuding with Strowman. Unlike Braun, though, Elias was a pro wrestler for years before he was signed. Elias built a base of fans for his gimmick in NXT, but he wasn’t anything special in the ring. Like Strowman, though, he’s improved dramatically working with veterans, both in the ring and in terms of confidence in his verbal ability and gimmick. Just look at the Braun/Elias segment from Monday’s Raw. On the merits, it should not have worked—Strowman interrupting an Elias concert to sing his own song (with a standing bass) is something that sounds too overtly comedic for Strowman’s monster gimmick on paper, but somehow he made it work. Their interaction was the highlight of the show, which is not something most WWE fans could have expected to say a year ago.
Which raises a question: if these two developed so rapidly in the big leagues, and got better learning opportunities outside of NXT, what is the point of the Performance Center and NXT?
It’s not as if NXT has been useless for developing raw talent, to be fair. The Authors of Pain really have been used the right way and benefited greatly as a result. But in order for NXT to function as a touring brand that puts on buzzworthy shows, the focus has largely shifted to its more experienced hands. Jokes that NXT is a Paul Levesque vanity promotion are commonplace, and with good reason—in becoming the face of NXT, Levesque went from being widely loathed by hardcore fans to their hero, and the person they want to take control of all of WWE. That’s a big change for a guy who, rightly or wrongly, was long public enemy number one to internet fans, going back to his ostensible increase in power when he got romantically involved with his boss’s daughter, Stephanie McMahon, who’s now his wife. While Levesque has since taken a step back behind the curtain as NXT was building up steam, for a good while, he still appeared as Triple H on every major event, where he gave rah rah speeches similar to those that Paul Heyman used to deliver at ECW shows. Levesque, who now makes sure to insist that everyone addresses him with his real name, also does a conference call with wrestling media members a few days before each NXT special, which is otherwise not the norm in WWE.
The best blueprint for success when it comes to bringing along greener developmental signees can be found in the early years of Ohio Valley Wrestling, which picked up a WWE affiliation I’m 1999. OVW had enough autonomy that shows were largely built around the veteran journeymen who were there before the WWE contract: Doug Basham, The Damaja, Rob Conway, Nick Dinsmore, Flash Flanagan, and Trailer Park Trash. This is the era that gave us Brock Lesnar, Shelton Benjamin, John Cena, Randy Orton, and Batista, among others. Because they were able to work with veterans on a regular basis, they (especially Orton) improved much quicker than they would have working with each other.
It also helped that WWE was sending over seasoned main roster talent who didn’t have anything to do, like Val Venis and Chris Kanyon. While the veteran/rookie pairing situation in NXT has improved somewhat as of late, WWE has long since stopped sending main roster talent to spend time there. This is despite the fact that the last two main roster figures to spend significant time in NXT, the husband and wife duo of Tyson Kidd and Natalya, simultaneously raised their own stock and developed the less experienced wrestlers they were working with.
It also doesn’t help NXT that, when they bring in wrestlers from outside the company like Samoa Joe or Tye Dillinger to act as a veteran presence for developmental talent, those figures inevitably end up on the main roster.
The developmental system is a loss leader, sure, and sending wrestlers on main roster contracts down to Orlando would increase the degree to which it’s a money loser, even though they wouldn’t be on the developmental books. But a developmental system is also supposed to be a loss leader; it isn’t as if it’s not meeting projections. Making wrestler development work is not rocket science, and the OVW experience suggests that WWE should already know how to make it work. But as long as NXT has the dual purposes of talent development and letting Triple H cosplay as an indie promoter, those two objectives are always going to be in conflict.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday atBetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.