No school like the old school

On the morning of February 11th, WWE’s developmental territory, NXT, was preparing to air it’s fifth “Network Special,” entitled Takeover: Rival. That day, the popular entertainment website, AV Club, declared Takeover it’s “what to watch” pick of the day. IGN’s website also hyped the special, and as routinely declared NXT as—not just great wrestling entertainment—but simply great entertainment.

While WWE’s flagship programming, Raw (and to a lesser extent, Smackdown), struggles to stay relevant in a broader media landscape than existed in the late 90’s, it is curious that a one-hour wrestling show could generate so much buzz. Judging by the ratings and general apathy generated toward Monday Night Raw, a person might conclude wrestling is simply past its prime and that there’s no hope in sight for another great—attitude era-esque—boom. NXT of all things proves otherwise.

Its production, while slick and modern, is a fraction of what is afforded to RAW and Smackdown. It’s roster is only about 35 people-deep, with only half of that getting any consistent screen time. The rest are little-used jobbers (talent used to enhance the stars of the show). The main shows, on the other hand, use about 75 wrestling talents, and all of them have names, entrance themes, and often years of time spent in front of the WWE universe. Raw and Smackdown are broadcast from basketball arenas seating anywhere from eight to fifteen thousand spectators. On the other hand, NXT’s Full Sail Arena holds less than five hundred fans.

Raw features well known superstars that have honed their craft, competed in front of football-stadium sized crowds, been interviewed by primetime talk shows and starred in movies. NXT’s roster is a mixture of glorified trainees and long time independent wrestlers used to competing in front of 20 people at a high school gymnasium. There are NXT performers whose careers were known to the few who follow independent wrestling, but to the greater WWE audience, they might as well have beamed down from another planet.

And yet, despite every potential disadvantage and every reason to assume it couldn’t compete with Raw and Smackdown, NXT has not only competed it has soared beyond its big brothers to be the finest example of—not just “pro wrestling”—but “sports entertainment” on the air today.

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While Vince may despise the business he bought from his father, the fact is “pro wrestling” is the backbone of everything his empire is built around. He may wish to be seen as an entertainment company, but the hack writers in charge of his shows will only ever produce low brow B-quality “entertainment.” At it’s best, the finest compliment WWE can ever hope to hear is “it’s good…for a wrestling show.”

And while it might be quick to dismiss NXT as “only popular with hardcore wrestling fans” that assessment misses the fact that NXT is better at sports entertainment than Raw is. If sports entertainment encompasses the “storytelling” that goes on around the matches, NXT is—though still in its infancy as a brand—already lightyears ahead of the A-shows.

The reason for its success, ironically, lies in its old-school approach to writing. A small handful of bookers plot out the stories. They work from the final chapter backwards, and then present them to the audience in a way that respects the long-time viewer and hooks the new watcher all the same.

The main shows rely on a huge team of Hollywood-reject writers, working late nights on their plots and scripts and angles, all the while knowing that their every idea is doomed to be discarded and rewritten on the capricious and arbitrary whims of Vince McMahon. Like all genius/artists (and Vince McMahon is certainly a genius/artist) he is never satisfied, never content. He is always staring at his masterpiece and seeing how he could have done it differently, could have tweaked this or that, and made it even better. The downside to such manic ambition comes when you’ve touched up the painting so much it’s become unrecognizable.

Who really prefers the Star Wars Special Editions to the original releases? How many articles are written, venting frustration at George Lucas for his insistence to tinker and change things, adding this or that cartoon-looking character or background flourish? It’s all because, to him, the product is never “finished.” It’s never “perfect.” There’s always something else to be done, some new idea that has to be implemented. Same problem with Vince: The idea that an idea can just go to waste is abomination. It must be injected, even if less-is-more would be better.

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When Paul Heyman was put in charge of Smackdown, the show flourished. Its ratings were phenomenal, despite heavy network tv competition, it’s storylines were praised because they were clear and not convoluted. Its wrestling was celebrated, because the aforementioned stories allowed the drama in the ring to be highlighted. The show was, simply, the best “sports entertainment” show on the air.

Heyman didn’t last a year at the Smackdown helm. Why? Because he—like Vince—had a vision for where to take certain stories. Vince had his own vision for those stories. Vince and Paul butted heads. Vince owns the company; Paul hit the road. What’s funny is, no one would argue that Paul’s ideas were bad or wrong. They just simply weren’t Vince’s ideas. And while Vince’s ideas can be great, his brain was already being stretched thin trying to keep the fledgling Raw show from sinking into the abyss. Why not just let Paul run wild? Why not turn him loose unless (or, if you’re pessimistic, “until”) something off-putting to the viewers happens, and then the boss needs to step in?

A few years later Paul was given the reigns of a rebooted ECW brand. It was a one hour show, featuring—initially—many of the same superstars that made ECW the cult hit it was. The brand failed, and though it lasted for a few years, Heyman was gone in less than one. Why? Because of Vince’s creative injections. Because he is a genius/artist with the power to do whatever he pleases and the ego to ignore better advice as it suits him. Could his ideas have worked? Certainly. Could Paul’s? Surely. But, to use an NFL analogy, the mixture of Paul calling the plays between the 20’s and Vince calling the plays in the redzone was too much oil and water to work.

NXT, on the other hand, is tucked away down in Florida. It is not being booked and written through the filter of Vince’s ideas. NXT, with its small writing team and handful of bookers (led by Dusty Rhodes, under the oversight of Triple H) is working without Vince McMahon’s input, and it is thriving without it.

While RAW features a bloated 3 hour program, and a huge cast of characters, only a handful are ever given any motivation for their actions. Midcarders rarely have promo time, are usually buried by the commentary team, work against the same opponents, across multiple shows, every single week for a month and then change to a new opponent, with nary an explanation for why they were fighting in the first place, what was at stake, what was gained or lost, etc.

The crowd has been conditioned not to care about 60% of the roster. It’s no wonder guys like Cody Rhodes, Wade Barrett, and even the delightfully popular Damian Sandow are doomed to a lifetime of midcard obscurity. They are rarely given a chance to elevate themselves. And when they are given a mic, it is on the condition that they read, verbatim, the tedious scripts handed to them by the team of monkeys-with-keyboards Vince employed. Nothing sounds natural, nothing sounds original, no one gets over, no one cares.

NXT does it old school. The performers are given clear motivations and goals for their characters. These characters are honed by the individual performers; they have to be, because there aren’t enough writers to handle penning scripts for everyone on the roster. When it’s time to cut a promo, a simple bullet point list of things to say is given to them, and the performers are forced to…perform! But since they know their characters, it’s easy for them to find their voice and find their footing. The words are improvised, but true to the characters.

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Feuds from the top of the card to the bottom are given time to breathe, with backstage segments, in-ring promos, matches that both progress the story and—eventually—wrap them up with clean, decisive victories and losses. Takeover:Rival featured six matches, and only two of them had little story behind them. One of those two was a tag title rematch, the other was a match to crown the number one contendership. And even in the number one contenders match, the commentary had spent much of the week prior hyping it up and explaining the motivations of both characters to win. Catch that? Commentary added to the match, not detracted from it. Commentary served an actual storytelling purpose. On the main shows, the best that can be hoped for is that commentary stays out of the way and doesn’t make things worse.

The lowest match (in terms of importance) was between Bull Dempsy and Baron Corbin. These two have been feuding for months now. On RAW that would mean the two of them would compete on free TV, either trading wins or just ending in a disqualification. After seeing them compete 12 times in a month, with no promo time, vignettes, or in-ring arguments/confrontations, they would then have a match on PPV (now on the Network), where fans would be expected to see them compete again, this time for a price. It’s madness.

On NXT Corbin and Dempsy had a real storyline (a confident hero vs an insecure heel). It had progression, twists and turns, and spread across other matches and storylines. There were backstage segments, commentary hyped it up and when the time came for them to meet, even though it was a rematch, the crowd was excited about it. Keep in mind that everyone knew going in that was probably going to be the weakest “wrestling match” on the show, featuring the least important characters on the show. It didn’t matter: Because care was given to the story by the writers, care was had by the fans toward the match.

The main-event scene on NXT could not be hotter, either. On WWE programming the top babyfaces are usually some combination of stupid, jerk or misogynist. Even Daniel Bryan, the most pure and universally popular babyface since The Rock in 2001, has been showing tendencies that are heelish (arrogance, sarcasm toward other babyfaces, etc). It’s like the crack team of WWE writers don’t know how to make a hero…heroic. Cena is the worst, and any time he comes up against a heel female character I cringe and hope my 8 year old son (who adores Cena) doesn’t listen to his anti-women tirades.

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While there is a lot of attention paid to the main event scene on WWE programming (often to the detriment of the midcard), there are few truly captivating stories anymore, because of the so-called “even steven booking.” Main event guy-A loses to main-event guy-B, so the next month they announce a rematch so that main event guy-A can get his win back. No one is elevated, no one is advanced. Everything just remains static. Cena loses to Lesnar in horrific fashion at Summerslam, comes back happy and jokey right after, gets a rematch and is booked to essentially win the match but for interference. Even steven, nothing is advanced.

On NXT, the top guys go on journeys. They lose along the way, they stumble—even fall—but we watch them pick themselves up and win in the end. Because of those stories, the goodguys are actually liked. Fans went ballistic to see Sami Zayn finally win the NXT title a few months ago. That was a journey that told the story of a guy who could win his opponent’s respect but not the match. He engaged in a cold war with close friend and champion, Adrian Neville, where the champ was willing to do what was necessary to win, even if that meant doing a few heelish things.

Unlike on the main shows, where the faces act like jerks but are booked like heroes, on NXT the heroes can act like jerks and get called out on it. Zayn finally won the title by being true to himself and earned the praise of the crowd when he did. He’s a pure babyface that is cheered by all the fans, something Cena hasn’t experienced in a decade. Bayley’s journey toward the NXT Women’s title mirrors a lot of the same journey, and in fact the character herself acknowledged being inspired by seeing Sami show a little mean streak. That’s a commitment to intra-show continuity that RAW would never touch. On NXT, it added an extra layer to the most beloved woman on the roster.

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But for all the success NXT is having, they aren’t attaining it by rewriting the rules. They are simply using the tried and true, old school methods that worked in the past. Back in the days when Vince and Pat Patterson would sketch out months of storylines, and then make minor corrections as they went, the product had a more epic feel. Characters were allowed to grow and evolve, wrestling didn’t happen just to fill time on a three hour show, it happened to enhance the stories being told between the characters.

What’s so ironic is Vince decries so-called “wrestling for wrestling’s sake” but that’s exactly what we get every Monday night. Two wrestlers or two teams go out there for 10 minutes with little story or reason for being other than to fill time in a segment. Commentary might say those two are “feuding” but really all they’re doing is “wrestling over and over and over” with no story being advanced in the process. It’s “sports” but it’s not “entertainment.” It’s a new age creative direction that is suffocating his empire.

If you want real sports-entertainment, the old school NXT is the place to find it.

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  • Henry Higgins III

    That was a good read, but I wouldn’t say the No.1 Contender’s match had no story going in seeing as it was the final of a tournament that had been running for the better part of a month prior to the “PPV”.

    • Matthew Martin

      Yeah the tournament was the story, but there wasn’t much between Neville and Balor. Despite that, the announcers made you care about the individuals, not just the prize they were fighting for.

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