What’s NeXT?

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When NXT began it was more of a gameshow than a wrestling program. Would-be WWE superstars, who moonlighted with the Florida Championship Wrestling developmental territory, would be brought in to compete for a WWE contract. The show replaced the ECW program that had been dying a slow death from the moment a zombie staggered onto the scene. Originally, the “contestants” would compete in everything from juggling to life-size “rock-em, sock’em” battles, while their “mentors” (WWE performers with nothing better to do) presumably advised them on the Pat Patterson way to spin plates on a pole.

Little did those contestants realize that learning how to juggle is almost as important to Vince McMahon as learning ring psychology.

The gameshow format brought us winners you may have heard about: Wade Barrett, Johnny Curtis (later “Fandango”) and Kaitlyn, as well as non-winners you know such as AJ Lee, Daniel Bryan and Skip Sheffield (the future “Ryback”). For eight months, NXT on SyFy was this weird show that hardly anyone watched and which didn’t matter to the overall scheme of WWE programming. Then Smackdown moved to SyFy and NXT became a WWE.com exclusive show. It then was watched even less, mattered even less, and basically dropped off the face of the earth.

To give you an idea about how bizzaro this show was, contestant Daniel Bryan was kicked off because the judges felt he lacked heart.

That’s right. Daniel Byran lacked enough moxie and go-get-em attitude to make it on the NXT gameshow.

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The gameshow aspect of NXT continued until early 2012, when it was finally replaced with a more traditional wrestling show, using a mixture of FCW and WWE talent. By August of 2012, FCW was absorbed into the NXT banner, and the beginnings of what we today consider NXT officially launched.

For the next year and a half NXT went from being this nothing-show that no one cared about to an underground wrestling thing that some of the die hard fans were whispering about. A few months after the new NXT kicked off, a trio of guys from the Florida development program (Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, and Leakee–now called “Roman Reigns”) invaded the Survivor Series PPV and took WWE by storm, dubbing themselves “The Shield.”  A few months later, vignettes started hyping the debut of Bray Wyatt and his cult family, who had last been seen running roughshod over the NXT “universe.”

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Surprising debuts and interesting personalities have always been around, but in the old days they came from ECW or WCW. Later they came from the independent scene, or from wrestling around the globe with international territories. Here they were all coming from the same place, this little-known-about thing called “NXT.” Fans started to rumble and look into it, though for United States fans you needed a Hulu subscription in those days if you wanted to enjoy it. Then came the WWE Network.

Then came ArRival.

What a perfect name for what, for many, was their first taste of NXT. Me personally, it was my first experience with it and I was a fan immediately. I didn’t know anyone apart from Cesaro and a random appearance by Too Cool, but I wasn’t watching it to see guys I knew. I was watching it because it had been hyped as the factory producing the superstars of tomorrow. ArRival featured Sami Zayn, Adrian Neville, Paige, Rusev, Tyler Breeze, Xavier Woods and more, packed into a two hour non-stop wrestling supershow. It was remarkable. I saw one of the best matches I’d ever seen from Cesaro (a guy I was only starting to get into) and Sami Zayn (whom I had never even heard of). I didn’t know anything about their feud that was climaxing with the match, but by the end of it I was floored. I saw the best women’s match I had ever seen (to that point) when Emma took on Paige. And of course I saw a Red Arrow for the first time. There was no better introduction for NXT than ArRival.

From then on I have been a regular Thursday/Wednesday night watcher.

As big a seismic shift the WWE Network was for the brand, things didn’t really get crazy for it until a trio of new guys arrived: First there was Hideo Itami, then Finn Balor, and finally Kevin Owens. Three guys with huge indie name-recognition had joined the roster and began tearing the house down on a weekly basis. The show found a new level of awesomeness and each new TakeOver event seemed to get better and better than the one before it.

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Not only the main event guys, but the rise of the women on NXT added to its appeal. Paige and Emma, as stated, wowed everyone with their women’s title match at ArRival, then Charlotte captured the gold a few months later in a great match with Natalya. Matches with Bayley and Shasha Banks at the next two events brought drama and passion to the matches that “Divas” matches on WWE’s main programming had never come close to having. Then, on the February 2015 TakeOver special, the women had a fatal-four way match that not only stole the show, it was so good it embarrassed the entire company for how poorly women’s matches had been treated in the past and in the present on the main roster.

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The high fans were feeling from NXT was rightly capitalized on: WWE took NXT on the road for the first time with stops in Ohio and then a big house show in San Jose during WrestleMania week. That was the show that seemed to kick off the next era of NXT.

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And what is that next era? What is NXT becoming? What’s next for the yellow brand of WWE that is more beloved week-to-week than anything on Raw or Smackdown?

The show is going on the road. The success of the San Jose show has led to NXT making a recent stop in Philly in advance of the Payback PPV. Reports are that the show was just as big of a success as the San Jose show. Most notably was the main event of the show: A women’s title match between Sasha Banks and Charlotte. That’s right: The NXT title match between Kevin Owens, Finn Balor and Tyler Breeze was slotted in the mid-card spot, while the women’s title match closed the curtain. For anyone who isn’t a regular NXT watcher, that seems an absurd thing to do. NXT fans weren’t surprised, however. They were appreciative, certainly, but not surprised.

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There has been talk of having the NXT talent tour along with the main roster to the towns that host the PPV (though Payback is in Baltimore), and use the publicity of the main roster talent coming to town as a backdoor to getting fans to pay to see the NXT talent too. At the rate NXT is going however, it won’t be too long before fans are shelling out the big bucks to watch Kevin Owens vs Hideo Itami, and treating Seth Rollins vs Randy Orton as the “and also” attraction.

Beyond that, NXT might do well to tape their shows in smaller blocks. Right now they tape about four episodes at a time and the viewers at home can usually tell which is the final taping, as the crowd is less energetic and the performances a little more sloppy. Not to mention it would help bring the goings-on of NXT closer to the chronology of the main roster shows. Raw is airing live every week, but NXT is taped a month behind it. A more in-sync chronology would make for easier cross-promotion, as a way to draw more Raw viewers to NXT (and therefore, to the WWE Network in general).

Also, due to the ever-increasing roster size, an additional thirty minutes might be in order. Possibly also a secondary title (something like a TV Title) could be created as a goal for the midcarders to feud over. There’s only so many ways people can have a beef with Baron Corbin. And sure, some fans will complain that NXT doesn’t need to change. Some fans will argue that the spirit of NXT is being lost with the bringing in of these old vets like Rhyno and Brian Kendrick (who, oddly, hasn’t been seen beyond one or two appearances…), and by occasionally leaving Full Sail University (the home of the NXT Arena), but those who say that miss the point: NXT has been changing evolving from the beginning.

What started out as a stupid gameshow that didn’t know what to do with the talent it had on hand, became a little-cared-about indie promotion that had no importance outside of the greater Orlando area. And then, because sheer talent can not be ignored forever (the cream rises to the top as Macho Man famously said), NXT flourished as the place to “watch wrestling’s superstars of tomorrow entertain you today.” Now, NXT has become so must-see it is simply the place to watch wrestling’s current superstars entertain you. NXT is no longer the future of wrestling. NXT is wrestling. NXT is no longer about what is next.

NXT is now.

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