When it comes to WWE’s developmental brand, NXT has largely been getting more plaudits than not. Sure, there’s viewers who aren’t huge fans of the commentators (and I for one miss the days where NXT had a revolving cast of commentators), but on the whole NXT has been more good than bad. Unfortunately, since the summer, it appears that the bloom is starting to come off of the proverbial rose, and it’s all down to the fans.
When the WWE Network launched in 2014, NXT quickly bloomed into one of wrestling’s hottest properties, a far cry from when those three letters represented a brand of weird wannabe reality TV. Gone were the days of watching the likes of Lucky Cannon, Jacob Novak and the future Prime Time Players running on thrown-together assault courses and playing word association, and in its place was a product that made fans watch the WWE Network for more than just live pay-per-views.
As NXT’s new reputation grew, so did the buzz around it. Special “Takeover” events boasted great matches featuring “developmental” talent: (Adrian) Neville vs. Bo Dallas in a ladder match. Cesaro vs. Sami Zayn. Neville vs. Tyson Kidd. Zayn vs. Kevin Owens. If you weren’t a fan of the men, then you had the women’s division, which was like chalk and cheese compared to how the WWE presented its “Divas” on the main roster. Charlotte, Paige and Sasha Banks all blazed a trail en route to the main roster, giving a true alternative to the turgid three-minute womens matches that often served as second intermissions on Raw and pay-per-views.
In that last paragraph, you’ll note that I said “developmental” talent – of course, out of that list of matches, only Bo Dallas was a “true” developmental wrestler, having started with NXT’s predecessor, Florida Championship Wrestling (FCW) in late 2008 before becoming the NXT champion and ultimately moving onto the main WWE roster. Tyson Kidd had been on the WWE’s main roster since 2009, and was back in NXT whilst “creative found something for him”. The rest of those guys all joined WWE after a fair amount of time on the independent scene. Adrian Neville spent years in Japan as Pac; Cesaro plied his trade as Claudio Castagnoli; and Sami Zayn I hear is a pretty good stunt double for El Generico.
Therein laid the root of the problem. Somewhere along the line, NXT started to morph into what some termed a “super indy” – and more of a touring brand than the straightforward developmental territories of days gone by. With TNA’s ongoing implosions seeing them cutting costs (and most of their roster), WWE seemed to aim at the biggest independent group in North America, aping the in-ring style of Ring of Honor, and often going after talent whom ordinarily would not have even been considered by WWE. Former ROH champion Kevin Steen made the leap to NXT and ended up getting a fast-track to the main roster as Kevin Owens. Japanese wrestler KENTA, whom at 5′ 9″ and 180lbs, would barely have been acknowledged by WWE in the early 2000s, made the move to the States and became Hideo Itami. Irish grappler Fergal Devitt, is barely bigger than Itami, left behind the cult Bullet Club group that he led in New Japan Pro Wrestling, and morphed into Finn Balor. With a mixture of the biggest names from around the world and home-grown talent from the WWE’s newly built Performance Centre, how could things go wrong?
Well, its seemed that NXT quickly followed the path of another promotion that was based in Florida.
If you’ve watched NXT for any length of time, you’ll know that the lion’s share of it’s television shows are taped in Winter Park, Florida’s Full Sail University, in a facility that houses 400 people. Owing to the popularity of NXT, tickets for each television taping and live special usually sold out well ahead of time; not unlike back in TNA’s glory days when they were filling out Universal Studio Orlando’s Soundstage 21 (known by the catchier name of the Impact Zone). Back then, TNA were making a habit of bringing in the biggest names from around the world, and the fans in Orlando were lapping it up… at least until things went off the rails with the arrival of Hulk Hogan in 2010, along with a slew of former WWE/WCW names who were past their prime. But that’s a story for another day. The point is, although it took a few years for things to fade away, TNA’s fanbase started to feel that “their” product was taken away from them – and with that, so did their passion.
WWE’s now starting to see the same with NXT. Remember earlier in the summer of 2015, when NXT announced that they would be holding an event over SummerSlam weekend? How about the reaction when the announcement was made during a taping at Full Sail University that the show in Brooklyn would be a Takeover special? To say that the response was less than enthusiastic, was an understatement, as the Florida fans were horrified at the prospect of “their” NXT moving being held in front of a sell-out crowd of 13,000 people. Ever since then, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that for the run-of-the-mill NXT shows, the fans at Full Sail have stopped caring about the action in the ring, and have made “hijacking the show” part of their business.
Whilst seeing the Full Sail crowd audibly dismissing Eva Marie’s attempts to be a wrestler is fun to watch, it becomes a chore to watch when the crowd tries to force the spotlight onto themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the fans should turn up to shows, be silent and only cheer and boo on-demand. However, when the same crowd who once reacted to Mojo Rawley as if he were the second coming of the Rock spend the majority of NXT shows either sitting on their hands or trying to get the arena to join in with inane, inside chants, we’re left with what could well be the second coming of TNA.
And how could you blame them? Almost two years after the WWE Network saw NXT become a major property, WWE have yet to take anyone from developmental and turn them into a true star. As a fan of NXT, seeing cult stars like Adam Rose being turned into opening match fodder (when he’s lucky!), or a dominating tag team like the Ascension turned into a Legion of Doom clone, it’s not hard to see why the regular NXT crowd are finding it hard to care. Thankfully, the chances of Messrs Hogan and Bischoff coming to wreck NXT are exceedingly low, but WWE is now at a crossroads. The answer isn’t in promoting a random NXT guy to the main roster and strapping a rocket to him – but when WWE treats NXT as something that doesn’t matter, it’s not hard to see why the fans are starting to act the same as well.