The Decline of NXT

We all love NXT. It combines the best of both worlds: the intensity and intelligence (and usually the integrity, too!) of your favorite indy promotion with the production, resources, and endless purse of the WWE. At its best, NXT was a veritable wonderland of the best wrestling product in the world: the best stories (Sami Zayn’s pursuit of the title, the complex saga based around the Women’s Championship,) the best crowd, the best roster, the best matches, the best everything. The NXT I’m talking about was the NXT of early 2014, when New Japan was just starting to gain popularity in the States and Lucha Underground was just a blip on everyone’s radar.

The NXT formula was a winning one: take beloved indy stars and iron out their shtick for a broader audience. Turns out Sami Zayn is a lot more compelling when he can speak in complete sentences, and Kevin Owens doesn’t lose much when he isn’t allowed to curse. Add to the mix successful developmental projects (such as Tyler Breeze or Rusev) and rejuvenated main roster stars (like Tyson Kidd and Cesaro.) The cherry on top is a healthy and brilliantly booked women’s division, one that hides the weaknesses and showcases the strengths of its performers in a way that’d make Paul Heyman proud.

We’ve seen the positives of playing shows in front of the same crowds— the ECW Asylum was as much a part of the show as The Sandman or 90’s rap metal, and in happier days the Impact Zone was considered to be one of the best and most entertaining crowds in wrestling. Full Sail replicated this phenomenon, and for a long time we loved those wacky smarks down there. Probably my favorite moment of theirs was during NXT’s funniest moment ever, Bo Dallas as the masked "Mister NXT". Half the crowd chanted "you can’t fool us!" and the other half replied "yes you can!"

For a time, it was good. It was better than good, it was the most compelling wrestling product you could find. Want satisfying stories without feeling like you’re missing CHIKARA’s fifteen years of continuity? Want stellar action that doesn’t take place in some dark bingo hall with terrible acoustics like ROH? Worried about the language barrier preventing you from enjoying the best puro or lucha have to offer? NXT had your back. Every new signing was a new wave of excitement.

That was 2014. How about this year?

You may have noticed a certain spark lacking in NXT as of late. A lot of jobber squashes, less compelling storytelling, a general feeling of malaise. It’s still good wrestling, but it’s perhaps not great wrestling, and certainly not the revolutionary product it bills itself as. I feel this, and judging from Sean’s weekly recaps and the ensuing discussion I’m far from the only one.

Why is this happening? The obvious answer is a depleted roster. Most of the best stars from 2014 are either called up (Neville, Bo Dallas, Kalisto, Tyson Kidd,) are hurt (Sami Zayn, Hideo Itami,) are on their way out and have been for a while (Tyler Breeze, the Four Horsewomen minus Bayley.) That leaves a new generation: guys like Baron Corbin, Blake and Murphy, Dana Brooke, Dawson and Wilder. Not exactly a murderer’s row.

See, here’s the central problem with NXT: it’s developmental. As in, it’s designed to prepare its performers for brighter lights. But it’s also its own show, which is supposed to be exciting and entertaining and satisfying in its own right. These two things are like a McMahon and a smark’s optimism: they can’t exist in harmony, at least not for long.

NXT talent have a short shelf life, and it’s getting shorter. NXT Arrival in February 2014 featured fourteen performers: three were guests, and of the other eleven only three are still on NXT. Mojo Rawley has been taken off and put back on TV more times than can count, Tyler Breeze has been treading water and waiting for a call-up since like December, and Emma was sent to the main roster and then back to NXT.

Now here’s the scary part. Takeover R Evolution in December 2014 featured sixteen performers. If we count Sami Zayn and Charlotte as called-up (and they basically are, let’s be real,) then six of those sixteen are still in NXT (The Vaudevillains, Itami, Balor, Dillinger, and Corbin.) The other ten are for one reason or another not appearing on NXT and probably won't again. That’s a crazy turnover rate for a mere eight month stretch.

This isn’t a problem in of itself, because developmental is meant to prepare superstars and then send them up to the main roster. But remember, NXT isn’t FCW or OVW or DSW. Those could have been terrible products, what mattered was the experience and seasoning the talent was getting. NXT has the extra burden of commanding our attention and getting us to open our pocketbooks. And when a wrestling product is asked to build and then sell stars as quickly as NXT is, then it flounders. Take a look at ECW or Pro Wrestling NOAH, both of which watched their rosters slowly deplete until they became shells of their previous selves.

This is especially notable in the women’s division. All Japan in the 90’s had what was called the Four Pillars— a quartet of tremendous wrestlers who had amazing matches with each other… and pretty much nothing else of note going on anywhere else on the card. The Four Horsewomen are that in miniature. Charlotte had Sasha Banks and Bayley and Becky Lynch to defend her title against. When my girl Bayley beats Sasha in Brooklyn, who will she face? Carmella? Dana Brooke? Alexa Bliss… okay that might actually work out okay, but I doubt it’d be a classic. New girls like Jessie McKay can be brought in, but they will have to get very over very fast to be seen as credible challengers to such a prestigious title.

Likewise, Finn Balor’s NXT title competition looks slender right now. Until Itami returns from injury, the only real opponent on his radar would be Samoa Joe. Because, I mean, who else? Rhyno, Baron Corbin, Solomon Crowe? Again, Apollo Crews is a good candidate but he will have to get very over very fast to be credible… and the cycle repeats.

NXT succeeded at first because it had so much to build off of. It had unrefined talents like Bo Dallas and Tyler Breeze, indy guys perfecting their already-established act like Sami Zayn and Adrian Neville, and main roster sorts in need of a tune-up like Tyson Kidd and Cesaro. These days it feels more and more like NXT is separated into the "haves" and the "have-nots". The haves are the people who were world class competitors somewhere besides the WWE, guys like Finn Balor and Samoa Joe. The have-nots are developmental products that don’t seem to be going anywhere despite countless opportunities, like Baron Corbin.

And WWE can hardly sign indy stars in perpetuity. Top stars tend to make good money plying their craft outside WWE, and the main roster doesn’t want or need a constant influx of new stars. NXT’s turnover rate means that they do need a constant flow of new stars. But when you have a longterm prospect like Corbin (who I am really picking on I know, but he’s an excellent example of what I’m talking about,) then that means the viewer has to sit through a whole lot of boring-ass Baron Corbin matches with the hopes that in 2017 he’ll get really good. It doesn’t make for compelling TV.

And of course, I didn’t forget about the Full Sail crowd. What was once charming has now become kind of irritating, what was once endearing is now just dumb. The NXT crowd is more interested in getting themselves over, in Being the NXT Crowd, then they are enjoying the product in front of them. They’ve become too self-conscious of the part they play in the atmosphere of NXT. They’re a set dressing that has decided it’s the leading man.

Don’t think I wrote this to bash NXT. I like NXT quite a bit, and I have absolutely no intention of missing an episode. I wanted to write this article because I’m concerned about NXT, and NXT’s future. I hope that things will get back on course and we’ll get more classics like the glory days of 2014. But the winning formula is compromised, and those glory days are slipping farther and farther away.

The FanPosts are solely the subjective opinions of Cageside Seats readers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Cageside Seats editors or staff.