The Super Indie Era of NXT—the period where WWE actually attempted to cater to pro wrestling enthusiasts—may have formally ended with the introduction of NXT 2.0, but it was this week that served as the ultimate curtain call. At New Year's Evil, Carmelo Hayes defeated Roderick Strong to unify the North American and Cruiserweight titles and Bron Breakker won the NXT title from Tommaso Ciampa—passings of the torch. Then, the last vestiges of that NXT era were fired by WWE, including former on-screen authority figure and scout William Regal and former NXT Champion Samoa Joe.
NXT's rise as a super indie was as remarkable as the speed and scope of its collapse. Fans are disappointed. Some even have this comical fantasy that the architect of that time period, Paul "Triple H" Levesque, would flip off father-in-law Vince McMahon and leave the company. That’s not happening for obvious reasons.
From rumors of WWE internally blaming Triple H for NXT not vanquishing upstart AEW, to the company wanting to draw younger viewers, to the growing influence of leading executive Nick Khan, various reasons are being looked at as to why WWE would change a brand that was near and dear to many hearts.
In my view, the dismantling of Super Indie NXT is a tacit admission that by WWE that they were wrong. What they were wrong about is what I will explore in this post. It’s one part obvious; one part complicated. But it is indeed the nature of show business.
For the purposes of this post, I am considering the Super Indie Era of NXT to begin with the 2014 NXT Arrival show because up until that point, NXT was effectively a re-branded continuation of FCW.
Fans love(d) independent promotions such as Ring of Honor, Pro Wrestling Guerilla, Chikara, and Evolve; however, these outlets for pro wrestling enthusiasts had one key issue—accessibility.
You had to really be a diehard pro wrestling enthusiast to seek out, enjoy, and continue to routinely keep up with these indie promotions. Indie pro wrestling is an acquired taste, especially among fans that are more used to a formula that WWE has established since the early 1990s.
Nevertheless, Triple H and WWE brass would see this as an opportunity. The company decided to turn NXT from just a developmental minor league into an accessible indie-like brand, only just under the auspices of the WWE machine. With NXT on WWE Network, it was a low-risk but an extremely high-reward move: bring in indie stars with cult followings that would then become new fans for WWE. These fans would pro wrestling enthusiasts who would otherwise resist watching anything WWE; but would regardless tune into watch their indie favorites. It reminds me of when General Motors tried appealing to Toyota and Honda buyers with their Saturn marque.
Yes, the stated goal was to bring in performers that could develop into future main roster stars. However, a lot of the talent that Triple H (and William Regal) brought in were not of the typical WWE main roster mold—and probably would never be.
Many times, the fans of these indie stars saw a lot more in them than WWE main roster brass did, especially Vince McMahon himself. While some translated into viable acts on the main roster, many did not.
As is their wont, diehard fans blamed McMahon and main roster producers for "ruining them". Triple H himself, however, offered a more nuanced take in response to a question on a media call a while back, chalking it up to more or less the inevitable occurrence that sometimes some stars don’t work out.
The one thing that many pro wrestling bloggers and enthusiasts that loved the Super Indie Era found difficult to accept—but Triple H and McMahon were acutely aware of—is that the NXT viewer is vastly different than the typical Raw and Smackdown viewer, and that the latter mattered far more than the former to WWE’s bottom line. NXT-to-main roster acts kept fizzling out and soon WWE was understandably beginning to question NXT. I can only imagine how much the scrutiny intensified after the brand’s move to USA Network.
It is easy to say that losing the TV ratings war to All Elite Wrestling was the beginning to the end of NXT. It's an understandable position to take, but I feel the writing on the wall was a bit earlier than that.
Of the NXT performers who were introduced during the Super Indie Era, only Kevin Owens emerged as a bankable main event act on the main roster; however, he was routinely overshadowed by others and ended up losing his only world title to Goldberg in 22 seconds. Finn Balor was unfortunately injured in a match with Seth Rollins in which he won a world title, but he never emerged past upper mid-card status on Raw or Smackdown after his return from injury.
Other beloved NXT acts, such as Malakai Black (then-known as Aleister Black), Andrade El Idolo (then-known as Andrade Almas), Ricochet, and Keith Lee, among others, fizzed out. Adam Cole, who is now in AEW, never made it to the main roster. Some success stories, such as Drew McIntyre, Samoa Joe, and Robert Roode, were not indie darlings that were brought into NXT, but rather long time veterans of TV pro wrestling with McIntyre previously playing a prominent mid-card role in WWE. However, Roode and Joe never made it past being upper mid-card, and Joe was used as heel foil in the two main event feuds he had: with Roman Reigns and with AJ Styles.
In other words, the Super Indie Era of NXT had a significant track record of not achieving WWE's key goal of cultivating new stars. In fact, I find it remarkable that the Super Indie Era lasted as long as it did, especially on USA Network.
Some fans want to lay blame at the feet of WWE President and Chief Revenue Officer Nick Khan, which is understandable. A good chunk of the WWE's last transitory moves, including a bevy of roster releases, occurred after Khan's arrival from CAA, where he previously served as WWE's lead negotiator on their massive TV rights deals. However, if Khan has to be blamed for anything, it would probably be for pointing out what was increasingly becoming obvious—the Super Indie NXT was nearing the end of its shelf-life.
So what did WWE admit it was wrong about? Two things: the audiences that they could cater to and the process of developing NXT-to-main roster stars.
One, WWE believed it could appeal to two distinctively different audiences while having NXT and the main roster operate almost like two separate universes. Two, WWE thought that it could turn any NXT performer it brought up to the main roster into viable, accessible acts once they transitioned to the main roster. The former proved to be unsustainable; the latter turned out to be increasingly unsuccessful. Whether fans want to believe it or not, Triple H and Shawn Michaels probably came to terms to what McMahon, Khan, and Pritchard were seeing—NXT had to change.
So, WWE had a decision to make. It could either going to pour money into a brand that only catered to a narrow audience or change that brand to appeal to wider audiences, even to the point of changing how they developed and presented performers. WWE knew that it had to grow a younger audience considering the changes that have been occurring in the pay television market. WWE also knew acts that transitioned from NXT to the main roster were consistently not turning into the successes the company hoped they would be.
Remember, on any given week, NXT draws half of the total audience of Raw, draws anywhere from 20-40% of the 18-49 demographic of Raw, and has a median viewer that is often 5 to 9 years older than Raw or Smackdown. This was the case even when NXT was still airing on Wednesdays opposite AEW Dynamite. Who knows what the viewership while NXT was still on WWE Network—a straight answer on that never emerged.
Simply put, Khan probably convinced McMahon (or McMahon convinced himself and Khan supported the move) to go back to doing what he does best: slick production, easy-to-grasp TV, and personality-driven content. Performers had to be cultivated from the start to do things the WWE way.
Smarks, workrate snobs, enthusiasts, diehards—regardless of the label that is used—loved the Super Indie Era NXT and many are heartbroken over the changes. However, the changes were absolutely necessary given that the formula that they loved was not a winning one for WWE as a business and as a brand.
It's worth repeating that the audience that dominates Raw and Smackdown is vastly different from the NXT. The "diehard" versus "casual" distinction is utterly worthless, though. You can be a diehard wrestling fan and care little for workrate or detailed storytelling. You can be a pro wrestling enthusiast and still think that Roman Reigns is the greatest pro wrestler ever. The real demarcation line between the main roster audience and the NXT audience is just simply taste. Whether you agree with WWE's conclusion that NXT acts had to invariably change to meet, what they understood to be, the taste of the main roster audience is up to you. But clearly WWE decided that it had to change.
With Roman Reigns (36), Brock Lesnar (44), Bobby Lashley (45), Edge (48), Flair (35), and Lynch (34) getting older, McMahon realizes he needs to start laying the foundation for the future, and he cannot keep doing it if NXT acts keep bombing on the main roster. Moreover, even though WWE is being paid millions by USA Network to broadcast NXT, WWE brass clearly felt viewership had hit a wall. Ultimately, the feeling is that NXT got as far as it could go without a significant overhaul.
The unfortunate thing is that a lot of lives have been uprooted. Various performers that cultivated their craft on the independent scene and looked forward to having bigger, stable paychecks under the WWE umbrella have had their fortunes reversed in as little as 12-18 months. Long time employees kicked to the curb. Personnel such as Cathy "Allison Danger" Corino learning they got canned on her daughter's first day of school.
But one has to wonder what the landscape would be like if WWE never made that bet. Would fans have heard of many of the performers they have now grown attached to? Would many of those Impact Wrestling veterans still have ended up in WWE? That answer could go either way.
It remains to be seen what happens with NXT UK. But I wonder if that brand is on borrowed time as well in its current configuration. The brand's biggest investment, the Imperium stable led by WALTER, are all about to be completely stateside as Aichner and Barthel are the NXT Tag Champs and WALTER has finally decided to move to the United States.
NXT UK was WWE's attempt to corner the British wrestling scene, but much of that momentum slowed down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. WWE also tried to penetrate the Japanese wrestling market, but that didn't pan out either. This is a slimmer, more focused WWE that is clearly committed to the personality-driven formula that has brought success and viewership previously.
What I can say, definitively, is that WWE thought that after years of trying, they got it wrong with the Super Indie years of NXT. So NXT changed to 2.0. I will say from the bit that I have seen of 2.0, it is not bad. Whether it gains the audience that WWE is hoping for remains to be seen.