I missed last year’s NXT Takeover: In Your House. It was a rough year, sue me. I saw DX introduce the concept and figured the retro approach suited NXT really well. Let’s be honest: at times, NXT feels better suited for closed-circuit television than our current wrestling media landscape. And I don’t mean that as a diss.
Unsurprisingly, NXT dusted off the 1995 concept for the second year in a row with flawless execution. Unlike WWE’s recent attempts to reach into its bag of tricks from its past, NXT’s latest TakeOver played the nostalgia notes the right way and used WWE’s history to highlight its future.
WWE is in the nostalgia business. Like any entertainment company in the world right now, they want to sell the familiar. Remembering the good times from our childhood gives us warm scientific fuzzies. For fans of a certain age, hearing glass shatter followed by that distinct guitar riff releases a shot of very addictive dopamine into our brains. We crave that feeling so much until it becomes a crutch. And we’re sometimes willing to pay top dollar for it. Hence the remakes, reboots, and reimagined properties we get on the regular.
WWE is fully aware of this, so they respond in kind with endless Attitude Era documentaries and shows devoted to treasures from their past. It’s also the reason we get “retro” editions of flagship shows, most recently this past May on SmackDown. When it comes to supplying that sweet dopamine, WWE’s other two brands need to take notes from its third.
NXT understands presentation is kind of a big deal for themed events. Sun., June 13’s TakeOver was no different. The graphics, the logo, and the set evoked a particular era in WWE’s history. They even had Michael P.S. Hayes bring Doc Hendrix out of semi-retirement for the show’s intro.
But Todd Pettengill showing up was, as the kids say, the chef’s kiss for the entire night. Pettengill was a staple of early-mid ‘90s WWF, so his voice alone set the tone for the rest of the night. WWE used him throughout the show to hype matches while poking fun at himself.
Compare that to May’s SmackDown throwback, which felt like a hodgepodge of eras and styles. The ‘80s intro made no sense for a show that started in 1998, and nothing felt specific to SmackDown. Even the logos were out of place since no one bothered to dig WWE’s modified scratch logo out of mothballs. And no, WWE, showing clips of your favorite moments that test well with focus groups doesn’t make your program “old school.” At least not in the way you’re thinking. What started as a tribute to their second longest-running show morphed into a haphazard cluster cuss that felt rushed.
Nostalgia, when used well, is about more than just appearances. The best remakes add to the familiar and build on a concept. John Carpenter’s The Thing is a classic because the ’82 film used the ’51 original as a launchpad to say something wholly different. There are multiple versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, each written for specific moments in time. Johnny Gargano didn’t just pay homage to Shawn Michaels for the sake of cosplay; he did it to firmly establish himself as his generation’s Heartbreak Kid.
Hit Row tortured Pettengill similarly to a group of degenerates who used to mess with Todd’s successor many moons ago (while also shouting out In Living Color). The commentators referenced In Your House history to add stakes to the present, and LA Knight took the mantle from Ted Dibiase as the new Million Dollar Champion.
The retro setting wasn’t just—pardon the pun—window dressing. NXT used classic tropes—including freaking Karate Fighters—to further establish characters or add to a story. More impressively, the brand didn’t bombard the broadcast with mid-‘90s signposts and jokes. Instead, they found a perfect rhythm and used just the right amount of everything.
How Throwback SmackDown used its retro setting wasn’t in the same zip code as NXT, much less the same ballpark. On the real, the retro episodes of Raw are rarely handled this well either. They’re transparent ploys to pop a rating by tugging on the heartstrings of those of us who remember when. WWE legends like Jake Roberts interacting with the guy who used to be Dean Ambrose is momentarily dope, but it’s a sugar high at best.
Nostalgia is more than putting on those giant WWE sports jackets and Teddy Long putting playas in tag team matches. If WWE wants to keep selling us its past—one look at WWE Shop shows that’s clearly the plan—they need to make it meaningful.
As is the case most of the time these days, NXT is ahead of the curve and showing the two “main” brands how it’s done.
What say you, Cagesiders? What are some other ways WWE can use their nostalgia powers for good?