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Karrion Kross’ Raw debut answers a big question about NXT’s status

Is it WWE’s third brand? Is it their developmental league? We now have the answers to NXT’s identity crisis.

When Jeff Hardy strolled to the ring last Monday (July 19, 2021) to “No More Words,” some of us in the Cageside offices— Sean—said it’s too bad Hardy picked Karion Kross’ Raw debut to dust off the fan-favorite jam. Kross is the current NXT Champion who, for those of you doing other things with your Tuesday nights, pretty much runs the capital wrestling center. Hardy, on the other hand, is a WWE Main Event staple. The only way Kross is taking an L from Hardy is if hell freezes over.

A couple minutes later, Satan was shopping for a North Face coat with matching gloves. Not only did Kross lose, but he looked stupid. The NXT Champion, a man who dominated the yellow brand for months, fell for the oldest wrestling trick in the book in front of a sold-out arena and a million or so people watching at home.

What the actual f*ck, you ask? Well, join the club. But the ordeal reminded me of a nagging question of mine since NXT debuted its weekly show on USA to compete with upstart AEW: what is NXT, and who is it for? Kross’ defeat at the hands of the wrestling legend who barely broke a sweat to do so answers the question pretty damn emphatically.

NXT is a developmental system entirely out of sync with Vince McMahon’s larger vision.

To the initiated, NXT is, and always was, easily defined. Triple H’s back-to-basics baby acts as a funhouse mirror version of Raw or SmackDown. And that works perfectly for WWE Network, which is built on the backs of subscribers. It works less when marketing for a mass audience and a cable network that thrives off advertisement. If NXT is genuinely a third brand, then it needs full integration with the other two. Not saying they need to cross the streams every week, but NXT wrestlers consistently featured on WWE Pay Per Views is a good start.

Instead, we got NXT staples leaving the black and gold brand for bluer or redder pastures, a women’s tag team championship idea that never fully gelled, and Charlotte Flair to pop ratings. Rather than a loved family member, WWE’s half measures made NXT feel like the prodigal child the parents never talk about but tacitly acknowledge because it’s the polite thing to do. And that’s one of a few reasons putting it head-to-head against Dynamite was the wrong move.

AEW defined itself as a “new” professional wrestling league. Dynamite specifically branded itself as an alternative to WWE programming. Not an offshoot or semi-change, but a full-fledged honest-to-God second option with its own flavor. Dynamite emanates from arenas with *ahem* thousands in attendance screaming at the top of their lungs. AEW’s flagship show feels like a concert every single week. Minus the COVID days, obviously, but you get the point. AEW and TNT gave Dynamite all the trappings the world associates with primetime wrestling (not that Prime Time Wrestling) and made it feel major.

On the other hand, NXT operates out of the Capital Wrestling Center and the WWE Performance Center. We watch this stuff every week and may not think about it, but putting your “third brand” in the same venue with the same limited crowd capacity night after night—pre-COVID—tells the audience what to think of that product. Dollars to donuts, the casual observer says the show broadcasting from different cities with bigger crowds and a higher production budget feels like the more important show.

50 Cent once said Ja Rule’s biggest mistake was simply acknowledging 50’s existence. Without Ja giving him that attention, Curtis Jackson believes we probably wouldn’t know who he is today. WWE acknowledged the competition in a way it hasn’t since the late 1990s. And promoting NXT as the third brand that’s just as important as its red or blue cousins means with each “ratings victory,” AEW’s perception changed for advertisers, publishers, and television execs. You know, the people who get paid to care about that sort of thing. To the outsiders, this young promotion was besting the only game in town that mattered.

When NXT moved to a different night, it looked like a white flag slowly rising into the air. In a world where perception is significant, that win for AEW meant everything. It’s probably the main reason we’re here at this moment in time.

For the first time in God knows how long, more people chose another wrestling company over WWE. None of this means NXT is wack, so hold your horses. For my money, it’s the best thing WWE does outside of Roman Reigns and is easily the company’s most consistent show. That said, it’s not built to compete against AEW’s primary offering because it’s WWE’s appetizer.

Rather than accept that, a bunch of intelligent people played chess instead of checkers. And they did so in the name of chasing the ever-elusive clout and killing the competition before it grew legs. This is the aftermath of those decisions, and it’s possible one or two people WWE are in their feelings that it didn’t go as planned.

Maybe that’s why NXT feels like it’s in a holding pattern as of late. Or the reason for the recent talent raids. Whether there’s truth to the recent rumors or not, when the NXT Champion—their best of the best—is left looking up at the lights in that fashion, one thing is clear: NXT isn’t WWE’s third brand. It’s their minor league division.

WWE wanted it to be one way, but it’s clearly the other way.

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