NXT vs. AEW – What’s an Underdog to Do?
We have seen the first two weeks of NXT with their unique task of having the first hour broadcast on USA and the second hour streamed on the WWE Network. The table is now set for their first full two-hour show on USA up against the AEW Dynamite program that will also debut on TNT this Wednesday (October 2nd). There are some interesting points that come to mind when looking at opportunities for NXT while battling AEW.
As a wrestling fan and even as a sometimes wannabee wrestling commentator, I have to take the first two NXT episodes with a grain of salt. These episodes were quite possibly dry runs with a focus on executing a two-hour show for the first time. NXT is typically a weekly one-hour show. There’s no reason to assume that doubling content is going to be a gimme (witness RAW going from two hours to three), so practice is valuable. With AEW never having had to produce a weekly wrestling product, there are advantages that NXT owns. With AEW making it’s “world television debut” this Wednesday, I expect NXT to lose in the ratings war come Thursday’s results. Conversely, over the course of a month or so, AEW must produce good television or viewers will have an alternative to switch to instead of watching a product they don’t like - think RAW back when Nitro still existed.
Three Opportunities for NXT
#1 - No Promos for NXT - Maybe Not
The first two weeks lived by the old writing motto, “Show, don’t tell.” We saw almost no wrestlers simply talking on the microphone. We saw wrestlers in the ring cheating, showing no fear, standing up for their friends, etc. Characters were defined by actions, not words. Is this just a way to set themselves apart from the other WWE (and presumably AEW) shows? Both companies have a number of wrestlers accomplished at taking the microphone and delivering an entertaining promo. Or is this a long-term NXT strategy?
NXT has always been more focused on the in-ring wrestling and less focused on talking on the microphone and the general craziness that you see on a WWE program. Wanting to differentiate NXT from some of the failed plotlines of RAW and SmackDown is totally understandable. No one needs the Rowan “attempted murder” of Roman Reigns replicated or the marginalizing of Kevin Owens by Shane McMahon replayed. While a lot of the failures that happen when NXT wrestlers move to the main roster are the fault of Vince McMahon’s myopic creative vision, one could also postulate that Vince doesn’t know what to do with wrestlers who have focused primarily on wrestling. Ascension, Asuka, Shinsuke Nakamura, Bo Dallas, Tyler Breeze, Bobby Roode, and Apollo Crews are just a few who’ve taken exciting NXT careers into proverbial brick walls upon arriving in the WWE.
With their show on USA, NXT is now one of the big brands, regardless of what the WWE might say. The WWE needs to figure out what they’re going to do with this promotion. Is it developmental in nature? In reality is NXT an equal with RAW – now that SmackDown is on one of the Big 4 on-air networks? From an organizational design standpoint, it shouldn’t matter. No worker expects to come into a company and not get coached in order to improve their skills and abilities. The WWE should be developing wrestlers for the next step whether that next step is to become a mid-carder or to step up to be a headline talent doesn’t matter. One skill that we know is critical to move up in the wrestling world is the ability to talk on the microphone. It’s been that way since the advent of wrestling and it will be there until the last day of wrestling. My vote would be to give NXT guys many shots at developing this skill set. Nowadays, you can find a bunch of great in-ring wrestlers that few outside of the wrestling super fan category would recognize. Developing promos is a skill that separates the mid-carders from the champions. Most importantly, to be a Hall of Famer, you have to be great on the microphone. This is a required skillset to sell tickets, pay-per-view programs, and network subscriptions. So coach it, develop it, nurture it.
Going back in my history as a fan, it’s the great microphone guys who have hooked me on wrestling. Growing up in Central IL, we got the old AWA on our local television stations. There was nothing more magical than listening to Nick Bockwinkel and Bobby Heenan promoting an upcoming match. Bockwinkel was fantastic at describing in impeccable language exactly what he was going to do to someone and how they made him feel. His habit of carrying a dictionary paid off in spades. This was a skillset developed over decades. His character was built as a cerebral wrestler both in and out of the ring and his promos portrayed as that consistently over decades.
During the 80s, we finally got access to cable television and the wrestling world opened up for us. The WWF (before the WWE name change) and the NWA (in the form of Georgia Championship Wrestling) were there for the watching. For me, two wrestlers stood out in their ability to deliver a promo. The greatest of all was Ric Flair. In his prime, he built up to a match over the weeks with more and more emotion as the match came closer. He changed up his pacing and tone. He had the gift of creating wonderful catchphrases. In the future guys like the Rock and Chris Jericho would rival his skillset in this area. Heck, even my dad, who hated pro wrestling would sit down to listen to Flair’s promos. That alone is a huge testament to Ric Flair’s power to command attention. At the same time, Hulk Hogan had a much more simplistic style. Clearly, he was aiming at kids, but he was effective for the time in getting you to believe that a man of his large size was actually the underdog in an upcoming match. Hogan was a bit on the caveman side, but he didn’t suffer from the occasional logical circles that Savage took or the unintelligible rambles of the Ultimate Warrior. I still can’t figure out what the Warrior was speaking about nearly half the time. Hogan, though, could command your attention and you’d know why he was going to fight and he was clear about what he was going to do to make things right.
In the late 90s, it was the Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin. Either man would make viewers sit down and pay attention. One knew you would be laughing, and yes, we were always entertained. Their skills were amazing but in different ways. The Rock made insults hilarious. I was amazed that anyone could keep a straight face while he was shredding them right there in front of the cameras. He was such a fast thinker on his feet with a microphone in his hand. Only Jericho dared to go toe-to-toe with him verbally. Stone Cold could do so with the threat of physicality. I keep thinking it would be great to have a time machine to put the Rock across from Bockwinkel or Flair in the their prime. As for Stone Cold, he took a different path. He reminded me of the old 70s promos. He was much more visceral in describing what he was going to do to his opponent. He also built an amazing rapport with the live audiences, I don’t know that even the Rock was as effective at that, and the Rock was darn good with audiences himself.
Nowadays, there are quite a few stars who shine on the microphone. CM Punk started a revolution with his pipe bomb promo, though many wrestlers said they could do the same with permission from the boss (Vince McMahon). I don’t know about that, but I do know Punk was fantastic. Chris Jericho recreates himself and his promos with each new incarnation. I am looking forward to watch what he will do in AEW. Kevin Owens may be the best going right now in the WWE. If anyone can overcome the creative assassination of his character that has just happened, it’s Kevin. Give him the microphone and let him go. Finally, a new player is on the board, Daniel Bryan was fantastic as the environmental bad guy. Bryan’s in-ring skills are great, but he proved he can carry feuds by himself with his carefully crafted promo skills. What made Bryan’s evolution so good is that it was unexpected. He really worked hard to develop these skills and it’s paying off for fans when WWE Creative can keep things together (or get Vince out of the way).
All those that I listed (and the many that I could’ve listed) developed this skill over time with hard work, coaching from their booker, advice from more experienced wrestlers, and maybe even an assist from a promoter or two. NXT needs to embrace this to keep their product and the WWE product full of wrestlers who can do what is necessary to sell more product. Each wrestler needs to do what must be done - clearly state why winning a match is important and why the grudge exists – and if the cake has icing on it - it’ll also be entertaining to boot. I suspect NXT will start to do more promos. It’s a huge opportunity for the WWE to continue to develop their talent.
#2 – Still Put Brand over Stars? Or Not?
Vince McMahon has seemed to try to “NFL-ize” his roster since his years of having to negotiate with the likes of Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior back in the day. In the 80s, the WWE built stars, then the WWE brand, in that order. The closest approximation to this is the way the NBA markets its stars at least as much as they promote the NBA brand. NBA stars are recognizable throughout the world – just like international soccer stars are. With the exodus of the Rock to massive movie stardom and Stone Cold Steve Austin to injury, McMahon has changed how his shows are produced. Instead of promo spots that were truly unscripted (maybe just bullet pointed), which would be outlined by the wrestlers involved, now Vince has a Creative staff. They figure out angles, write promos, wrestlers memorize promos, and Vince often changes everything that he approved previously on the day of RAW, SmackDown or even a live show on the WWE Network. The era of surprise break out stars has been minimized.
Setting aside some of the inconsistent plot lines that this strategy of Vince rewrites causes, the main issue is that wrestlers tend to sound and act like one another. If you couple similar speaking patterns with the excessive number of wrestlers with greasy dark hair (what’s up with all the petroleum products) and beards, it gets hard to differentiate wrestlers. Clearly, the WWE desires wrestlers to be more and more like generic commodities. The WWE has decided that the wrestlers are “plug and play” and essentially interchangeable. This is much more like the NFL. Both organizations have to deal with serious and long-term injury events, so one can understand the appeal to ownership to both lower player costs and not have to worry about a star getting hurt and ruining a season (be it a football season or a television season).
Like many decisions, there are positives and there are negatives. Over the last 15 years, the WWE hasn’t developed a huge mainstream star. Part of this is due to the lack of creative license the wrestlers have and the fact that there is a genuine spark that the Hall of Famers have shown to fans in the past because they owned a part of storyline and character creative process. Ownership of an idea is so important when you’re trying to put over a story in front of a live audience and on live television. We hear through interviews with writers and wrestlers that many times wrestlers don’t think the story reflects their characters motives or just feel the storyline is foolish. And it shows. Please feel free to listen to Jon Moxley’s interviews with Wade Keller of the PW Torch or Chris Jericho on his Talk is Jericho podcast. No one thrives in a system that they feel doesn’t allow them to reach their full potential. Wrestlers are people too.
NXT has to decide if it’s just a subset of the WWE and follow the branding first philosophy or if they are going to develop stars and ride those stars to the top of the television ratings lists. Ratings for the Attitude Era compared to today tells me that even with all the cord cutting, the shows of that era had a legitimacy and intensity that just isn’t there in today’s system. Could Triple H (Paul Levesque the WWE’s second-in-command and NXT showrunner) allow his wrestlers some of the same freedoms that he used to make his name? This columnist hopes so. Triple H was a great wrestler and used the freewheeling environment existing in the WWE at the time to create his own unique and memorable persona. Here’s to hoping that Triple H is given the latitude to do the same for his wrestlers and is willing to go against Vince in another philosophical way in order to create a better product.
#3 – Factions are Fabulous
As someone who loved watching the Four Horsemen back in the day, enjoyed the nWo (not the Wolfpack), liked the Kliq, and who could not help but enjoy the various incarnations of the Heenan Family; I am overjoyed to see the faction reintroduced to national audiences on a non-WWE Network basis. I am uncertain as to why the RAW and SmackDown shows have avoided such groups for quite some time, but I am a huge proponent of factions.
With the Undisputed Era and the Imperium, I am in faction heaven. I can’t wait to see what calamities that Walter and his crew can create on NXT. Walter is a unique personality with a great look. Let’s see what he can do. As the head of Imperium, he could be a breakout star for NXT. Adam Cole also has huge breakout appeal on NXT. I do wonder if he were moved to RAW or SmackDown, would he get lost? All Vince would notice about him was that he’s 5’9” or however tall he is, it wouldn’t be enough for Vince. Ironically, his size could make him the perfect wrestler to blow up and make it to mainstream popularity in Hollywood. He could even become a leading man. Not everywhere is a superhuman stature required and we can all list a number of very short leading men making millions in Hollywood.
Let’s hope the NXT uses factions to make NXT more fun and supercharge certain deserving potential stars. If we’re fortunate, the use of factions and creating stars - not identical pieces inside of a huge brand - will help NXT be an impetuous for change for the rest of the WWE.
Based on all the mainstream publicity for the launch of AEW, NXT is going to have to weather the early storm. Interestingly enough, NXT has lower expectations and it’s consistent leadership and production of high quality product may give it the resources to indeed hang on through an early ratings onslaught and come out strong on the other side. Like so many things, only time will tell.