Wednesday 4 February 2015

There's Something About NXT

In 2014 NXT gained a reputation for being WWE’s best weekly show. RAW was too long and burdened with filler material, SmackDown was mostly inconsequential, and Main Event and Superstars were entirely skippable. This rep must have been great news for the separate roster that competes on NXT. But at the same time you do have to wonder why something categorised within WWE as a developmental programme, somewhere for people to learn their craft, is so routinely thought of as being better than a show that features the likes of Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Bray Wyatt and John Cena, the supposed A-listers of the wrestling world.

If you asked everyone who enjoys NXT to specify everything they like about it I don’t think you’d get two answers exactly the same. But I do think you’d get a lot of things cropping up on everyone’s lists. Most obviously NXT is the one WWE show where wrestling is pushed to the fore. Wins and losses matter and as such every match carries consequence. With wrestling being presented as a sporting contest this approach makes sense but it’s one that rarely appears outside of very specific main event scenarios in WWE proper.

This emphasis has ensured that championships mean something in NXT. They’re presented as desirable items and are treated with respect by the writing team. They’re defended infrequently which makes it mean more when they are. When there are prizes on a wrestling show that mean something to the wrestlers it’s easier to get invested in what happens. You can understand why they want to win and become the champ if there’s a title that carries meaning. World title aside this isn’t really the case on the main roster. The titles simply aren’t made to feel important.

The wrestling itself is of a very high standard too. The NXT roster is comprised of very talented wrestlers who get to wrestle lengthy matches. That a number of them are standouts from various promotions around the world means WWE is able to present indy favourite match-ups, such as the upcoming Owens v Zayn match, and dream matches that have previously been hard to see.

Would Itami get as much time on RAW?
This actually shows some rare humility from WWE. The pushing of guys like Adrian Neville, Finn Bálor, Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens and Hideo Itami is a subtle, indirect acknowledgement from the world’s leaders in sports entertainment that people from outside WWE can draw. They may not be relied upon for monthly pay-per-views but they’re the main players on the Network exclusive Takeover specials, which have become a big selling point for the Network as a whole. As has the general NXT show.

This isn’t to knock the main roster. There are plenty of people there who are clearly more than competent. But the difference is that they so rarely get to show what they can do on RAW or SmackDown. There are too often distractions and fripperies outside of NXT and they can detract from even the best match.

NXT is also the only WWE show that showcases good quality, competitive women’s wrestling. On the main roster the Divas occupy a filler role, rarely getting any meaningful storylines and even more rarely getting anything resembling character development. In NXT there are diverse characters and matches frequently last in excess of three minutes. The women are presented as separate from the men but not as inferior to them. Even when Trish Stratus, Victoria, Mickie James and Lita were around for  what is generally considered to be the peak of women’s wrestling in WWE that wasn’t the case.

There are the gimmicks. I’m a big fan of gimmicks in wrestling and over the years WWE has given us some great ones. But they’re a lot less common now than they have been in the past. NXT gets the balance between having something make sense and having it be peculiar and memorable. The Vaudevillains, for example, are something that could only work as they do in wrestling but it’s impossible to imagine them on the main roster. Even the comparatively tame Enzo and Big Cass would likely be toned down on the main roster.

But I think the biggest thing NXT has going for it is its run time. It fluctuates between forty-five minutes and hour. That slender amount of time means the writing team are never scrabbling for filler, everything on the show has a reason to be there because time is at such a premium. It ensures the show is well-written and enjoyable. It also means that NXT is unlikely to outstay its welcome, keeping us wanting more with no more than an hour of fresh content every week. It’s a focus the three hour RAW cannot have.

Arguments that the NXT approach could be cut and pasted to RAW and SmackDown and meet with great success are wrong. The running time and roster are a large part of NXT’s success, and it’s wrestling fans rather than casual fans that rave about it as a show, because they’re the target audience. I’ve no doubt that less intense viewers would enjoy the NXT approach on RAW, but it wouldn’t work as well with the current WWE roster and the seven hours a week the main roster produces (and that’s on a non-pay-per-view week). More emphasis on wins and losses, long term storytelling and character variety would be nice to see on RAW but I don’t think it’s something we’re going to get any time soon. NXT is going to retain its crown as the most enjoyable WWE produced show until those changes come.

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