My professional wrestling fandom can be traced to two distinct points in wrestling history: WrestleMania III, and the Monday Night Wars.
My grandfather had a VHS recording of WM3, and I wore that thing out. The whole thing blew my young mind, it had everything: the spectacle of Hogan slamming Andre, celebrities, little person wrestling, tag team wrestling (even a trios match) and, of course, the technical masterpiece that was Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat.
I kept following wrestling through the late 80s/early 90s, during the WWF’s horrible years (although there were highlights like WrestleMania X and the Bret/Owen match from SummerSlam 94 stick out in my mind). I pretty strictly watched only WWF, the style of WCW at the time didn’t appeal to young TD.
But, then came the Monday Night Wars, and the Attitude Era along with them. Diesel and Razor Ramon showed up on Nitro, and so I started watching WCW. I came to fall in love with the cruiserweights and started to see the appeal of the WCW style. All of a sudden, pro wrestling was cool, and all of my friends were now just as into it as I was. We had PPZ watch parties at our parents houses. We played wrestling video games and created our own personas for the ring. Not to mention, my school was suddenly filled with nWo, DX, Stone Cold and The Rock shirts, and the only thing anyone talked about on Tuesdays was what happened on Raw and Nitro the night before. Instead of growing out of my fandom, it became solidified as a lifetime commitment.
All of the above listed is what makes professional wrestling so great. It’s a variety show mixed with ancient theatre. It’s all at one breathtaking spectacle and classic storytelling. It’s made to reach millions but at its best feels personally made for the individual viewer.
Which brings me to NXT, WWE’s “developmental” brand that has morphed from training ground for aspiring pro wrestlers to a standalone brand with a loyal fanbase just the same as the “main” roster. NXT is now a breeding ground for future stars, and a destination for indie darlings.
If you ask most hardcore wrestling fans, they’ll say NXT is miles ahead of WWE’s main products, Raw and SmackDown. I’m moved to agree, but I also realize tastes differ from fan to fan.
What drives me to NXT is that it almost-perfectly captures every little thing that makes pro wrestling great. It’s not just an oasis for fans who want to see indie style matches in small arenas. It has larger-than-life spectacle, too. It has ridiculous characters. It has wrestlers of all shapes and sizes.
That’s not to say the main roster brands don’t have all of those things, it’s just that NXT does the little things a million times better, which makes for a stronger overall product. Raw and SD have the larger than life guys, the small-time heroes, the tag teams, the women, the ridiculousness, all of it. But everything seems so rigid and separate, whereas NXT actually blends all of this together and let’s their characters interact in their self-contained “universe.”
(This is one of the main gripes about the main roster: NXT stars who get called-up seem to have their history ignored. There is no continuity.)
Take last week’s episode for example: it had a solid tag-team title match that featured indie favorites and a faction. Factions are an integral part of pro wrestling that have gone lacking of late in WWE. Sure, there have been a few successful factions in the past decade, but their success has largely been due to the workers and not the storytelling. In NXT, factions are given a purpose. Everyone is given a purpose.
The other main-event this week was a match between two female stars: the up-and-coming Bianca Belair – an all-world athlete – versus Nikki Cross – the out-of-her-mind, yet charming and cunning little ball of fire. Their story is simple: Nikki interrupted Belair while she was speaking to NXT GM William Regal (competent on-screen authority figures, another NXT win over the main). They had a match that ended in a brawl. Tonight was the rematch, and it ended when former NXT Champ Aleister Black appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the ring.
Black has been out of action for a while due to a backstage attack from an unknown assailant. However, over the course of Regal’s investigation into the attack, it was discovered that Cross may not who the perpetrator was. Now, if this where the main roster, this would’ve been done through goofy backstage segments that may or may not paid off in the end. On NXT however, there has been a perfect balance of Cross’ zaniness and the seriousness of the mystery angle (all under the umbrella of ridiculous pro wrestling storytelling done right). Back to this week, when Black appeared he motioned for Cross. She – in her own way – crawled over and whispered in Black’s ear, causing him to become enraged as the show went off the air.
On any given week, I can be sorely disappointed by Raw or Smackdown. Indie promotions like Ring of Honor can fall into the trap of trying to be too anti-WWE, with matches that turn into outlandish spot-fests that forsake the psychology that makes pro wrestling such a great storytelling medium. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to dive into New Japan on a full-time basis, although I’ve always liked what small glances I’ve gotten in the past.
NXT was the promotion to watch in 2013 & 2014. After some of the stars of that era left for the main roster, many wondered if NXT could carry on, or if we’d look back on that time as a short period of greatness that could never be matched. There was a lull, admittedly, but NXT has come out the other end on fire. They’ve once again found a balance between homegrown talent and indie standouts. Their storytelling is tight and captivating. NXT gives plenty of screen time to tag teams, they still believe in – and successfully do – use managers to enhance talent. NXT gave rise to the “women’s revolution,” and they continue to cultivate female talent and feature them in main event-level storylines.
No, NXT doesn’t get everything right. There are certainly things that it could improve upon. But, every Wednesday I know I can have at least an hour of pro wrestling that doesn’t drive me insane or bore me to death.
NXT is damn near perfection. It’s all at once compelling television, great storytelling, and ridiculous freak show. That is to say, pro wrestling at its finest.