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WWE’s NXT: Outside of the Box and Refined

May 30th, 2010 by | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

In a few days, the WWE’s latest show NXT ends its first season. This new experiment is reaching the end and I thought it would be a good idea to look back at this idea. The short of it is that I think NXT started out strong, got borderline unwatchable for a while, then started getting good again towards the end.

But looking a little deeper into it, I notice what a brilliant show it’s been, at least in concept. The concept of a mistake is an interesting one in wrestling because most of the time, you can only see it in hindsight. A lot of the time, the wrong aspect gets blamed and allows for the same mistake to be made again and again. That’s a lot of what makes TNA so sad, in that it’s run by Vince Russo, Eric Bischoff and Hulk Hogan – three guys who couldn’t own up to a mistake if their lives depended on it. Those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it and TNA is proving that right.

The WWE machine has the occasional ability to see what went wrong and modify it in future attempts. For instance, Vince McMahon had the idea of having a handicapped wrestler. He thought it would make for the ultimate underdog hero and hired Zach Gowen, a trained wrestler with only one leg. The “handicap = underdog” idea was sound, but the execution failed. Gowen wasn’t exactly the most threatening individual and his one-legged offense stretched the suspension of disbelief to the utmost breaking point. A short while later, the WWE tried the same concept, but made the handicap something that’s fictional to the man portraying the wrestler. Hence, Eugene, a mentally-challenged wrestler whose drawbacks only existed within the story. Despite some flaws (hotshot booking, writing themselves into a corner and the wrestler letting himself go), he was a bigger success than Gowen.

NXT is a big amalgamation of different WWE ideas into something new and mostly fun. You see aspects of what they were trying to go with the first time around, but they’ve improved their process. Let’s take a look.


WWE’S EXTREME CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING

What they were going for: Using the ever popular ECW brand name, the WWE transformed the property into their C-show. Although the mainstays of the original ECW — both in style and in roster — dropped like flies over time, the show attempted to make itself the on-air breeding ground for new talent, while giving old favorites a breath of fresh air. Much like Smackdown, it allowed itself to be the show where wrestling actually happened.

What made it work: Wrestling actually happened. It gave us CM Punk, Sheamus, Jack Swagger, Kofi Kingston and others who may have drowned had they debuted on Smackdown or Raw. Meanwhile, many others found a home that allowed them to regroup their identities and breathe new life into their careers. Mark Henry, John Morrison, the Miz, Matt Striker are examples off the top of my head. Zach Ryder sort of belongs on both lists, now that I think about it.

What made it fail: I think absolutely mutilating a beloved brand name will do it on that end. As good as the show got, I know people who absolutely refused to even give it a chance because it wasn’t their ECW. I can understand that, even if I disagree with it. It didn’t help that the first year or so of the product was a hot mess most of the time, thanks to the inability for the WWE and original ECW stuff too mesh well. Not to mention Rob Van Dam and Sabu getting caught with drugs, even if it led to Big Show’s entertaining championship run.

Once you get past the old ECW stigma, the show is still the third string. It doesn’t have Cena, Mysterio, Batista or Undertaker, so it isn’t going to get those big ratings. WWE treated it like an afterthought when it mattered, like at the PPVs. The star power of Matt Hardy and Christian just weren’t enough to keep it worth keeping around. Sadly, despite the quality of the show, most saw it as a demotion to be sent to that roster.

Where NXT comes in: NXT is of course ECW’s replacement in the Tuesday night timeslot. It does remain the C-list show (arguably D-list when you add in Superstars), but it has its own spark of originality that gives it its own independence. The Pros aspect allows it some star power without hindering Raw or Smackdown. It isn’t so much a brand, which helps ignore its status on the WWE’s TV food chain. Before, it was Raw vs. Smackdown vs. ECW. Now, it’s Raw vs. Smackdown with NXT chilling in the background, peacefully coexisting with both of them.

The drawback is that NXT is even less popular among the TV-watching public than ECW ever was. Dang.


BRAWL FOR ALL

What they were going for: If there’s one thing the WWE needs, it’s events and matches that lead to “bragging rights”, and I don’t mean that PPV match that turns a contrived feud between TV shows into an overblown tag contest. Everything is about the titles. Tournaments and battle royals only exist for the sake of crowning champs and naming contenders. Sometimes they really shouldn’t. They should focus on being a big deal in their own right, like King of the Ring used to be or the Royal Rumble was in the beginning. It’s more hype for the winner instead of just saying he won X title X times. By winning a specialty match, you earned your spot through reputation and not because the rules say the winner gets a shot at the champ.

Brawl for All would be one of those contests. The legit shoot fighting tournament with a newfound sport that mixed boxing with takedowns would lead to “Dr. Death” Steve Williams easily plowing through the competition and coming out at the winner. As winner, Williams would easily win over the crowd as a threat to Steve Austin because he is the guy who defeated all comers in Brawl for All.

What made it work: Nothing, really. It was a humongous failure and the only positive is watching the Bart Gunn vs. Butterbean slaughter at Wrestlemania 15.

What made it fail: The legit, unscripted fighting didn’t make for good TV. Steve Williams got taken out in the second round of the tournament by Bart Gunn, thereby screwing over the company’s plans. They had no faith in Gunn and fed him to Butterbean, making the entire tournament a tremendous waste of time at the cost of various injuries.

Where NXT comes in: Okay, so the winner of the contest is rewarded a title shot no matter what, but it still works as a way to do what Brawl for All wanted to do. By making the contest scripted, they don’t have to worry about their planned winner getting clobbered into the hospital out of nowhere. It’s a contest of wrestlers meant to build them up into something greater and I’d like to think that if the winner does make something of himself, “first ever NXT winner” might sound prestigious.


TOUGH ENOUGH

What they were going for: The reality show aspect of the show allows viewers to get to know these unknowns through months of drama. Someone we see on that show will prove themselves to their wrestler mentors and the fans at home that they should join the WWE’s roster by showing their heart and ability to learn the in-ring basics.

What made it work: Not only did most of the winners get passable WWE careers, but even a lot of the runners up were signed on. The show gave us John Morrison, the Miz and that kickass storyline between Maven and the Undertaker. The show was fun for what it was, at least in the early seasons, and it helped show what a miserable piece of shit Bob Holly is.

What made it fail: The thing that really hurt the show in the long run is that it was about learning the first steps of the business. These guys are so skeletal that it’s too early to really judge them. For instance, Maven won the first season and eventually joined the main roster. I liked Maven on the show as a person and he had a nice look to him, but several months of training wasn’t going to make him into something exceptional. He had a great dropkick, but that was really all he had going for him. Even his in-ring character was pretty boring. As time went on, he didn’t appear to grow as a talent and by the time he left the company, he was only remembered as, “That guy who won the first Tough Enough.”

Where NXT comes in: It’s so simple that I’m surprised it took them so long to come up with it. Take the basic concept of Tough Enough, but use guys who have some in-ring experience. The show is about taking them to the next level. Much like Tough Enough, the viewers get into these newbies and get attached. The contest may be staged, but at least when somebody wins, you know that they’re far enough in their training to truly evolve into something entertaining.

The wrestling mentors are turned into wrestling angles, which only serves to improve the product. The interactions between the Pros and Rookies have been gold all around, with the only exception being Carlito/Tarver. And hey, at least these Pros are guys who make for good TV. I’ll take Regal being disgusted at Skip Shepfield over Ivory screeching at a girl for “flaunting her sexuality” or whatever the hell she was always so pissed about.


THE DIVA SEARCH

What they were going for: It’s an excuse to put more women on TV and let the fans get attached to one or two. By letting the fans vote on who gets taken out, they’d have their finger on the pulse for who their next big female megastar would be. For the first go, the company’s favorite to win was Carmella, a Playboy Playmate. They sincerely hoped that the revelation that she was photographed naked a couple times would convince viewers that she would be a welcome addition to the WWE family.

What made it work: Carmella sucked because she came off as boring and wanting nothing to do with the business. Christy Hemme came off as interested and interesting. The company’s never-say-die attitude in shoving Carmella down our throats did give it a real David vs. Goliath feel. It was the fan’s say vs. the company’s stubbornness. Shockingly, they went with the right decision and let Christy’s superior fan support add her to the roster.

Much like Tough Enough, the women were learning the basics of wrestling, but it was more acceptable for the Divas. They weren’t going to be overshadowed like the Tough Enough crew and most of the established Divas weren’t really Ricky Steamboats themselves anyway. Not to mention, the contests did give us some memorable female personalities, such as Maria.

What made it fail: A lot of it felt like a tremendous waste of time. They just tossed a bunch of women onto TV – many of them seemingly interchangeable – and had them annoy us for ten minutes at a time. The contests they had were hard to watch and only a reminder that there were a good amount of talented wrestlers who weren’t getting TV time during all this.

Where NXT comes in: The Diva Search aspects are what hurt NXT more than anything else. The show was doing just fine until everything had to be about stupid contests that ate up time and had little to do with the actual goal of the show. The contests in the Diva Search were far worse (like the one that involved Christie doing a split onto a pie because her “butt was hungry”), but they still made sense. The girls couldn’t wrestle, so all you could do was have them eat up time in ways that portrayed some of their personality. They were trying to get us to vote for them. It was stupid, but fair.

With NXT, we have nothing to do with the outcome. It’s about what the Pros feel in a fictional sense. Yes, somehow coming in second place during the American Gladiators Joust is supposed to relate to your It Factor. To give it a point, they tried adding rewards. Sometimes it worked, like Otunga winning a battle royal and getting to host the following Raw. Or having him win the ability to wrestle any Pro of his choice and going after R-Truth in response to their increasing tension. Other times, the contests lead to the winner getting murdered by Kane. Yay?

The stupidest is Wade Barrett winning a challenge over who can improvise the best promo. The idea of the challenge is sound. In fact, it’s the only challenge that has anything to do with having a potential wrestling career. The drawback is that it went on for too long and since it’s in England, Barrett winning was a lock before he even opened his mouth. So what’s the prize? His very own theme song! That would be fantastic… if he ever got it! To this day, he’s still coming out to Jericho’s theme.

The one arguably good similarity between NXT and the Diva Search is that David Otunga is the male version of Carmella. Since he’s been on TV and his fiancé is a B-list celebrity, the WWE wants to focus on him as much as possible. They want him to win. A good many know that the guy sucks at the in-ring stuff and only gets around with his personality, quasi-celebrity status and tear-away pants.

Back to the theme music thing, that’s one of the huge glaring problems with the series. I don’t care if they haven’t earned their spots on the roster yet. These guys need theme songs. Even if they’re generic as hell, they need something. Without it, they’re stuck with two options. First option: borrow the show’s theme song. What an awful song it is. There is nothing about the “We are WIIIIILD and YOUUUUUNG!” theme song that gets me interested. It sounds less like something a wrestler should be introduced with and more like something that would be used on a WB teen drama. Even if you don’t like Raw’s past several theme songs, at least you can agree that they’re at least energetic and full of impact. God, just give the show something with an edge in it.

The other option for an NXT wrestler’s theme song: their mentor’s theme. Some of these guys are able to dodge this bullet. I’ll even say Miz’s “I Came to Play” feels better with Bryan. Others come off as an ill fit. Wade Barrett doesn’t hit me as a guy who should be walking out to “Break the Walls Down”. The worst offender is Skip Shepfield, who gets stuck with William Regal’s Darth Vadery theme. Skip, who is the ultimate doofy babyface, is booed by the crowd just because they’re used to giving that reaction to Regal’s heelish music.

Now let’s give our eight contestants a look.


Michael Tarver

Tarver is an oddball in the contest. He did a big pile of nothing for the first month other than wearing custom t-shirts. They gave him a gimmick of being an expert boxer who could knock you out in an instant, but that never, ever came into play and was ignored for the sake of letting Big Show thrive in that same gimmick. Tarver continued to lose a lot and had nothing going for him forever.

Then he started getting somewhat interesting towards the end. He’d start forfeiting the challenges out of disgust and probably because his Pro Carlito’s epic laziness has been rubbing off. Seriously, Tarver was the first guy eliminated and he’s STILL in better standing than his Pro. I find that pretty funny. Tarver would try to scream about how dangerous he is and how he’s a loose cannon, but he’d yell out nonsensical garbage that made it hilarious. Intentional or not? I’m not quite sure. But it is a shame that it took so long for him to show his promise.


Bryan Danielson/Daniel Bryan

Though there are flaws in Bryan’s storyline, he remains one of the best aspects of the show. All in all, I feel they’ve done a great job utilizing him. They knew that if anything, he would lure in some viewers. He’s the golden boy of the indy scene. While that may not give him the star power of Cena, it’s still something. From the beginning, it’s obvious that this is the Daniel Bryan Show. He gets plenty of segments to himself and I’m pretty sure he wrestles on all but one episode until being let go.

Bryan gets some great steam initially by being paired with the Miz, whose standing in the company at the time only shows the faith they have in pushing Bryan. He is a little awkward from the beginning and he keeps losing match after match, but the fact that he remains on TV week after week and isn’t being shoved into obscurity helps force him into the minds of the viewers. While Miz’s involvement mostly peters out, the only thing that keeps Bryan afloat is Michael Cole’s outright hatred of him.

What a brilliant move that is. Cole, who is hated by much of the internet, can’t keep his mouth shut when it comes to insulting the wrestler the internet loves. Cole’s heel behavior is one of the few things keeping the show afloat during the challenges period. See, Bryan has gone from losing competitive matches against Jericho and Khali (an inspired troll to the internet in itself) and losing to matches due to injury to losing to other Rookies in about a minute. When Darren Young is able to beat him pretty soundly, you have to wonder about the WWE’s plan and where they’re going with it. By this point, the other seven Rookies have gotten over in their own way and Bryan is no longer needed to lead the show. Are they just going to toss him aside after using him?

The idea of eliminating him from the show due to saying that he should be voted off is a good one. It keeps the continuity. He was the top guy during the first Pros Poll despite not winning a goddamned thing and weeks later it showed that even heels like Regal and Punk think he’s way better than the Miz. By hitting rock bottom, Bryan can finally rise up and cut loose. By God, it’s been working. The last few weeks have been a fun ride with him declaring his real name, both insulting and assaulting Michael Cole and finally getting his hands on the Miz.

A lot of Bryan’s story is expertly done. He’s the main character of the show, yet they don’t give him the push of a top guy. Everyone else isn’t relegated to being below him. He puts everyone over, but thrives despite that. That takes talent.


Skip Shepfield

“Yep, yep, yep. What it do?” It’s the best catchphrase since, “Woo, woo, woo! You know it!”

I remember seeing a picture of Skip Shepfield and having a bad feeling about him. Maybe it was all the bulk and the fear that it would make him a mess to watch. It distracted me from his adorable, tiny cowboy hat. In the end, he’s one of my favorites. The guy oozes charisma and it’s a shame that they never truly gave him enough screentime to show that. One of my favorite subtle things is how when walking to the ring, he’d smile, point to fans and start talking, as if any nearby fan had started up a conversation with him.

I’d say even Tarver got more emphasis than Skip, which is a shame. The two of them also endured massive losing streaks up until the end. Coincidentally, Skip started winning as his in-ring work improved. Not perfect, but the Backpack Stunner makes it all go down sweeter.

It’s just a shame to me that they keep trying to push him as a heel when they haven’t given him the breathing room to show what a face he can be. Like I said earlier, Regal’s theme doesn’t help. It kills his heat. On the other side of things, the Skip/Regal relationship is fantastic and it sucks that they pretty much dropped it towards the latter half.


Darren Young

Let me get this out of the way: the dude looks exactly like John Cena, but black and with Guile hair. It’s one of those things that everyone online has been able to pick out, but it’s like the damned elephant in the room on TV. You want a challenge for the suspension of disbelief? How about the fact that not a single wrestler ever goes up to Darren Young and says, “Dude, you look just like John Cena, but black and with Paul Phoenix hair.”

I really like Young and thought he should have been given the spot of “top face who isn’t Bryan” on the show. He just hits me as so likeable and his charisma makes it easy for him to play either side of the good/evil fence. Seriously, his smile stands right on the border of, “Haha, this guy rules!” and “Dear God, I want to punch him so hard.” His dynamic with CM Punk and the SES only enhances his style, but again, it peters out. The sibling rivalry between he and Luke Gallows leads to nothing more than Gallows failing to cost Young a match.

Young needs to track down Jericho lookalike Lenny Lane and form a tag-team called the Knockoffs.


Heath Slater

Heath Slater is probably my least favorite guy on the show. That shows how much I enjoy NXT because I don’t find myself hating the guy. I just don’t care. His attempts to be in your face are either trying too hard or not trying hard enough. Really, it’s just him wagging his tongue around and equating that to being a “One Man Rock Band”. As a worker, I think he’s keen and I thought his relationship with Christian was underrated and understated. At least they got one of those segments that showed Christian training Slater and giving him sage advice. NXT really needed more of that.

I think it goes to show the difference between Slater and Bryan in that Bryan could still gain heat without winning a match, while they basically put Slater over Carlito and Jericho for the sake of throwing him a bone.


Justin Gabriel

Putting Justin Gabriel with Matt Hardy is probably for the best, since he has the potential to fill the Jeff Hardy void in the WWE. His promo skills are screwy, he dresses like a tool (remember his awful Iron Fist tunic thing from the first couple weeks?), he’s a high flyer and I’m sure fat chicks love him. He’s definitely a keeper and I can understand why the writers would put him as the only face in the finals. I think the problem is that the guy has had no emphasis as being anything more than 1) being from South Africa and 2) doing a 450 Splash.

The guy definitely shows some in-ring promise, especially if he can work more on his transitions. Doing a 450 Splash is cool and all, but the journey to that spot should be more important. Like with Slater/Christian, I do feel that they should have given more play to how well Matt Hardy and Gabriel get along together. The few times they’ve been shown together worked well, with Gabriel calling Matt his sensei and the showdown backstage with Jericho and Barrett.

Just hope the guy isn’t into pot too much or you’ll see his career sink faster than you can say “Evan Bourne”.


David Otunga

Otunga sucks in the ring, but has enough natural charisma to distract you from that. I could rail on him for that, but it would only make me a hypocrite for loving the hell out of the even more severe case in the Boogeyman. At least Otunga tries. Otunga could be well-utilized, but time will tell. His mini-feud with Cena worked, for instance. That is, if you ignore that he could have just used his Raw GM powers to give himself a world title match instead of screwing over Cena to prove a point.

What makes Otunga interesting to me is how he’s still in the contest despite the Pros outright stating how he’s underdeveloped as a wrestler. Sure, he has the It Factor, but that’s really all there is and he’s still able to make second place in the Pros Poll. It could easily be bad writing, but I’d like to believe it’s the meddling backstage management vetoing what the Pros have to say to push their own agenda. It happens on every other reality show, so why not?


Wade Barrett

Otunga is the kind of heel that even the smarks hate. Barrett is the kind of heel that the smarks love. If anyone can be considered the breakout star of this experiment, it’s the tall glass of water with the English Doctor Claw voice. He’s ominous, badass and so proud of it. The guy has everything needed to be a future main eventer and a household name. Making him the protégé of Chris Jericho is but the icing on the cake. If Bryan and Miz are the pairing that complements each other the best as enemies, Jericho and Barrett work the best as allies. Jericho chastises Barrett rarely, though usually with good reason, and is quick to both point out how great Barrett’s skills are and point out how it’s because of his own amazing leadership.

Jericho himself steals most of the show by regularly screaming at the commentators for not saying enough about how fantastic Barrett is. His bouts at being a guest commentator only go to show that when the unfortunate time comes for him to hang up the boots, he has a promising career at the announce table. It’s a moot point anyway, since by then, supervillain mastermind Wade Barrett will have either destroyed or taken over the world.

I really hope he wins, just because of the three finalists, he’s the only one I can buy being pushed into a title match.

I can’t wait to watch this Tuesday’s finale to see how things wrap up… even though it’ll be via DVR. Stupid work. Then we’ll move on to the next season where Shad is a Pro. Really? Shad? I guess the blind will be leading the blind in hopes that they both find their way.

Overall, I really appreciate NXT and will be bummed when it finds its way to TV Valhalla. The whole series is like going to a party at Bryan Danielson’s house and barely getting to drink with him, but at the same time, you make a handful of new friends, so everything works out in the end.

By the way, did we ever find out what the hell NXT stands for?

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14 comments to “WWE’s NXT: Outside of the Box and Refined”

  1. where did you find the info that Shad will be a pro next season? Did they list the rookies?


  2. There was an FCW show recently that was filming stuff for the next season of NXT and included a bit involving Shad and Eli Cottonwood so everyone (re: dirtsheets) are assuming that means one of the pro/rookie combos will be that.


  3. I always figured it was supposed to be like “Next”, but they got the E out./


  4. New eXperimental Talent


  5. I love NXT.

    What’s great about Daniel Bryan/Bryan Danielson is that I feel like the writers are using him to make marks out of the smarks. They’re making us, the alleged know-it-alls, really believe in it again, being manipulated by his ups and downs the way we were when we were kids hoping Hogan would beat Undertaker. I mean, first, his gimmick seems to be “Normal human being” – he reads books, is humble, laughs and smiles, responds to gimmicks like Otunga with incredulous, “What does that even mean?”

    Then they make Michael Cole, a target of jokes for smarks, his arch nemesis.

    Then he breaks out his real name (and it gets a pop!)

    I mean, I feel like the writers go into the back room and decide, “How do we string along the internet community this time?” Daniel Bryan is tailor made for the internet audience, like they’re making a John Cena for smarks.

    And it’s awesome television.


  6. Best Wade Barrett moment for me

    A fan asks him if Chris Jericho taught him any new maneuvers (or manoeuvres in his case). His response:

    http://twitter.com/WadeBarrett/status/11119436191


  7. @Photon

    It looks like I’m going to have to become a smark again. :smile:


  8. I think Heath is really underrated by the IWC: he’s a spastic on NXT, but he’s definitely a diamond in the rough for WWE for finding him on the indy circuit around here in WV. I also don’t hate the Otunga push as much as others, though obviously he needs to hone his in-ring skills some more. I think he should stop talking about Hudson and more about his Harvard Law Degree: the wrestling lawyer!


  9. @Psychoblue: There is wisdom in your post. David Otunga: Attorney at Law could be this generation’s Irwin R. Schyster. I can see him coming to the ring in a suit with a briefcase, then tearing away the pants so he can wrestle in his “legal briefs”. His finisher could be called Exhibit X.

    “One, two, three! The defense rests.”


  10. Great column, Gavok.

    I really thought the initial Pro/Rookie pairings had awesome potential and for a while the storylines supported those. The latest eps were pretty good TV.


  11. @Photon: Holy crap. That Wade Barrett Tweet is hilarious! XD


  12. The next time there’s a female line-up of comic babes and folks are complaining… keep this pic in storage. And congrats to you all… I expected a lot of women posting here but you all had the nads to post. That’s gotta be the most Chippendales shot ever and you guys went on unflinchingly like you weren’t looking at their bikini briefs… bravo!!


  13. And congrats to you for having the nads to post that you were unflinchingly looking at their bikini briefs.


  14. […] a bit has happened since I last wrote about NXT. We had the season finale, which came across as rather strange and anticlimactic at first, only to […]