NXT, WWE, and the Battle Between Indie Spirit and Big Wrestling Business
NXT, WWE's flourishing developmental league, looks and feels like an indie wrestling fed, and has bought up a ton of indie stars. It hasn't made WWE less dull.
Photo by Tabercil, via Wikimedia Commons
NXT, WWE's developmental circuit, puts on really good wrestling shows. So good, in fact, that main roster wrestlers are rumored to be in a state of near perpetual annoyance about being shown up by the less experienced NXT workers. These rumors are believable primarily because NXT wrestlers routinely do outshine the promotion's big names. NXT gives wrestlers a lot more creative freedom, something that might understandably rankle those higher up the food chain, mired as they are in heavily scripted promos and tepid storylines. When the men and women on the main roster wanted to become wrestlers—when most anyone wants to become a wrestler—they wanted the type of freedom NXT provides.
For all that, it's important to understand that NXT is not just, or even primarily, a wrestling show. NXT is, first and foremost, a factory with a street-facing window that's dedicated to smoothing the rough edges of the best indie wrestling talent out there. It then feeds the more-finished product into the sports entertainment machine that has left WWE's main roster—which now includes a good number of NXT graduates—feeling so chewed-up.
To efficiently manufacture these wrestlers for WWE, NXT (and its prior branding as FCW) needs a steady supply of raw material, sourced from independent and local wrestling groups around the world. Dean Ambrose came through after a career of working death matches. Seth Rollins worked his ass off in Ring of Honor before going to Florida. And on it goes: Luke Harper, Cesaro, Sara Del Rey, Samoa Joe. There is a mile-long list of former indie legends and erstwhile hotshots who've signed up to work in NXT and then moved up to the biggest of the big leagues when the higher-ups in Stamford decided they were ready.
WWE's appetite for talent is seemingly limitless. Legendary women's wrestler Kana (now Asuka) and the unbelievably talented Uhaa Nation (now Apollo Crews) are the latest to join NXT. They will not be the last. The whispers are already stirring around wrestlers like Ring of Honor champ Jay Lethal and Chuck Taylor.
The thing to remember here is that WWE is not just another wrestling company. It's the wrestling company, regardless of current or future quality. WWE doesn't just want to sign everyone; it can sign everyone. Take a long look at NXT, and you get a sense that this all may be exactly the McMahon family's plan.
NXT is clearly modeled on the hipper, looser indie feds you can check out on tours or at your local National Guard armory. They offer creative freedom for their wrestlers, but there's more to these independent promotions' appeal than that. The look and feel is local and homey—small crowds, dimmer lighting, wilder matches. NXT is a simulacrum of the indie wrestling experience provided by feds like CHIKARA and Ring of Honor. It doesn't look stripped down and slightly dangerous because that's all WWE can afford; it's that way by design.
Coupled with WWE seemingly running NXT shows opposite ROH shows to squash their business, and there's a whiff of gentrification about the whole thing. NXT is WWE's attempt to tap into an aesthetic and culture that, ironically, WWE's mainstream product tries desperately to distance itself from. Perhaps it's no surprise that the wrestler from developmental who most excites Vince McMahon is Roman Reigns, the blandest guy they've tried to push since his cousin, the Rock, was dressed in ribbons.
The worry is that WWE succeeds, and that the independent organizations that can actually pay its wrestlers eventually go under through sheer loss of talent. If this should come to pass, it won't be on the wrestlers, who toil for years to get a steady check. It won't be on the indies, either, which are always under pressure even in the best of circumstances. It wouldn't even really be on NXT, which, at its best, can be read as a love letter from Triple H and the departed Dusty Rhodes to the brutal beauty of independent wrestling. It would be on WWE, finally, in all its ever-expanding, dividend-paying, $9.99-a-month-shilling majesty, and on the terrible, twisted logic that took control the day WWE went public, and which has stomped its dreadful way to now.
Wrestling is hard. Working in front of live crowds is hard. Maybe the hardest thing about being a wrestler is figuring out which part of your real personality to blow up to mythical status. The best wrestlers aren't, and have never been, the ones handed a character from a corporate structure. They're the ones who found the character on their own. Ric Flair nabbed a sense of decadent swagger from deep within himself and turned it loose to become The Greatest. Steve Austin was mired in a terrible gimmick as the Ringmaster until WWE loosened the reins on him and let him run his mouth. This isn't conjecture. The same basic tale is repeated in stories and biographies by wrestlers over and over. Of course these wrestlers would say, "I didn't get good because of a suit or a writer, but in spite of them." They're performers, and proud. They are also almost universally correct.
WWE can stamp out that creative process, and more effectively lash wrestlers finding what works to what the company thinks works. It can be stamped out, I think, way more easily than people realize. WWE is mammoth, and a company is never more dangerous—more ruthless and more craven and less artful—than when it can smell a monopoly. The machine has to feed, growing ever more bloated as it seeks to protect its gains and outpace the competition.
Triple H, some months ago, started to speak of NXT less and less as a developmental territory and more as a brand of its own. That brand is obvious: indie but accessible, wild but not dangerous. In speaking of NXT as its own brand, he's tipping WWE's hand, which is to bring indie wrestling, shorn of its context and jagged edges, under the Promotion's corporate mega-umbrella. I'll guess right now that it works, if only because, while I can't get out to many indie shows and while I haven't been a devout disciple of the post-ECW independents, I'll never willingly miss a big NXT event. NXT brings good action and top indie stars to me, right in my living room, via the cold blue glow of a computer screen.
Will indie wrestling die? Of course not. Wrestling is too diffuse, too elemental in its appeal, and too easy to set up for it to go away. But it can be greatly diminished, to the point that WWE might kill the goose in its rapacious quest for the latest dozen golden eggs. With Stamford trying to get everyone they can under contract, it's easy to believe the process is already underway. Business is business, of course, but it's disturbing in a number of ways that, for all the golden eggs it has bought, WWE keeps serving such flavorless fare.