THE NXT REPORT
Whatever was lacking the past few weeks in NXT vanished for this latest episode, and the WWE's farm-league delivered an upbeat, exciting broadcast from start to finish in keeping with the spirit of the brand.
The opening match between the teams of the ever-likable Enzo Amore & Big Cass and former NXT Tag Champs The Lucha Dragons was an entertaining reminder of how important Enzo and Cass are to the division. No other tag team (on the main roster or in NXT) possesses their instantly endearing essence - a cartoonish affability reminiscent of the great absent-minded comedic duos of the past (though crazy and a bit goofy is a more accurate description of Enzo & Cass). What could very easily be a nationality gimmick exists more as an exaggerated representation of a genuine friendship. In a delightful twist on the big guy, small guy, brawny guy, brainy guy dynamic, Big Cass plays "the straight man" and Enzo is the crazier of the two who needs to be brought back down to earth by his more even-headed friend.
They exude fun, and that’s something tag-team wrestling desperately needs in the WWE these days.
I remember many months ago, before this website existed, I wrote about a match where Big Cass threw himself in front of a clothesline to protect Enzo. It’s not a moment many viewers would remember - it wasn’t a pay-per-view, and I don’t think the tag titles were on the line. But those are the kinds of moments that contribute to one’s emotional attachment to a team. That’s the kind of thing friends do for one another - they make sacrifices, they shove each other out of the way of a moving car, they risk their own health and happiness for the sake of their friend.
That is fun to watch and it’s moving. That kind of emotional depth and intensity helps bring the audience to that moment of pop more effectively. I feel the pain of Enzo & Big Cass’s loses and I feel the triumph of their victories.
In them exists the emotional anchor of tag-team wrestling in the WWE, a chance to really revitalize the division and create a pair of characters on par with the beloved teams of The Attitude Era. If the WWE manages Enzo & Cass well, and then debuts them on the main roster in a NY-arena, the future will be bright for the team of Enzo Amore and Colin Cassady.
Next on the card was a decent match between Alexa Bliss and Carmella, meant to establish Alexa Bliss as a legitimate contender for The Women’s Championship. One of the reasons NXT is so much more successful than Monday Night Raw in telling stories and building audience excitement is the fact that NXT is aware of its own history. Alexa Bliss and Sasha Banks have crossed paths before, and one of their encounters in the ring left Alexa needing surgery on her nose. This event is woven into the fiction of these characters and it’s used to help build anticipation for their inevitable rematch. These details create an environment of believability and relatability, even in the fantastical world of simulated sport. The audience also feels respected when events they’ve seen and events they remember are referenced in present or future stories. The relationship established between the brand and the viewer, as a result of this historical consciousness, is one of trust, where a viewer feels as though their emotional investment is taken into consideration. The fan is encouraged to keep believing, to participate, to remember, and then they are rewarded with a more powerful pop or a deeper emotional manipulation.
RAW seems to think the fan is a schizophrenic, attention-deficit, eight-year-old buffoon who wants to watch an infomercial with some bad skits, some bad matches, and some poorly-written twenty-minute soliloquies.
RAW points a finger at you and calls you an idiot.
NXT holds out its hand and says, “It’s okay to place your faith in me. Come along for the ride.”
Alex Riley's recent transformation epitomizes the difference between RAW and NXT - how RAW tears talent down all the while insulting the intelligence of the viewer where NXT raises talent up and respects the viewer's desires.
Any time I ever saw Alex Riley during his main roster run, I didn’t think much of him, if I'm completely honest - and I wasn’t encouraged to think much of him. Everything about the way the WWE presented him told me that he was an easily discarded, vanilla-talent.
In about three minutes, NXT fixed all of that.
With one quick promo, and one quick match, NXT convinced me to believe in Alex Riley - as did Alex Riley who performed with supreme confidence and a palpable enthusiasm.
While I’m not quite sure what this Kevin Owens/Alex Riley tangent is all about or what it’s going to do for the talent, it was great to be wowed by Riley - especially given the low expectations the WWE had built up in the viewer’s mind after all these years.
While the main event between Tyler Breeze and Hideo Itami was good, Riley was the one to steal the show, just with a few facial expressions, a few intense clotheslines, and a sense of purpose far too many pro-wrestlers lacked during the bland Ruthless Aggression Era.
Riley arrived as a man on this particular episode, an angry, defiant, passionate man ready to stand up and fight for his place in a world that had forsaken him.
His look helped tell the story as well - his scraggly, wet hair and determined swagger to the ring made him seem like a man who'd been through some tough times - it was a great moment for him and for long-time viewers who’ve watched him evolve from in-ring performer to commentator and back again.
This is the kind of career-revitalization that should happen on NXT (rather than bringing in gimmicks like Rhyno and The Brian Kendrick). Riley was already synonymous with the brand, and after only one brief showing, he’s a more convincing addition to the roster than any we’ve seen in the past few weeks.
This is what happens when the WWE treats its performers and its audience with respect.
This is what happens when we’re allowed to believe in professional wrestling.
Thank you for reading! Share this article with your friends. Get them watching NXT! Also be sure to subscribe to The Work of Wrestling podcast in iTunes! New episodes every Monday.
You can connect with me via all the usual social media gimmicks by clicking on the links below:
Photos via wwe.com.