THE NXT REPORT
NXT, the WWE's farm-league show, is the right length of time combined with the right cast of characters combined with a focus on the most fundamental truth of the pro-wrestling fiction (that pro-wrestling is a legitimate sport, not a form of entertainment). This makes for a show that would entertain almost anyone - from the most jaded smark to the most inexperienced wrestling viewer.
I've watched NXT with "hardcore wrestling" fans and I've watched NXT with my mother (someone who's watched wrestling in the past only because I showed it to her). Both have come away feeling entertained, uplifted, and eager to discover more about the various narratives.
NXT is a necessary weekly pro-wrestling palette cleanser, revealing that there are minds in the WWE corporation that do know how to consistently offer WWE fans something they want to see on a regular basis.
This is always encouraging, and it gives me hope that one day those minds shall gain control of the main-roster, and the pro-wrestling storytelling edicts that make up the foundation of NXT will more thoroughly inform what we see on the WWE's flagship shows. The emotions that move that tiny NXT crowd to chant and cheer and pop and believe are no different than the emotional capabilities of pro-wrestling crowds on RAW.
And if RAW crowds did initially struggle to accept the straightforward, realistic, and infinitely more moving style of NXT then that crowd would simply need to be reconditioned (you can hear me and Stone Cold Steve Austin discuss this during a call-in segment for his podcast - I'm at 25 minutes in and I initially ask about the WWE 2K15 Trailer. You can subscribe to the Steve Austin Show in iTunes) -
If WWE put any of these matches on RAW and presented them in the exact same way without commentary undermining the new talents (as commentary is currently doing with The Ascension), any crowd would get caught up in the athletic prowess and emotional theatrics on display.
The first match of the night was an excellent, straightforward bout between Tyson Kidd and Finn Balor.
The curious bit about the scene was that commentary, and Tyson himself, has been emphasizing Tyson's affinity for cats (the faces of his beloved cats are even represented on his kickpads). I'm not quite sure why this element has been introduced into the character's make-up. He was doing superbly with his "Fact!" gimmick. The crowd even erupted into a "Fact!" chant because they liked that gimmick so much - it's a surprisingly effective heel catchphrase.
Watching him weave in and out of the main roster and the NXT roster, with no apparent consistency in the actual continuity of his character other than "he's a self-important heel", it's hard to get a hold on who Tyson is and what Tyson is really about.
This doesn't seem to be Tyson's fault. There clearly is no one in charge of WWE continuity. There's no one figuring out how NXT and the main roster are actually connected under the umbrella of the larger WWE fiction. And there should be, because narratives in NXT should be able to one day inform narratives in the main roster. Otherwise NXT fans will feel jipped and as though everything they watched has been needlessly erased, and WWE fans won't be treated to a library of clips that informs them of who the new superstar actually is.
A few weeks ago Tyson was about upstaging his wife. A few weeks before that he was about winning the NXT Championship and being the absolute best. Now he's about his cats? There were several months where he really came into his own as a heel on NXT, but now he seems to be reinventing himself yet again and in a more comedic light. This farce-like aspect of the character isn't nearly as funny as the delusional villain he was playing previously, though Tyson is still turning in a committed performance and excellent ring-work.
I can only assume the "cat gimmick" has something to do with Total Divas - a show I have yet to watch. At least I hope it's connected to Total Divas, because then there's an explanation for it - even though Total Divas shouldn't inform WWE storytelling.
Balor defeated Tyson with his diving spike-kick. The finish didn't quite register either because the move was botched or because the camera cuts were a little off (from the perspective of a fan who watches in something of a perpetual state of concern for the well-being of pro-wrestlers, it's a finishing move that's somewhat terrifying). It simply looked a bit wonky when it finally came to a close, and it was difficult to actually understand what had happened, but it's nice to see Finn continue his ascent. He's an impressive talent with a unique look and a unique style that stands out even amongst other impressive looks and impressive styles.
Next came a fairly brief, but effective tag match between the teams of Charlotte & Natalya and Sasha Banks & Becky Lynch (otherwise known as Team Bae).
Sasha rolled up Charlotte, making sure to grab the tights in prototypical heel fashion. Sasha, Charlotte, and the camera-person sold the tights-pull well (it's a simple, but incredibly important moment - when it's botched or the timing is off the heelish power of the move is lost). As always, the NXT women impressed, offering a delightful excursion into a world of fierce females with captivating personalities.
Next came Baron Corbin versus Bull Dempsey. While the match was longer than anything we've seen from Baron in the past, it still didn't give viewers much insight into what Baron can or can't do. The fight played to his strengths, which is good, but, as a fan of his, we're still eagerly anticipating seeing him in a more complete, wrestling match.
He avoided Bull's diving headbutt and then hit Bull with the always impressive End of Days.
Baron's triumph felt earned - there were a few moments where it seemed like he might actually go down for the count. His uproarious scream into the camera was a powerful deviation from his typically stoic demeanor. We're so accustomed to his muted emotions that a fiery scream following a brutal fight hits the right emotional note at exactly the right time.
And then there was Adrian Neville versus Sami Zayn for the NXT Championship to round out an exceptional card.
This match was the perfect epilogue to their epic saga.
This match built upon their previous matches in a genuinely fascinating way. Oftentimes commentary and pro-wrestlers themselves will try to sell you on the idea that the opponents have so much experience fighting one another that they are able to anticipate and counter moves more easily.
No one has ever made me actually believe that.
I've always just watched that kind of match and heard that kind of commentary and thought, "Oh they're doing that thing...yeah I see it...I understand the story they're trying to tell." Even as a kid, I saw this kind of match and thought it was painfully transparent what everyone was trying to sell me, and such always got in the way of me being genuinely moved by any "surprising" moments.
Adrain and Sami finally made me believe.
I literally pumped my fist and let out several "Ohhhhhh!" exclamations throughout. It was a match that didn't need to be too much or do too much. The smark goes into the match assuming it will end in a no contest due to a Kevin Owens interference.
Instead, the match exists as another brushstroke on the Adrian/Sami canvas - it might not be as intense and bright as other colors, but it remains an essential, revealing stroke, purposefully subdued.
I've never seen a match stop right in the middle, so that the combatants can talk to each other in the way Sami and Adrian talked.
Adrian became frustrated after several opening flips and kicks and Irish-whips and he forcefully shoved Sami away. Adrian then tried to apologize for letting his emotions get the better of him - Adrian's character has been consistently trying to preserve his friendship with Sami and show Sami respect without compromising his belief in his own superiority.
Sami, understandably angered by this, thrust his forearm into Adrian's head and said, "I'm sorry too."
Adrain then came back with a furious forearm of his own.
It was a fascinating moment because it revealed the psychology of these characters - it's as if the two had been in a wrestling match, playing by the rules, unemotionally going through the motions of their sport. And then, one of them snapped, crossed a line, and suddenly everything changed. They were no longer in a match. They were in a very personal fight.
This shows you the mindset of an athlete and a competitor. You can get punched in the face ten times, but if you get punched in the face one time in a certain way then it means something else and it's personal.
Following this effective bit of theater, I was hooked on every move and cringed in genuine pain at the way Sami and Adrian executed a pair of Hurricanranas. At the time of viewing, I did not understand how Sami Zayn's neck wasn't shattered.
Another great moment was a shocking kick to Sami's face as Sami was making ready for his through-the-ropes Tornado DDT.
You can see, in this moment, the craftsmen at work, Sami and Adrian figuring out what the crowd expects and then manipulating the crowd based on those anticipated expectations.
Someone who's never seen these two wrestle before will simply get caught up in the drama of the moment, in the sudden twists and turns and in the athleticism on display. Someone who's been watching these two wrestle for a long time is rewarded for their dedication by having their foreknowledge incorporated into the match.
Everything about NXT, from the straightforward backstage interview presentation to the way matches such as these play out, is deceptively simple. Where some might suggest it's easier for NXT to be enjoyable and successful than Monday Night Raw because of the show's brief length and focus on wrestling, I'd suggest that it's much harder to write a good poem than it is to write a meandering novel. I'd also suggest that if NXT is successful because it's a more focused broadcast with a logical length of time, that such is not an excuse for Monday Night RAW's occasional failure to entertain.
NXT isn't good because it's fifty minutes. NXT is good because NXT is good - a wide assortment of factors both tangible and esoteric contributing to the quality of every broadcast.
One of the primary reasons NXT leaves me feeling restored and satisfied where RAW leaves me feeling drained and disheartened is the fact that NXT offers a legitimate conclusion to every show, no matter how open-ended the finish might be. RAW often feels unfinished, as though it's simply baiting me to tune in next week instead of allowing me to place my faith in the notion that I'll be satisfied if I do so. If RAW had consistently satisfying conclusions then those three hours would sting a little less.
On NXT, Sami beat Adrian Neville.
Within the confines of the specific story of that specific match there was a legitimate beginning, middle, and an end. I knew who had lost, I knew who had won. Whatever happened after was icing on the cake. I'd gotten my money's worth. As the viewer of a story, my experience was complete. That is why NXT is almost always a success and that has nothing to do with time-limit, and everything to do with a focus on good, basic storytelling.
It is incredibly difficult to entertain someone. It takes immense skill to decide that you're going to make an audience feel a very specific way about something and then get them there. That's the work of an artist. It's even harder to make someone feel good about offering you their time. It is a testament to the incredibly not-easy work the creators of NXT put into their show that they're able to consistently expand upon their narratives in an emotionally powerful, logical way regardless of time limit. When I watch NXT is see a show that's harder to make than RAW and I see more effort put into the product.
Following the finish, Kevin Owens appeared "out of nowhere!" and powerbombed Sami to the mat.
Owens is such an impressive, instantly likable character that it's revealing how much the fans love Sami that the crowd erupted into boos and "You suck!" jeers at Owens.
Owens also plays his part to perfection; an angry, vengeful, bitter man with total confidence in his ability.
One of the final images of the show, Owens with his foot planted firmly on Sami's face, told you everything you needed to know about the relationship between these two.
While the main roster boasts larger than life personalities and epic tales of good versus evil and fantasy versus reality, this is the pro-wrestling feud WWE fans should being paying very close attention to. This is the kind of timeless athletic contest rife with psychological power fans of good drama are clamoring for.
These two men are among the shortlist of potential top guys who deserver that proverbial rocket strapped to their back once they've done all they can do in NXT.
If you find yourself struggling to enjoy or get behind what you see on the WWE's main roster, do yourself a favor and tune in to WWE's NXT. You need no foreknowledge. You will instantly understand everything you are seeing, and by the end of the broadcast you will have picked your favorites and you will be desperate to see what happens next.
Thank you for reading. Comment below with your thoughts. You can follow me on all the usual social media gimmicks!