THE NXT REPORT
NXT offered an episode that was even better than usual this week, building upon the various top rivalries and serving up a variety of excellent pro-wrestling matches.
Wesley Blake & Buddy Murphy, a team that’s made occasional appearances, scored an upset victory over Tag Champs The Lucha Dragons. The match wasn’t particularly memorable apart from the fact that Blake and Murphy were victorious. The win isn’t dissatisfying because Blake and Murphy don’t deserve the win because they haven’t been on-screen much. It’s mostly a dissatisfying win because The Lucha Dragons didn’t have a very impressive run.
They’ve certainly had some good matches, but they never really caught on with the crowd in a significant way (which is probably why they didn’t last very long).
Because of this, an “upset” victory isn’t much of an upset and so Blake & Murphy don’t seem particularly powerful and it also doesn’t feel like a David vs Goliath fluke victory that everyone can rally behind. It just all feels somewhat dull.
It doesn’t help that Blake & Murphy are almost indistinguishable. Their ring attire isn’t particularly appealing and it’s genuinely hard to tell them apart based on physique or personality. If one had short hair or different-colored trunks or tights then perhaps they’d feel more like two distinct human beings working together instead of two guys who seem like the same guy.
Now with The Ascension gone and Balor and Itami moving into the singles Championship tournament, there’s a shortage of good tag teams in the division. So it makes sense to build another one up in Blake & Murphy, but they need good opponents and they need to start working longer, better matches.
The Vaudevillians are the fan favorites, despite the booking consistently attempting to get that team over as a pair of heels. The people desperately want to cheer The Vaudevillians, and they desperately want to clap along with The Vaudevillians original, catchy tune.
They’re a gimmick that just cannot and will not be hated by today’s generation. They’re silly, committed to their silly performance, and, at times, genuinely amusing. They are the tag equivalent of Damien Sandow. Today’s generation loves that kind of humor - a dash of irony with a dab of self-loathing, a touch of buffoonery with a sprinkle of pop-culture criticism.
Moving forward, it might serve the division better if Blake & Murphy are painted as delusional, arrogant upstart heels who got a taste of unearned glory too soon, and for The Vaudevillians to step in as the rightful heirs to the tag division throne. The crowd would go wild.
The next match between Adrian Neville and Tyson Kidd represents the solid ring-work and pro-wrestling storytelling NXT is all about. Both are impressive talents. They traded momentum and blows throughout, Neville coming from behind with speed and kicks and high flying moves and Kidd working consistent heel, shoving his knee into Neville’s face, gritting his teeth, and luring Neville into traps. The match was so satisfying that it could have easily been the main event.
In the end, Neville was victorious, and the post-match promo he cut is a fine example of exactly the kind of thing pro-wrestlers should say after a victory. He asserted himself, establishing a goal to “get back up again” and prove that he’s “the most dominant NXT Champion”.
Charlotte & Bayley teamed against Sasha Banks & Becky Lynch in what became a somewhat sloppy tag match after a few botched moves. The ladies recovered well, however, building into a genuinely satisfying conclusion.
Bayley and Charlotte erupted into a brawl that was one of the more realistic pro-wrestling team break-downs I’ve ever seen. The way Bayley and Charlotte went after one another is the way people actually go after each other when they’re fighting.
The emotional history between the two, the crowd’s investment in both characters, informs the battle so that every action is significant and rewarding. In just a few moments, Bayley and Charlotte took the entire show over and made the fatal four way match at NXT Take Over about their former rivalry.
While Sasha and Charlotte have had an excellent feud the past couple months (and while Sasha has established herself as a future Women’s Champion), from a narrative perspective it’s satisfying to see the Women’s Championship story circle back to Bayley and Charlotte - as though these two forces are destined to collide and do battle again and again.
And we always see something new out of them. Bayley’s character is maturing, wondering if perhaps she’s been “too nice” in the past, inspired to be more serious following Sami Zayn’s “serious turn”.
It would be nice to see Bayley come up short one more time in the fatal four way, only to then go on and finally become champion in the next pay-per-view against Charlotte. Her trajectory is not unlike Zayn’s in this way - a character whose hopeful naiveté has cost her in the past, now finding the inner strength, and anger, to fight as hard as she possibly can to get what she feels she deserves. It’s a great story, and Charlotte and Bayley tell it incredibly well.
The next bout was a short yet effective rematch between Baron Corbin and Bull Dempsey.
Corbin defeated Bull again, and in a post-match promo made Bull look foolish…again.
Dempsey’s demeanor combined with the way he’s booked convinces the audience to regard Bull as a delusional jobber. If the company has actual designs to get him over as a powerful force, then they might want to reconsider their current approach.
First and foremost (and I’ve been writing this ever since Bull made his first NXT appearance) that singlet needs to go. It is absolutely impossible to take Bull seriously in that singlet, especially now that it has his initials plastered on the rear.
Opposite guys like Baron Corbin, Bull looks like one of the “local competitors” the WWE brings out to job to an actual star.
In the past, that’s not how the company seems to want Bull to be perceived. They’ve billed him as a “throwback” and a monster. They’ve had him deliver flying head-butts and go undefeated in quick matches for months. And yet that desired personae has never caught on (because it's simply not possible for that personae to catch on because it's simply not believable), and now it seems he’s paying the price for that.
Also, having Bull's entrance music begin with a voice screaming "Bull! Bull! Bull!" is just asking for trouble.
Because the tag division is in desperate need of talent, perhaps Bull (with a much needed visual make-over) along with another big guy, could finally find his place. The most interesting Bull’s ever been is when he tagged with Mojo Rawley for a couple weeks. He was a face and it worked. That feels like a better place for Bull to be, because going up against guys like Baron, especially without getting a big physical make-over, spells doom for his gimmick.
And defeating Bull, especially with such ease, doesn’t really help Baron much either. The crowd never really believed Bull was that impressive. Baron’s just confirming our suspicions, so it’s not as though we suddenly believe more in the power of Baron. We just think Baron’s come up against an obnoxious, delusional kid that he’ll have no trouble knocking out of his way.
Now we come to the final segment, the contract signing between Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens.
William Regal elicited a much-deserved pop from the crowd for stating that this contract signing would not end in violence like every other contract signing in WWE history.
And while that’s been said before, there was something in the way he said it and the way it related to the main roster that was satisfying. It felt like NXT asserting itself as the better, more respectable brand - which is something all NXT fans believe, and they enjoy being encouraged to go on believing it. If there's anything people (especially fans of something) really enjoy believing, it's that they're somehow superior, which will be discussed in the finish of this review.
The look on Sami’s and Owens’ faces tells the story perfectly. Sami’s superb promo gave an inkling into their past, expanding upon the relationship, the friendship that has helped define modern professional wrestling.
Regal, a perfect general manager, helps get the feud over by acting appropriately somber throughout the scene. He asserts his own power when he needs to, but, in so doing, lends legitimacy to the proceedings and also gives Owens a rule-book to break over Sami’s head.
Owens, stating that he wants to fight Sami for the championship because the belt means more money and a better life for his wife, his kids, and himself injected some humanity into his villainous character. He's also a liar. While there's no reason to discount that a better life for his wife and children play a part in that character doing what he's done, it's clear Owens' has a massive chip on his shoulder because he feels he's been overlooked by the WWE. It's important to remember the promotional packages for Owens where his monologue described how all of his friends got called up to NXT long before he did.
This is what professional wrestling fans want out of a modern rivalry.
The feud nudges the forth wall. The feud is informed by real relationships and real feelings of frustration and pride. The feud exists within the structure of a competitive entity; Sami and Owens are competitors, athletes competing for championship gold, their contest colored by a personal vendetta. One is a heel and one is a face, but they’re not cartoons. They're real human beings with believable psychologies.
Sami Zayn can call someone a “Motherfucker!” in a match and still be a good guy.
Kevin Owens can want to support his wife and kids and still be a bad guy.
This is the kind of realism and emotionality and depth that informed the ICW feud between Drew Galloway and Jack Jester.
If the WWE wants to tap into the modern pop-culture consciousness then they should listen to that tiny crowd at Full Sail University. What moves that crowd to cheer is no different than what moves a massive arena to cheer.
Yes, gimmicks that worked in NXT don’t sometimes seem to work on RAW - Bo Dallas, Adam Rose, The Ascension to name a few.
I reject the idea that this has anything to do with a difference between a supposedly “hardcore” wrestling audience in that NXT crowd and a “casual” wrestling audience in that RAW crowd. This is a distinction that stems from a childish need to assert one’s chosen social club as the superior force. It’s a distinction that defines almost every pop-culture community, from the gaming community to the wrestling community.
It’s unintelligent. It’s immature. And it hurts the mediums we love.
There are those who will say it’s easy for NXT to be good because it’s only one hour and because it’s designed for the “hardcore” wrestling fan (this is something commenters have written to me in a strangely argumentative way), where as RAW is a harder show to make and RAW is for that wider, “casual” audience member.
NXT is good because yes...it's designed for someone who actually wants to watch pro-wrestling.
Raw is often bad because it is not designed for someone who wants to watch pro-wrestling.
I reject the idea that "casual" or "hardcore" audience members has anything to do with this.
There are only pro-wrestling fans with varying degrees of interest in the subtleties of the medium.
The idea behind “casual pro-wrestling fan” or “casual viewer”, the defense that RAW is designed for a general audience is somehow supposed to explain why RAW is so consistently bad, as if “casual viewers” enjoy watching bad comedy segments or as if “casual viewers” tune in to Monday Night RAW to not watch pro-wrestling.
If people tune in to Monday Night RAW at all, they’re tuning in to watch professional wrestling. They want to watch a match. That’s it. That is all. That's what they're looking for. They’re not tuning in to hear Michael Cole sell them something and they’re not tuning in to watch Stephanie McMahon vomit on Vickie Guerrero. They tune in because it’s the only show around on Monday Night that might offer pro-wrestling on a grande, familiar scale. Pro-wrestling is what distinguishes the WWE from other television shows. The idea that there’s some elusive casual audience out there who would be interested in tuning in to RAW if RAW suddenly became some kind of strange half-breed-reality-television-sports-entertainment-game-show is, very simply, wrong and destructive.
What makes people watch RAW “casually”, what makes viewers turn the channel is the fact that the broadcast is a bloated three hours that barely holds even my attention because it so rarely offers what the WWE is supposed to offer people who want to watch the WWE.
You sit that "casual viewer" down in front of NXT, they'll stick around. They'll watch. It's not as though they're going to suddenly be alienated by a good match and a focus on competition. And it’s because it’s something they actually want to see. Plain and simple. Pro-wrestling. Rivalries. Interesting stories. Competition. Sami Zayn vs Kevin Owens.
“Hardcore” wrestling fans are not defined by a larger attention span. “Hardcore” wrestling fans are people who pride themselves on their knowledge of the medium. They either pride themselves on their knowledge in a gracious way by engaging in polite discourse with fellow fans, or they pat themselves on the back and lord their knowledge over others every chance they get by correcting someone’s use of the word “buried”.
Look to NXT, WWE. Filter our the noise, and focus on what makes that crowd pop. There's your answer. There's your money.
Listen to Full Sail.
They’re giving you the positive reinforcement you need. They’re cheering because the booking is good.
The booking makes them believe what they're seeing. The booking makes them feel something real.
Good booking, good storytelling, is what your elusive millennial generation craves.
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