THE NXT REPORT
The consistent, much-deserved praise NXT receives makes me increasingly uneasy. Not because I’m pessimistic by nature or because I believe dips in quality are inevitable, but because I fear the wrath of the mythological-Vince-McMahon-beast that’s been built up in the collective fan-mind. The Vince McMahon fan's see and hear about is one who often seems to actively do the opposite of what makes sense. Perhaps this is an unrealistic perception, but it's what fans believe nonetheless, and that's certainly not a good image to have when you're the head of a publicly traded company.
The fact that NXT is permitted to exist is something of a shock given the nature of Monday Night Raw and the philosophies that dictate that show.
After hearing Triple H on Stone Cold Steve Austin’s podcast earlier this week, it’s apparent that Triple H actually shares a lot of fans’ opinions of WWE’s flagship show; three hours of RAW is far too many hours of RAW, scripted promos are terrible, female wrestlers deserve a better spotlight and more time, and people love professional wrestling not the entertainment-mush that is Monday Night Raw.
Now that the cat is peaking a single eyeball out of the bag, quivering in fear of the swift, nonsensical wrath of the WWE’s overlord, I watch NXT with a sense of anxiety, fearful that some higher-up in the company will mess with Triple H’s baby simply for the sake of messing with it (the bad booking that surrounds NXT superstars on RAW is already evidence of such childish politicking).
NXT represents everything professional wrestling wants to be in 2015. The brand merges the realism, intimacy, and intensity of indy wrestling with the unparalleled showmanship and grandiosity of the WWE. It’s pro-wrestling at its finest (for this fan), pro-wrestling in its most mass-appeal form - the purist takes delight in the purity of real-sport presentation while the “casual viewer” delights in the spectacle and the athleticism.
No one tunes in to Monday Night Raw to watch a strange reality TV-game-show-SNL skit-staged sport-mutant of a television show.
Everyone puts RAW on in the pursuit of watching a pro-wrestling match. Everyone. The reason I make that generalization is because pro-wrestling is the only association people make with RAW and pro-wrestling is the only association people make with WWE and it’s the only thing about the WWE that makes it unique from other television shows and it’s the only thing the WWE can actually do well. We know what happens when the WWE tries to make a game show or a horror movie or a comedy skit.
NXT understands this. NXT knows what it has to offer, it knows what people who are inclined to watch it actually want to see, and it moves ahead with the utmost confidence in itself.
RAW self-consciously, weakly meanders around the idea of appealing to anyone and everyone and, in so doing, fails to hold anyone’s attention (chalking that failure up to the lack of attention span of the millennial generation - a generation that watches every minute of thoughtful dramas like The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men with bated breath).
The latest episode began with Enzo and Big Cass introducing Carmella. As I heard their music fill that small theater, I imagined this likable duo making their debut in New York someday. I heard that imaginary New York crowd exploding. And then I imagined how thoroughly enjoyable a two hour RAW could be if it was populated with the top RAW talent and the top NXT talent.
Enzo and Cass could supply the comedy of the tag division, Bayley, Charlotte, & Sasha could elevate the Diva’s Division, Baron, Hideo, and Balor could elevate the Intercontinental and US Championships, and Sami, Kevin, and Adrian could make the WWE World Heavyweight Championship everything it’s supposed to be.
Following Carmella’s victory over Emma, Baron Corbin had his first legitimate match against Adrian Neville.
Adrian seemed a perfect opponent for Baron. The juxtaposition of Neville’s speed and Corbin’s power made for an entertaining, straightforward battle. Corbin didn’t waste time trying to do things outside his skill-set. He moved deliberately and brutishly, sneaking in a few unexpected and powerful slams along the way. Bull Dempsey interfered and cost Baron the match, setting up their no disqualification battle at the next NXT special.
Bayley took on Becky Lynch in a decent bout. Becky Lynch still seems to be finding herself. The emphasis on her being a rocker occasionally feels somewhat hollow - as though it’s not totally a representation of something she really believes. Cory Graves even alluded to this by criticizing her triple leg drop.
Becky has been trying to get a sequence over for the past couple months where she bounces off the ropes, drops her leg on her opponent’s neck two times in a row, and then, before dropping her leg a third time whips her hair in her opponent’s face, throws up the devil horns gesture, and then drops the leg.
It’s a five-knuckle-shuffle-like sequence that just doesn’t make too much sense or seem to click with the crowd. Cory was audibly irritated by it and commentary called him out on it. He wove his frustration into the fiction perfectly, stating that it didn’t make sense to waste time with the hair-whip and that he took offense to her misuse of the devil horns, “She’s the kind of person who’d wear the band’s tee-shirt to the concert.”
As of now, that description does reflect the Becky Lynch character. The crowd wants to like her, and she’s seemingly on the verge of really clicking with the audience, but, like a wayward youth led astray by a mean girl (like Sasha Banks), she’s still finding her way. Hopefully at the next special she’ll have her moment.
Next was the main event between Hideo Itami and Finn Balor, the second match of the night in the NXT Championship no.1 contender tournament.
This was a stiff, beautiful match with Hideo and Finn bashing each other from turnbuckle to turnbuckle. The opening salvo of holds and reversals perfectly setup the massive kicks and finisher-reversals later in the match. The crowd was engaged before they even locked up, chanting, “We’re not worthy!”
There’s genuine love in NXT, for the performers and for the product. That love exists because your desire to believe is respected. As a NXT fan you feel rewarded for your commitment, because the product offers you exactly what you’re looking for. Every time you’re treated to the kinds of performances NXT permits you actually feel like you owe the WWE something when they’re thanking you. RAW is the exact opposite experience.
If the WWE is interested in silencing the obnoxious internet, NXT is the answer.
Finn defeated Hideo with a shockingly hard kick into the turnbuckle, followed up by his spike kick off the turnbuckle. The two shook hands in a sign of respect, lending even more legitimacy to the proceedings.
Commentary was perfect throughout the entire night, calling actual moves in the ring, Alex Riley consistently engaging guest Adrian Neville in dialogues about competition and the NXT Championship - subtly emphasizing the importance of the match between Hideo and Finn.
Then, after the segment was over, a beautiful vignette played building the Sami Zayn/Kevin Owens championship match at the next special.
The two had already cut excellent promos earlier the night, the presentation entirely authentic and powerful. Note how both of them are facing the camera on opposite ends, subtly emphasizing, visually, that they are at odds with each other.
Their vignette showed pictures of them from their youth, we learned exactly why Kevin Owens attacked Sami (he’s felt overlooked by the WWE and needs to support his family), and clips from their previous encounters were stitched together to intensify the points both made in their talking-head segments.
This feud epitomizes The Reality Era. Everything about this feud is everything the top pro-wrestling feud can and should be in 2015.
The actual reality of Sami and Kevin’s lives informs the rivalry. We get brief glimpses behind that curtain, but they are crafted glimpses that actually enhance the fiction. For example, Sami mentioned that he peaked into the arena from behind the curtain to watch Kevin’s first match at NXT, that he teared up during the match and couldn’t have been happier for his friend. Similarly, Owens said that he was as excited for Sami & Adrian’s title match as he was for his own match.
This is the kind of reality-fiction blend that can elevate professional wrestling to its rightful place in the hearts and minds of our culture as an art form.
We’re seeing in Sami and Kevin’s feud what a pro-wrestling renaissance looks like - the merging of reality and fiction, old and new, intimacy and spectacle.
We need to protect this so that one day it might flourish.
Let the future begin.
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