THE NXT REPORT
In the early AM hours, before turning in after a hard day’s work, I decided that I wanted to watch some wrestling. And this latest episode of NXT delivered.
Filmed a couple weeks ago, this episode put the spotlight firmly on Hideo Itami as he ascended through a tournament to earn his spot at the Andre The Giant Battle Royal at WrestleMania.
The opening match between Hideo & Adrian Neville was a technical gem, especially the opening back and forth of armbars and locks. I cannot emphasize how refreshing it was to watch pro-wrestlers lock holds on one another and stay there, comfortable that they wouldn't lose the crowd, contributing, piece by piece, to the excitement of the comebacks and the finishes.
Adrian Neville has revealed his ability to work heel in subtle flourishes during his feud with Sami Zayn, comfortable performing in a moral gray-area. In this match against Hideo, there was an added fire in Neville’s eyes, a willingness to confront the crowd, and an edge to his kicks and chops that really showed his heel-potential. In that viciousness I saw someone who could really get a crowd to hate him, while still performing with the same energy and acrobatics. His well-timed aggression really got the crowd on Hideo’s side so that by the end of the match the NXT audience erupted into, “HIDEO! HIDEO! HIDEO!” chants.
This might be the last time we see Adrian on NXT, seeing as how he recently made the jump to Monday Night Raw. While the moves and the man are the same, the gimmick has undergone a significant transformation.
On NXT, Adrian Neville was just a good athlete. He wore appropriate, simple gear, and the moniker “The Man That Gravity Forgot” was not taken literally. Like “The People’s Champion”, it was just a tagline, a self-applied label that contributed to the aura of the persona.
On RAW, Adrian Neville (now just Neville) is some kind of otherworldly wizard, his entrance video suggesting that he rides into the arena on a meteor.
This treatment of Adrian Neville epitomizes the difference between NXT’s perspective on the business and RAW’s perspective on the business.
Adrian Neville was a character grounded in reality, his acrobatics and athleticism made all the more impressive because they were tangible, a skill-set he had developed over a long career and a skill-set that differentiated him from the rest of the roster.
Neville of RAW is a cartoon, a gimmick whose athletic prowess is resultant from some kind of magic (therefore diminishing, within the fiction, how impressive it actually is). This otherworldly implication is achieved through his colorful ring-attire and the aforementioned spacey entrance video. Neville is the kind of character right at home in the past, in a pro-wrestling culture that isn’t desperate for reality and in a pro-wrestling culture that isn’t “smart” to the business.
I have no doubt that Neville will manage to get over on the main roster.
But I also have no doubt that the space-age theatrics will inevitably fade and, someday, we’ll see the Adrain Neville from NXT (or something else entirely) come to fruition on the main roster.
Casual and hardcore viewer alike is not bored by reality.
People are moved to think and feel by sincerity, emotionality, and talent - and that's what stands the test of time.
And that’s what the final match of the night between Finn Balor and Hideo Itami (as well as the subsequent video package detailing Hideo’s journey to Mania) represented.
I marveled at Balor versus Itami, for it represents that perfect intersection between the authenticity of real-sport that modern fans crave and the theatrics that the WWE prides themselves on.
In watching Balor and Itami, I felt as though I was watching a real-life battle between Ken and Ryu from the Street Fighter video games; two competitors vying for the prize, similar combat styles, a fair fight, mutual respect, and the need to be the absolute best. Everything about Hideo and Balor, from the way they came up at the same time to the way they look in the ring, suggests they are reflections of one another. Their paths will inevitably cross again and again, and on this particular day the spoils went to Itami.
In this kind of story, viewers are treated to believable motivations, a situation that doesn’t trouble itself with creating a heel or a face and instead simply exists as a contest that will inspire the crowd to cheer for both competitors. It’s about sport. Each competitor fought to get to this spot, and the prize couldn't be greater; a shot at WrestleMania.
This grounded, relatable narrative is then enhanced by the grandiosity of the entrances and the surprising acrobatics. This particular match represents the best of both worlds, where the WWE gets to flex their theatrical muscles without veering off into the land of slapstick and unbelievability.
And that brings me to the closing Hideo Itami vignette.
If you would like to know everything I want to see from the WWE, visit the Network and watch the last ten minutes of this episode of NXT.
You will see a genuinely moving, heartfelt account of Hideo’s life in the WWE thus far, from signing all the way to WrestleMania.
The quality of the camera work, music, and the sincerity of the dialogue creates a WWE that feels more like a beautiful, courageous sports documentary and less like a carnival soap opera for men. In this style of vignette the WWE gets over. Far too often the company allows itself to be depicted as a collection of vindictive, out of touch, angry old men.
In this documentary the WWE looks like an amazing place where someone like Hideo Itami is given an awesome opportunity.
Hideo tells you about his family, he talks with Triple H, and we hear from Daniel Bryan and Hulk Hogan about what makes Hideo special, and we get those brief almost-kayfabe-breaking glimpses behind the curtain following his loss at the battle royal. All the while the professional wrestling fiction is maintained. Apart from a shoulder-pat from The Big Show, there's nothing in this vignette to suggest what goes on in the ring isn't real - and even the shoulder -pat from The Big Show is passable as existing within the pro-wrestling fiction.
We see the affect this journey, this world, has on a human being.
Hideo doesn’t need to act. He’s permitted to just be.
The WWE becomes authentic in this style of presentation, a unique entertainment entity that confidently walks the tightrope of reality and fiction, certain that it will not fall. This style of presentation trusts the audience to go along for the ride. It’s inviting, not alienating.
Often RAW seems to operate from the perspective that an authentic or serious style of presentation would drive away viewers or confuse children. Quite the opposite is true, as while people don’t want to dragged through a plodding Shakespearian tragedy when they watch RAW, they do want to watch something that treats itself with respect and takes the time to create believable, emotionally rewarding stories.
It is my undying hope that one day, the simplicity and the genius of NXT’s style of presentation will fight its way onto Monday Night Raw, that the WWE’s powers that be will realize that there’s nothing wrong with honesty, sincerity, and sport, that in 2015, people want to see relatable human beings like Hideo Itami struggle.
People just want to believe. And when you give them something that's easy to believe in then it makes it that much easier to move an audience to that moment of pop.
And in that moment of pop is money - both the figurative and literal sort.
Throughout the mini-documentary Hideo keeps mentioning that he’s nervous.
He’s humanized. His entry into that battle royal becomes so important to the viewer. We desperately want him to succeed because we know how much it means to him, and we’re that much more impressed by his appearance because we know that he had to overcome those nerves. And he's not hurt by the loss. Triple H himself provides voice-over, stating that Hideo is a "winner, that we're all winners". It's positively uplifting! It's fun, exciting, beautiful, and it makes you want to buy in!
Where RAW attempts to make Neville super human with a cape, Hideo becomes super human in this video because come to understand who he is, how he came to be, and what he's capable of achieving.
It’s in reality that the WWE will find their greatest, most powerful superstars.
It’s in reality that pro-wrestling wants to live and breath.
It’s in reality that the WWE must believe.
Comment below with your thoughts on the show and Hideo! And remember to subscribe, rate, and review The Work of Wrestling podcast in iTunes! Thanks for your readership and support. If you'd like to follow me/talk 'rasslin some more, follow me via the various social media gimmicks below: