The Eulogy of the NXT We Knew

Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here to mourn and celebrate the life of the NXT we knew. The one that we would turn to when we wanted a break from main roster WWE, to have a big indie feel without actually watching the indies.

It’s thirty minutes past midnight in the U.S. as I am rewriting this. Earlier, I watched as name after name was released from NXT. Every reload on social media as the news rolled through felt as though I personally was firing these people at random. This, mixed in with wrestling fans being perfectly reasonable – defending WWE, telling talent how they should feel, how other wrestling fans should feel, all of these things bubbling up in a reaction that shocked our systems. All while these people had to come to terms with the fact that they just lost their job.

For a while, I was prepping this writing to just say that there is a shift in the product, that NXT no longer had that special feel it once had, it was shifting in into some other direction, after a series of unfortunate events.

But things didn’t happen like that. In a time where outside forces have changed the world, inside and outside the parameters of professional wrestling, and in a time where big opposition dared to challenge Vince McMahon’s goliath of a company, there have been…decisions. Almost, if not all, very frustrating to see play out.

Before COVID-19, before AEW, NXT was this fun product to watch. Open up the WWE Network and watch some great wrestling for an hour, with better storylines than the parent shows run by the man who has been doing this for decades.

When I came back to watching wrestling, I’d only seen a small smattering of anything outside of WWE. Mostly TNA/Impact or New Japan Pro Wrestling when it was on AXS TV, and a bit of WCW from when I was a child. WWE was all I knew. And even then, it took me a while to move from the main roster to NXT to see what all the hype was about.

Credit: WWE

What a great, great time that was. Tommaso Ciampa was the NXT Champion, entering a rivalry with Aleister Black while in a blood feud with former friend and DIY tag team partner, Johnny Gargano. Kairi Sane and Shayna Baszler were pushing each other to the limit for the NXT Women’s Championship. Adam Cole stood across the ring from Ricochet for the North American gold. And Undisputed Era were taking on Moustache Mountain to retain their Tag Team belts.

I didn’t yet know what came before, and how awesome it was. Sami Zayn vs Shinsuke Nakamura. Finn Balor vs Kevin Owens. Sasha Banks vs Bayley. Or one of the most acclaimed matches in NXT history: Johnny Gargano vs Andrade Cien Almas.

A plethora of these matches and storylines and characters were beloved by wrestling fans. I recall people talking about how they had a WWE Network subscription just to watch NXT. This was the place, and this was the time. To have someone like Dave Meltzer give high ratings for NXT matches, further cementing that this was something special. This was the gritty, yet evolved versions of the Attitude Era and Ruthless Aggression Era people were clamouring for. It didn’t always happen in sold out arenas, either – but rather Full Sail University.

Despite all of this praise and glory, it was inevitable that something would interrupt the beauty of NXT. In 2019, wrestling history was made in the advent of All Elite Wrestling. Now, there was an alternative to WWE. It had elements of indie wrestling, classic wrestling, and the NXT/WWE style all rolled into one, while selling out places almost as big as the shows ran by Raw and Smackdown.

Then news broke of AEW featuring on the TNT channel, and this is where the illness spread for NXT. To reiterate, NXT was something unique, and all it had to do was be itself. That’s what got it to where it was. But as we’ve seen, large corporations like to oversaturate its products, to commercialize it, and taint it in the capitalist ways to fit how they think the people will want it. That’s how WWE saw NXT, that it was this popular thing, so why not throw it against the other popular thing? Why wouldn’t they try to stifle something closer to competition than the days of WCW?

Credit: WWE

Bam! NXT was on USA Network, and now for two hours. For a while, it worked, and NXT would be almost tied in the ratings. The “Wednesday Night Wars” had begun. Most times, however, AEW would be in the lead. No matter what they threw at the wall, WWE couldn’t get past AEW, aside from that beautiful period of time when NXT was involved in the 2019 Survivor Series, to establish it as a third main roster brand (remember those days?!). NXT were invading the main roster, an en masse call-up.

This is by no fault of AEW. They’re changing the industry and it is amazing to see. It is also sad to see how something so cool as NXT could fall from grace, as it was forced to change itself to please someone else. The fault lies in the people at the top of this corporate empire.

Enter the COVID-19 pandemic. If people weren’t losing their jobs, they were losing their loved ones. People had more to care about than professional wrestling. AEW adapted well enough at Daily’s Place – QT Marshall’s gym aside – with wrestlers as fans cheering enough to fool you that this show could still have that big fight feel. NXT, meanwhile, had an empty arena in the WWE Performance Center, with plexiglass walls (soon modified with chains, a failed attempt to make the product seem gritty again).

I don’t know about you, but a crowd is better than no crowd at all. Eventually, WWE saw this and implemented their own talents and staff in the audience, even with faux-audience members in this hollow warehouse. I’m getting a headache just remembering that unfortunate sound as the “fans” slap that plexiglass wall barricading them from the ring.

Months pass. Soon, after all of the low ratings of NXT compared to AEW, WWE decided it was time to call a spade, a spade. Triple H’s brand was then relocated to Tuesdays, and soon to the “Capitol Wrestling Center”, with more fans, real fans, to be included. The crowd has grown, but not to the levels of main roster WWE or AEW. It’s not even at its former numbers at the time of writing. If you were under the impression that WWE seems to care little for the black and yellow brand, it would seem apparent.

On August 6, 2021, the latest round of “budget cuts” saw twelve or more people out of a job, adding to the already insanely large amount of talent and workers WWE has fired. What they have planned, nobody but those closely enough tied to the product know.

Credit: WWE

What we have now, and what we will have going forward, is not the NXT we knew. It was where Sami Zayn and Johnny Gargano became the “heart and soul” of NXT. Where Bianca Belair was the EST of NXT. This is the place where Aleister Black told that sleeze to “enjoy infamy”, and it was the place where Asuka ran roughshod. I could go on and on of the best to grace Full Sail University’s stage and told their stories on the ring canvas. That’s just a testament to how important the brand was, not just to WWE, but to wrestling as a whole.

I don’t know where the brand goes from here. I truly don’t. I wish we all knew, but with shaky ground, where nothing is certain, we won’t know until things happen. What WWE does with NXT going forward, where talents like Adam Cole and Pete Dunne go when their contracts expire, or when talent is relocated to Raw or Smackdown, is unbeknownst to us.

As more developments unfold about the future of NXT, I find myself with no faith in it going forward. With rumors of changing the logo, appearance, and talent, it feels as though there are several steps taken backwards, and not in the cool Moonwalker way. I’m talking about how they want younger talent (understandable, I suppose), as well as taller men. The same company that built up people of short stature and got them over with the crowd such as Finn Balor, Daniel Bryan, and Johnny Gargano. Two of those men were made in NXT.

And that in itself highlights a bigger problem. When you finally get all of these same types of people, how will they separate themselves from the rest of the pack? To paraphrase a famous quote: “in a world full of giants, who really stands out?”

Of course, that is the byproduct of having the same men who kept WWE as the same stale product that many lamented about, the same product that CM Punk criticized in that Pipebomb promo, scripted or not.

I do not know TrIple H or Shawn Michaels on a personal level, nor do I care. I do not know what the intentions of Triple H or Shawn Michaels are in running the brand, especially after the passing of Dusty Rhodes – whether it be a way to showcase a new generation of talent to the world or to create a “smark” friendly environment where WWE fans could enjoy the indies without having to watch independent promotions, but I do know this:

There was passion in NXT. There was love in NXT. The same people putting in the same effort and creativity we would remember forever, it was there. And it will be wherever these wrestlers go, as they carry it with them. How can you out-indie the indies, when the same formulaic, watered down methods from a soulless, heartless machine can’t replicate the unabashed excitement and dedicated fury that comes from the heart of those who have the love for this art form?

In spite of itself, the name is still going, but as a new NXT is being born across the hall, in its hospital bed lies the dead body that is the NXT we knew.

Credit: WWE

And that, my friends, is Undisputed.