How the once mighty have fallen.
Keep in mind, the current days aren’t even the days when the show is running opposite AEW, a move that many believed would and did divide fans — so much so that once the two companies stopped running opposite one another, it felt inevitable that both audiences would grow. AEW did, and then, for the last couple weeks, did not. NXT, however, hasn’t seen as much of a bump in viewership that one would think they’d want to see.
Sure, reasons for the dip in ratings for both shows vary and the NBA playoffs are certainly a big factor. But while AEW continues to see its star rise into the upper echelon of the wrestling stratosphere, NXT feels like its shine is going the other way. So, what’s the problem?
THE GLORY DAYS
The following seems like it’s more forgotten than it should be when considering this brand: NXT used to be the coolest thing on television (or, well, Internet television, at least). Before AEW was barely even a seed of a germ of an idea, NXT was must-see TV. The matches were great. The stories were great. The wrestlers were great. It was the cool, straight-up wrestling alternative that so many fans yearned for, for so long.
Then there were the TakeOvers. In their own way, NXT’s TakeOvers earned legendary statuses among hardcore wrestling fans that only grew better in time. The crowds were ruckus. The matches, impeccable. Think back to the first one outside of Full Sail in 2015, TakeOver: Brooklyn, and that impossibly great match between Bayley and Sasha Banks for the NXT Women’s Championship. How about in Chicago, 2017, when Ciampa betrayed Gargano? If you weren’t watching, you were missing out on the most exciting stuff in wrestling at that time.
But then AEW did happen. And WWE did decide to run its NXT show counter to AEW’s show on Wednesday nights. And, from an outsider’s perspective, the way the minds behind NXT approached putting together the show, slowly by slowly, began to change. Every talking suit in both wrestling companies can claim there was never a ratings war between AEW and NXT, but if that’s the case, then why did the storytelling in NXT become just a little more rushed? Why was NXT hot-shotting potential matches that could have been saved for a TakeOver onto its weekly television show?
Ratings war or no ratings war, the fabric and tenor of what we once knew NXT to be changed in intangible ways. Maybe it was because AEW became another alternative pro-wrestling show for which fans yearned, or maybe it’s because NXT, like it or not, has the WWE shadow following everything it does, and to some fans, that matters.
Me? I think it’s more than that.
Look, I love Karion Kross’s act. There’s a mystique around him, his entrance is fantastic (and goodness, NXT sure knows how to create some fantastic entrances), and the dynamic between he and Scarlett is as close to perfection as it gets. His in-ring work is often celebrated, rightfully so, for being some of the most believable and some of the best-looking in the business.
But at this point, I just can’t figure out, for the life of me, who he’s supposed to work with in NXT that will help elevate him — because, despite the accolades, there is a tiny bit of a tiny thing that he appears to be missing in his overall presentation. If there was someone who theoretically would have been the person to push him that extra inch upward, it would have been Finn Balor.
But … eh?
Their first encounter was very good, and perhaps great, but the sequel on Wednesday’s NXT episode was only very good. Which, of course, is nothing about which anyone should complain. Very good is better than 95 percent of everything else we see on wrestling television in America anymore, so kudos to them. Still, the match felt like it came in below the admittedly high expectations that some of us gave it.
Who’s fault was it? It wasn’t Kross’s fault. It wasn’t Balor’s fault. Instead …
It was NXT’s fault for adhering to something that, ironically, Cody said AEW would do: Lose the definition of what babyfaces and heels are supposed to be in the annals of professional wrestling tradition. Or, in other words, embrace the tweener. The tweener has no simple map. The tweener defies logic. The tweener thrives in its lack of definition.
The tweener also creates a hell of a lot of confusion for idiots like me who just want to watch wrestling. Am I supposed to be cheering for Kross these days? Who, between the two, truly worked like a babyface or a heel in that match last week? And if you could delineate that, can you please explain to me what Balor’s deal is?
Actually, Balor was the first one to really sink his teeth into this in NXT after his program with Adam Cole. For nearly as long as he’s been back to the black and gold brand, I haven’t been able to tell if I’m supposed to root for him as an anti-hero or hate him for being selfishly devious (or deviously selfish). The same goes for Kross these days because when he came back from injury, he cut what I thought was a babyface promo. Then he worked with Santos Escobar, who is clearly a heel.
So … ?
Now, I understand the desire to evolve traditional pro wrestling ethos, and, as the old cliche goes, you’ll miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. So, if you have a weird, whacky idea, and you’re pretty great at wrestling, I say have at it. But if you’re going to try and implement such a change to such a fundamental aspect of something, you need to have foresight because without it, you can’t address the periphery.
And with the tweener approach, the periphery in NXT is all but lost.
How so? Because to establish innovation, NXT has sacrificed storytelling. It’s great that we all want to think that the tweener approach makes things more authentic, because in the real world, we’re all just tweeners in the wrestling match called life anyway. But I don’t think any of us who watch wrestling necessarily want to be reminded of how complex any of us human beings can be.
Besides: Even if you have an argument in real life, one of you is the babyface and one of you is the heel, no matter if the way those roles are cast differ from one another, depending on which person in the argument is thinking about it. So, if wrestling wants to be more real, a strong argument could be made that the babyface/heel dynamic will forever be the best way to go.
It must be said, then, that such a dynamic is also the key ingredient in drama, and drama is something NXT lacks these days. We’re going to have a triple threat this Tuesday and the winner of that triple threat will face Kross for the NXT title. The people in that triple threat will be Kyle O’Reilly, Johnny Gargano and Pete Dunne. All those guys have nothing but great matches, but can someone tell me what the story is here? Can someone tell me where the personal issue lies between the three?
All we know is that at one point, the three of them were in the ring with each other and Kross, all whining in their own ways about how they should get a title shot. This was weeks and weeks ago. Since then, Gargano lost his North American title, Dunne won a match or two and O’Reilly looks like Orange Cassidy. OK, so maybe that’s a dumb comparison, and I know it’s tired. But if he’s not Orange Cassidy, then what exactly is he doing these days?
Who knows, but the answer to that question might help answering this one final thought.
WHO WILL STEP UP?
Who’s the star? Not just in the triple threat, but in all of NXT. Kross is, should be, could be and hopefully will be. But it’s really hard to get him to the tippy-top when he’s not defined. Then what? It sounds like Balor might not be long for NXT, as rumors have been circulating that he’s heading back to Raw or SmackDown. So, again. Then what?
Adam Cole had his blood feud and disappeared. Speaking of the former Undisputed Era, Roderick Strong doesn’t have much going on and Bobby Fish just jobbed out to Dunne. Bronson Reed is a nice story, but that’s about it. Legado Del Fantasma need to be used more, but Escobar isn’t winning enough. OK, I’ll give you MSK, but did Ciampa head to OVW or something? Why isn’t he in any type of worthwhile mix?
For the women, Franky Monet is off to a great start, but one can only hope that great start turns into a great, meaningful run. Even though the story was rushed to all hell, will Io Shirai ever get a rematch with Raquel Gonzalez or is that it for her? Caindice LeRae and Indi Hartwell have a fun thing going, especially with the Dexter Lumis wrinkle, but Candice feels like she should be in a big-deal program. Shotzi and Ember, meanwhile, have been a team for a minute and a half.
Of all the people listed there, who stands out as someone, man or woman, who could be the face of the brand like Adam Cole was during that forgotten Survivor Series weekend a few years ago? Of all the potential matchups, who could you put together to captivate a crowd for the better part of a year, like Ciampa and Gargano did? Would NXT even try something like that these days?
My guess is no, which single-handedly highlights the difference between where NXT was and where NXT is. They can’t blame AEW. They can’t blame USA. They can’t blame moving nights on television. They have to look at themselves. Right now, this is a show with little direction, occasionally great matches and not much of a through-line. If the powers that be don’t take more time establishing stores and stars, 698,000 might become the new high point for the program.
So, as I sadly said earlier: Oh, how the once mighty have fallen.