In the few years since WWE NXT debuted as a vehicle to introduce new characters to WWE programming (remember the awesome Daniel Bryan vs. Chris Jericho match on the first episode?), the series has gone through different directions, revamps and overhauls. The most recent overhaul pretty much took the NXT brand and fused it with the former Florida Championship Wrestling developmental TV series, moving it to Winter Park, Florida.
Partnering with Full Sail University a year ago, NXT took on the identity of becoming the most high-end looking independent wrestling show ever. It meshes the intimacy of a great small venue with the glitzy HD WWE production values. More often than not, it's also the best wrestling series WWE produces in their ever-cluttering collection of weekly output.
NXT isn't just where the stars of the future will come from, but it's where the diehard fans of today should be flocking to get their wrestling on. Sure, not everything is going to be the type of blow away match that you'll see from some of the independents that cater to endless highspots and crazy bumps, but from a week to week standpoint, the series remains logical in its storytelling, athletic and competitive in its wrestling presentation and much deeper in characterization than most Raws or Smackdown.
Suffice to say, it's probably what most old school wrestling fans miss about their current pro wrestling.
So, starting with the 5/20 episode, we are going to take a look at what worked, what didn't and what we learned from NXT. Onto the show.
*The announcing. Tony Dawson and William Regal are absolutely magical together. William is the absolute best color commentator since Taz when he started on Smackdown at giving an insight into why pro wrestlers do what they do and what their strategy should be. He often covers potential mistakes that are made while reminding the audience that the talents are still trying to learn and find their way as WWE personalities. He provides excellent exposition and facts on the talents (Antonio Cesaro wearing the beret because he once served in the Swiss Army, Sami Zayn speaking Syrian because his parents are from Syria) that you'd never see presented on Raw or Smackdown and if they were, they were pushed as forgettable tidbits. Dawson does a good job just trying to tell the stories and call the holds and the one thing that really shines is that neither are beating anything down over the heads of the audience, They are calling matches and talking to you as they do it, explaining what is going on not all that different than say Gordon Solie may have - as opposed to someone like Michael Cole barking at you the way Vince McMahon barks at him on the headsets. It works.
*The debut of Sami Zayn against Curt Hawkins. The former El Generico worked a style where less meant more against Curt Hawkins but that was smart because when he hit a springboard into a Tornado DDT, the immediate response was, "Wow, that's got to be it!"...and it was! Zayn was established as a hard working, babyface competitor early and in a way that didn't knock Hawkins down a peg, either. If anything, it made Hawkins look stronger than he usually does on WWE TV, since he got some excellent offense in, including a killer kick to the back of the head.
*Personality profiles on Bray Wyatt and Corey Graves. If you had never watched NXT before and had to watch this match cold, you'd be wondering who the guy with the tattoos is and who the guy in the Hawaiian shirt and hat is and why should you care. With very short promos, Graves and Wyatt were given the chance to make you care and by the end of them, especially the insight into Wyatt as the Southern cult-like leader of his family, you had to be intrigued. Graves' story of spending 100 hours getting tattooed because they were his personal suit of armor was really deep, interesting stuff. With very short amount of time, the promos and the WWE production team gave you a reason to want to see them face off.
*Mason Ryan. One of the best things to ever happen to Ryan was being yanked off TV and sent back down here. In his short squash against Enzo Amore, he looked like an explosive monster and far more confident in the ring as a performer. I really liked his Human Torture Rack into a neckbreaker finisher and suspect lots of people will be stealing it on the independents before long. If Ryan is an example of what talents can do if they are taken off national TV to continue to learn, kudos to all involved. He went from looking like someone who was beyond awkward in the ring last time I saw him work a live event to someone who looked like an old school beast in the ring.
*Antonio Cesaro. His quick win over Yoshi Tatsu (gee, that poor guy can't even get any real ring time in NXT!) and his subsequent promo made Cesaro look like every bit of the fearsome talent and star that he can be - and it's a real shame he doesn't get that presentation on the main roster. Cesaro looked great in making short work of Tatsu and then his promo claiming he put the W in WWE and that there was no competition for him anywhere - leading to Sami Zayn coming out to challenge him - was strong as well. Watching Raw, Cesaro comes off like a guy with no bite. On NXT, he comes off like a star. No matter who is to blame, that's a shame, because he deserves better.
*Cesaro vs. Zayn. After a win by Zayn to establish him as a legit competitor earlier on, NXT fans got to see that he's a babyface that's not going to take anything from a heel talking garbage and will take the fight to them. He and Cesaro, who have worked countless times on the independent scene, had a chance to showcase their skills here and tell a nice back and forth story. Zayn getting the surprise win over the more established Cesaro in theory meant a great deal - and would have meant that if Cesaro hadn't often lost on the main roster shows - and really got the crowd behind him. Cesaro laying him out didn't come off like a burial, but more of a tease that there was more to come in this storyline. I hope there is.
*Bray Wyatt vs. Corey Graves. A completely different style of wrestling in comparison to what we saw earlier on the show, this was a more methodical, character-based brute strength-style slugfest. Wyatt's personality has made huge, huge leaps since his time as Husky Harris and like Mason Ryan, sending him back down was the best thing that ever happened to his WWE earning potential. His sleazy, psychotic persona was only aided by the facemask he wore to the ring to hide a broken nose suffered at the hands of Chris Jericho a few weeks ago on TV. Graves looked solid as well and they told a good story building to the idea that Graves had Wyatt beaten with his submission the 13th Step, before Wyatt's family members Luke Harper and Erick Rowan interfered. This led to a beating on Graves and Kassius Ohno's failed attempt to get at Wyatt. In the end, the Family stood strong, leaving us wanting to see if the heroes could get revenge next week. Wyatt is a future main eventer, unless WWE Creative tears him apart before he has the chance to show the world what he can do. Graves was solid.
*The backstage segment with Aubree Marie and Emma. Neither had very good delivery and while Emma's silly dance is funny as a one-note joke, it can get old really quick. Marie has already been released from the company, so we won't be seeing her on this series much longer. In any event, when the announcer (Renee Young) comes off better than either personality being interviewed, not good. At least it was really short.
*Enzo Amore. The Jersey Shore style gimmick feels like it way over-run its course at this point. It's been far too exposed. Amore looked fine in the ring against Mason Ryan however, but a change in direction may work better for him long-term. We will see.
What We Learned:
*The future is bright, at least in theory. There are a lot of really good to great talents in NXT, almost like it's the dream independent wrestling talent collection. Now, how many of them will make it to the main roster and then find their niche there remains to be seen, but at least in the formative stage, the next generation of WWE personalities are there.
*Less is more. In many cases, we learned more about the personalities of these characters and their motivations than we would have after months on WWE's main roster TV. A big reason for that is NXT isn't presented like a silly Muppet Show, like Raw is, but like a show featuring wrestlers wrestling and trying to get better, get wins, get revenge. The athletic presentation is closer to something Jim Crockett Promotions taped in Techwood Driver than anything WWE has presented in a long time. It's fresh and it works. Now, I just hope it remains.
*Winter Park doesn't exist. WWE graphics claimed the show was taking place in Orlando, which is about as silly as when Raw runs the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, NJ and the announcers only state, "We are in the shadows of New York City." Come on, embrace where you are. No one watching cares what city it's from!