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DMJ

The Decline of NXT - When? How? Why?

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In the AEW thread, there's been discussion about NXT and, to me, it feels a bit out of place. Admins, feel free to delete this thread, but I thought it might be interesting to discuss the decline of NXT, not only since it started airing on USA but even before that. Some talking points I thought of...

- NXT is no longer a "developmental" league. Even before debuting on USA as a weekly show in the summer of 2019, we started seeing characters stick around on NXT for lengthier and lengthier stretches. Gargano, Ciampa, Undisputed Era, Velveteen Dream...the list goes on of guys who climbed the ranks in NXT, peaked, and then stuck around and got stale. The roster is no longer made up of guys who are presumably being groomed for the main roster. NXT has become the same hamster wheel that has made the main roster's midcard a graveyard of could-be/would-be stars. 

- But NXT still is a developmental league. You won't find an NXT Title Match on your average main roster show because the NXT Title is not really at the same level as the WWE or Universal Title. It is still promoted as featuring "the stars of tomorrow." While Shayna Baszler and Rhea Rhipley were initially promoted as NXT graduates who could slide right into the top of the Women's Division (and the same could be said of Asuka, Sasha, and Charlotte),  the same is not true for the men post-2015. Look at the NXT Champions after 2015 - Bobby Roode, Andrade Almas, Aleister Black, even Drew McIntyre - have all been brought up to minimal fanfare and nothing resembling a strong push. Its no wonder it took approximately 3 weeks for Matt Riddle to become just another guy on SmackDown

- NXT challenging AEW only helped the competition. Once the show started airing on USA, there was an immediate need for it to start performing in metrics that it didn't need to bother with before. That meant bringing back former NXT stars and hotshotting title matches in the name of beating the "WWE alternative." We've heard the arguments about AEW not being an "indie" because of the deep pockets of Tony Khan, but that distinction doesn't discount AEW's status as the most prominent alternative company to WWE - one that happens to be spearheaded by well-regarded wrestling personalities with a loyal fanbase (an important distinction compared to how TNA existed for a long time under the Jarretts and Dixie Carter). After years of raiding talent and being criticized for it, the WWE needlessly cemented NXT as just another arm of their evil empire. It was a bad look.

- When everything is an epic, nothing is epic. Many would argue that that the first Takeover: Brooklyn was the best Takeover ever. For the sake of this argument, let's concede that it was at least a VERY good show. But what made it great was that it not only featured established indie darlings like Finn Balor, Kevin Owens, and Samoa Joe, but also some serious vareity in styles, match length, and purpose. There was a 5 minute Apollo Crews match. There was a Jushin Liger showcase. Samoa Joe tapped Baron Corbin in 10 minutes. The Tag Team Title Match wasn't an overwrought workratefest. By comparison, on the past SEVEN Takeover shows, there have only been 3 matches that wrapped up in under 10 minutes (and 2 of those 3 were on the most recent crowdless In Your House special). NXT has become "all epics-all the time" which has had the reverse effect of creating epic matches. If you can  remember distinct differences between any of the various Ciampa/Gargano/Cole matches of the past 2 years, you've got the kind of memory they make CBS procedural dramas about. It is all a blur to me.

- The Women's Division was decimated by Asuka and then Shayna Baszler. I'm a fan of both women, but it is remarkable that after having Asuka run roughshod over the division for the better part of 2 years and seeing the lurch it left the division in, they essentially repeated the formula with Shayna Baszler. While there are obviously talented female performers on the roster, with Rhea Rhipley and Bianca Belair leaving earlier this year, there is a noticeable lack of star power and credible challengers for Io Shirai.

- Like the Women's Division, the Tag Team Division and midcard seem directionless. Undisputed Era has run its course. They waited so long to put Keith Lee at the top of the card that the North American Title he holds seems completely irrelevant and useless. Ciampa, Gargano, and Balor are wallpaper. Who knows what will or should happen with Velveteen Dream at this point. Some of the newer stars - Kross, Damien Priest, the Dexter guy - are interesting but somewhat awkward and unproven, certainly not ready to be at the top of even a developmental league. The whole show feels directionless for the first time maybe ever. 

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I had said this back in October.

On 10/1/2019 at 10:26 PM, Matt D said:

By far the biggest thing NXT had going for it was the studio feel/style/pacing. It was an hour a week with big shows four or five times a year. They could tape a bunch of shows at once. They had squash matches. Characters were built. They were kept fresh and interesting. They occasionally put on matches where both guys really needed to win and sometimes it hurt a talent but those were usually not the guys who were long for the company anyway (Corbin vs Bull James comes to mind). In general, people were more protected by the sheer fact that they didn't need to draw and they didn't need to show success. There was no pressure to deliver immediately and manage the wear and tear of weekly live multi-hour TV and that let them actually develop a product and wrestlers that were worth something. Those first few tours felt absolutely special, in part because you'd get something at the live show that you couldn't get on TV, whether it be a unique version of a match-up that had only aired once or twice on TV ever or something special like Finn and Bayley singing. You saw something like that and it felt like you were part of a special club. It could have likely lasted but they didn't continue to offer that and capitalize on it and they, not unlike OVW all those years ago, got fleeced by the main roster again and again over time. There were still special things like getting to actually see Nak or Asuka or getting to sing GLORIOUS along with the rest of the crowd, but the returns began to diminish. 

So I'd put a turning point with the 2016 callups (American Alpha/Finn/Bayley especially), but there were other turning points both before and after. 

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For me, the decline of NXT began with Gargano's first heel turn. He was the best babyface in the world at the beginning of 2018 but was noticeably getting worse reactions by the end of the Ciampa series (a feud that really should have ended at the first match). Rather than try and rehab him, they turn him heel and I completely lost interest in his character, especially his silly 'Shout the story' moments during his matches. This also started a trend of turning natural babyfaces into heels for seemingly no reason (see Dakota Kai and Candice LeRae).

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Yeah, I think the decline creatively and spiritually can be traced back to the 2nd Gargano-Ciampa match. The first was a huge success, with the face going over clean. Then they decided to continue with it except make it even more epic, and it became overwrought and a turnoff. This relates to DMJ's point about trying to make everything epic and playing a dangerous game of top-this with your own self that is inherently sustainable and will lead to you eating your own tail. That feud was also where you can argue that the main roster problem of booking babyfaces like idiots seeped into NXT. For a healthy, hot brand, you always need smart over faces. 

I still think NXT's peak and its most enduring success is the 2015 Sasha-Bayley feud. 

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The bloom started to come off the rose when it became clear that for all the talk/hope of NXT being the Great Hope of Wrestling, it was apparent that none of the people there were going to get a chance on WWE main roster TV without getting their legs cut off. It created a feeling of "why bother getting invested when they will just get ruined when they get called up" which cooled off a lot of the enthusiasm a lot of people had. 

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For me, Gargano vs Cole I from Mania weekend 2019 was the moment it stopped being fun. That was a great show prior to the main, but the minute that wankfest was unleashed my fandom, going back to early 2015 and rarely missing a show, began to flame out. I went to Takeover:Toronto and that was kinda my goodbye in retrospect. As soon as they added a second hour and stopped showing it live on the Network, I was totally done. Looking back, there were cracks, especially the Gargano vs Ciampa feud, but Gargano vs Cole for several months really destroyed my interest. It was a good run, but yeah, NXT is basically just main roster now. Oh well 

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I think it could be argued that the death of Dusty is when things first started to turn south. This is evident with 2016 having no real stories or feuds beyond #DIY-Revival and everything else being "dream matches". But when folks like Nakamura, Asuka, and Joe got called up they found their footing again with an emphasis on stories and characters (break-up of #DIY, formation of Undisputed Era, Andrade teaming up with Zelina, etc). So while Dusty's death definitely impacted the product, NXT was able to rebuild and regroup. I think the true beginning of the end was 2018 and the Gargano-Ciampa feud in particular. This correlates with Shawn's arrival as a trainer and an increased focus on epic, melodramatic matches. Call-ups also became more and more sparse meaning guys like Ciampa, Gargano, and Aleister were stuck way past their expiration dates. Not sure if that has to do with Vince's reluctance for call-ups, Triple H's insistence on NXT being its own brand, or both.

For a brief period last year it looked like they had somewhat righted the ship with Gargano finally getting his moment at Takeover: New York. But a lack of call-ups meant that Gargano, Undisputed Era, and Ciampa were still stuck and Shawn's influence began to permeate the house style more and more.

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The CFE Arena tapings in January 2016 was the end of the golden era of NXT. Taped four weeks of TV and didn't advance any storylines except having Sami Zayn vs. Samoa Joe end in a double pin resulting in a rematch at the next tapings (if that counts...). The rest was just random matches with little discernable purpose, the 'main event' of the whole thing being Adrian Neville returning to NXT to have a one off non-title (!?) match with Finn Balor.

If you'd watched NXT in 2014-15 the most distinctive thing about it was almost everyone on TV had a storyline going and every appearance would advance it one way or another. Sometimes the storylines were bad, but they were always there. Then suddenly there's this big change in philosophy to having the show just revolve around nice matches. Since then we've seen the whole show gradually adjusting to that new philosophy.

I think it's connected with WWE's big signing sprees. There were always indie names in NXT, e.g. Rollins, Sami Zayn etc... but in the first few years they were a small minority. The roster was mostly home-grown or people who'd been on the indies a little while but virtually unknown (e.g The Revival, Sasha Banks) so they might as well be WWE homegrown. This meant the main attraction of NXT was seeing a new wrestler and watching them develop into someone who could join the main roster. Seeing that development was part of the appeal, so fans would be far more forgiving of bad gimmicks or awkward matches as they knew they were watching a work in progress. But once the show started to get dominated by indie stars, that model doesn't work anymore, so instead it became the 'great matches' promotion.

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Not quite the topic but for me the biggest problem is that with two hours of weekly television its almost impossible for NXT to serve as kind of developmental brand.  By the time someone's called up they'll arguably be overexposed and certainly slotted.  Its almost as though a wrestler needs to be kept off TV entirely to have a clean slate on Raw or Smackdown.  

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I'll always have the opinion that Balor's title reign was the beginning of the end for NXT. While Bayley had to carry the brand on her shoulders, Balor was stinking it up against Owens and Joe, and managed to build ZERO credible contenders.

Balor lost his belt at a house show and from that moment on the NXT Title meant less and less. From Joe to Nakamura to Roode (remember when Itami challenged for the belt and was atrocious?) to Drew McIntyre, it was pretty bad. It took Andrade, who got salvaged from an almost irredeemable gimmick, for that belt to mean something.

Ironically, it was that marvelous Almas/Gargano match which probably lead to the state we're in right now. Everything needs to follow that standard.

 

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NXT never really knew what it wanted to be. Was it a developmental group? Showcase of indy superstars? 80s JCP TV done modern? Home of high level women's wrestling? They tried to be all things and in the end it never really was able to do any of those things. 

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15 minutes ago, KawadaSmile said:

I'll always have the opinion that Balor's title reign was the beginning of the end for NXT.

Came in here to post this. The Balor, Joe, and Nakamura reigns were all epic slogs. 

Nakamura has had one good match his entire time in NXT/WWE, and that was his debut against Sami Zayn.

Things picked up a bit with the original Gargano-Ciampa feud, but good Lord, they ran that shit right into the ground, shoveled it in, dug it back up, and went for several more unnecessary rounds. Lackluster champions like Drew (sorry) and Roode didn't help matters any during this period either.

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I think the Gargano/Almas and first Gargano/Ciampa match is what ruined NXT. That was the first time they were getting legit MOTY hype for stuff and it feels like they have been chasing that dragon ever since. Gargano/Ciampa is where I lost it with the company because they booked it in reverse. The first match had a clean finish and the  next two were weird too long gimmick matches with bad finishes. The third match had a finish where Gargano Wile E. Coyoted himself and there were some real cracks in the armor showing. This is also when the main event would start and you realized the show had 45 minutes left.

Then you got into the Gargano/Cole stuff. I thought the first match was acceptable because of the payoff but the matches just kept getting longer and more filled with superkicks. You also had the War Raiders beating the Street Profits clean, surrendering the belts and then Street Profits winning them in a ladder match. And all during this time no one really had a character anymore. You typically have generic CAW white wrestler that wants to be the best and is happy to be there and when they feel like changing it up you get generic CAW black wrestler that wants to be the best and is happy to be there.

Undisputed Era was on top for far too long. There are legendary heel stables that were long in the tooth by three years. They aren't as interesting a group as people think they are and their matches are redundant. It also removes the stakes of the matches when win, loss or draw the heels are in the exact same place.

Baszler's reign was also painful to sit through. Her reign had none of the flair that Asuka's had and her matches were the same "minions interfere, lol Baszler wins,"

Also, Mauro. God damned Mauro and Beth Phoenix. Why are they always fucking yelling at me?

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I mean, with Mauro at least you know he's being himself (for  better or worse), Beth sounds like she's tied to a chair and being given electric shocks any time she isn't yelling. 

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The fundamental issue is that being a developmental territory and being a super indy are inherently antithetical goals and that contradiction was bound to catch up with them eventually. They tried to split the difference for a while by having NXT serve as a finishing school for indy talent to prepare them for the main roster, but Vince's insanity made that untenable in the long run.

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15 minutes ago, sek69 said:

I mean, with Mauro at least you know he's being himself (for  better or worse), Beth sounds like she's tied to a chair and being given electric shocks any time she isn't yelling. 

I hated when they had her and Renee doing the MYC that one year because they sound so much alike. I guess it could be worse and be Coach.

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I'd say that while Vince does have his faults, Triple H is much more of a culprit. Most of us are agreeing that their main event formula is shite and counterproductive, and they've hammered over our heads how NXT is Trips' baby, not Vince.

HHH and HBK have been agents for their NXT Title scene for a while and the result is this melodramatic, overindulgent, full of itself mess we are seeing. Let's be honest: they only know how to book when it's the heel on top and the face is chasing the title. Rhea was white hot not four months ago and now she's... there, all because they insisted the chase was better than the catch and Charlotte neeeeeeeded one more NXT reign.

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HHH has this fetish for 1980s NWA and seems to miss the point. I think @sek69 said it in a different thread. The fetish for long term heel champions kind of misses the point that back in the days he is rock hard for, you saw the heel world champion maybe 3 times a year. It just doesn't work with the champion on TV weekly. There is no world where Adam Cole should have had the belt for another 9 months when Keith Lee got so hot so quick.

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For me it was the Gargano/Almas takeover match That match was so great that I felt it couldn't be topped. And so far, it hasn't in NXT. The post match with Ciampa was ok but then that feud just went on too long. It led to Cole/Gargano and then Cole/Ciampa. It was just too much. I remember going to almost every taping back then but stopped around 2019 when the show became too long and repetitive. Put on top of that Shayna's reign of terror on the women's division and the loss of American Alpha/Revivial in the tag team division and the bloom was off the rose. 

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Agreed with the majority that Gargano/Ciampa shit killed NXT. That's when I stopped watching. I tried again when they first went to USA but as soon as Ciampa was back I was out for good. Can't stand those guys.

Though I do think the Nakamura/Roode title series were some of the best matches in NXT and easily Nakamura's best in the company. Excellent work from both guys and Roode came off like a sure fire mega star, especially when he did the 89 Flair entrance with the women on his arms. 

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This is only tangentially related, but I think putting it directly head to head with AEW did not help its vibe. It went from being a cool alternative to main roster WWE to being a billion dollar corporation tool being used to put down another cool alternative to main roster WWE. If Vince wanted to nip AEW in the bud he should have probably put Smackdown against it or something. 

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I directly correlate the decline of NXT with Adam Cole climbing up the roster. Sure, things like the Gargano and Ciampa rivalry becoming a little too deep and melodramatic didn't help the product, but after that horrid Cole vs Gargano match last summer was the point that the product had completely lost it's shine. From 2015-2018, regardless if you followed their weekly TV or not, you could be put on the most recent Takeover and see two hours of some of the greatest wrestling in the world.  Things have became way too self indulgent ever since HBK has taken the helm. 

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"Sorry I love you" ruined pro-wrestling.

Well, not really, but the old idea of self-conscious epic in WWE was annoying in itself before, but this spot is the beginning of the super-über-melodramatic-poorly-acted-self-conscious-epic. 

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Honestly, as annoying as I found it, Shawn was still good and charismatic enough to get away with it. It could be corny but it was not nearly as nauseating as it is when his ripoffs do it. Plus, a while back they were restricted to legends matches and basically existed in a self-contained world of their own. However, it is a terrible terrible template to build your world title main event scene on, and Shawn becoming a trainer has definitely played a role in it. This reminds me of the GOAT discussions where @Matt D used to talk about Arn's agenting and whether that should factor in while analysing his case. I have definitely seen Shawn going down people's lists recently because of the NXT main event style, and it's actually an interesting point to discuss. 

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