Pro Wrestling

10 Things WWE Should Learn From NXT Source:

There’s no denying that WWE is in a prolonged slump, with falling ratings, a dismal television product, and rising fan apathy. But at the same time, there is a beacon of hope to be found within WWE. Somehow, down in WWE’s developmental system, they’re managing to put on a show that has been critically acclaimed for putting on an interesting, engaging product full of complex characters and memorable feuds. So, what is it that NXT is doing so right that WWE could learn from, and possibly apply to their moribund main product? Well, we’ve got a few ideas.

10. Comedy Is Serious Business

In WWE, if you’re in the dreaded realm of “comedy acts”, you know what your role is. You come out, you get the crowd to pop for your silly antics, and you lose to the “real” wrestlers. Maybe if it’s a holiday you’ll get to participate in some wacky backstage “party” sketches to fill time on Smackdown. But that’s all you do, and it’s all you can ever hope for until someone, somewhere, decides to change your gimmick to something more “serious”, at which point you might be able to win a match occasionally. We’ve seen it countless times over the years, most recently in acts like Adam Rose, Fandango, and Heath Slater. Comedy wrestlers are just the warm-up acts to the real show, and they don’t matter.

But in NXT, being a comedy act doesn’t mean you still aren’t a legitimate threat to win matches. The Vaudevillains, playing a parody of old-timey carnival sideshow acts, just ended a run as NXT Tag Team Champions. Bayley is a living, breathing, anime girl who loves to hug people. Even Bull Dempsey found a career renaissance as a fat guy pretending that he’s found the secret to losing weight and getting fit, despite looking exactly the same as he always has. The point is, nothing in the craziness of these amusing characters has any bearing on their abilities inside the ring. And let’s not forget Enzo and Big Cass, one of NXT’s most popular acts despite the fact that Enzo is a five-foot-tall Muppet with the craziest hairstyles this side of anywhere. NXT is full of goofy acts that make people laugh, but when the match starts, it doesn’t matter, because when they wrestle, you discover that Simon Gotch is one of NXT’s most unique wrestling talents, Bayley is one of the best female wrestlers in the world, and Big Cass, well, he’s seven feet tall, and you can’t teach that. NXT operates under the idea that you can’t just waste talent, no matter what character they’re playing, so everyone, no matter how odd, can be treated and booked like a “real” wrestler. Source:

9. Anybody Can Beat Anybody

WWE is a tiered system. You’ve got your jobbers at the bottom, your midcard full of guys who can beat each other on a regular (and alternating) basis, and your main event wrestlers, who can beat everyone. Oh, and at the top there’s John Cena. What this does, however, is lead to two things: predictability and apathy. When a midcard wrestler faces a main event guy on Raw, you know who’s going to win. When wrestlers on the same level fight each other, they’ll likely just trade wins on a weekly basis (the dreaded 50/50 booking). WWE’s idea of elevating someone is to have them stop losing to midcard wrestlers, but not necessarily be able to beat the main event wrestlers, unless they’re getting a really serious push (see: Roman Reigns) and can beat most of the main event talent as well (well, except for John Cena, of course). But that last one is incredibly rare, and is why the entire WWE midcard is so stale and tired, because so few people ever really manage to escape.

But in NXT, while there is a hierarchy, it can change on a regular basis. New wrestlers like Apollo Crews come in and move up quickly by beating a variety of people, and experienced wrestlers like Kevin Owens leave to move up to the main roster, always making sure to put someone over on the way out. If your character stalls, you come up with a new gimmick and start trying to rise up the ranks again. The whole concept of NXT is improving and moving upwards, which means that the top wrestlers are never kept “safe” from losing matches to those coming up behind them. By beating people seen as “above” them, NXT talent are elevated in the eyes of the fans, and nobody is ever allowed to stagnate in one position for too long, and get stuck in meaningless feuds where they trade wins back and forth for no reason. Source:

8. WWE Style Can Mean More Than One Thing

You may have heard about “WWE Style” of wrestling, usually in a derogatory fashion. Strictly speaking, it’s a style of wrestling that was popularized in the Attitude Era and then refined over the last decade, in order to create a “unified” form of wrestling that basically meant that everyone in WWE would be able to wrestle each other without any major clashing of styles. While wrestlers still have a handful of signature moves, the bulk of any WWE match will inevitably include the same library of basic maneuvers, supplemented by using punches and kicks as transitions between spots. The common complaint is that it has led to a sort of “dumbing down” of wrestling, with everyone wrestling similar matches and nobody really standing out from an in-ring perspective. That’s not entirely true, because great matches still happen, and it’s hard to argue with WWE trying to show off “polished” matches that can be easily repeated, but there is a reason why the majority of WWE’s product right now is full of matches that, while technically good, aren’t particularly memorable.

NXT, being WWE’s developmental system, is definitely teaching the traditional WWE style of wrestling. However, the wrestlers in NXT, especially those who came up through the independent circuit, clearly have looser restrictions placed upon them. They all stick within the WWE style, but are allowed enough individual freedom that almost nobody in NXT has the same set of moves. For example, Samoa Joe does brutal power moves, while Chad Gable and Jason Jordan wrestle incredibly smooth technical styles. Even the women all wrestle differently, which is something you absolutely never saw in WWE before now. Source:

7. Plan For Tomorrow, Today

It’s a simple thing, but one that is so effective in making NXT seem like a better product. Each episode of the show has a direction, which is the next TakeOver event, and everything that happens on each show is in service of building something towards an known end point. There are no wasted segments on NXT, if it happens on television, it’s either part of an ongoing story line, or introducing a new talent with a squash match against enhancement talent (something we’ll discuss in a second). As a product of that system, because most of NXT’s feuds and plot lines get planned out a month or two months in advance, they spend part of each show promoting matches that will happen on the next show. At the end of an episode of NXT, you know at least one or two matches that you can look forward to next week.

Meanwhile, on Raw, you may not even know the main event of the show until the end of the opening segment, and sometimes not even then. Reports from backstage suggest that Raw is being constantly re-booked, sometimes up until it airs, and it shows in the way the product is set up. Every Raw is a mystery, we never know what to anticipate, which can be both good (if there’s an actual surprise planned) and bad. In this way, the live format of the show has hurt Raw, because there’s no reason for WWE to book the show until right before it happens. Certainly, they know (mostly) what matches are going to happen at the next Pay Per View, but it often seems like they don’t plan out story beats ahead of time, and some weeks, just kill time with meaningless matches just to get themselves a week closer to the end point without actually advancing a plot. On NXT, the writers can’t do that, because the show is taped weeks in advance, so they have to know, right at the start, how everything will progress ahead of time. While we’re not advocating for taping Raw weeks at a time, forcing the creative team to plan out their story lines in advance seems like it could help make those stories slightly more compelling. Source:

6. Squash Is Good Filler

In WWE, true “squash” matches went out the window with the Monday Night Wars, when fans became trained to expect competitive marquee matches in every segment between known Superstars. Over the years, that has led to the ridiculous concept of 50/50 booking, because wrestlers face each other so many times in short periods, that they end up trading wins back and forth, with the end result being that almost nobody looks even somewhat dominant and therefore someone the fans might get behind in any way. We’re not saying everyone should get an undefeated streak, but somebody in a feature role on television should definitely be winning far more than their losing.

NXT recognizes this fact, and uses squash matches with regularity, especially when introducing new talent. Squash matches serve several purposes. They establish a new character as someone to pay attention to by giving them a string of easy victories, but without hurting other, established talent by making them lose a lot. It also lets crowds see a wrestler’s signature moves and recognize their finisher. In this era where finishers are reversed or kicked out of repeatedly in matches (again, to “keep the opponent strong”), fans rarely get an opportunity to see a finisher actually end a match, and it lessens their effectiveness when performed, because fans haven’t been trained to recognize them as something that will end a match. And finally, squash matches are useful for giving wrestlers time to become better workers while still appearing in front of a live crowd. For example, Baron Corbin wrestled nothing but squash matches for nearly a year after his debut, but he also spent that entire time learning, so when they put him in longer matches, it turned out that he’d actually developed into a decent wrestler. Source:

5. Play To The Fans In Attendance

At some point over the last decade, WWE decided that fans in attendance were less important than the ones watching on television. That’s why everything that happens, from promos all the way down to the direction people face when they pin someone, is directed towards the hard camera. All those fans you see on TV? They get a fun evening of looking the backs of wrestlers, treated like part of the set instead of a valuable tool for wrestlers to interact with. It’s no wonder fans in attendance often spend most of their time either sitting quietly, or making up chants that have almost nothing to do with the action in the ring, after all, they’re basically being ignored for most of the show. Even Roman Reigns, who enters through the crowd, does so with his head down, doesn’t make eye contact with anyone, and occasionally might bump someone’s fist, if it crosses his path.

In NXT, the crowd is part of the experience. While the obsession with the hard camera exists, every wrestler in NXT interacts with the crowd, both during promos and as part of their matches. The wrestlers address the fans in attendance directly rather than staring at a camera the whole time, they make them part of their entrances, and they exhort the crowd to chant, cheer, or boo when they’re wrestling. Sure, sometimes it crosses the line slightly and the crowd starts to try and hi-jack certain parts of the show, but the point is, even when they’re doing that, it means that they’re invested in what’s going on in front of them, they actually care about the characters, and the matches that are happening. The wrestlers make them feel involved, and the fans respond by becoming emotionally involved in what they’re watching. Source:

4. Break From Convention

One of the biggest problems with WWE is that things are done a certain way, and never deviate from a format. Twenty minute promos that set up the rest of the show usually start things off more often than not. Commercial breaks happen when both wrestlers end up outside the ring and the action stops temporarily. When a wrestler finds himself outnumbered, they always find the exact right number of people to even the odds and have a match. Rematch clauses are always honored, even by evil authority figures who have no reason to do so. Contract signings end with the participants flipping over the table and brawling. The entire format of Monday Night Raw has become a cliche.

NXT, while they don’t break from cliches all the time, still do it regularly enough to create some sense of unpredictability. A scheduled match might not happen because someone involved in a blood feud with one of the participants attacks them before things get started, and it doesn’t somehow lead to a tag match when we return from commercial. A backstage promo segment might get cut short because something else happens just off-screen and the camera switches to filming that. Matches that end when someone else’s music plays and a wrestler gets distracted long enough to get pinned are rare. The authority figure isn’t particularly good or evil, he’s just a guy who makes matches because of logical reasons, and he doesn’t directly feud with anybody. Contract signings can even end without a table getting flipped. It’s not radical differences, but it’s enough that you never quite know what might happen on any given night, and that sense of uncertainty keeps you watching. Source:

3. What’s My Motivation?

WWE likes to say that everyone on the roster, ultimately, wants to be WWE World Heavyweight Champion, and while that may actually be true in reality, on television, it sure does seem like a lot of the wrestlers on the roster are wrestling each other without any real reason other than “because we have a match tonight”. Sometimes, WWE will book superficial reasons for matches occurring (usually somebody said something insulting to someone else in a backstage segment), but more and more these days, they don’t even bother. Why are these two wrestlers fighting? What do they have to gain or lose from this match? What are the stakes? Vince McMahon once said that WWE didn’t do “wrestling for the sake of wrestling”, but for a while now, it sure looks like they’re using long, meaningless wrestling matches with no stakes in order to fill time on their three-hour television show.

On NXT, everyone is fighting to be champion, whether it’s the tag team titles, the Women’s championship, or the NXT Title itself. Every match, every feud, is treated as having an effect on one’s position in the title hunt. If you win, you’ve made yourself a better contender for a title. If you lose, not so much. Maybe losing made you mad because it cost you a shot at a title, so you attack the person who beat you and start a feud. Maybe two people get tired of losing as singles and decide to team up so they’ll be better as a unit and go after the tag team titles. While there’s no actual visual representation, everything that happens in NXT moves you up and down a ranking ladder, and wins and losses mean something, even if it’s just putting you a step closer to becoming a legitimate contender, and as a result, every match that happens in NXT is interesting, because win or lose, it will affect someone. Source:

2. Live Events Matter

Recently, NXT ran a massive tag team tournament called the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic. It featured an incredible number of tag teams, took place over two months, and while many of the matches took place on NXT, some of them happened at non-televised NXT live events. These live events used to be the bread-and-butter of WWE, in the age before live weekly TV shows and monthly Pay Per Views. Back in the day, entire feuds would happen without a television camera present, but events that happened there were used to set up matches at the occasional Pay Per View events. In fact, if you wanted to see Hulk Hogan wrestle more than a handful of times on Pay Per View and Saturday Night’s Main Event in a year, you had to go to a house show. These days, a WWE house shows are basically meaningless, a bunch of matches designed to let the crowd see their favorite Superstars in action, but with no actual effect on any sort of plot progression. In fact, all the house shows for a given week usually involve the same matches, all with the same results.

Not every NXT live event can have something like the Dusty Classic matches. But their shows are still lent a certain importance in building the product. NXT live shows are where you go to see wrestlers that maybe haven’t made it onto the televised product yet. As a part of this, because the same wrestlers aren’t shown on NXT every week (or even for multiple weeks in a row), NXT live events might be the only place a fan might get to see, for example, NXT Champion Finn Balor in a match, because on television he might only wrestle one or two times between TakeOver specials. Making live events feel special will make fans buy tickets to go and see them. Even if the only unique thing you get to see is Balor accidentally hitting the ceiling of the venue. No, seriously, check this out: Source:

1. It’s Okay To Shift Your Focus

On that note from the previous item, NXT wrestlers have another advantage over WWE Superstars: they don’t get overexposed. With a sizable roster full of talent and only one hour of TV a week, plus a two hour special every couple of months, you’re not going to see every NXT wrestler every week. Sometimes you’ll see a certain wrestler more often, when their ongoing story line is being featured, but then you might not see them again for a few weeks, because another feud is getting the spotlight. Thus, their appearances are more special. In addition, changing focus regularly means that NXT can give secondary feuds more importance. When the Dusty Classic was ongoing, the NXT Title slipped into the background, and the show focused two months of programming on tag team wrestling. When three of the Four Horsewomen that had built the NXT Women’s Division departed for WWE, NXT spent several weeks featuring multiple women’s matches involving a slew of new talent, in order to build the division back up again. Some weeks, there’s not a single champion appearing on NXT, but they still manage to build an interesting show around other wrestlers. It’s a situation that WWE proper might be hard-pressed to solve, with so much more television to fill, but even slight changes in how they present the majority of the product that doesn’t revolve around the WWE World Heavyweight title could do a lot to freshening up the product as it stands. Source:
Stephen Randle

Stephen Randle

Stephen Randle is an avid wrestling and film fan. He's been writing about WWE, movies, and video games for Goliath since 2015.