WWE's New Performance Center and the History of the Developmental System
Today is the dawn of a new era in WWE.
For years, the developmental program (or "farm system") for new talent was farmed out to third parties who were paid a consulting fee by WWE. The WWE creative team didn't always watch the TV shows, and sometimes weird things would happen when guys got called up to the main roster. Most infamously, Doug Basham and the Damaja were called up to WWE as The Basham Brothers while in the middle of feuding with each other on Ohio Valley Wrestling TV.
Slowly but surely, things have changed. A year ago, Florida Championship Wrestling's shows were rebranded as the new NXT when the NXT brand was dropped from WWE's touring TV tapings. In this form, NXT was syndicated internationally by WWE and made available to American viewers on Hulu Plus. The home office in Connecticut was working much closer with the developmental crew, watching the shows as part of their jobs and only calling up wrestlers who they had plans for.
Now, with the opening of the WWE Performance Center, the developmental program is wholly owned by WWE for the first time. A pet project of Paul "Triple H" Levesque, the WWE executive vice president of talent and live events, the new home of NXT talent is inspired by elite sports training centers like the U.S. Olympic Team's training center in Colorado. Recruitment of elite athletic prospects is being ramped up for the first time in years and WWE has finally addressed the criticism that not enough money went into the program.
It was a long road, though, with a bunch of different developmental groups and many wrestlers passing through (and if their name has a link, it's to a YouTube video of them in action from that period). Let's take a look at the route they took going back to the program's early stages in the mid to late '90s.
United States Wrestling Association (USWA)
Jerry Lawler and Jerry Jarrett's Memphis, Tennessee-based promotion (which took on the USWA name in 1990) started in 1977 when Jarrett split from long-time area promoter Nick Gulas, with Lawler becoming part-owner in 1983. Thanks to a reliably large TV audience, they outlasted every other full-time regional territory in the wrestling business by several years.
Unlike other wrestling promotions which either paid for airtime or got it in exchange for giving the station much of the ad time, home station WMC TV paid them to be the home of the show. As long as the talent budget was kept low, something the Tennessee territory was infamous for going back decades, it seemed like the company could keep existing forever.
They struck up a working relationship in WWE in 1992, when Lawler was first hired as an announcer. WWE talent regularly showed up on USWA shows for several years, infamously featuring the original heel run of Vince McMahon in 1993. In 1996, the USWA became the home of WWE talent who needed seasoning before appearing on national TV.
Most famously, Mick Foley's first appearances an Mankind (well, "Mankind the Mutilator") were in the USWA so he could perfect the gimmick and get used to working in a mask, while The Rock's first pro wrestling matches after his WWE tryout were in the USWA as Flex Kavana.
As 1997 came along, it seemed at times like there was more WWE talent in the USWA than local guys. Over the course of the year, the following WWE talent all came through the territory, some for seasoning and some for a lack of anything to do on the main roster:
The South African Truth Commission (Bull Buchanan, Luc Poirier, Kurrgan, and Mantaur), Peter "Justin Credible" Polaco as P.J. Walker/PG-187, Razor Ramon II/Rick Titan, Diesel II/Doomsday (Kane, with the latter gimmick being a dry run for working under a mask and getting the Kane mannerisms down), Sunny (as a color commentator), Justin "Hawk"/Blackjack Bradshaw (John "Bradshaw" Layfield). And those are just the ones who appeared on TV.
The promotion closed by the end of the year after being sold to outside investors, and let's just say there's no room here to explain how all of that went down.
Extreme Championship Wrestling
You probably know the basics about ECW, so I'll spare you that and jump right into their involvement with WWE.
At some point around 1996, WWE started paying Paul Heyman as a consultant, but it wasn't obvious to the general public until ECW started shooting angles at WWE events in Fall of that year that were designed to look like unauthorized publicity stunts. Months later, in February 1997, ECW invaded Monday Night Raw, somehow started another inter-promotional feud with the USWA in the process, and they were off to the races.
While ECW was never the type of developmental promotion that the other groups mentioned here were, this period played a major role in the history of both ECW and the WWE developmental system. Of note:
- Going nowhere as Leif Cassidy in WWE, Al Snow was sent to ECW for Heyman to develop a new gimmick for him. Soon he "went crazy," talking to a mannequin head, and became the most popular wrestler in ECW. Snow spent the better part of a year there, to the point most fans didn't realize he was still under contract. As a result, when he challenged injured ECW Champion Shane Douglas on pay-per-view and lost, it shocked most fans. It was really just the climax of his run and he was off to WWE.
- As the USWA was closing, P.J. Walker was sent to ECW, where he was renamed Justin Credible. Heyman was incredibly high on him, but WWE wasn't, so Credible soon became a full-fleged member of the ECW roster.
- "Team WWF," led by former WWF Superstars ring announcer Lance Wright, included the team of Doug Furnas and Phil LaFon as well as newcomers Darren Drozdov (who had a solid mid-card run before being paralyzed in an in-ring accident) and Brakkus (who quickly disappeared from WWE after losing a shoot "Brawl For All" fight on TV to Savio Vega).
By the end of 1998, WWE talent was less of a constant, though wrestlers (including the Dudleys, Tazz, Taka Michinoku, and Papi Chulo) continued to be loaned to ECW on and off until not long before it went out of business.
Memphis Power Pro Wrestling
In April of 1998, former USWA general manager (really, not a gimmick GM job) Randy Hales struck a deal with WMC TV and launched Memphis Power Pro Wrestling. It took over where the USWA left off as the primary home of WWE developmental talent.
A quick YouTube search brings up a 15-minute chunk of a 1999 episode of MPPW that features Sean Stasiak, Tensai/Albert (as Baldo), Mick Tierney (who never made the main roster), Michael Hayes (un-retiring in preparation for his role as Matt and Jeff Hardy's advisor), and Mae Young as Stasiak's "mother." That's not counting the local talent who also worked in WWE like Downtown Bruno/Harvey Whippleman, Brian Christopher, Jerry Lawler, and Stacy Carter/Miss Kitty/The Kat.
MPPW was also where Kurt Angle made his pro wrestling debut, and he won the MPPW title in the midst of an undefeated streak. The man who won the title and ended that streak was Steve Bradley. Sometimes referred to as "the Bull Durham of WWE developmental," Bradley was in the system for the better part of four years, usually as the consensus best performer, and was never called up. This in spite of him also being the wrestler Angle credits with teaching him how to work.
That's just scratching the surface. In addition to the swath of developmental talent, The Rock, Kane, and others made special appearances in MPPW. Oh, and in addition to the good stuff, it featured some of the worst segments in wrestling history, such as:
The Masquerade Maul, a Halloween tournament of wrestlers in costumes of that ended in a four corners eliminator match. On paper, that sounds kind of amusing, right? Well, not only were almost all of the wrestlers completely hidden by the costumes, but they all worked generically to further obscure their identities.
And then Doug Gilbert infamously took his "shoot promo" on Brian Christopher and Jerry Lawler too far. He got fired, but it started the chain of events that led to Lawler splitting from MPPW and WMC TV. He took the WWE developmental deal with him. More on that in a little bit.
Ohio Valley Wrestling
In 1999, Jim Cornette was beyond sick of living in Stamford, Connecticut, where the former manager worked as a member of WWE's creative team and sometimes a color commentator. On a trip back to his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, he visited his old friend Danny Davis (not the WWE referee), who was one of Cornette's first proteges as half of The Galaxians with Ken Wayne.
Davis had been running a wrestling school and independent shows under the Ohio Valley Wrestling banner for several years, and had gotten a decent TV deal. Not only did Cornette like Davis' operation, but he also saw it as his ticket out of Connecticut. He convinced WWE to bring OVW on as a developmental group, bought half of the company (which he would now book, both off-screen in writing the TV and on-screen as matchmaker), and got to move back home. With Louisville being part of the old USWA territory, he also worked in MPPW as a heel manager for a spell.
OVW ended up as WWE's longest-running developmental territory, lasting almost nine years and churning out an amazing batch of talent. The impressive list of alumni is on their website. Some of the more notable happenings during that run include:
- Brock Lesnar's shooting star press.
- John "The Prototype" Cena losing the OVW Heavyweight Title...to Nova (Simon Dean). In his OVW debut. Really.
- Brock Lesnar and Shelton Benjamin in Golden Gophers-themed gear as the Minnesota Stretching Crew.
- CM Punk suffering a broken nose and ruptured eardrum in his OVW debut vs Danny Inferno.
While WWE pulled out in 2008, the relationship had been shaky since 2005. Cornette, known for his hair-trigger temper, slapped trainee Anthony Carelli (now Santino Marella, who was planted in the audience) for laughing at "scary" new heel The Boogeyman. Cornette was fired, so sometimes OVW promo coach Paul Heyman was made booker in his place. When ECW was relaunched, he was out.
OVW's quality suffered afterwards, with former AWA star Greg Gagne of all people briefly being brought in as booker before Al Snow settled into the role. Neither was a good fit, and WWE decided to cut bait in 2008 so everyone could move to Florida. Again, more on that later.
IWA Puerto Rico
In Puerto Rico, Carlos Colon (father of Carlito and Primo, uncle of Epico) and Victor Jovica's World Wrestling Council dominated the wrestling scene for decades. In 1985, the WWF drew 1,200 people to an event headlined by Hulk Hogan vs Big John Studd and an appearance by Cyndi Lauper (who had been gone for months) that ended up taking place outdoors during a rainstorm. They abandoned the market after that. In 1993, the local AWF start-up recruited good local and mainland American talent, but closed fairly quickly.
Enter Victor Quinones. The godson of Gorilla Monsoon, he had worked as a WWF referee, but he mainly worked in the WWC office and as a foreign talent liason for various Japanese promotions. In 1994, he promoted pilot TV tapings for his own Puerto Rican opposition promotion on February 21 and February 22. While he used an eclectic mix of talent, it didn't go anywhere, and he went back to Japan.
In 1999, things were different. He had re-established ties with WWE, who provided him with both developmental talent and the opportunity to book bigger names like Kane and The Undertaker, as well as tapes of Raw matches that he could re-air. While local stars Miguel Perez Jr. and Ricky Santana had worked on the 1994 tapings, they were joined by Savio Vega (formerly TNT in the WWC) as the figurehead commissioner who would come out of retirement for big feuds. For the first time, then WWC had a legitimate competitor.
While they were a developmental promotion until 2001 (when the purchase of WCW led to an overhaul of the system), IWAPR wasn't the destination for new signees that MPPW and OVW were at the time. Most of the obvious WWE involvement saw main-roster talent coming in for big shows, with Steve Bradley (who had already been through the mainland developmental groups) and Tiger Ali Singh being the most notable WWE wrestlers to spend much time there.
Memphis Championship Wrestling
When Jerry Lawler and the WWE developmental deal left Memphis Power Pro Wrestling in late 1999/early 2000, the other active promotion in town was Terry Golden's Kick-Ass Wrestling. With Lawler ready to jump, Golden's more off-kilter group became a more traditional one, renamed Memphis Championship Wrestling.
Personally, MCW might be my favorite of the developmental groups. The younger wrestlers were largely a modern, athletic group, and the veterans like Lawler, Tracy Smothers, Todd Morton, Bull Pain, and new WWE signee Lord Steven (William) Regal, were generally great at working with them. Among the wrestlers who passed through MCW were:
Shawn Michaels' trainees' American Dragon (Bryan Danielson/Daniel Bryan; Regal considers training him his greatest achievement in the wrestling business), Spanky (Brian Kendrick), Lance Cade, and Shooter Schultz (who disappeared from wrestling), Steve Bradley (again), long-time independent stand-out Reckless Youth, Joey Abs (the actual wrestler from the Mean Street Posse getting a serious gimmick and push), Pete Gas and Rodrageous (the other members of the Mean Street Posse learning to wrestle), The Blue Meanie (who lost a substantial amount of weight), Christian York, Joey Matthews (Joey Mercury),and K-Krush (R-Truth/Ron Killings).
During 2000, MCW entered a working agreement with MPPW, so the developmental talent was getting experience and exposure on two TV shows each week. This came to an end when, after an OSHA inspection, MPPW had to close since staying on WMC TV would've cost them $100,000 to pay for an increase in WMC's insurance premiums.
MCW ended up as a casualty of WWE's purchase of WCW. A bunch of new wrestlers had just been hired, and not all of them had main roster spots waiting for them. Most of the developmental talent in MCW was released, with only Victoria, Lance Cade, Steve Bradley, The Haas Brothers, and the Island Boys (Jamal/Umaga and Rosey) remaining unscathed and set to move within the system. For the last several weeks of their TV deal, MCW aired older matches and out-of-character interviews with the departing talent, like this one with the future Daniel Bryan.
Heartland Wrestling Association
Based out of Cincinatti, Ohio, Les Thatcher's Heartland Wrestling Association had been running independent shows for several years. When WWE was shaken up by the purchase of WCW and termination of MCW and IWAPR's developmental affiliations, the HWA joined OVW as part of the developmental system. To save on production expenses mix up the developmental crews, the new HWA TV show was taped at OVW's home-base in Louisville, the converted warehouse known as the Danny Davis arena.
At first, the shows were what you'd expect: The WCW talent (mostly younger wrestlers trained at the WCW Power Plant. plus a few others like Kaz Hayashi, Jamie Noble, and E.Z. Money/Jason Jett) and the departing MCW talent worked on top. They were augmented by HWA trainees like Nigel McGuinness, B.J. Whitmer, and Shark Boy/Dean Baldwin. Eventually, Tough Enough winners Maven and Nidia showed up, as did main roster wrestlers with nothing to do or returning from long layoffs like Haku, Val Venis, Raven, Brian Adams (Crush in his previous WWE runs), Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero and Chris Kanyon.
Then things got weird.
Some of the name WWE wrestlers (as well as Power Plant graduate Mike Sanders) had short stints as HWA booker. For Raven, it made enough sense: He had a rep for being creative, studying wrestling history, and picking the brains of veteran wrestlers. He even did a pretty good job for someone who had likely never booked more than his own feuds before.
As for they made Brian Adams the booker, I have no freaking idea.
Adams naturally ended up in main events, and he did not fit in at all with the younger, more athletic wrestlers who made up most of the developmental crew. It got worse from there.
Adams developed an alter ego who wore a Tiger Mask...mask and spoke in a stereotypical Japanese old man voice. His name was Tiger Hung Lo (yes, really) and he served as a mentor to the Jung Dragons (Hayashi and Jimmy Yang). In trying to make them more successful, constantly giving them new gimmicks. The highlight of this was a match where they teamed up as The Yanger (Yang dressed as pre-"Crow" Sting) and The Great Hayashi (Hayashi dressed as The Great Muta).
When WWE released most of the younger WCW wrestlers in 2002, the developmental roster shrank dramatically, so the HWA was dropped. For over three years, OVW would serve as as the sole developmental promotion for WWE.
Deep South Wrestling
Ugh, let's get this one over with quickly.
Deep South's legacy is basically that it was a disaster. In 2005, WWE wanted a second developmental promotion. Former WCW Power Plant trainer Joe Hamilton (one half of the legendary Assassins with Tom Ernest as well as the youngest Madison Square Garden headliner ever teaming with his brother Larry) made what they felt was the best pitch. This was in spite of Hamilton not actually having an active school or promotion, as the original DSW closed in 1988.
New signees and transfers from OVW were sent to DSW before the school was completed and brought up to code, so there was nowhere for anyone to do actual pro wrestling training. Instead, trainer Bill DeMott led everyone in sprinting and other basic exercises.
Once they were actually up and running, being in the Atlanta area provided easy access to guest trainers like William Regal, Dave Taylor, and Chris Benoit. Still, while some name WWE talent like MVP, The Miz, and to a lesser extent Matt Striker, came out of DSW, a lot of the guys there washed out.
In April 2007, someone from the WWE office visited DSW and was so horrified by the alleged low quality of the operation that WWE immediately cut ties. As you might expect with it happening out of nowhere, Hamilton sued WWE.
Now, let us never speak of Deep South again.
Florida Championship Wrestling
With DSW shut down out of the blue, Booker T felt he had the best shot of getting their developmental deal. His Houston, Texas-based Pro Wrestling Alliance independent promotion and wrestling school had gotten very good reviews and he recently invested in television production equipment to show WWE he was serious.
The open spot went to Steve Keirn's Florida Championship Wrestling, which didn't even exist yet. Not only that, but like DSW, there were false-starts due to building code issues. While there has been plenty of speculation about why FCW was chosen, the most legitimate argument is that the Tampa area is home to many current and former stars who could show up to help out.
Oh, and then in 2008, they became the only developmental promotion when OVW was dropped.
Slowly but surely, FCW came along pretty well, assembling a varied roster of trainers and morphing into NXT a year ago. While they don't have many success stories other than The Shield as of yet, part of that is due to Triple H wanting to make sure nobody is called up to TV without a set gimmick and concrete plans.
Now, with WWE moving training to the new Performance Center in Orlando, developmental as we know it is gone. While NXT will look the same as it has for the last year and much of the staff has been kept on (though Keirn, creative assistant Rob Naylor, and others are gone), WWE owns everything instead of paying a consulting fee to an outside promotion. They're finally investing in developmental in a tangible way and the results will be very interesting to follow.