Ohno and Harper Impress, but Like Its Roster, WWE'S NXT Is a Work in Progress
I had the good fortune to attend the Oct. 10 taping in Orlando, Fla. of WWE’s developmental talent league, NXT. If you’re looking for a concise breakdown of the matches and events, check out Joseph McGuirk’s report from ProWrestling.net, as this article is more of an editorial of the product and overall experience.
Having never watched the show, this was my first encounter with the NXT brand. I have followed the stellar indy careers of Antonio Cesaro, Kassius Ohno and Sami Zayn, so between that level of talent and WWE production values, my expectations for the evening were high.
NXT is a WWE production that offers students at Orlando’s Full Sail University a real-world and hands-on television production experience. The program is taped at building 141, the Full Sail Studios. Giant steel sails scalloping from the structure evoke the design of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
This was my first visit to the clean and compact campus, and I had to stop and ask a student where the taping for the wrestling show was being held, as there was no signage (I believe the website said the taping is held at the university and not specifically the studios). Nor was there any signage directing audience members where to park or if it was open parking. I spent much of the pre-show in silent prayer my car would not be towed.
Showing WWE’s October-long commitment to the Susan B. Komen breast cancer charity, personnel in the box office and lobby wore pink or sported pink Komen logo pins. The adverts about breast cancer awareness featuring WWE Superstars that run during WWE programming were also played in the studio at various times throughout the evening.
Tickets were $10, or $15 for a perk that I don’t recall being properly explained on the website.
In a parking lot near the box office, three roach coaches—sorry, “food trucks”—fed crew and arriving fans, the ubiquitous cycling of the trucks’ generators underscoring every conversation.
The doors open at a quarter to the hour for the 6:30 p.m. bell time. A steady stream of diversity headed for the studio: families and couples, friends and loners, all there to see the wrestling show.
John Cena, CM Punk and the late “Macho Man” Randy Savage were the fans’ top choices for whose T-shirts to wear to the event, though Dolph Ziggler, The Miz and Christian also got some love.
I must not look like a wrestling fan, as the crowd wrangler gave instructions to everyone else seated around me on the horseshoe of benches outside the box office.
I have been profiled and this discrimination must stop.
(In this day and age, I better explicitly state that the previous line is satire.)
I could not believe the length of the line waiting to fill the studio, as the edifice does not look as though it could accommodate everyone. Ringling Brothers is headquartered downstate in Sarasota, and all I could think of was how the scene resembled the clown car gag.
Part of this bias as to the size of the studio also stems from memories of the NWA studio show that used to run on TBS, where Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair would grapple in front of three rows of people who may or may not have been wrestling fans, but at least looked happy to be in air conditioning.
As we filtered in under the gold-on-black WWE banner, I discovered concessions are only a dollar each and bought some just on principle.
It is a good-looking stage set with plenty of seating on two sides of the ring. Let’s call it the south side of the studio that is the production area with the hard camera, the jib, the announcers' table and the numerous technicians and crew tasked with recording what will translate to four hours of television in approximately three to three-and-a-half real-time hours with no retakes.
A great number of Hollywood productions work the other way around, filming all day for sometimes only 30 seconds of usable footage. In most entertainment, it is up to the editors to determine the momentum of the work. Insofar as WWE is scripted entertainment, it still relies on the athletes to set that gauge for the audience.
The Saturday Night’s Main Event match between Shawn Michaels and the British Bulldog is a great example of wrestlers bending our perceptions of time, like editors do. There was so much quality action and ebbs and flows of drama that the match feels longer than the 10 minutes of air time it was given. In wrestling matches, like any work of storytelling, some are confections—others are meals.
Back at the NXT arena, except for ringside, the audience sits on the bleachers, making this an actual, no-lie bleacher report. You’re welcome.
Trying to avoid a seating position in the line of sight behind the turnbuckle, I got a great seat in the center, only to be told during the warm-up match by a stage hand that we all had to move down “for the best camera angle,” which made me wonder why, then, that section wasn’t cordoned off. It also aggravated the man sitting next to me, as latecomers were then rewarded with the best line-of-sight seats. “I was here early,” he told the stage hand, but he was still required to move.
If I were to change anything about the operation, it would be to fill late comers into the empty pockets or cordon off a poor line-of-sight section specifically to be filled by expected latecomers.
The NXT Taping
The ring announcer relayed the storyline of Adrian Neville being clocked by his former tag team partner, Corey Graves, and said WWE Superstar Christian would be out later in a special “Peep Show” with guest World Heavyweight champion Alberto Del Rio.
WWE Superstar Sweet T was introduced as a special guest commentator and brought the crowd to its feet with some terrific energy.
The Women's Division
The crowd absolutely loved the women's division, and the fan signs and conversations taking place in the bleachers around me seemed most interested in them—one guy was even hoping for Divas to compete in a Hell in a Cell match.
There was a young lady seated near me wearing a Paige T-shirt, and I immediately thought of the news footage where a teenage AJ Lee was sobbing because she was meeting her idol Lita. Perhaps this young fan is destined for similar greatness.
Summer Rae, Sasha Banks, Emma and the division’s first champion, Paige, all made multiple appearances, and there wasn’t a mood of exasperation as there would be for other performers also wrestling in more than one match throughout the night.
Charlotte, the second-generation Superstar (daughter of Ric Flair), also wrestled alongside, only to betray, her tag team partner, Bayley.
The matches were bittersweet, though, because I was thinking about these young athletes learning their craft, honing their skills on NXT and at the nearby WWE Performance Center, only to eventually be called up to a WWE that is going to use them in two-minute matches and not develop any character traits beyond their sexuality or sexual stereotypes: who are they dating, mean-girl body-issue insults and popularity contests, etc.
There is a place for all kinds in wrestling, but WWE seems to be resisting the trend that people are not connecting with glamour girl Divas so much as they are with anti-Divas, such as Lita, AJ, Paige and Bayley, as this crowd attested. I’d even put Emma in that category, because the Kiwi entered doing some manner of Bushwacker-style dance/walk that had the audience on its feet dancing with her.
Former WWE player Maryse is a prime example of a glamour girl wrestler who connected with the audience by virtue of her charismatic personality just beaming through the TV. During a Thanksgiving-themed episode of Raw, the Gobbledy Gooker (I refuse to spell check that) appeared in the ring and attacked then-Divas champion Melina. Of course it was Maryse, but I remember watching the scene unfold live. She had removed most of the turkey suit but was having difficulty getting out of the leggings. Rather than show frustration at the gaffe, she just sat in that ring and owned it, determined to get those off, but in her own time. It was a moment of supreme confidence and star power.
Like their Raw and SmackDown counterparts, it is frustrating that even in a farm league system, WWE cannot see fit to invest a little more and give most of these female characters last names. Hulk Hogan commented in a WWE Home Video release that “Hogan” was due to Vince McMahon Sr., who insisted his wrestlers have surnames (Irish ones all the better) because it helped the audience believe the wrestler was from somewhere and not just a character.
In one of his WWE Home Videos, current COO Triple H even discussed how important it was for him as a young wrestler starting out to have a name and not a character-sounding one like “Terrorizing,” even though it put him at odds with his mentor Killer Kowalski. The Hall of Famer compromised as only he could, drawing a line in the middle of the word and telling the rookie, there, now you have two names: Terra Ryzing.
There is money on the table with a women's division. People do not pay to see gender; they pay to connect with personalities and be swept up in good stories. A fight is a fight, and if care is taken to promote it right, people will pay to see it.
I wish these young female performers all the best, and I sincerely hope that WWE lives up to the dreams it is fostering in them.
Characters and Big Men Yelling
Some characters, like the “Moonchild” CJ Parker, did not exactly connect with the crowd (a “change your gimmick” chant was directed his way). Yet others—such as the musical theater star Aiden English, the Robbie E guido type Enzo Amore and the selfie-loving Tyler Breeze—brought the crowd to life in each appearance.
(Hey, how come they get last names?)
WWE is obviously high on Alexander Rusev, as he made four appearances that evening, though the crowd was burned out after two. Honestly, by his third appearance, I was checking my email during his match.
During the “Peep Show,” when a possible opponent for Alberto Del Rio was being teased, the crowd groaned when Rusev’s music hit, a fan in the first row even throwing up his arms in eye-rolling disgust.
Rusev has a thick, Ted Arcidi build that was undercut by an unfortunate costume that resembles a multilayered brown Fruit Roll-Up. The size of him should have been impressive, but instead, his first appearance elicited laughter. Looking at that costume, I recalled the passage in Mick Foley’s first book where he inspected the brown Mankind costume and imagined he’d look like a "giant turd" (page 509). It does not appear the NXT costume department has read that particular bestseller.
Rusev’s cause was not helped when an attractive blonde woman kept arriving at ringside to scout him, and many eyes turned her way.
Basically, though, the Bulgarian amounted to the same type of super heavyweight monster heel WWE always pushes: another big man who yells and preens.
I can turn on my TV and see Brock Lesnar, Ryback, Big E Langston and Roman Reigns filling that role, and we’ve seen it countless times before with Batista, Mark Henry and the late Umaga. WWE did not give the fans any reason to invest in Rusev or think he's any different.
Consider the great super heavyweights and one realizes they all possessed that something extra. King Kong Bundy had a main event personality to match his oversized girth and was gifted a memorable five-count gimmick by promoter Bill Watts. Bam Bam Bigelow’s million-dollar look did not distract from the Monster Factory graduate’s natural ability and impressive agility. Ray Traylor, best known as the Big Boss Man, had notable runs in every league he wrestled because, like Big Show, he had an innate connection with the fans that propelled him to success whether he was working as a heel or face.
Big-man power moves have been a dime a dozen on WWE TV for the past 30 years, and people have become inured to them. Of all the moments during this NXT event, the crowd was most actively invested when Parker threatened to shear Breeze’s golden locks—because they cared about the character.
I was excited for the return of Mason Ryan, but his match, too, became about a big man yelling and flexing, and the crowd soon turned on him because of it.
The squash matches of tag team champions Ascension continued the trend.
Mojo Rawley is an example of yelling working for a big man, because, like the Ultimate Warrior, it seems to be an essential part of his gimmick, if the words “stay hyped” on his trunks with the energy-drink colors are any indication. The crowd also got on their feet for him.
Leo Kruger has the unremarkable distinction of being a big man who yells, but his match against Chimera, the masked alter ego of Ricardo Rodriguez, was the first time in the evening, despite being the 11th match (of 18), that it finally felt like a wrestling show.
I don’t mean that as a slight to the other performers, and the best way I can explain it is to relay when I saw former WWE Superstar Brian Christopher wrestle at a small show on a California Indian reservation. In WWE terms, he was a midcarder, a successful Tag Team champion, but under the glass ceiling. At this indy show, however, Christopher shone like a pro. He was a step quicker and his moves were that much crisper than anyone else performing that day...including a rookie John Cena, then wrestling under the name "The Prototype."
Kruger and Rodriguez wrestled as basic a squash match as possible, but they did it so well that it was apparent they were in a different class of performer.
The same was true of the Kassius Ohno-Luke Harper contest. Harper, in his Wyatt Family gear, is a big guy who had no need to yell. He simply had presence. He reminded me of Kane, in a way, as both seem to be able to tell more story with one sly grin than with a boatload of shouting.
The two storytellers delivered the best match of the night, an unfortunate occurrence for Adrian Neville and Corey Graves, who followed with a 2-out-of-3 falls match after having a pull-apart brawl to open the evening and a subsequent one-fall match. Neville woke the crowd up with some impressive high flying, but no one was appreciating Graves’ psychological ground game, and, by that point in the evening, they had had enough of the duo.
See You NXT Time
As a live event in Orlando, you cannot beat the price. Just plan on being there for four shows (in a word, “cushion”). Except for those initial parking and seating issues, the production ran very smoothly, I feel got my money’s worth as a wrestling fan and the bonus appearance of some current WWE Superstars was an unexpected surprise.
While I cannot say my expectations were met during this taping of NXT, and it has not encouraged me to watch it on Hulu, I’m not giving up on the brand. If it starts generating some buzz, I’ll revisit it then; and when Sami Zayn and champion Bo Dallas return from an overseas tour, that might be sooner than later.
Of course, if NXT commentator and the wrestler's wrestler William Regal ever felt the need to get in the ring and throw some people around...I might tune in even sooner than that.
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