The current version of the WWE developmental system is the baby of Paul "Triple H" Levesque, WWE's executive vice president of talent, live events and creative. After 15 years of moving around different independently owned promotions and wrestling schools that were paid consulting fees as developmental circuits, the entire operation was taken in-house last year with the opening of the WWE Performance Center.
It's a completely different entity now: The shows themselves, held under NXT banner, are closer to miniaturized WWE events than ever, while the WWE Performance Center features state-of-the-art training (pro wrestling as well as strength and conditioning) and television production.
This Thursday, February 27th, as WWE Network's first live special, WWE will present NXT Arrival at 8:00 p.m. ET. The event will feature Bo Dallas vs. Adrian Neville in a Ladder match for the NXT Championship, Cesaro vs. Sami Zayn and Paige vs. Emma for the NXT Women's Championship.
The show will be preceded by a live pre-show at 7:30 p.m. ET with Bret Hart, Kevin Nash and Paul Heyman. In addition, This Is NXT (also available in the on-demand library) will be airing Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. ET as an introduction to the NXT talent for new viewers. I'll be live-tweeting all of the proceedings, starting with the pre-show, on @BR_WWE, the official Twitter account of Bleacher Report's WWE team.
To set the stage for NXT Arrival, WWE held a conference call with Levesque this afternoon to talk about the event and the developmental system in general. "It's a great time right now, I think, to be a WWE fan, to be a—as much as everybody thinks this is a taboo word—a wrestling fan, with the launch of WWE Network, with WrestleMania 30," Levesque said.
He quickly moved on to tomorrow night's card. "NXT Arrival, to me, is an amazing opportunity for the Superstars from the Performance Center or the future Superstars of the WWE to show their craft in a way that they've never done before. The fact that the WWE and Vince (McMahon) in particular is trusting NXT, the Performance Center, the talent here to be the first live in-ring product that we put out on WWE Network, that's an amazing opportunity and shows you the dedication and pride that he takes in the Performance Center and in developmental in general."
In going over the card, he especially put over the talent of Cesaro and Sami Zayn. "Cesaro, who is just one of the up-and-coming guys that I think, in the next few years, you're gonna just see explode, taking on Sami Zayn, who has a rich history before getting to the WWE and is only going to get better and better. They've already put on some incredible—I hate to say 'match of year' or anything like that, I think it gets overused—but they've put on some incredible performances already, and I think Thursday will be no different."
He also gave his thoughts on what the Dallas-Neville match means for NXT: "Bo Dallas and Adrian Neville, one of the things we're very cautious of in NXT is I like to keep things a little more pure and a little bit more to just the in-ring wrestling component of it. Being a Ladder match, being one of the first kind of 'gimmick,' so to speak, matches we've done, I'm really excited for that."
As for the pre-show, Levesque added: "I tried to create an environment where opinionated guys about the business and about what we do could sit there and give their critiques. Not what we asked them to say, but their personal feelings on the future of the business and what they're seeing before them."
From there, the floor was opened to the various wrestling writers on the line. When asked why the first live WWE Network event was an NXT card, Levesque noted that NXT not being a regular broadcast or on cable television in the United States built up a lot of demand for it.
"One of the things our research showed that one of the things that (fans) were very excited about seeing was NXT, because there was so much buzz. We'd just drop little things here and there about talent coming from there on Raw and SmackDown and the buzz was huge. I take pride in it for all these kids that Vince was able to look at it and say, 'Hey, you know what, in that first week, I'm gonna give our fanbase something special, and I'm gonna let them see the future.' And he trusted it enough to say, 'I wanna do it live, and I wanna make a big thing out of it,' and that's a testament to everybody working here."
For the time being, NXT tapings are probably staying at Full Sail University, as the company loves the atmosphere of the hardcore college student fans who attend the tapings. "Our fanbase here is really rabid. It's their show, you know? We get different people all the time, but there's a large core group of people; it's got a little bit of that old ECW vibe, (but) in a different way, trust me. It's theirs, and there's something special to that—they have that passion for it."
In addition, since NXT is designed to be a learning experience, and Full Sail is set up as a miniaturized Raw or SmackDown taping with the cameras in the same spots, it's ideal to keep the tapings there. That's not even getting into how Full Sail students are involved in the production, which he didn't mention, so it's safe to say the tapings are staying put for a long time.
The most obvious question of the day was who in NXT is considered "ready" and will be next to be called up to the main roster, especially after WrestleMania. Levesque explained that everyone who makes it to the weekly NXT TV show (there are a lot more wrestlers in the system who don't) is, more or less, considered ready.
"One of the things I like to look at the Performance Center and NXT as is it's the on-deck circle. Do I need a hitting specialist, do I need a pinch runner—what do I need? Then it's the timing of it. Yes, we do like to debut people after WrestleMania; there's a lot of eyeballs on us, and it's a great time to do it, the excitement is there. ... It's like going to the Super Bowl—it ends the season, except the season starts the next day at Monday Night Raw."
As for who's getting called up next? "There's a lot of exciting talent. I know exactly who they're gonna be. I just can't tell you," he added with a laugh.
One of the most interesting answers he gave was about changes to the developmental system under him. Contrary to popular belief, he says he didn't think any of the previous developmental promotions did a bad job as much as it could be improved.
"Everybody knew it was ours, everybody knew what it was, everybody talked about it, but nobody acknowledged it. Listen, if you wanna attract athletes from all over the globe...Wahoo McDaniel started as a football player. Lots of guys started out doing other things. To be good at this, you come from anywhere—we're all the same on day one. ... What you wanna attract is the right people, the right charisma, the right personality and the best athletes, and then you can train them to do this and teach them how to become stars."
The WWE Performance Center was always envisioned as a way to recruit blue-chip athletes. "To do that, to be as big as we wanna be in every way, we had to grow," Levesque explained.
When Vince McMahon asked him to take a look around at everything to see what he wanted a hand in as he moved into the front office, he noticed that WWE wasn't making enough of an investment in the future. In making his point, he addressed the criticism that WWE goes overboard in re-shaping wrestlers to match the company's own image.
"You can look at it, and people can make the argument, 'Well, WWE just tries to morph them into what they want.' Yeah, we want you to run our playbook. You play for another team, you run their playbook. When you come to work for us, you run our playbook because we feel like we know what can be successful."
When I got brought on to the call, my first question was about the various technological advances implemented in the WWE Performance Center (like the live video feed to WWE headquarters) and how they've changed the developmental program.
"I see it in everybody down here," Levesque explained. "Outside of WWE, a lot of times, there's not a lot of opportunity for guys to even talk, right? There's no TV shows a lot of times; they don't have TV experience at all. If they worked in the indie scene, they did what they did on some level, and promos and all that stuff is a lost art—they just don't do it."
Even the most polished talent gained their previous major league experience in Japan, where they weren't talking. "To see guys that we had in the process who were phenomenal in-ring performers, or really skilled in all that—but zero personality and zero ability to talk—now that are getting really good at it? To me, that's all of that (technological) stuff."
In the long run, he wants it to get to the point that unless you saw someone before they improved, you'd never think they were ever bad at cutting promos.
My next question pertained to what WWE looks for in coaches and what separates great performers from great coaches.
"There's a difference between being able to do something and being able to teach it. It's funny, I was just sitting on a plane last night. We were flying down here and Pat (Patterson) was on there and we were talking about the business and (Patterson's tag team partner) Ray Stevens came up. And Ray Stevens is one of my favorite performers—incredibly talented and all that—and Pat said, 'Ray couldn't tell you what he did. He didn't know how he did it, he didn't know why he did it, he just did it. Ray just got in the ring and he just did it. Ray was like a savant; it just came to him. He wouldn't be a guy that could teach, ever.'"
Levesque proceeded to explain what made a good coach. "Pat was a guy that could teach. I see guys all the time, that's why we bring guys in here. You know, we're interested in a lot of trainers and stuff, we bring them in in a guest capacity for a while, let them get comfortable, see what they can do, because there are a lot of guys who are great talents and they get in the ring and they can't explain anything to anybody. Then there are other guys who were decent hands, or never fully made it, and yet they get it, and they can teach people that, and people understand it when they communicate that to them."
It also depends on the experience of the trainee. "I look at it as there's levels along the way. Norman Smiley trains guys here and Norman is one of the best trainers of taking guys from the beginning with zero ability and explaining to them in a simple way and getting them up to speed. At that beginner level, he is phenomenal at that."
Terry Taylor is "the finishing touch guy. He puts the polish on it and gets them ready for TV and helps with that last bit of character development." Levesque explained how Taylor helps with the character development in a wrestling context.
"It's one thing to come up with a character, and it's another when 'ding ding ding,' the bell rings, and what do you do? How does that character match up with what you do in the ring? You can't be Bray Wyatt and then come in the ring and wrestle like Lou Thesz. If Bruiser Brody worked like (Ric) Flair or Ricky Morton or something, it would've been a disconnect. You've gotta make the pieces all connect; it's gotta be believable, start to finish. You need different coaches and players along the way to make those things happen."
The funniest moment of the call came during the last call they decided to take from the queue. Jason Powell was on the line and asked if Levesque's earlier comments about wanting NXT to be more "pure" could be a sign of things to come when he takes over the company down the line.
"Oh, did no one buzz you yet? Vince is gonna live forever," Levesque retorted.
Powell followed up: "You wouldn't put it past him?"
"No, he's gonna live forever. I'm pretty sure they're working on technology now to freeze his head and put a headset on him, and he'll just work the pay-per-views and the TVs from the cryo (-genic) chamber."
David Bixenspan has been Bleacher Report's WWE Team Leader since 2011 and also writes for Figure 4 Weekly, available to F4WOnline.com subscribers along with other content, including the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and a variety of audio shows. His brand new article about the 20th anniversary of ECW's "Night the Line Was Crossed" show is featured in issue No. 103 of Fighting Spirit Magazine, available online internationally and at newsagents in the UK.