wrestling / Columns

NXT Is the Best Weekly Episodic Wrestling Show Today, Period

December 15, 2014 | Posted by Wyatt Beougher

Introduction: So two weeks ago, I was in the middle of writing a column about NXT when CM Punk made his infamous first appearance on Colt Cabana’s “Art of Wrestling” podcast. Obviously, the contents of what Punk had to say changed my plans, and instead I wrote a column about what Punk had to say in relation to OSHA and worker’s health in the workplace. The following week, I picked up the thread of the NXT column, and then it was announced that the UFC had signed Punk. So instead, I wrote a column about why the signing would benefit the UFC, Phil Brooks, AND professional wrestling (which ended up in the MMA Zone, so if you missed it, go check it out). While it was initially off-putting to postpone my NXT column twice, Thursday night’s NXT Takeover: “R”Evolution special made me glad that I did, because it provided even more examples in favor of my argument: that NXT is currently the best weekly wrestling program on television.

I have talked about NXT a few times before, and what I have had to say about the WWE’s development promotion has been almost entirely positive. I actually had the idea for this column a couple of months back when I was providing semi-regular live coverage of TNA Impact for Larry, and a few of the TNA diehards who frequented the comments would make the claim that Impact was the best weekly wrestling program in the United States. I argued then, and I will argue now, that NXT is in fact consistently the best weekly wrestling program on television and will remain so even when Impact resumes a regular weekly schedule. For clarity’s sake, the shows that I considered for the purpose of this column are as follows: RAW, Smackdown, NXT, Impact, and Lucha Underground (which, while still very much a fledgling promotion, is doing quite a few things perfectly, something I will examine in another column at some point between now and the end of the year).

So what makes NXT so amazing?

The Wrestling

When it comes to the actual in-ring content, quality is always going to trump quantity. That said, it still amazes me that NXT consistently has more actual wrestling content in sixty minutes in any given week than Smackdown and Impact’s 120 minutes and RAW’s 180. The only promotion that can even come close to NXT in terms of the raw amount of in-ring action is Lucha Underground, which also happens to be a one-hour show. When it was announced a while back that RAW was moving to three hours permanently, I was actually excited, because I felt like it would give the WWE more time to establish their secondary titles and feature some of the more underutilized members of their roster. Then RAW actually switched to the three-hour format and it was basically just the two-hour RAW with an additional forty minutes of video packages and recaps.

The same is true for Smackdown, which not only recaps what happened earlier on in the show, but also nearly everything that happened on RAW. And while I would not say that Impact is overly heavy on recaps and video packages, they tend to fill a significant portion of their runtime with in-ring or backstage segments that end up taking far longer than absolutely necessary to convey the message that they are trying to get across. After Vince McMahon’s appearance on “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s podcast, at least we have a reason for why the main roster shows are so light on in-ring content: McMahon doesn’t believe in wrestling “for wrestling’s sake”. So what then is TNA’s excuse, as they have for years claimed to be an alternative to the WWE, but generally do not feature a significantly higher percentage of wrestling content than either of WWE’s main roster shows?

Honestly, I feel like Impact had a significantly higher percentage of actual wrestling when it was a one-hour show, and that certainly falls in line with my observations of both NXT and Lucha Underground. The episodes of Impact that I covered would regularly feature three or four matches that went for seven minutes or less (not counting commercial time) and then a main event that went anywhere from ten to twenty minutes (again, not counting commercials). Even the two Impact “specials” that I covered, Destination X and No Surrender, featured 38 minutes and 47 minutes of wrestling respectively. And that’s after the company had publicly made a commitment to refocus on the in-ring content, yet that averages out to barely half of their total runtime devoted to it on two of the bigger televised shows of the year. NXT manages that percentage or better on a weekly basis and still tells compelling stories.

And, as I mentioned, the quality of the wrestling is far more important than the quantity, and again, NXT trumps pretty much everything else out there, week in and week out. Sure, both Baron Corbin and Bull Dempsey have been squashing enhancement talent for the past few weeks, but that takes roughly thirty seconds and is in service of their eventual feud, and each show balanced it out with either outstanding tag matches (seriously, is there a more underrated tag team in a major American promotion than Team Thick right now?), incredible women’s wrestling, a memorable main event, or some combination of the three. And that’s not even counting the four NXT live specials this year, all of which featured a greater quantity of high-quality in-ring action than their WWE main roster counterparts and even the TNA special editions.

I thoroughly enjoyed both Destination X and No Surrender; however, neither show could hold a candle to any of the NXT live specials in terms of the in-ring content. At Desination X, the tag title match and the world championship match both got just a hair under eleven minutes and the three X-Division title qualifiers totalled just over fifteen minutes. They were all solid matches, but I would still give the edge to Takeover: Fatal Fourway’s tag team championship match, women’s championship match, and NXT Championship match for overall quality, plus they received eight minutes, eleven minutes, and twenty-four minutes, respectively (and that’s not including the three other matches on the card, two of which were squashes for Baron Corbin and Bull Dempsey).

And while both WWE main roster shows, Impact, and Lucha Underground have all had memorable matches, there hasn’t been another show that has consistently put on good to great matches like NXT in 2014. Just from the live specials, you had Zayn/Cesaro, Paige/Emma, Neville/Dallas, Zayn/Breeze, Charlotte/Natasha, Neville/Kidd, Lucha Dragons/Ascension, Charlotte/Bayley, Neville/Kidd/Zayn/Breeze, Balor-Itami/Ascension, Charlotte/Sasha, and Neville/Zayn, which is my North American Match of the Year. That is twelve good to amazing matches from only four shows, and it is a rare occasion when a match from NXT isn’t the best match of the week, though it has happened, generally when Impact has had a particularly good tag title or world title match (I would include the X Division there, but I find it criminal that X Division title matches have nearly all gotten six minutes or less and have generally been outshone by the main event) or when Daniel Bryan was healthy prior to Wrestlemania. There were even occasional outliers like Cena/Cesaro from RAW or the three-way main event from the third episode of Lucha Underground. All in all, it has been a great year for actual wrestling content in North America (to say nothing of the awesomeness of New Japan), and NXT has been leading the way.

The Writing

Even if you are not a workrate mark and could not care less about in-ring psychology, NXT has provided an excellent blend of entertainment to balance out all of the sports-related aspects of the show. Unlike the main roster WWE, the comedy in NXT is generally funny – compare Santino/Emma vs Fandango/Summer Rae in NXT versus literally anything Santino and Emma did while together on the main roster – and the characters who use humor aren’t limited strictly to the comedy wrestling genre. Look at the Vaudevillains – Aiden English and Simon Gotch are a show-tune belting artiste and an old-timey strongman, respectively, who made silent films about the saving the town from the capers of their good guy opponents, yet once they get into the ring, they’re a very competent tag team without losing the mannerisms that make those characters so entertaining, whether it’s English taking bows after particularly successful moves or Gotch working in Hindu squats during a leglock. Compare that with Impact, where everyone takes themselves incredibly seriously and the only real brevity comes from the delightfully self-aware Ethan Carter III.

Even more than the comedy, the success of NXT is heavily based on the writers’ and performers’ abilities to take what would be one-note characters on the WWE main roster and give them life, whether it’s Tyler Breeze’s wrestling supermodel or the fact that Hideo Itami already has more personality that Yoshi Tatsu got during his entire WWE run or that Finn Balor isn’t just an Irishman who loves to fight like both Sheamus and Finlay before him. Even the brief flashes of personality that Kalisto has been allowed to display dwarf those given to a man that he wrestled not infrequently in the past, Tigre Uno (when Kalisto was Samuray Del Sol and Tigre Uno was Extreme Tiger). Once again, Lucha Underground is probably NXT’s closest competitor in this department, with their delightfully overblown origin story video packages actually fleshing out characters who might not have a mastery of the English language.

But as Bray Wyatt’s tenure on the WWE main roster has shown, even the best-developed characters can’t succeed without compelling storylines. In NXT, Wyatt was a cult leader who actually changed the status quo of the developmental promotion, whereas on the main roster, he has been relegated to a weird guy who speaks mysteriously and never really changes anything. Meanwhile, we just saw the culmination of a story that was nineteen months in the making, as Sami Zayn was forced to address the notion that he was too nice to ever win important matches, including the NXT championship. During the course of his championship match with Neville at NXT: “R”Evolution, Zayn confronted that claim head-on, weighing whether or not it was worth it to use the NXT title belt (that Neville had brought into the ring) to knock out his opponent and guarantee the win. Zayn’s internal conflict was clear on his face as he struggled with the doubts that plagued him after coming up short in big matches time and time again, but in the end, he remained true to himself and still won the match. I am happy to admit that I reverted to full-on markdom at that point in the show, just as I had at Fatal 4Way during the Bayley/Charlotte match. NXT’s writing staff and their performers’ storytelling abilities are able to more consistently evoke those childhood feelings of wonder, and more importantly, an emotional investment in the match, than any other promotion today. Not only that, but they also firmly introduced Zayn’s best friend, Kevin Owens in a match against CJ Parker, foreshadowed events that would happen later in the show with a brief backstage look at the locker room, where Owens would not even look at Zayn, and then set up the new champion’s next feud by having Owens congratulate Zayn after the match, only to turn on him after all of the other well-wishers had departed. Not only did Owens’ actions make sense based on the content of the introductory vignettes that had been airing to hype up his debut in previous weeks, it also paid homage to the history of Zayn and Owens (as El Generico and Kevin Steen, respectively) coming to blows in four of the past five Decembers, which was a nice treat to fans familiar with the duo outside of their time in the WWE’s developmental promotion. That is simply exceptional storytelling that we do not get nearly enough of in North American wrestling today.

The Presentation

And putting all of the credit for that type of emotional involvement in a wrestling show strictly on the writers and the on-camera talent would do a disservice to the behind-the-scenes people who make the show happen every week. With the WWE’s top-of-the-line production values, there was very little chance that NXT would look anything less than top-notch. But it is a true feather in the cap of everyone involved at Full Sail University and the WWE that the show often looks better than its main roster cousins, with “R”Evolution’s digital ring apron the most recent recent highlight to set the promotion apart from its competitors. And while I will admit to absolutely loving the gritty, exploitation-era look of Lucha Underground’s backstage segments and character vignettes, which fit the aesthetic of the promotion perfectly, NXT’s more polished look does not detract from the show at all, nor do its commentators, something neither WWE’s main roster nor Impact nor even Lucha Underground can honestly claim.

On the main roster shows, commentary consists of out-of-touch middle-aged men talking over one another about subjects that are tangentially related (at best) to what is going on in the ring. On Impact, Taz and Tenay are slightly better about calling the action that is happening, but Taz’ penchant for misogyny and homophobia are a huge drawback to the overall presentation of the show, and they certainly do not work in TNA’s defense when its detractors point out things like the culmination of the Dixie Carter/Bully Ray storyline. Even Lucha Underground, which features intergender matches, full-sized competitors taking on minis, and even exoticos, and should by rights be seen as the most progressive of the weekly wrestling shows available in the United States today, is hindered by Matt Striker alternately praising the competitors and citing Lucha Underground’s level playing field and then being amazed every time that a woman, mini, or exotico performs at the same level as their more traditional opponents.

And while NXT isn’t perfect (Alex Riley is a blight on the commentary team to the point that I’m hopeful his #FreeRiley hashtag actually works), the rotating commentary team tends to consistently be the best team working today. That is no small feat considering the loss of William Regal, who was, in my personal opinion, the best color commentator in the United States today. And while Rich Brennan may occasional miscall even simple moves, the fact that he actually does call the action in the ring and does his best to keep whichever broadcast partners he is working with on track vaults him into the top of my personal play-by-play rankings as well. Brennan has enough potential at this point that if he remains in the wrestling business, continues to improve at his current pace, and is not eventually force-fed into regurgitating Vince McMahon’s inanity upon being called up to the main roster, he could well go down as one of the best play-by-play commentators in North American wrestling history. Of course, that could just be the utter awful nature of play-by-play commentary by Michael Cole, Mike Tenay, and Matt Striker giving me an inflated opinion of Brennan, but based on how far he has come already since his debut, I tend to think it is more based on his actual merits as a commentator and not simply being the least of all of the evils.

One other area where I think NXT vastly outshines its competitors that comes across in the production is its taping schedule. Obviously, RAW is live, and as we have heard rumored time and again over the past few years, Vince McMahon is notorious for having the writers rewrite significant portions of the show with hours (or less) before the show starts, and I think the often disorganized nature of the show bears out my belief that WWE’s flagship show suffers as a result of this. Unfortunately, Smackdown’s weekly tapings do little to remedy this, as that show often feels as chaotic as RAW, and the times that it does not, it feels like a boring rehash of what happened on Monday night.

On the other end of the spectrum, TNA had been taping multiple months of television programming in three-night bursts, often months in advance. While this is the most financially beneficial setup for the company, it did tend to lead to confusion between the events of Impact and TNA’s “One Night Only” pay-per-views and their live pay-per-views, as storyline developments did not necessarily coordinate with what was happening from one event type to the other, and, in some rare instances, a champion would either win or lose their title on one type of event, only to show up either without it or with it (respectively) on another. Similarly, Lucha Underground held a series of television tapings over the course of twelve weekends and shot an entire season of television before their first episode ever premiered on the El Rey Network. While they do not have to worry about the variety of tapings and live events that TNA has to contend with and attempt to coordinate, such a schedule makes it difficult for Lucha Underground to shift more attention to performers who are popular with their television audience or to turn the focus away from performers who have proven to be unpopular with viewers at home. So far, this has not been a problem, as Lucha Underground’s writing and booking has been virtually perfect, but they still have quite a few episodes in the can, and with the fickle nature of wrestling fans, all of that could change in an instant, and Lucha Underground would be essentially powerless to adjust their course.

Which is why I believe that NXT’s taping schedule, which sees the promotion tape a month’s worth of television in a single night and then supplement it with a handful of live events each month, offers them both the most flexibility as it relates to revamping characters and storylines and a greater sense of continuity than the weekly schedule of RAW or Smackdown can provide. For instance, this past Friday night, NXT taped the episodes that will air December 18th, December 25th, January 1st, and January 8th. They are coming off of arguably their biggest show of the year and will be building to another live special in either mid-February or, more likely, in mid-March (I would assume they will move to a quarterly schedule this year, without the debut of the WWE Network to hype in February). That means that if the angles that they laid out on Friday aren’t well-received by people watching the shows on either Hulu or the Network, they have at either one or two opportunities to improve the booking between now and the next live special.

This is something that NXT has taken advantage of in the past, with the biggest example being the change that Bo Dallas underwent when the crowd turned on his plucky, happy-go-lucky babyface character, causing him to morph into a deviously underhanded schemer who still upheld that same facade. It was such a subtle, organic change that made perfect sense, and the crowds responded accordingly, with Dallas going from getting the dreaded “X-Pac Heat” to becoming one of the better characters on the show. At this point, that is not an option that Lucha Underground has, and while TNA has slightly more freedom than the AAA offshoot on this count, at one point earlier this year, they still cannot boast the same ability to change things as NXT.

Between an ultra-talented group of wrestlers who consistently put on high-quality matches, a writer or group of writers who are committed to seeing angles through to their logical conclusion and giving well-portrayed characters actual motivations and believable goals, and a support staff committed to making everything look and sound amazing, NXT has managed to capture lightning in a bottle and put on a weekly television program that is leaps and bounds above everything else on North American television at present. My colleague Greg DeMarco made the argument that NXT “R”Evolution was the perfect wrestling show, but I will gladly go one step further and say that it is the best weekly episodic wrestling show currently airing, but I would honestly love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Wyatt Beougher is a lifelong fan of professional wrestling who has been writing for 411 for over three years and currently hosts MMA Fact or Fiction and reviews Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

article topics :

NXT, WWE, Wyatt Beougher