June 20th, 2022, will mark the ten-year anniversary of NXT – the wrestling promotion, not the scripted reality show. NXT as we knew it, however, isn’t making it to that milestone.
The first week of the new year made it abundantly clear that “NXT 2.0” wasn’t just a change in aesthetics or branding. The talent roster had already been thoroughly dismantled and re-made by that point, the final nail seemingly driven home on New Year’s Day, when Tommaso Ciampa lost the NXT Championship to newcomer Bron Breakker in what had the feeling of Ciampa’s last match in the promotion.
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The following week, WWE gutted NXT behind the scenes, as well, releasing a slew of writers, producers, coaches, and trainers that worked for the brand. Several of these had been used as on-screen talent as recently as this past August, including Samoa Joe, who won the NXT Championship in what turned out to be his final match in WWE.
The most unexpected release, however, was that of William Regal, whose name has been synonymous with NXT since its inception. Regal called the very first episode of NXT back in 2012, and had been the brand’s general manager since 2014. His voice, his experience, and his eye for talent was one of the pillars on which the promotion stood. For those who were holding out hope that NXT would retain some semblance of what it had been for the previous decade, Regal’s departure was an unmistakable sign to the contrary.
There will still be a wrestling program on television called NXT. It will employ some of the same wrestlers as it did before, particularly in the women’s division. We can’t say with any certainty whether or not it will be good or bad, but we can say that it will be different. Fundamentally different, from the ground up. The Black and Gold era of NXT, for all intents and purposes, has come to an end.
From the beginning, it was clear that NXT was Bo Dallas’ kingdom to lose.
A third-generation wrestler, Bo began training at WWE’s developmental territory, Florida Championship Wrestling, in 2008. Four years later, FCW folded, and its roster became the foundation for NXT.
Previously a scripted reality show that had been forgotten and abandoned by the powers-that-be, NXT re-launched on June 20th, 2012, as a new developmental program broadcast from Full Sail University, buoyed by a brand new training facility in the form of the WWE Performance Center and the creative stewardship of Dusty Rhodes and Triple H.
The first match on that first episode was won by Bo, whose victory was preceded by a video package in which he proclaimed that he had “a smile that shines for miles, a fist that breaks bricks, and a chin that won’t give in.” He wasn’t the first NXT champion, but all signs pointed to his impending babyface stardom, most notably his participation in the 2013 Royal Rumble.
There was only one problem: people didn’t like him. Shortly after Bo’s Royal Rumble appearance, the crowd began to vociferously turn on him – for obvious reasons. His move set wasn’t terribly exciting. His promo delivery was odd and stilted. And as many other wrestlers can attest, 2013 wasn’t the best year to be the new guy WWE was trying to cram down our throats. It was obvious to everyone that the original plan wasn’t working.
So Bo and NXT came up with a new plan. Over the next few months, Bo turned heel, and in the process, morphed into one of the best characters WWE has ever seen. He leaned into his unnatural mic work, emphasizing its strangeness. His smile became weird and creepy. He didn’t seem to understand the things happening around him – as the Full Sail crowd booed him more and more, he became more and more convinced that he was their hero.
This delusional, almost alien heel character, who innocently went after the cheapest and most PG of pops (“I’m going to give you a cookie! And you a cookie!”) was the one that saw Bo win the NXT Championship and hold it for the better part of a year. The audience was still booing him, but they loved booing him. And when he got called up, he was dragged out of NXT by security, kicking and screaming, putting a bow on an absolutely masterful run that nobody saw coming.
Would this character, the despised heel who sincerely believed, against all evidence to the contrary, that he was a beloved babyface, have ever worked on the main roster? It’s almost beside the point to ask. It’s true that NXT taping in front of the same crowd every week helped that crowd bond with the talent and their frequently experimental gimmicks, but the more important factor is that NXT, the developmental territory, allowed its talent to change, grow, and make mistakes. Free from the pressures of ratings and merchandise numbers, Bo Dallas was able to pivot from his initial failure in a completely new direction, and the result was spectacular. Bo wasn’t the only compelling character to come out of early NXT – his brother, Bray Wyatt, comes to mind, as does Tyler Breeze – but he’s a shining example of the thing that made early NXT great.
On December 11th, 2014, Sami Zayn was leaving the scene of a triumphant TakeOver event, the NXT Championship in his hand. Beside him, arm flung casually about his shoulders, was his best friend, Kevin Owens.
Owens was new to NXT, having made his debut in the opening match that very evening. Zayn had been there for 18 months, and during that time, he had made the promotion his own. His in-ring abilities, honed over the course of a decade of independent work, were unparalleled, and his two-out-of-three falls match with Antonio Cesaro was widely credited with putting NXT on the map.
In contrast to Bo Dallas (whose final NXT defeat had come at Zayn’s hands), Zayn was the most likable, believable, and sympathetic babyface in wrestling – at one point in his TakeOver match with Adrian Neville, he had the opportunity to hit Neville with the championship belt while the referee was unconscious (the kind of thing WWE babyfaces do all the time) only for the audience to shout him down because staying true to himself was more important than winning the title. It was a remarkable moment, and Zayn did stay true to himself, dropping the belt and ultimately defeating Neville on his own merits to claim the championship he’d sought for so long. The entire locker room emptied to celebrate his victory, including Owens, who lingered, staying by Zayn’s side after everyone else was gone.
Then, on their way up the ramp, Owens suddenly slammed Zayn’s head and neck into the steel before powerbombing Zayn brutally into the ring apron before leaving him there, not a single shred of remorse visible on his face.
If you were unaware of their history together, you might have been confused, but given its audience, that was a risk NXT was willing to take. For those who knew about the careers of Zayn and Owens on the independents and in their previous home promotion, Ring of Honor – the tag team, the betrayal, the year-long blood feud – Owens’ actions in this moment were a clear and obvious sign. Not just that two of the greatest were about to be at each other’s throats yet again, this time with different names in a different environment, but that WWE was acknowledging the existence of the independent scene, something they had consistently refused to do.
Despite its developmental mandate, NXT was built on the performances of indie wrestlers with years of experience, most of whom had wrestled each other before. But beyond standard throwaway lines like “these two have known each other for years,” nobody expected the history of wrestlers with history in other promotions to be worked into storylines.
For years, WWE treated all other wrestling companies like they didn’t matter, and their veteran alumni like rookies. The entire point of the original reality show version of NXT seemed to be the humiliation of Bryan Danielson, a direct message that he wasn’t better than anyone else just because he had spent years refining his craft in venues where Vince McMahon didn’t get a cut of the gate. Michael Cole turned heel on that show by ranting about internet wrestling fans, specifically their appreciation for Danielson.
When Kevin Owens attacked Sami Zayn on his first night in the company, it was a signal to fans that NXT was different. NXT wasn’t hostile to online fans – in fact, NXT rewarded fans who knew more, who watched other products. It was a seismic shift. That was the moment NXT went from developmental territory to super-indie.
And it changed everything. The Zayn/Owens feud, while likely cut short due to injuries suffered by Zayn, did serve as a vehicle for introducing Samoa Joe to NXT in 2015 – the first time in recent memory that an independent wrestler had appeared on WWE programming with both their name and character intact. The announcers didn’t pretend to not know who Joe was, despite the fact that he’d never set foot in a WWE ring before. “Oh my god,” they said, “it’s Samoa Joe.”
A few months later, AJ Styles arrived whole cloth in the 2016 Royal Rumble, and the floodgates opened from there. Non-WWE wrestlers suddenly had a pathway into WWE that didn’t involve abandoning everything that had gotten them there in the first place. NXT wasn’t just notable for the five-star matches put on by experienced, top-shelf performers, though such matches eventually became routine. It was notable because it threw the doors of WWE open to the wider wrestling world, forcing the company to acknowledge, without the petty exceptionalism of previous eras, that it was part of a larger industry.
An Imagined Civil War
This acknowledgment also allowed NXT to feel more like a subversive alternative to WWE than a WWE product. In crowning itself king of the indies, NXT presented itself as a promotion that challenged even Vince McMahon’s WWE, smashing through the gates of previous precedent and using its developmental status as a pipeline that would allow the indies to conquer WWE from the inside.
Of course, that was merely perception. NXT was always a WWE product, and while it validated the independent work and elevated the brands of many individual wrestlers, independent promotions themselves were under heavier assault than ever, as NXT scoured the globe searching for new talent to plug into its machinery.
With its increasing popularity driving its expansion, NXT’s relationship to the indies quickly became one of conquest and colonization – absorbing EVOLVE, making bids for territory in India and Japan, and essentially swallowing the British wrestling scene whole, all justified by WWE’s version of manifest destiny.
But for fans who wanted to see change come to WWE, and who wanted to see their favorite indie wrestlers make it to the top, NXT was a Trojan horse, the seeds of Vince’s defeat sown from within his own company. There seemed to be an unspoken civil war raging inside the world’s biggest wrestling promotion – Triple H vs. McMahon, TakeOver vs. WrestleMania, two competing visions of what WWE wrestling should look like, one looking forward, one looking back, with one side recognizing the value of the independents while the other side refused.
There’s probably more falsehood than truth to that narrative (though it gained strength every time an NXT star was sent to the main roster, watered down, wasted, and ultimately fired), but for those who were swept up in it at the time, the reality of the situation doesn’t make it hurt any less to see NXT lose the war in crushing fashion, with WWE at last putting down its rebellious offspring, any hope for McMahon’s dethroning now resting in other people’s hands.
But the legacy of NXT is not entirely one of failure. Beyond the spectacular body of in-ring work it leaves behind, it also left a permanent mark on WWE in the form of the modern main roster women’s division and the resurgence of women’s wrestling in general, and it will be remembered as the site of one of the longest and unluckiest feuds in wrestling history, which nonetheless managed to be both brilliant and transformative. That, however, is the subject of the next part of this story.