Wild and Young: Ranking WWE NXT’s First Episodes

Everyone has their own opinions on NXT 2.0, and those opinions vary wildly depending on where you’re coming from as a wrestling fan. There’s one opinion, however, that most of us seem to share: The fact that WWE has chosen to call this latest NXT re-branding “NXT 2.0” is objectively hilarious. NXT 2.0 is, at the very least, the fifth incarnation of WWE’s developmental-territory-turned-all-star-independent-promotion, and you don’t have to take my word for it. Every time NXT gets re-booted, the WWE production and commentary teams make it a point to emphasize the “all-new” nature of the show, and every “first” episode of NXT is treated as the start of a new era.

That last part is, for better or for worse, correct – the four previous versions of NXT do represent distinct eras in the promotion’s history, and the fifth one certainly seems to be trending in that direction. With the first episode of NXT 2.0 in the can, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on the evolution of the brand over the last decade, and what better way to do that than to rank all five first episodes of NXT?

Okay, fine, there might be a few better ways, but this way seems like the most fun, so that’s what we’re doing.

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WWE

5. NXT Developmental (June 20th, 2012)

This was NXT’s first episode as an actual developmental territory. Previously, new WWE talent had worked their way through Florida Championship Wrestling before debuting on the main roster–while NXT made use of selected FCW workers, it was entirely its own thing, a scripted reality show where the stakes didn’t matter because pretty much everyone had a contract already. In fact, by the summer of 2012, NXT was more than a year into “NXT Redemption,” which was supposedly an extension of the reality show concept, but which gradually slipped into a weird limbo state where FCW wrestlers and unused low-card main roster wrestlers just kind of had fun and did their own thing. Unfortunately, after 67 episodes, WWE remembered NXT existed and decided to make it the developmental territory, folding FCW and erasing it from company history. There was no transition period, either–the June 13th episode of NXT is NXT Redemption; the June 20th episode is NXT Developmental. As Coheed and Cambria might say (regardless of how inappropriate it is to this specific situation): Welcome home.

And boy, did the first episode of NXT Developmental start with a whimper. I mean, sure Dusty Rhodes is here to kick off the show, which is always a good thing, but there is a firm ceiling on any episode of wrestling television where the main event is Tyson Kidd vs. Michael McGillicutty (poor guy wasn’t even Curtis Axel yet). Other must-see wrestling contests include the jobber versions of Juice Robinson and Tyler Breeze against the original Ascension, which had Bram from TNA in it, and the guy who would eventually replace him, Rick Victor, against the least fun incarnation of Bo Dallas. “I’m A Babyface, Please Love Me” Bo is a necessary step toward “I’m A Delusional Heel Who Thinks He’s A Babyface” Bo, which is one of the best characters NXT has ever produced, but that doesn’t make it any more fun to watch. And while NXT Developmental got better pretty quickly and does contain a couple scattered gems, all the Seth Rollins and Bray Wyatt video packages in the world won’t help an episode that consists almost entirely of white dudes with no charisma clotheslining each other. I mean, what is this, NXT UK?

WWE

4. NXT on USA (September 18th, 2019)

It’s tough to figure out what to do with this one. For one thing, even though this is the start of NXT’s move from one hour of weekly programming to two, somebody screwed up the timing of the move to the USA Network (which is industry speak for “somebody decided they needed to get ahead of the upcoming AEW Dynamite debut”) and the second hour of the first two episodes was preempted by “Suits.” So while this is still technically the first episode of NXT to air on USA, it was only the first half – the second half aired on WWE Network, as NXT had been doing for the previous five and a half years. So do we even take the second hour of the show into account? Considering the Aliyah match and the Matt Riddle/Killian Dain “main event” that somehow ended in a no contest despite being a street fight, NXT itself would probably prefer we didn’t.

Even so, just considering the first hour doesn’t help that much. Granted, the opening contest was an absolute banger of a fatal four-way between Io Shirai, Bianca Belair, Mia Yim, and Candice LeRae that’s comfortably the second-best match on any of these first episodes–to its credit, NXT started the USA era by featuring the women’s division, which was and continues to be its greatest strength. The second match, however, is a six-second Cameron Grimes squash, and how much you enjoy the third one depends pretty much entirely on whether or not you’re capable of stomaching the sight of the Velveteen Dream. If so, maybe you can appreciate this entirely serviceable North American championship match between Dream and Roderick Strong, but it’s far from either man’s best work, and even the completion of the Undisputed Era’s prophecy (that the stable would hold all NXT’s gold, except the women’s title, because we don’t allow girls in our club) doesn’t carry as much resonance as you might expect, especially looking back on it from September 2021. The women’s match was great and this is definitely NXT’s best commentary team (I will defend Mauro Ranallo’s tortured metaphors to the death) but the real prophecy here was the start of the show’s decline, and it should have been clear from the beginning that the move to two hours alone was a terrible idea.

WWE

3. Reality Show NXT (February 23rd, 2010)

The third-funniest thing about going back and watching the very first episode of the original reality show version of NXT is that almost none of the people involved, still work for WWE. Half the “pros” are in AEW now, alongside “rookie” Bryan Danielson, whose departure means seven of the eight contestants are gone, too. The only reason it isn’t a clean sweep is because Wade Barrett came back to do commentary. They were wild and young, everybody!

The second-funniest thing about this episode is CM Punk, who’s in the middle of his Straight Edge Society gimmick with Luke Gallows and Serena and flatly refuses to mentor Darren Young, saying in a picture-in-picture promo that he has no idea why he’s even here and that NXT is a total waste of his time. Absolutely priceless.

The funniest thing about this episode, though, is WWE’s aggressive insistence on shooting themselves in the foot. The episode opens with all the rookies backstage doing little video game animations–the only one who isn’t doing anything is Danielson, renamed Daniel Bryan. The Miz shows up and says Bryan is his rookie, refuses to be impressed by Bryan’s indie credentials, then demands Bryan go to the ring and introduce himself to the WWE audience. Bryan’s promo is amazing–decked out in full American Dragon get-up, he apologizes to his fans for the whole “being paired with the Miz” thing and says he wishes his pro had been William Regal. Miz comes out and demands Bryan come up with a catchphrase, which Bryan makes a half-hearted attempt at doing, and then slaps Bryan in the face. Immediately afterward, the cameras and the most insufferable version of Matt Striker (which is no mean feat) catch up with Bryan backstage for an interview. Nothing that doesn’t involve Daniel Bryan happens for the first ten minutes of a 45-minute show, and he spends the last ten minutes main-eventing alongside reigning World Heavyweight Champion Chris Jericho.

It is extremely clear that WWE knew exactly what they had in Daniel Bryan, and that they intended to beat it out of him. From start to finish, he’s the star of the show, which is why it made perfect sense to spend every subsequent episode trying to humiliate him and make him one of the first people eliminated. They even kick off Michael Cole’s excruciating heel turn by having him belittle the independents and show disgust at Bryan’s lack of respect for the Miz. This isn’t a good episode of television, but it’s a fascinating piece of wrestling history that demonstrates (a) WWE’s tendency to stubbornly refuse to create stars out of spite, and (b) how completely impossible it was to prevent Bryan Danielson from becoming a star.

WWE

2. NXT 2.0 (September 14th, 2021)

A lot has been made of NXT 2.0 and the idea that it represents the return of NXT as a developmental territory, as opposed to Triple H’s personal independent promotion. After the first episode, I think we can say two things: It definitely looks like NXT is transitioning back to being a developmental territory, and the results so far are actually pretty good! The aesthetic works, it’s nice to see the crowd for a change, and there was a pretty decent blend of veterans and new talent, which is what NXT used to be before it started hiring everyone who had ever competed in TNA or Ring of Honor. I don’t know, maybe I’m just glad to see NXT have an actual purpose again beyond “sign independent star, build independent star, send independent star to main roster, let independent star flounder immediately, fire independent star.” Or maybe I’m a sucker for romance: between Tommaso Ciampa rekindling his love affair with the NXT Championship and the InDex wedding closing the show in delightful (and surprisingly successful) fashion, this episode really made me feel the love in the arena.

It wasn’t perfect, by any means. The Kyle O’Reilly bait-and-switch was frustrating, Josh Briggs and Austin Theory shouldn’t be on television, and I’m not sure I even want to know what’s going on with Tony D’Angelo. But the championship match was fun, the six-woman tag team match was really fun, Bron Breakker looks like a star, and the rest of the roster looks both promising and diverse. Between Hit Row, Diamond Mine, and Carmelo Hayes, there was a ton of entertainment to be found on the first episode of this new era, and most of NXT’s best wrestlers were just wedding guests. We’ll see what happens, but so far I am in on NXT 2.0.

WWE

1. NXT Arrival (February 27th, 2014)

It wasn’t just the first NXT live special. It was the first live wrestling event broadcast on the brand-new WWE Network. Before there was a Takeover, there was NXT Arrival, and it represented both a new era for NXT and a new era for the financial model of the wrestling industry. It’s not that the show was bad prior to Arrival, or that Arrival brought with it any massive alterations to either the look or the roster. But the golden age of NXT, the one people remember and that some currently see fit to mourn, began that night in February 2014, a month before Wrestlemania XXX.

The main event was a ladder match for the NXT Championship between Adrian Neville (aka PAC) and Bo Dallas, the latter having reached peak delusional heel, the former finally coming into his own and showing the world how good he could actually be. That was preceded by Paige defending her NXT Women’s championship match against Emma in a match that set the stage for the Four Horsewomen and everything that would follow in terms of revitalizing women’s wrestling (Paige pulling out the scorpion cross-lock is still one of early NXT’s most memorable images). And the opening contest between Sami Zayn and Cesaro is one for the ages, quite simply one of the best wrestling matches you’re ever likely to see. Their 2-out-of-3 Falls match from 2013 is the one that gets all the historic love, but their Arrival match is just as good, and possibly even better.

There’s some other stuff in there that’s less remarkable, like the Ascension wrestling an extremely too-old-for-this-shit Too Cool, or Rusev wrecking an Xavier Woods/Tyler Breeze match before it starts, or just anything Mojo Rawley ever does. It’s not one of NXT’s best live specials, and the “future is now” stuff is retroactively laughable, but it’s still a really good show that presaged an truly great period of pro wrestling, and there’s never been a better start to a new era of NXT.

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Miles Schneiderman

Miles Schneiderman is a freelance writer, podcaster, fact-checker, and media producer. He works regularly with Yes! Magazine and Looper, co-hosts The NXT Wrestling Fan Podcast, the Smash Fiction Podcast, and several shows on the Unspoiled! Podcast Network, and produces podcasts and videos for Odyssey Storytelling. Follow him on Twitter @mjschneiderman and visit his website, www.mjschneiderman.com, for links to his current and previous work.

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