Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Did Full Sail Land on WWE, or Did WWE Land on Full Sail? A Response to Voices of Wrestling

If Paige fails, it won't be because NXT didn't give her the tools to succeed
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Friend of the blog and co-auteur of Voices of Wrestling Rich Kraetsch wrote a look at the relationship between NXT and WWE. Citing Paige, Emma, and Adam Rose as examples, he made the argument that NXT might be failing WWE because it had become the one thing that the company had tried to distance itself from: an indie promotion. Right now, Rose and Emma at least are undeniably cold. Paige gets some reactions, but she's certainly not at the level expected of the savior of a flagging division.

In all cases, however, I might argue that extenuating circumstances on behalf of all the performers mitigate their underwhelming reactions from the crowd. None of them fit a single profile, but they all have solid reasons as to why they may not be lighting the world on fire. I'll tackle each individually, since the broad brush is not the appropriate tool to use here.

EMMA - Emma was doomed almost from the start. Her debut was inventive, but once she paired off with Santino Marella, the writers tied her to the offensive and predictable "wrestler's girlfriend" character. Emma in NXT was anything but an accessory to a man; as Brandon Stroud points out every week Emma appears on RAW, she had a nuanced persona that stood on her own. Even saddled with the exhausted trope of needing to be attached to a man, fans reacted to her when she wrestled. The Emma Lock, DilEMMA, and the EMMAmite Sandwich all got pops. Fans, as scattered as they may have been throughout various crowds, were ready to see women wrestlers evolve. Emma's failures are about as far from her fault as they can be, and they certainly can't be laid at the feet of her teachers and producers from NXT when their bosses in WWE ignored the entire template that made her successful in the first place.

ADAM ROSE - I still feel that any verdict on Rose right now is premature. Not only is the character new to WWE, he was thrust into it within the calendar year of 2014 in NXT. Sure, the character is two-dimensional at best, at least as it's currently configured. But even the skewed crowd at Full Sail University didn't have the chance to see a second act like it did with every other character that made the main roster. Even Bo Dallas (who will receive the next referendum from the main show crowd) got long amounts of time with both his characters.

Still, the claim that Kraetsch made that the character is a "small room" persona, which I am not sure he, or anyone can make before seeing how it plays in a larger one. Wrestling is more art than science. If something works in front of one audience, the goal is to keep trying it in front of an increasingly larger one until it fails. Empirical knowledge is needed for any character, and the Aldous Snow party-boy gimmick is one that's relatively untested in a pro wrestling milieu. The gimmick needing more time to sink or swim may be a valid possibility.

PAIGE - Paige's assessment as a failure so far is the one that I disagree with most. If the goal is to pop the crowd and work solid matches on television, then she's done her job exceptionally well so far. Unless my ears deceive me, she gets the people reacting to her. In fact, for a 21 year-old who was thrust with the mantel of Champion for her division, she's performed above and beyond expectation from my point of view.

But if she's expected to be getting Daniel-Bryan-at-SummerSlam reaction from jump, however, then of course she's doomed to fail. She wasn't handed the keys to a new Porsche, ready to zoom around the neighborhood with no work or restriction. The Divas division is more a jalopy, one that needs more work than anyone is willing to admit to get on course. The focus is on promoting a reality show, characters are pigeonholed into sexist, one-dimensional templates, and the matches rarely get any kind of meaningful time on Main Event or Superstars, let alone RAW.

Yet, she's still got the crowds behind her. Kraetsch claims it's only the hardcore fans. Dismissing the fact that I'm not sure how anyone can tell which fans are reacting to what, having the hardcore guys at your back isn't a negative. Daniel Bryan would not be the WWE World Heavyweight Champion right now had it not been for the "smarks" at WrestleMania XXVIII who chanted "YES!" from the moment he lost to Sheamus in the opening match until the dark match after RAW ended the next night. Those fans trained the "casual" fans how to react to Bryan, and that seed blossomed. I can definitely see a similar situation playing out with Paige. She's already well on her way

The above three examples, not so oddly enough, are only three of the most recent call-ups. The NXT system has also produced a home run of an act in the Wyatt Family and a HOSS in the making (who is experiencing similar lack of help that is characteristic of both Emma and Rose) in Big E Langston. The system itself isn't a failure inasmuch as the gimmicks it produces may be mixed bags. However, even if the wrestlers it produces don't exactly light the world on fire with the gimmicks they receive at Full Sail/the Performance Center, what they are taught before making it to the main stage is the invaluable thing.

For example, Tyler Black was the worst kind of indie move trader, and I say "worst" as a matter of personal taste. I know many people out there dug him in Ring of Honor and other promotions, and that fact is okay. But leaving out taste in mind, the time he spent in developmental taught him how to hone his game for television. Now, I would think he's objectively good at working as a WWE-style highspot babyface. Jon Moxley fine-tuned his game and has become the Dean Ambrose who looks to light the WWE on fire in the next decade (maybe literally, I don't know, that motherfucker's crazy). Antonio Cesaro went BACK to developmental and had an epic series with Sami Zayn, who also tweaked what he already did as El Generico in the indies. Countless other wrestlers whom I have not had the chance to watch before they got to WWE also have gone through the Full Sail/Performance Center wringer and come out as fine wrestlers.

From that standpoint, NXT is an unmitigated success. The main function is to give the wrestlers the tools to succeed on the main roster, not necessarily to give them the gimmicks or the exact characters. Wrestlers who remain on the main roster sometimes go through several gimmick changes through their careers, but the ones who can work, the ones who know how to carry themselves, the ones who can talk into a microphone without sounding like Adam Sandler's "Cajun Man" character from Saturday Night Live will get more than one chance to run the ball.

The stark truth is that not every gimmick, and not every NXT graduate for that matter, is meant to succeed. Some failure has to be expected, and in the face of what that iteration of developmental has produced so far, I would say the cause for panic, both from the front office and the fans, is a bit premature. Full Sail/Performance Center isn't producing sure things at a historic clip yet, but at the same time, a lot of the problems rest with the front office. A school or a pipeline can only provide the raw material. The producers on the other end need to have the right direction. If WWE fails with Rose's current character, then maybe it wasn't meant to be, but if the company can't find anything for Ray Leppan to do, a guy who has busted his ass in developmental to get good, then it's the conglomerate who would have failed him.

And if WWE can't make Emma or especially Paige work, then Vince McMahon and his producers and writers should only look in the mirror to find the blame. Maybe those guys in the front office shouldn't be wondering if NXT is failing them, but if they're failing NXT.