Wednesday, April 22, 2015

NXT's Developmental Quandary

Did Dana Brooke need a step between the PC and NXT?
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Dana Brooke's arrival to NXT television has heralded another arrival of a heated debate. Brooke's talents are, in a word, raw to put it kindly right now. I don't wish to have a debate about her in specific, because she's a wrestler, not a battleground. However, her debut has sparked a legitimate concern over the role of NXT in WWE's current corporate arrangement. Folks like Brandon Stroud have argued that plopping green talent right into NXT with the Charlottes and Finn Bálors of the world is not exactly the best use of the airtime or studio space. Other still argue that NXT at heart is the developmental territory, so green folks like Brooke and Baron Corbin belong on screen just as much as those who've either already leveled up from their awkward phases or who came into the fold already polished. Which side is right in this argument? What is NXT? Well, I will let everyone know as soon as WWE decides what it wants NXT to be, since it is clearly confused given its current state.

Sure, NXT may have started out as the heir to Florida Championship Wrestling, where everyone worked up from their various states of introductory ability level to some polished finish ready to pluck for the main roster. Wrestlers like Bryan Danielson, who entered FCW having trained extensively under two wrestlers who know a thing or two about sports entertainment and already the most versatile worker not already in WWE at the time and didn't really need "developmental" time were few, far between, and not WWE's focus at the time. Basically, the company was taking rawer indie guys (and yes, Tyler Black was pretty raw despite his already extensive indie resumé) or other prospects with minimal experience and coaching them up en masse. The same was pretty much true even at the cusp of the switchover between FCW and NXT, although the process of adding wrestlers ready to contribute to the main roster right from the indies had started.

Say what you want about Cesaro or Kassius Ohno, but when they, as Claudio Castagnoli and Chris Hero, signed from the indies, they didn't exactly need a whole lot of seasoning. Even though they both came with "baggage" according to WWE's SOP (Cesaro's "foreignness" and Ohno's doughy frame), neither one of them really needed to be in developmental. Then, WWE signed El Generico, rechristened him Sami Zayn, and all of a sudden, it had three wrestlers who didn't need to be there working around the territory. Sure, by the time 2013 was over, Ohno was back to being Chris Hero, and Cesaro was already in and around being full-time on the main roster, but something clicked, and the administration saw potential for NXT to be a premium alternative rather than just a developmental territory, and while marquee matches against William Regal had been carrots dangled since the FCW days, the Zayn/Cesaro series saw WWE invest more in this ultra super-indie model that exists right now, and Zayn's booking suggested that he was to be used as the first in what would be a series of plug-and-play indie signees. He didn't have to slog through the CJ Parkers of the world. He went right for Cesaro, who at the time was on the main roster.

It is fitting that the two kicked off ArRRIVAL, which kicked off the current run of NXT where the roster is pretty much a dream premium alternative to the WWE with the actual funding of WWE behind it. Zayn gave rise to Hideo Itami, Finn Bálor, and Kevin Owens, and their arrivals coincided with the comings of age of a whole mess of wrestlers who had gone through the ringer and become ready for prime time in some way. It's the product of almost perfectly-timed nucleation, and now with NXT on the road, the transformation process seems complete, right? Hell, NXT is even welcoming back veterans that would fetch TNA or Lucha Underground contracts at this point in Rhino. If that doesn't scream "premium brand," I don't know what does.

But times come along where WWE totally treats the show as its scratch pad. Dana Brooke is not the only example, and if you ask me, she's clearly not the worst. Looking at the landscape in the post-Network special era, she's clearly better than Baron Corbin, but not as much advanced on the learning curve as either Bull Dempsey or Alexa Bliss were at their debuts. But the real story is that she is not a snowflake. She's not the signal of the coming apocalypse. But she may very well be a symbol for the confused direction WWE is pushing the NXT brand.

It is entirely possible, however, that WWE could be going for a hybrid of the premium brand and developmental territory paradigm, and lord knows a multi-million dollar publicly traded corporation doesn't necessarily need to worry about identity confusion for jerks like me. Brooke, Corbin, and the other not-ready-for-prime-time players don't move the needle in the opposite direction enough to counterbalance what wrestlers like Zayn and Owens do in the positive. But is it healthy for wrestlers who are still in need of development to be thrust into any part of something that is labeled a viable alternative to what the main product is? The argument could be made that both Bliss and Dempsey are ready for the next level; the former is just hitting a logjam of talented women who are behind a logjam of Divas on the main roster and the latter may just be an acquired taste or have reached his final plateau. Like, Dempsey knows what he's doing, but whatever he's doing just isn't working. He's like Adam Rose, who could only do so much growing before getting that next shot.

But when I look at Brooke, but especially Corbin, I see wrestlers who would benefit from more time learning how to work in front of crowds in a place where they can be more than just entrees for wrestlers like Tyler Breeze or Hideo Itami. They aren't bad in a sense that a five year veteran who has learned all the fundamentals is. They don't seem to have gotten all the fundamentals yet and are still not fully baked. I see Corbin's eyes get lost when he's asked to do more than brood or hit his finish. Brooke has only been in one match so far, so judging her is a little trickier. But still, unless she was exhibiting some major first-match jitters, she looked like someone who wished she had her trainers on the outside to ask what she should have done next. If NXT is truly developmental, then sure, they need it.

In fact, I would say the very existence of wrestlers like Breeze, Itami, Zayn, Owens, Bálor, Enzo Amore, Big Cass, Charlotte, Sasha Banks, and the rest in NXT disqualifies it from being called developmental, no matter what WWE says, but again, I'm only one shithead in a sea of voices and opinions that make sense. WWE can do the right thing and further stratify. It has an entire network at its disposal, and if the goal is to have people still learning the ropes getting reps in front of a live crowd on television, why not create a separate developmental brand from Full Sail or what have you and leave NXT as the true premium alternative? WWE's roster is big enough that the main portion won't miss guys going down for tours of the NXT brand from time to time, and if it's willing to bring back Brian Kendrick or Rhino, imagine what other alumni could pop in for a couple shows here and there. While the depth is taken care of elsewhere, wrestlers who clearly aren't done learning yet can get on the job training and a chance to show off their wares in front of a crowd that maybe isn't expecting them to be on a fraction of a level of wrestlers who have been to Japan and worked in front of larger crowds before.

So in reality, the debate is less about folks on the Web having a philosophical debate and more about how WWE is handling its future talent or roster at large. The influx of battle-ready wrestlers isn't going to be stopping either. Magno, Uhaa Nation, and Jessie McKay all point to WWE still wanting wrestlers who have gametime experience, but it's never going to stop looking for diamonds in the rough either. If the company wants those diamonds to get properly polished, then maybe an intermediary step between the Performance Center and NXT is needed, and maybe NXT does need to stop being referred to as a developmental territory and more as a premium alternative to what is offered on the USA Network and SyFy week-to-week.