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Beginning the NXT Chapter: A glimpse ahead before Stand & Deliver

With WWE’s announcement that NXT programming will move from Wednesday to Tuesday evenings on the USA Network, it officially ended the “Wednesday Night Wars” television programming battle between the sometimes-developmental, sometimes-third major brand and pro wrestling cronyism startup, All Elite Wrestling.

In October, as AEW launched Dynamite on TNT. WWE countered with securing a television deal for WWE NXT, which to that point had been a WWE Network exclusive. With both running at the same time, it truly was the wrestling fan who benefited, as both companies did their best to outdo each other week after week. Though if WWE were handily winning the battle on a weekly basis, I might not be eulogizing it so soon. 

To call it a war is a bit unfair to NXT. Barring a few exceptions, AEW defeated NXT in head-to-head ratings almost every single week. WWE counted on bringing in big stars like Sasha Banks to create a buzz, but they never seized any momentum. The loss of the WWE Performance Center as their unique, intimate setting which made 400 people seem like 4,000 as the pandemic raged on, did the show no favors. WWE tried adding the Thunderdome LED set to the Capitol Wrestling Center, where NXT has been filmed since October 2020, harmonizing it with all other WWE main roster programming. It certainly hasn’t hurt the show, but its overall effectiveness seems moot compared with AEW’s approach of social distancing while having wrestlers cheer at ringside. 

The sudden competition and decision to use NXT as counter-programming led to the show’s main issue: its identity crisis. This has a lot to do with whether NXT would be a full-fledged third brand under the WWE banner, or if it would remain the developmental territory it was originally pitched as. If the first pay-per-view following WWE NXT’s USA Network debut is any indication, it sure seemed like they had big plans. Survivor Series 2019 saw NXT sweep the majority of the brand-versus-brand matchups, with Shayna Baszler earning the biggest win of her career after submitting SmackDown Women’s champion, Bayley, in a triple threat match that also featured her eventual WrestleMania 36 opponent, RAW Women’s champ Becky Lynch. 

Flash-forward to this weekend’s two-night NXT Takeover: Stand & Deliver event, which, for all intents and purposes, appears to be their WrestleMania equivalent: While the card is filled with all kinds of intriguing matchups, it seems the identity issues that plague the brand have bled into its booking.

For instance, the main event for the NXT Championship, which seems like a very traditional NXT show with a huge WWE main event stapled to the top of it: Finn Balor defends against Karrion Kross in a match I would say we will see on a proper WrestleMania some day. In fact, we could just go ahead and put it on this year’s WrestleMania, because if NXT is reverting back to more of a developmental territory, neither of these guys have much left to do there. Kross was robbed of his initial NXT title run following an injury, and Balor won the vacated title, so an eventual clash between the two was inevitable. 

When NXT went to Wednesday nights, Balor was again a big fish in a small pond, but I believe he found his real WWE persona while away. It’s who we wanted to see when he arrived on Monday nights in 2016: No more gimmicky Demon character, no more “smiling good guy who’s just happy to be here.” Instead, we got Prince f’n’ Devitt filtered through a WWE lens. He found himself, and appears truly comfortable in his own skin. I think the unfinished business with his original Universal Title run ending as it did means we will see Finn back on the red or blue brands before the end of the year.

Having said all that, I think who is most ready to go up to the major leagues happens to be Karrion Kross. What is this guy missing? He has the look. He has a cool entrance. He has a terrifying submission finish. He has a beautiful valet in Scarlett, who complements Kross to no end. If this guy isn’t ready for the big time, what’s left? He seems capable of delivering in main event spots, winning his first challenge for the NXT title from Keith Lee. 

When the two guys at the top of your developmental brand seem destined for bigger things, you cast your eyes to the rest of the card to see who could be in this spot next year. In the case of Kyle O’Reilly vs. Adam Cole, you have a little of both columns. There is nothing left for Adam Cole in NXT. It’s like going back to school for another doctorate; at some point, you just need to see how it’s going to work in the real world. With O’Reilly, however, we have the next big babyface star on the rise for NXT. I’m of the opinion that with Kyle O’Reilly chasing, NXT is going to naturally have more of a developmental feel. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. 

I’m a huge Kyle O’Reilly fan, even before his Undisputed Era days, wrestling in Ring of Honor and New Japan. He is just such a great performer on so many levels. Now, consider how beloved O’Reilly would be as a singles babyface star to the old school Performance Center Full Sail 400. He would be a bit of a throwback to a time when the promotion was mainly developmental and the product was probably as good as it ever was. Isn’t that what we really want from NXT? To go back to when it was really, really good and the Takeover shows were usually among the top 5 or 6 shows WWE promoted all year? 

While I feel like there’s still a lot that Io Shirai could do as NXT Women’s champion, I get kind of the same feeling when I look at her upcoming defense against Raquel Gonzalez. Almost anyone I’ve spoken to who watches NXT feels I am crazy for this, but I find myself really wondering what people see in Gonzalez that most people believe she’ll find a way to win the championship. This seems like it will be in the main event spot for night one and seeing Gonzalez raise the newly won NXT title at the end of it seems like another throwback. Raquel would seem out of place among the current crop of WWE women’s champions to such a degree, it would signal they’re going to move more people up while they see what they have with this new star on top. 

The night one gauntlet featuring Leon Ruff vs. Isaiah “Swerve” Scott vs. Bronson Reed vs. Cameron Grimes vs. Dexter Lumis vs. LA Knight to determine who will face Johnny Gargano on night two is the kind of booking you can do with two nights of the same show. In all honesty? Not a fan, as the card still feels incomplete when looking at who will face Gargano. It’s hard to get excited about a to-be-determined opponent. Gargano can work magic, sure, but the Adam Cole Syndrome of having been there and done that in NXT also tempers the excitement. 

In what could be the most anticipated matchup of the entire WrestleMania weekend, WWE or otherwise, WWE UK Champion WALTER will defend against Tommaso Ciampa, the same week WALTER’s title reign eclipsed two years. While COVID-19 has certainly extended the reigns of both UK champions by a considerable margin, WALTER is every bit the attraction he is presented as, and has not disappointed American audiences to this point (Forget that I mentioned Survivor Series 2019 in this article.) The level of brutality here could be borderline-uncomfortable given that most of the audience will be familiar with Ciampa’s injury history, plus that WALTER is a machine designed to kill you with chops. 

Lastly, and continuing with the theme of next chapters, the interim WWE Cruiserwight Champion, Santos Escobar, will face (regular? original?) WWE Cruiserweight Champion, Jordan Devlin in a ladder match. Devlin had been away from the company during the pandemic, but also found himself involved in the #SpeakingOut movement from early last year, weathering allegations of misconduct, but ultimately keeping his job. Like the main event, this was inevitable once it became clear Devlin was going to remain with WWE and would eventually return. 

A lot of NXT fans do not want to see the promotion take a step back, but it may ultimately serve them to just go back to minding their own business on Tuesdays. With a renewed focus on building new stars, NXT can return to what it did best. This is a retreat, but not a surrender. NXT has a chance to return to its roots, and this show could be the start of bigger things to come.

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