Motörhead’s Lemmy once sang that “Evolution is a mystery.”
In 2003, Triple H fashioned his own version of the Four Horseman, proclaiming the group as the best of past (Ric Flair), present (himself), and future (Randy Orton and Batista) of professional wrestling. WWE wasn’t just being coy with the statement: In the collapse of 2001, when WCW and ECW fell to the wayside, WWE was free to remake professional wrestling’s past, present, and future in its own image. Such are the spoils of war. However, things didn’t quite go as planned.
For years, the WWF used Memphis promotions as the hub of its developmental system. In the early 2000s, under the direction of Jim Cornette and Danny Davis, Ohio Valley Wrestling took over WWE development. OVW tried to implement a system where trainees would learn to work the WWE system from the ground floor. The athletes would be trained in an environment specially designed to breed the superstars that Vince McMahon believes in: tall, muscular, and charismatic. What WWE proposed is no different than the New Japan Dojo on the surface. Look at the progression of New Japan Young Lions like Yuya Uemura, Ren Narita and Yota Tsuji. A company can develop its own stars in a cradle-to-grave scenario. The Memphis system had already developed stars like The Rock, Kurt Angle, and Mark Henry. Why couldn’t a more streamlined approach work?
In the collapse of 2001, when WCW and ECW fell to the wayside, WWE was free to remake professional wrestling’s past, present, and future in its own image. Such are the spoils of war. However, things didn’t quite go as planned.
Under the direction of Davis and Cornette, Ohio Valley became a success both as a training ground and a regional territory. By the mid-2000s, WWE had already seen a massive return on their investment in Orton and Batista and World Champions John Cena and Brock Lesnar. However, by the time the first OVW class broke into the main event scene, the seems at OVW began to split. Tired of the WWE’s lack of communication and disregard for his promotion, Cornette left after an incident with the future Santino Marella. Paul Heyman, who’s always had a great reputation for working with young talent, was brought in as Cornette’s replacement. However, by the time Heyman came in, the landscape outside of WWE had already shifted.
With WWE’s decrees for big, tall, and musclebound, suddenly, a generation of professional wrestlers found themselves with little option to make the big leagues. Instead, what happened became a revolution that breathed new life into the independent scene, which created a style of its own. Ring of Honor and the digital video revolution changed the entry point cost into making a broadcast-quality presentation. Independent wrestling became incredibly more accessible to fans across the planet. While WWE was fashioning its next-generation in OVW, the indies were crafting a different breed inspired by Mitsuharu Misawa and Ultimo Dragon more than Rock n Wrestling. Eventually, the leading players on the indies became stars on their own. Names like Samoa Joe, Bryan Danielson, Low Ki, and of course CM Punk represented everything WWE wasn’t. Their reputations both in the ring and out became so strong that even WWE couldn’t ignore it. All four would eventually find their way into the WWE developmental system.
When the OVW experiment ended, WWE shifted its training facilities to Florida, first to Tampa and Steve Kiern’s FCW, then to Orlando at the Performance Center and NXT. When WWE announced the NXT initiative, Paul Levesque compared the PC to a Division I college football program. Again, athletes would be trained from the ground up to become WWE stars. One of the more interesting remarks made by Levesque was that the indies were “drying up.” However, the PC talent who made the most significant impact wasn’t the former college football players. It was the talent who trained and learned on the indies. The early days of NXT showcased a plethora of talent that fans watched wrestle in indies like ROH or Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. Eventually, Levesque and WWE began recruiting talent that the system would have ignored a decade ago. Names like Prince Devitt, KENTA, and even Samoa Joe himself became mainstays of the popular NXT brand.
As the popularity of the independents grew, WWE continued to absorb more talent bred outside of their system. At the same time, the prime athletes recruited to join the PC from scratch failed to develop as the next generation of main event talent, with a few notable exceptions. As NXT grew in popularity, it became a big-budget super indy rather than a developmental system. NXT signed more and more talent in their mid-30s, which gave spotlights to talented veterans who had gone largely ignored by the mainstream. However, the purpose of NXT was to develop WWE stars, and many of those NXT call-ups immediately found a different environment. Ricochet was a major indy star, but on main roster WWE TV, he’s a bit player. Elias was a mid-card player in NXT but found greater success under Vince McMahon’s purview. This was creating another set of issues in WWE. Many of the people hired to work NXT had no path to success in WWE.
The developmental system was not developing talent that Vince McMahon deemed acceptable. The arrival of All Elite Wrestling and their success by presenting indy wrestling with a big presentation proved another issue. When NXT failed to stop AEW, the tone and purpose of the developmental system had to change. WWE has gone back to their recruiting edicts of a generation ago. Big, tall, and muscular athletes are again what the system desires. They aren’t in the business of developing pro wrestlers. They are trying to create larger-than-life superstars.
When asked about potentially going to AEW, Olympic Gold Medalist Gable Steveson said “I’ve never been approached by AEW. I’ve never wanted to reach out to AEW. My goal is to get to WWE and be a superstar . . . I want the biggest organizations that are going to put forth my name in a respectful way, and I know AEW can do its job, but I’ve never been approached. We’ll see if they approach me, but if not, I’ll move on and just go to my next day.”
This initiative is different from the previous generation because WWE has controlled the mainstream for the past twenty years. Athletes like Steveson see the bright lights of WWE and potential superstardom. He isn’t interested in becoming a traditional pro wrestler. If and when he signs with WWE, he may find something that he truly loves and follow in the path of Kurt Angle. Or he may not. WWE’s developmental system should be based around nurturing people like Steveson because that’s what Vince McMahon believes in. That’s what they want, and that’s who they will back.
This past week, WWE announced a new crop of PC talent, including Steveson’s older brother, Bobby. Among the talent only two, Joseph Fatu and Ben Buchanan have independent wrestling experience. Both men are also the son’s of former WWE talent. The others are representative of the type of prospects that WWE wants. Big, tall, athletic and raw. WWE can shape these talents into the type of stars that McMahon and company are more likely to push. If the goal is to create wrestlers who can main event Wrestlemania is better for the company to mimic the Roman Reigns path rather than constantly fight against their corporate belief structure and their fans to push talent from the independents that the company brass doesn’t believe in.
Meanwhile, athletes who love pro wrestling have a feeder system that is healthier than ever before. There is more money and interest in pro wrestling outside of WWE than at any point in the past twenty years. A pro wrestler doesn’t need WWE to develop and find success. The evolution of the next generation of talent is in a fascinating place.