Sitting inside the BMO Harris Bradley Center, I silently waited to see who would be facing off against Curtis Axel, an intentionally delusional wannabe Hulk Hogan. The lights all but went out and some electronic rock reminiscent of early 2000s movie hacking-scene montages began playing from the speakers. A short British man with long, stringy hair and purple tights came out from the backstage area and raised his arms above his head, touching his two index fingers together. I began to furiously cheer as loud as I could, and tapped my friend next to me, ecstatically saying over and over again, “It’s Adrian Neville!” I had, in the parlance of WWE fandom, marked out.
That house show in Milwaukee cemented my new life as a professional wrestling fan, and I haven’t once looked back. I got a subscription to the WWE Network, bought tickets to July’s Smackdown taping at that same Bradley Center, subscribed to wrestling podcasts, and started reading wrestling subreddits daily. I plan on having some friends over for every pay-per-view event, and throwing big parties for each Wrestlemania. I’ll slowly accrue more T-shirts and other merchandise. And I’ll watch Monday night’s three hour Raw every week (with the help of the DVR).
That is, until I get disillusioned by the WWE’s product. You see, most wrestling fans start out as kids, not 26 year old grad students. By the time they reach my age, most fans critique storylines and character choices more than they enjoy what’s happening. WWE Creative, the team responsible for setting up feuds and writing the shows, is constantly berated for idiotic stories, ruining once great stories, or squandering potential stories. Take John Cena for instance. The internal logic of WWE says that he is the ultimate good guy who Never Give(s) Up and fights for what’s right using Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect. Yet at every show he does, the crowd is decisively split in their chants. The kids cheer, “Let’s Go Cena,” while the adults boo in return, “Cena Sucks.” Cena is ostensibly the face of WWE, but the older portions of the fan base are fed up with Cena and his white-bread stale sameness. They want more interesting storylines, unique fighting styles, and, above all, new characters to cheer for.
Luckily, WWE has struck gold with the current iteration of its developmental division, NXT. The main roster of Superstars and Divas travels the country doing house shows like the one I saw and filming five hours of TV programming each week. The wrestlers of NXT, on the other hand, stay put just outside Orlando, FL to tape a one hour show exclusively for the WWE Network that airs every Wednesday. Raw is extremely bloated because of its three hour runtime, and Smackdown very rarely advances any storylines, so it ends up being a two hour “Previously On” promo for Raw. There’s still wrestling, which is fun, and the talking segments are always entertaining even when they’re awful. But NXT streamlines the whole process so every single thing that’s shown is important to the individual and overarching stories being told. I look forward to watching NXT much more than both Raw and Smackdown, and have yet to be disappointed with any of the story decisions or character arcs.
Most other wrestling fans would also say NXT is the best show WWE has to offer right now, and certainly it’s the main reason to subscribe to the Network. I think the intimate nature of the NXT tapings helps cultivate a more fervent following among viewers. The audiences are small, the entrance ramp isn’t long, and everything feels very close together in a friendly rather than claustrophobic way. For main roster shows, the audiences fill large arenas, the entrance ramp and Titantron are spatially and aesthetically displaced from the ring, and everything feels spread out. This still gives off a sense of grandiosity that suits the spectacle that is WWE, and seeing thousands of fans cheer and freak out is exciting. NXT, though, makes you feel like your privy to an exclusive club, and the wrestlers are fellow members rather than larger than life figures seen from afar. It took me a while to figure out which main roster wrestlers I like and don’t care for, but I knew almost immediately how I felt about each NXT character.
Because of this intimacy and the fact that NXT is basically WWE’s minor league, the wrestlers have all taken a special place in my fandom akin to a favorite character actor or little known band. They’re this super entertaining individual that most people haven’t heard of yet, but once they hit the big time, I’ll be there saying I knew them before they were famous. This kind of feeling spurred on my intense reaction to Adrian Neville (now just Neville on the main roster) at that house show, and has since given me reason to cheer on the primary NXT heel (i.e. bad guy) Kevin Owens now that he’s feuding on the main roster with John Cena. Also, it doesn’t hurt that Neville can perform some of the most awesome in-ring maneuvers I’ve seen so far, including his finishing move in which he jumps forward off the top rope while flipping backwards and spinning around mid-air before landing on his opponent. No matter how many times I watch him pull it off, it never stops being cool.
The best part of NXT, though, is the women’s division. While the main shows have Divas matches seemingly because they have to, NXT gives actual weight and nuance to the women’s storylines.* NXT has multiple women’s feuds, and some that don’t involve the championship at all, which is the only guiding motivation for main roster Divas. While the main roster only seems to give time to a maximum of four Divas at a time, NXT currently has seven women that have an important role on the show. NXT women’s matches have headlined shows in the past and been the best part of multiple major events (the equivalent of WWE pay-per-views). Divas matches are typically the shortest and least emphasized part of any main roster show. The NXT women’s division proves that pro wrestling doesn’t have to exclusively focus on the men to please the crowd. Most fans will appreciate anything as long as the wrestling is fun to watch and the stories ring true. Misogyny will no doubt always be a part of the WWE, and the commentators on NXT still talk about the women’s beauty as a defining characteristic, but what has been cultivated with the women’s division is a great step forward.
I also really enjoy the NXT women’s matches because my favorite wrestler in the whole company is Bayley, the perpetually upbeat and brightly clad babyface (i.e. good guy). I was in Bayley’s corner as soon as I first saw her entrance to the ring, which you can check out below. She oozes passion and positivity, and I hold those traits in high regard. Like the rest of the women’s division, she has great in-ring skills, and matches up well against anyone. Plus, busting out her High Ten at a party is really fun.
I used to think pro wrestling was a joke, albeit one that I was mildly curious about. I’ve now learned that anyone who says wrestling is fake or tries to compare it to other sports has no idea what they’re talking about. They look at the façade of wrestling and think that because the outcomes are predetermined, it’s not worth watching. The point is not that there are writers picking winners or that the wrestlers pull punches; these things are also true for television shows, movies, and comic books. The point is to see a story well told that happens to take place inside a ring. Half the fun involves guessing who WWE is going to let win so you can figure out that wrestler’s character arc moving forward. The actual wrestling can be exciting as hell, too. So I’m very glad to have found wrestling when I did, during this high point of NXT. And if you’ve ever thought wrestling looked interesting, even ironically, now is the time to investigate.
*: The NXT wrestlers apparently have to earn the title of Superstar or Diva by being “called up” to the main roster, hence the difference between women’s division and Divas.