The Kids are All Right

How a new and hungry breed of talent got the WWE Network off to a great start with a head turning show

Not too long ago, on the Place To Be Podcast, I was able to fill in for Jordan Duncan on his signature Half-Baked Ideas segment and I throw in a few of my own. Two of them were so-so, but my third pitch was one that I was passionately sure about: A supercard for WWE’s NXT developmental promotion. At the onset, NXT was formed in 2010 as a training ground for incoming stars, but it was under the goofball genre of game show tactics, inconsequential lame angles, and matches so short and forgettable that you forgot who was even on the show. The interaction between mentors and guys like Titus O’Neil, Kaval, and Derrick Bateman became so unwatchable at times that you were surprised after a full year that WWE was still taping this horror show in front of live arenas, leaving the new kids out there to sink in the spotlight.

 But it was in early 2012, after NXT was mercifully yanked from the weekly national programming, that the new faces of the WWE found a home. After a reshuffling of the company’s developmental strategy spearheaded by company C.O.O. Triple H, Florida Championship Wrestling was eventually taken apart in favor of a new venue in Orlando that would house grassroots programming for these prospects. That was at Full Sail University, an entertainment-based, for-profit school, where NXT was reborn. The only thing even remotely similar to the previous incarnations of NXT was the name and the fact that you saw a lot of fresh, undiscovered talents on the show. However, instead of throwing these wrestlers to the proverbial wolves with nothing to do in years past, NXT would allow the wrestlers to perform comfortably in the cozy but hi-tech confines of Full Sail. The move also was a welcome change from the older fashioned, fan-mute response you were used to seeing on Florida Championship Wrestling and, before that, Ohio Valley Wrestling in Louisville, KY. Triple H had finally found a perfect blend of relieving his prospects of the pressure while revitalizing the importance of the program they were assigned to perform for.

Thanks to becoming more ambitious and wise in signing independent talents to WWE contracts in 2011, NXT and its freshly minted set-up got off to a hot start the moment it was relaunched. Before the Shield became the hounds of justice, Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins had already become top individual stars on the show before being called up (Rollins was actually the first official NXT Champion). Before he was scaring all the buzzards on Raw, Bray Wyatt and his sick family clan had already run rampant on NXT with fascinating feuds against every hero they could find. Before becoming Intercontinental Champion, Big E. Langston made his name with the fans at Full Sail with his “Five Count” catchphrase and shtick. By the time 2012 had ended, NXT was considered by many as WWE’s best overall show, to the surprise of those who last remembered as the carnie act where Goldust tried to marry Aksana. Even after a litany of major league call-ups in late 2012, NXT was still stringing along a bevy of solid shows with at least one good to solid match from the men and women.

The reason I had pined so rigorously for NXT to put on its own pay-per-view or singular event was simple. Although the steady improvement of WWE’s developmental program under Triple H was earning rave reviews, it was still going on under the restrictions of a paid account on Hulu Plus or on local television in the Orlando area. For a promotion to be that consistently good and comfortable in its own skin like NXT was, yet being largely blocked from more than 80 percent of the WWE’s viewership seemed like a missed opportunity in the making. FCW and OVW had their fair shares of future great ones grace their local stomping grounds, but the only shows considered “big” in those days were outdoors shows at theme park resorts or double-billings during the summertime. NXT started to perfect an episodic format for their evolving roster under their new direction, but it was hard to pinpoint one match or one show that you could highly recommend to fans. I was dying to be able to tell fans, “You see?! This is what NXT is made of, and you have really been missing out if you ignored it.” Last night, I finally found that show.

When the WWE Network was officially announced, it did not take long to materialize a pivotal program for the NXT talents to debut the show’s programming, which will air weekly on the network’s on demand digital platform. It was going to be a WrestleMania of sorts for the future of the WWE over a month before the actual WrestleMania in New Orleans. As Triple H and his wife Stephanie McMahon put on even more hats as lead executives for WWE and as the on-air leaders of The Authority, you knew it would not be long before The Game took what many consider his personal passion project in NXT and give them their ultimate battle cry. Merely days after the Network announcement was made, Triple H announced that NXT Arrival (or arRIVAL for marketing geeks), a two-hour live special at Full Sail University would air in the first week of the Network’s launch. It would turn out to be the first ever live two-hour event aired on the WWE Network, and as anticipation for the Network grew, so did word of mouth about what the NXT supercard had to offer. This came only months after opening a state-of-the-art Performance Center in Orlando that would make it easier than ever to mold the next WWE superstar under the company’s lock and key. If a group of burgeoning talents were ever going to ready for their national close-up, their time was now.

It might seem counterproductive on paper to take a crop of young, unproven wrestlers who are not used to heavy expectations and asking them to put on the show of a lifetime, the same way Paul Heyman did when he lectured his ECW guys right before their first ever pay-per-view event Barely Legal ’97. I do not know for sure if Triple H, Stephanie McMahon, Shawn Michaels, or Bret Hart had to rally the troops to put on a helluva show the way the Paul did that night, but judging by the results from last night’s NXT Arrival show, it would not shock me if they did. After a spectacularly brief intro by Triple H to kick the show off, the first match up was one that had gained a lot of momentum over the past few months. Antonio Cesaro (now just “Cesaro”), who had spent lots of time previously at NXT, had seemed to meet his match in the incredibly agile Arabian Canadian Sami Zayn. These two had a pretty rich history on the indy scene when Zayn was the masked El Generico and Cesaro was Claudio Castagnoli, but it was this match to settle their year-long feud at NXT that blew everyone away.

Zayn and Cesaro had already had a two-out-of-three falls match won by Cesaro last year that had garnered votes by many as WWE’s Match of the Year. Unbelievably, right before the company’s biggest show of the year, we may have seen a match on this show between the two that was better than anything you will see at WrestleMania. After nearly 20 minutes of hard-hitting, breathtaking action, Cesaro finally beat Zayn with the Neutralizer to the squealing delight of the Full Sail crowd (and names watching at the arena like John Cena and Ric Flair). Cesaro’s star is already on the upward motion in WWE, but after this match and the 2/3 falls match that has been played on WWE Network multiple times already, Sami Zayn is a name we will be very familiar with very soon. We have seen great matches on the developmental side like Ambrose vs. William Regal and Daniel Bryan vs. Kaval, but never a match as complete and awe-inspiring to fans of wrestling of any kind as this one was.

We got a glance at some of the more refined characters populating NXT like the demonically-inclined tag team the Ascension, which comprises of Conor O’Brien and Ross Victor. Once a FCW sparkplug named Mike Dalton, Tyler Breeze is a selfie-taking Zoolander clone. My feed froze out before I could see him in action (well Rusev coming out to clean house), but his entrance is so entertainingly self-absorbed that you cannot help but appreciate the effort the young man puts into his gimmick. We have already seen him in a cameo at the Royal Rumble, but the Bulgarian brute Alexander Rusev has been making noise as a super heavyweight who dominates his opponents at will. We did not even get to see the ultra-grungy Corey Graves, who might be the best promo guy NXT has right now, or Solomon Crowe, a cruiserweight who has taken on the role of a deviant computer hacker. Those men will all get their turn on the weekly NXT shows, but Arrival was a perfect place for Stephanie to personally introduce the two best women in the promotion: The British champion Paige and the Australian challenger Emma. Emma has gained a following at Full Sail for her unconventional dance methods, but it was insightful to see her shed her happy-go-lucky character and bend Paige like a pretzel with a series of submission maneuvers during her physically punishing match. Paige got Emma to tap out to a unique submission hold of her own, but in the case of these two, both of them won me over.

The main event was a ladder match for the NXT Championship, and who better than Triple H’s best friend and inventor of the ladder match, Shawn Michaels, to introduce the two combatants? One was defending champion Bo Dallas, who debuted at the Royal Rumble last year and is known by many as Bray Wyatt’s real-life brother. Bo’s title reign has been unique because of how negatively he is received while wearing a shit-eating grin and assuring that he is the company’s hero. Imagine if John Cena went out of his way to be a two-timing douchebag as the company guy, and you get Bo Dallas at NXT. It also doesn’t hurt that Bo is a pretty good wrestler already. His challenger was Adrian Neville, a British man who is so good in the air that he has been nicknamed “The Man That Gravity Forgot”. Think of a British, slightly more muscular Rob Van Dam, and Neville is your guy. Their ladder match was the main event, and they pulled out all the stops with some incredibly brutal punishment between the ladders and rapid fire exchanges. Neville hit his flawless Red Arrow (a corkscrew shooting star press) on Bo Dallas, who was laying on a ladder, allowing enough time for Neville to climb the ladder and become the face of NXT at the end of, at this point, the biggest show of his career. 

Once the show faded from my Network stream, I could not help but feel proud of what NXT had to offer to the WWE fans who were watching them for the first time, and also being pretty amazed that they were capable of delivering so much in such a tight window of chance. It is too early to say if one fantastic show like Arrival was will pay dividends for prospects like Sami Zayn or Adrian Neville or Paige when it comes to getting on a fast track to the big time, but the most important thing was the fact that the only thing people were complaining about after the show ended was that fact that didn’t get a chance to watch all of it due to bad live feeds. When MTV first launched with its iconic moon man in August of 1981, the biggest hits and most popular tunes on repeat were acts like Michael Jackson, Van Halen, Tom Petty, and Pat Benatar. But what most historians remember the most is that the very first music video that ever aired on MTV was the appropriately themed “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. We are always told that we only get one chance to make a first impression. When it comes to NXT and their jaw-dropping Arrival to the big stage, they made that first impression more than worthwhile.