As a brand dedicated to developing wrestling talent, there’s more than a little irony in NXT itself evolving and flourishing beyond all expectations, only to be punished for it.
Premiering in 2010 as a hybrid wrestling/reality game show for aspiring Superstars, the original NXT soon devolved into a farce that announcers openly mocked, and that SyFy booted off television. After being rebooted as a straightforward developmental territory, it re-surfaced in 2014 on the new WWE Network, where it quickly became a feature attraction. For the next five years, interest grew and grew. Live specials began packing full-sized venues across the US, Canada, and even the UK. On pay-per-view weekends, Takeover events consistently outshined their main-roster counterparts.
Like an oasis in the sports-entertainment desert, NXT featured compelling feuds and character arcs, producing all-time classic matches like Zayn-Neville, Bayley-Sasha, and Gargano-Ciampa. Its tag team and women’s divisions were among the best on the planet. World-class talent flocked to the promotion, made a name for themselves in front of the new audience, and moved on before getting stale.
Despite a reputation as a brand for the hardcore fan, it was much easier to watch NXT’s 60-minute show at one’s convenience than to dedicate five hours a week in front of a TV keeping up with Raw and Smackdown. With only a few days of taping per month, NXT favored long-term storytelling over the week-to-week or even hour-to-hour booking of the main shows.
And perhaps best of all, Vince McMahon didn’t seem to care about or even watch it. This occasionally backfired, like when he randomly booked NXT Women’s champion Charlotte to lose on Raw in under two minutes…
…or when he called up Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa as a team just before the planned final payoff to their intensely personal, two-year-long feud.
And whenever WWE’s main shows got so bad they needed to apologize, like in the run-up to the Diva’s Revolution or Constable Corbin-era Raw, Vince would panic and raid NXT talent to freshen things up. But for the most part, NXT existed in its own universe, protected as Triple H’s pet project.
A site like WrestleCrap, dedicated to the worst of wrestling, rarely gets a chance to discuss NXT in its classic incarnation. While there has been plenty to ridicule on Raw and Smackdown over the past eight years, NXT has yielded only one induction on this website since its Network premiere.
Killing the Black-and-Golden Goose
So when it came time to decide the worst of the worst of 2021, how did a majority of WrestleCrap readers end up picking NXT? Not just a gimmick or an angle or a match, but the entire brand?
Well, back in 2019, All Elite Wrestling sprang up. When TNT gave AEW two hours on Wednesday nights for its Dynamite program, Vince McMahon tried to squash the new promotion before it could gain a following.
Inking a deal with the USA Network for little more than the sum of production costs, WWE transformed NXT from a one-hour, pre-taped Network program to a two-hour, live cable show. No longer could WWE Network subscribers watch it on their own time, as new episodes wouldn’t be available on demand until weeks after their premiere.
NXT’s first two weeks on USA ran unopposed, but once AEW premiered, fans would have to pick a side. After all, they couldn’t watch them both…
…unless they knew how to operate a DVR, which all but the oldest of viewers did. Once irrelevant to NXT and its viewers, the show’s viewership numbers were now paramount to winning the weekly pissing contest with AEW. Officially, WWE refused to acknowledge AEW as competition — which is smart, considering AEW nearly always won, beating out NXT in both total viewers and the key 18-49 demographic.
To turn the tide, WWE promoted the hell out of NXT. The black-and-gold brand led an invasion of Raw and Smackdown and beat them in most of Survivor Series’ inter-brand matches. And still, more people kept watching AEW on Wednesdays.
In April of 2021, after 18 months on USA, the cable network moved NXT to Tuesday nights, ending the competition-that-officially-wasn’t. Vince McMahon had never before suffered such an indignity; even when WCW Nitro was beating Raw every week, USA didn’t move it to Tuesdays. Blaming Triple H for NXT’s failure in the Wednesday Night Wars, Vince McMahon decided to oversee the brand himself, along with Bruce Prichard.
WWE thus announced an overhaul of NXT, re-branding the show as NXT 2.0 (which should really be 3.0, as we’ve seen). Gone was the black-and-gold color scheme; in its place was a multi-colored paint-splattered logo that vexed graphic designers.
And gone was Samoa Joe, who forfeited his newly-won NXT title when a routine physical exam found that he was 42 years old. With NXT 2.0, WWE hoped to attract a younger audience — younger than the average viewer of Raw, Smackdown, and especially the old NXT.
McMahon now sought to bring NXT back to its developmental roots, focusing not on putting on great matches but on building future Wrestlemania main-eventers from scratch. Unlike every developmental territory in history, however, NXT 2.0 would showcase these future Wrestlemania main-eventers as inexperienced rookies…
…on a major cable network.
What could go wrong?
It’s Hoss Time!
By “future Wrestlemania main-eventers,” Vince McMahon of course means tall guys. From day one of NXT 2.0, WWE has flooded the show with as many tall guys as possible. Inexperience aside, if you tower over the NXT regulars (but aren’t huge enough to jump straight to the main roster like Omos or Azeez), you get on the show.
That’s why charisma vacuum Von Wagner got put in the four-way NXT title match simply by showing up and being 6’5”.
He was soon paired with NXT vet Kyle O’Reilly, who made the Minnesota native look like the Great Lakes Khali.
That same night, NXT Breakout tournament winner Carmelo Hayes suddenly remembered his lifelong friend, Trick Williams (6’4”, 0-0).
Joe Gacy mentors Harland, the 6’4” college football standout entering NXT 2.0 with a perfect in-ring record to match Trick’s.
Rookie Odyssey Jones and 13-year vet Duke Hudson are each billed as 6’5, while another 6’5” hoss named Brooks Jensen…
…teams with an even bigger hoss in Josh Briggs, billed at 6’8”. Briggs already made waves weeks before NXT 2.0 with this one-of-a-kind promo on 205 Live:
By now, the “205” in 205 Live is merely a suggestion, serving as NXT’s B show and throwing weight limits out the window. After all, with NXT 2.0 becoming the land of the giants, who needs a cruiserweight TV show? Or for that matter, a cruiserweight title, which was retired at the start of 2022?
Youth-anizing the Women’s Division
While NXT 2.0’s men are judged by such attributes as size, height, and bigness…
…what matters for its women is youth. For John Laurinaitis (58), Bruce Prichard (59), and Vince McMahon (76), this goes hand-in-hand with another essential quality, hotness. To that end, WWE now hires only women 25 or younger as a policy.
That could explain why Mercedes Martinez (40) was future-endeavored in August, followed months later by Mia Yim (32) and Ember Moon (33).
Taking their place were the likes of Lash Legend (24) and Tiffany Stratton (21), neither of whom had ever wrestled a match before appearing on TV.
Weeks into the re-brand, Cora Jade (20) defeated Franky Monet (37) in Monet’s final match. The next month, she and stablemate Jessi Kamea (32) got (Logan’s) run right out of the company.
In case the symbolism of NXT’s youngest woman retiring its oldest woman wasn’t clear enough, the 1000-year old Mei Ying was repackaged as a sleepy toddler in a onesie.
Mandy Rose (31) did beat the slightly younger Raquel González for the NXT title, but that’s likely down to her gimmick of being really good-looking, which WWE has been heavily invested in since her debut.
“Say ‘What’ one more time if you don’t think I’m the sexiest woman alive”, Mandy yells to own her hecklers (although it really should be, “…if you do think I’m the sexiest woman alive”).
While Mandy is safe for now, things aren’t looking up for Dakota Kai (32), whom Cora Jade recently called “Mom”.
The new focus on youth isn’t just limited to the women wrestlers; leading up to the re-brand, the Performance Center trainers, who never even appear on the show, were advised to look young for Vince McMahon. That meant cutting their hair and dyeing their beards. Meanwhile, Vince himself was on TV every week looking like Igor Bogdanoff’s corpse.
The Green Brand
But with all these young rookies come rookie mistakes. Some are harmless, like this botched handspring corner splash by Tiffany Stratton…
…or these Trick William punches that are just a little too safe.
Lash Legend’s elbow drops became legendary for all the wrong reasons…
…as did her entire match with Sarray on 205 Live.
Fortunately, 205 Live is pre-taped (go figure), allowing many of the worst spots to be edited before airing.
Even NXT 2.0’s undisputed star, Bron Breakker, isn’t immune to falling flat on his face in the biggest match of his young career.
It’s bad enough to make these mistakes in front of a mass audience…
…but some of these screw-ups are downright dangerous. Jacy Jayne may have three years experience under her belt, but her suicide dive demonstrates just what can go wrong with that move.
Jayne had to leave the match for medical evaluation…
…but luckily, as Wade Barrett grudgingly admitted, the prize at stake was completely useless anyway.
When the newcomers aren’t injuring themselves, they’re risking injury to others. Here, Wes Lee and Marcel Barthel jumped into a veritable Red Sea of green hosses…
…which parted in two (Exodus 14:21-22).
In a saner world, WWE would send them all to 205 Live, wrestling’s answer to the film Naked Lunch.
How do you do, fellow members of the NXT Universe?
Believe it or not, NXT 2.0’s ratings haven’t improved since the re-brand, despite a lack of competition on Tuesday nights. Even its 18-49 viewership hovers in the low-to-mid 0.1s. Gen Z’ers and Millennials just aren’t responding to what WWE feels are popular trends among young people. These include:
Racking up likes with the Paul brothers’ Australian cousin, Grayson Waller…
…not-skateboarding with Cora Jade…
…doing mukbangs with Ikemen Jiro…
…watching Ikemen Jiro take a giant s**t…
…and spilling the tea with a fake studio audience with Lash Legend.
There’s also a slew of not-so-fresh gimmicks like The Gambler…
…and The Full-Blooded Italian.
“Jacket Time” consists of Ikemen Jiro, who wears a jacket…
…and Kushida, who famously likes Back to the Future (and wears a jacket). This name comes after Kushida rejected his partner’s first suggestion, “The Japanese Japanese”.
Perhaps the most boring personae belong to Briggs & Jensen, two tough country boys who drink beer as they play horseshoes and cornhole.
And no matter how hard WWE pushes him, there aren’t enough logs and giant tires in the world to get fans to care about Brow Ridge Holland over here.
But the absolute dirt-worst of NXT 2.0 characters is Joe Gacy. A transparent dig at the “progressive left”, Gacy peppers his promos with SJW jargon like “micro-aggressions”, “privilege”, and “triggered”. And, like a woke Mr. Backlund, he doesn’t appear to understand what any of those words mean.
After losing his first match, Gacy celebrated that he had not been “canceled”. He refers to his followers as his “snowflakes”, not realizing that’s an insult.
“This ring is our safe space”, he declares before wrestling his opponents in an absolutely ordinary style.
Gacy claims to speak for the young generation, but comes off like a Millennial’s guidance counselor….
…advocating “conflict resolution” with an Office 95 font.
And rather than complain about his opponents violating his boundaries and touching him without his consent as one might expect…
…Woke Joe is instead the one hugging his adversaries and caressing strangers’ faces willy-nilly.
Further proving that WWE Creative is off the mark by decades in its satire, Gacy constantly flashes the peace sign…
…and sports this spaced-out expression that just begs viewers to change the channel.
Josh Briggs was right about this guy.
Going to a Better Place
As for the longer-tenured wrestlers of NXT, many have left not just the brand but the whole company (sometimes voluntarily).
Johnny Gargano let his contract expire and is rumored to be AEW-bound. Kyle O’Reilly saw the writing on the wall and jumped to AEW, joining stablemate Bobby Fish…
…and Adam Cole, who left to work for the competition rather than ascend to the main roster. It’s hard to say Cole made the wrong choice, either, based on the subsequent releases of Keith Lee and Karrion Kross, two other recent NXT champions called up to Raw. Kross’s call-up was especially futile, losing his debut to Jeff Hardy in two minutes while NXT champ…
…before getting repackaged as a gladiator, pulled off TV, and released — all in less than four months’ time. In 2021, NXT wrestlers got “called up to the main roster” in much the same way one’s childhood pets “went to live on a farm” when they got sick.
Even the younger holdovers from the black-and-gold NXT fell victim to WWE’s house-cleaning. Isaiah “Swerve” Scott and his popular Hit Row faction, which debuted in May, were drafted to Smackdown shortly into the NXT 2.0 rebrand.
Sounds like a resounding success for the developmental brand, right? Well, not two weeks after debuting on the main roster, WWE released B-Fab, feeling that Hit Row could do just fine without her.
As if to acknowledge their error in judgment, WWE released the rest of the faction later that month.
This all bodes poorly for Tommaso Ciampa and Pete Dunne, currently competing in dark matches on Smackdown and awaiting their main roster call-ups. At least they’ll get to see their old dogs again.
There’s a lot to nitpick about NXT 2.0, like when Carmelo Hayes cashed in his guaranteed title shot on a battered Swerve Scott as if it were suddenly Money in The Bank…
…or when Legado Del Sol abducted members of Hit Row and never let them go…
…or when Tony D’Angelo abducted a producer on the very same episode.
There’s the Usos’ brother Solo Sikoa claiming to have been abandoned at age 15…
…heavily implying that Rikishi is a deadbeat dad.
There’s the unfounded rumors of Dexter Lumis’s penis falling off on his honeymoon…
…a mystery person whom no one could identify as the sole Kiwi woman on the roster…
…and a Halloween Havoc ladder match called, “Scareway to Hell”.
There’s the odd transparently scripted promo…
…or WWE-style wackiness just begging for Ron Simmons to show up and shout “Damn!”
Yet ultimately, none of these issues are likely why you voted NXT 2.0 as the worst of wrestling in 2021. What really stung about the rebranding was what was lost in the process. It’s a tall order to build a brand that earns universal critical acclaim and sells out arenas. But to strip away everything that made it great? That turned out to be quite easy.
For what it is and, just as importantly, what it isn’t, NXT 2.0 is your 2021 Gooker Award winner.
Even at the time of this writing, the erasure of all things black-and-gold continues.
Timothy Thatcher and Danny Burch had recently become trainers at the Performance Center, but were among a New Year’s purge of NXT’s old guard.
That purge also included William Regal, the on-screen GM and utterer of “War Games!”, whose last order of business was to introduce the world to Von Wagner. Regal, who could drag a good match out of any opponent, and who convinced Brian Danielson not to wrestle as “Buddy Peacock”, would have been invaluable to the NXT 2.0 roster.
Scotty 2 Hotty, a long-time Performance Center trainer, had abandoned ship not long after Vince McMahon’s backstage youth drive. Other personnel, like Road Dogg (below), were let go en masse.
And so was Samoa Joe, meaning Vince has fired three of the last four black-and-gold champions in the space of two months.
But there is hope on the horizon: WALTER, the Austrian wrestling god, recently debuted on NXT 2.0. After years of resisting a move across the pond, WALTER is finally stateside, bringing not only an imposing stature rivaling that of the brand’s many big men, but also impeccable technique and world-renowned ring sense.
So… same time next year?