When fans talk about NXT, it’s typically done in gushing tones. It’s a platform that’s given rise to a number of huge stars in WWE. From homegrown talent like Bray Wyatt, Charlotte and Big Cass – through to honing indie darlings like Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn; NXT has become a byword for quality and freshness. Yet as Simon Gotch makes his departure from the company this evening, the reality is that NXT’s success rate is far more sporadic than WWE or hardcore fans will want to admit.
NXT’s benefit is that it allows WWE to cultivate and help craft Superstars for the main roster, in front of a passionate audience. It lets them sand down rough edges while giving the company an outlet to test out indie talent before throwing it to the main roster. Yet in this mechanism, the company has awkwardly created a situation where it sets some Superstars up for failure – locked into gimmicks that are doomed to failure the moment they leave the NXT bubble.
When WWE made use of FCW as a developmental territory, it allowed the company to experiment more wildly. Guys like Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose and many of the current WWE Superstars were allowed to experiment and change gimmicks as and when needed. Their gimmicks could change on the way to the main roster – because the main WWE audience didn’t know them. Sure there are plenty of guys that fell here, but in some circumstances it created megastars. Imagine if the three members of The Shield hadn’t been given that chance to form that group and arrived with the gimmicks they were given in developmental. It wouldn’t work.
Part of this problem is that NXT’s fans are so passionate and so loud that they awkwardly skew the results against Superstars. NXT’s small-scale creates an intimate relationship between fans and Superstars. It’s a connection that’s much more pronounced than on the main roster, and it’s one of the reasons NXT feels like such a success. Yet on the flip side, when gimmicks that shouldn’t work appear to be getting over – WWE is reluctant to change things up. As soon as a talent begins to exhibit that kind of connection, there’s very little wiggle room to change en route to the main roster. This is what happened to Simon Gotch.
Guys like Tyler Breeze for example worked on NXT because the fans were willing to cheer him as and when needed. They’d seen his development and wanted him to succeed. Yet removed from the bright lights and small arena down in Florida, his gimmick however didn’t translate to the main roster. The average Raw crowd just aren’t as patient as their NXT counterparts – leading to a situation where he’s awkwardly rejected by the fans. This fan reaction pushes WWE Creative to panic, and ultimately strips talent of the one thing they were sure of – a gimmick that seemed destined to get them over.
Simon Gotch’s departure is a sign of this failure to translate momentum between shows. When the VaudeVillains arrived just after Wrestlemania 32, they had one of the more unique gimmicks on the roster. Yet it didn’t take long for WWE to opt out of this almost entirely. The former NXT Tag Team Champions became another face in a mundane Tag Team division, stripped of their uniqueness and cast to the lower roster. The days where NXT fans were crazily cheering capturing the pair seemed like a lifetime ago.
We can’t really blame WWE Creative all the time for this. It’s not really a surprise that such a gimmick didn’t translate into a massive arena. The illusion created on NXT works because only a few hundred people have to suspend their disbelief. These guys liked The VaudeVillains, so cheered for them regardless. But asking 10,000 people – filled with kids, parents and casual fans – to suspend their disbelief as two guys walk to the ring while the TV audience get all the fun was a big ask.
The problem when this failed is that WWE didn’t really have anything else for the pair. Stripped of their entrance and unique selling point, there was nowhere to go. Because of the quick nature of WWE TV – there’s not many second chances if a gimmick collapses on itself. No one stopped to say “This might not work, what comes next?” – the WWE machine spat them out and ultimately cost Simon Gotch his momentum because it didn’t know how to use him.
As WWE continues to expand NXT – it makes me wonder how successful the brand actually is as a developmental pool. The success stories of Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn and inevitably Shinsuke Nakamura are great headline grabbers – but they mask the truth. The truth is that WWE hasn’t mastered the art of creating home-grown talent. They continue to push out adequate talent, but unless they change the way NXT transitions operate – I worry that this problem isn’t going away. That Superstars like Tye Dillinger will be thrown on the scrap-heap long before their time, all because WWE weren’t willing to change direction and surprise fans.
What NXT has given us in spectacle, it’s taken away in surprise.