If you're a wrestling fan, chances are pretty good that you watch Raw and Smackdown every week, maybe order the Pay-Per-View events once a month or head out to a live show when they cruise through town, and assume that's pretty much all there is to the WWE.
There's one more piece, though: Hidden away on Hulu Plus, never really mentioned on TV or even linked to from their homepage, they're putting out NXT, the weekly show from their developmental territory down in Florida.
Here's the secret: NXT is the best show in pro wrestling today. Here's why.
I've loved Regal since I was a kid watching him defend the WCW Television Title on Saturday Night, but the best thing he does for NXT isn't in the ring. He's a guy who's been wrestling as long as I've been alive, and when he sits down to call a match, he understands exactly how to make them better. It's pretty simple, too: he explains the moves.
That might seem like a pretty obvious thing, but think back to the last episode of Raw you watched. How much of the commentary was devoted to talking about what the holds were meant to be doing, and how much was Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler snickering about how AJ was an irredeemable trollop because she kissed four dudes last year? When Regal talks, he's actually telling the story of the match, letting viewers know that someone's working the neck to set up his finishing hold, trying to bring a big man down by going after his knees, or why the wrestlers use open-handed chops to each other's chests instead of just trying to punch each other's lights out, and I cannot overstate how important that is. I mean, yeah, we all know it's because those chops are really loud and that these guys aren't actually trying to hurt each other, but when you have someone letting you know that it's harder to kick out of a pin when it stings every time you breathe in, it's a lot easier to buy into the fantasy.
And when the guy with all this knowledge actually steps into the ring? He seems less like a commentator and more like a guy who's been studying how to hurt people for the past three decades. Not that his matches really need the help -- Regal vs. Kassius Ohno is easily one of the best matches WWE has produced in the past year -- but they've made sure everyone watching understands why this guy is a threat to someone twenty years younger.
Regal's the best reason to listen to the commentary, but he's not the only great thing. Tony Dawson's habit of reacting to every pin attempt by shouting "for the win!" is enough to make you stab yourself in the face a little grating at times, but NXT is also the place where Brad Maddox goes to be hilarious.
Unlike the main shows, they also occasionally acknowledge that things exist outside the WWE. Watching Raw, you'd think that everyone who wasn't Alberto Del Rio or Sin Cara -- he used to have a comic book, as Michael Cole pointed out roughly one thousand times over the course of 2012 -- just sprang into existence the moment they signed a WWE contract. When Sami Zayn or Kassius Ohno hits the ring, they're quick to point out that these are guys who have wrestled all over the world, with years of experience before NXT that actually matter. Not only does it make the wrestlers sound better -- and keeps from alienating indie fans who are tuning in to see Chris Hero or El Generico, who I believe is in Tijuana helping out the orphans -- but it actually makes NXT sound like they're actually scouting for top talent from around the world.
There Are Actual Characters
I realize that not everyone is as big a fan of weird gimmicks as I am -- I have a friend who grew up watching NWA and still refers to WWE as "Vince Jr.'s cartoon wrestling" to this day -- but I love 'em. Admittedly, we're living in a time when a ballroom dancer obsessed with how his name was pronounced had a match at WrestleMania, but still. The majority of WWE's roster often feels like it can be boiled down to "Big Strong Guy." Or, if we want to get really crazy, "Big Strong Irish Guy."
NXT, however, is where insane gimmicks thrive. There are still plenty of people who are, you know, wrestlers, but there's also a bayou cult leader who will occasionally come to the ring in a butcher's apron so that you don't forget he's a horror movie villain waiting to happen, a dude who is essentially Kraven the Hunter from Spider-Man but with the added twist of other wrestlers implying that he committed war crimes while serving in the South African militia, and a guy who hails from "a trailer park" and is so committed to being a southern-fried redneck that he drinks from a bottle of barbecue sauce on his way to the ring. He is managed by a Frenchman who seems to only wear tiger-striped pajamas at all times. It is magical.
There's great character work going on down there, too. Bray Wyatt's transition from Husky Harris to the Eater of Worlds has produced some of the most compelling stuff WWE's put out lately is the high point, but he's not alone. Bo Dallas, who was about as bland and boring a "good guy" as you can get, has slowly and enjoyably transitioned into slimy and self-aggrandizing over the past few months, with videos where he refers to his fans as "Bo-lievers" that make him a true joy to hate.
There's one other important element, too: The good guys act like good guys. Again, it sounds simple, but one of the most frustrating things about watching Raw every week is how all the good guys act like a bunch of petty jerks the moment they start getting cheered. Sneak attacks, stealing cars and smirking through racist jokes, making jokes about how gay their opponents are -- that's what the good guys do on the main shows, which makes the bad guys seem completely justified. On NXT, the good guys wrestle a clean match and shake hands with little kids as they go to the back. I mean, yeah, then they'll occasionally crack jokes about a bad guy carrying a purse, but at least it's a step in the right direction.
The problem, of course, is that they're all working with just the worst names. In an effort to copyright and market their wrestlers, WWE has handed out names that are somehow simultaneously generic ("Corey Graves") and hilariously awkward ("Briley Pierce"), and brother, they are rough to get through. Seriously, there's a guy down there right now named "Judas Devlin." I'm not sure whether that's the best thing I've ever heard, the dumbest, or both.
I think he might be a bad guy.
All that stuff I just said applies to NXT's Divas, too. Way too often, WWE's women's division is pared down to exactly two people: The Divas Champion and whoever it is that the Divas champion is feuding against. With the exception of the battle royal to determine the #1 Contender and start up the next storyline or a tag match where half the participants never get into the ring, that's often the most you're going to see. AJ and Kaitlyn have a storyline that's been going for years that's led into some great matches, but who's going to step up once that's run its course? I don't think I've seen Layla on TV for weeks, and they seem to be doing the absolute best they can to make sure that Natalya isn't exactly a harbinger of quality wrestling.
On NXT, the first episode I ever saw had a match with Alicia Fox that was so surprisingly good that I started worrying that Steve Austin was going to show up and kick me out of my house for enjoying it (shout out to my doggs who watched every episode of Tough Enough). Instead of just getting three minutes to bounce off the ropes and end with a roll-up, NXT actually gives the women down there full matches and multiple long-running storylines. They get to chance to work, and that makes all the difference.
They get to have actual characters, too. There are way too many feuds between women in the WWE that are based on fighting to decide who's prettier, and while there's a one wrestler who has that as her gimmick -- Summer Rae, best known to Raw viewers as Fandango's second dance partner -- there's a lot of variety. Bayley's a starstruck newcomer, Paige is vicious and driven by anger, and Sasha Banks is... uh... well, she's Snoop Dogg's cousin. They mention that a lot.
Emma is everything good and beautiful about professional wrestling. Her gimmick, in its entirety, is this: She likes to dance, but is not very good at dancing. That is it. It is the dumbest thing ever. She has made it the best thing on the show. It's hilarious, not just because of the arhythmic arm stabs that make up her dance or the way she gets a standing ovation just for managing to get into the ring after struggling to pull herself over the top rope, or even the way she's visibly distracted by soap bubbles that the audience shoots at her during her entrance. The best part is her occasional backstage interviews, where her casual, almost sleepy demeanor makes it seem less like she's a goofy klutz and more like she just does not give a damn about anything happening around her. She's my favorite wrestler in the WWE right now, and I'm not even kidding.
Also worth noting: The NXT Women's Championship belt. It might be purple with silver rhinestones, but at least it's not a hot pink butterfly.
Titles That Mean Something
I don't want to blow anybody's mind here, but I don't think the championship belts at the WWE are necessarily a good indicator of who is actually the best wrestler in the company. Don't get me wrong, though: That's fine, as long as we have a reason to believe that they are an important prize that people want to bash each other's heads in over, that's all we really need. For the most part, they do a good job with that when it comes to the WWE and the World Heavyweight Championships. The other belts, though, not so much.
As Brandon Stroud has pointed out pretty much every week for the entire time I've been reading his column, the Intercontinental and United States Championshps seems to be the subject of some kind of bizarre curse (possibly involving ghost pirates) where the champion can never win a non-title match, and does nothing but wrestle non-title matches until it's finally time to lose the belt. I'm hoping this'll change with the current push that they're giving to US Champion Dean Ambrose and habitual winner-by-proxy Curtis Axel, but that's how it's been for a long, long while.
In NXT, the belts actually mean something -- something beyond the stuff they're telling us they mean in the storyline. Any time the titles are brought up or defended, the announcers are quick to remind the viewers that the champions in NXT are the people the "higher ups" at WWE are watching to move on to better things, and they're right.
The NXT championship has had been held by three wrestlers. First? Seth Rollins, who debuted on Monday Night Raw with the Shield and had a match at WrestleMania. Second? Big E Langston, who debuted on Monday Night Raw with Dolph Ziggler and had a match at WrestleMania. The current champion? Bo Dallas, the guy that NXT pushed to be their entrant in the Royal Rumble and who pinned the Intercontinental Champion on Raw. The Tag Team Championships are brand new, currently held by the Wyatt Family. You may have seen them on Raw too, running around in those awesomely creepy vignettes in sheep masks with rusted carnival rides.
I realize that the nature of a developmental territory like NXT is, you know, developmental and that they're bound to bring people up eventually, but by setting it up the way they have, it adds a lot of weight to those titles. If someone wins, you know they're going on to something bigger, and while that creates a weird little disconnect when you're cheering for someone because you want them to go to Raw -- "Big E Langston is great! I hope he loses the title!" -- it ups the stakes for the people who get invested in it.
If those shows were actually as solid as NXT is, it'd be great.
Chris Sims is a senior writer at Comics Alliance. He loves Batman. That's pretty much all you need to know. Read more of his work here.