As the TV ratings for RAW continue to decline to 18-year lows and the ‘next big star’ Roman Reigns gets booed from city to city you would be forgiven for thinking that the WWE are struggling and wrestling was going down the toilet. But that’s not true. The share prices are steady and the WWE Network – a £9.99 a month streaming service that is now 18 months old – is holding at around 1.2 million subscribers. The popularity of the WWE Network is down to two things: It’s vast library of classic wrestling from the 70’s onwards and WWE’s developmental system NXT.
NXT was founded in 2012 from the ashes of a tiny promotion called Florida Championship Wrestling (FCW). Despite being full of talented wrestlers that were hired to be developed into money-making stars on WWE, FCW was a neglected little wing of the empire of Vince McMahon. But when Triple H took over as Head of Talent Relations he completely overhauled the developmental system and created a miniature WWE and a state of the art training facility in Orlando; NXT was born. Since its inception in August 2012, NXT has grown into the wildly popular, almost entirely autonomous, wrestling promotion it is today. They have gone from taping TV shows in front of 500 people at Full Sail University to selling out the 15,000 seat Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York for a 2 hour live special in August. It’s alumni include Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose, Big E and Kevin Owens.
They created a women’s division that revolutionised the way women in WWE are thought of and treated. Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair – along with current NXT Women’s Champion Bayley – put on bouts worthy of making any Match of the Year list. While NXT has moved outside of Florida, and completed multiple date tours of Texas and Ohio, it has never before attempted to put on 7 shows in 7 days in 7 cities in a foreign country before. But that’s what they’re doing to massive success. The shows they have been running these past few days around the UK have been described as the best wrestling the UK has seen and that’s because they keep things very simple compared to what we see on TV. There are no long, rambling speeches and they manage to develop characters you care about and characters you hate. They use a hard-hitting and believable in-ring style that doesn’t rely on using weapons or big dives.
On Wednesday NXT will hold it’s December live special “NXT Takeover: London” at the SSE Arena in Wembley. I will be going and I couldn’t be more excited. I’ll be seeing legends of the independent scene like Samoa Joe, who has plied his trade around the world for over a decade. He’ll be taking on Irish-born, Japanese-made Finn Balor who is the NXT champion. They were friends, they won a tag team tournament together and then fell out explosively. It’s a simple story told well and it’s all I need to buy-in. Then there’s the return of Sami Zayn – a former NXT champion who tore up his shoulder against the bully Kevin Owens nearly 8 months ago. Zayn is an amazing showman who has developed fan bases wherever he went. If you haven’t given wrestling a chance before or watched when The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin were tearing it up in the late 90’s and haven’t bothered with it since I implore you to give NXT a chance.
The WWE Network is free for the first month to new subscribers and NXT Takeover: London is live at 8pm (UK) on Wednesday evening. It’s the best thing the biggest wrestling company in the world are doing right now and if you were ever going to give wrestling a chance this is it. We all know it’s “fake”, just suspend your disbelief and enjoy a show that hasn’t disappointed the most hardcore fans since it started over three years ago.