SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
Writing about modern WWE can make writers seem like real miserable sods at times. Which is a shame, because I’m sure we aren’t all like that. I’m definitely not! But at the same time, I’m not going to ignore the overwhelmingly negative state of WWE in 2017 and, when the product is largely poor, the people writing about the product are generally going to be negative.
Fortunately, however, there’s NXT – Triple H’s magnificent façade to gain the trust of the hardcore fan. And while there are a lot of things I dislike about NXT as a concept, as a show it’s really good. It doesn’t insult its audience, it doesn’t over-saturate their assets, they have characters with fleshed out personalities, and their big shows are always great shows with brilliant wrestling and strong payoffs. Is it flawless? Far from it. It’d be nice if the weekly show featured more of the great wrestling you saw two to three years ago. It’d be nice if they got out of Full Sail more often and taped in front of some hotter crowds. It’d be nice if the show featured more developing acts and fewer Indy Darling. And it’d be really nice if Percy Watson wasn’t a total DUD as a commentator and wasn’t being shoehorned into a role in order to fill a quota. But for today’s column, we’re not going to focus on any of that, we’re going to focus on all of the positives (!!!) with Five Lessons Wrestling Can Learn From What NXT Is Currently Getting Right.
(1) Good Storytelling Gets Real Heat
The art of getting heel heat seems to a fading art. And as each year passes, more and more fans start buying into the ridiculous notion that you can’t draw good heel heat with the modern audience. Tomasso Ciampa’s turn on Johnny Gargano following their defeat at Takeover Chicago was brilliant evidence that, if you tell a good story with the right personalities, you can get great heel heat, even with fan favourites.
I’m not totally behind the idea of Ciampa turning on Gargano, but the execution of the angle itself was magnificent. For me, both guys have much brighter futures as a team when it comes to the main roster. For as good as both guys are, WWE aren’t exactly lacking great singles wrestlers, many of whom bring more to the table than Gargano and Ciampa do. But a great babyface team? WWE always need more of them, especially post-brand-split. Since it would be inevitable that they’d be broken up after a short run on the main roster, it’s probably best that they do the same program in NXT where it has a much better chance of developing into a great rivalry than it would on Raw or Smackdown.
As an aside, hopefully Ciampa’s ACL tear doesn’t ruin this program before it even gets going. It will, however, really test NXT’s writing team in their attempts to keep the rivalry active for the potentially lengthy time that Ciampa has to spend out of the ring. (Personally, I’d love to see them bring Ciampa back after his injury and apologize to Gargano and try to turn himself back babyface. Gargano’s reluctant, but eventually they reform the team, and you get another run out of them as a duo, but this time there’s this lingering lack of trust from Gargano and everyone is waiting for the turn which naturally gives Ciampa brilliant fuel for when he does turn on Gargano again.)
Back to what did happen; the execution was brilliant, and it was brilliant because their entire run as a team was expertly crafted. I have to give them a huge amount of credit because when they first came in I didn’t like them. The modern indy style that both guys work isn’t my cup of tea and I remember them having a match with TM61 early in their run that reaffirmed my beliefs about the style of wrestling that they would bring to their matches.
But they turned me around. And while a big part of that is on The Revival, they deserve a massive amount of credit themselves. They got themselves over, and they didn’t get themselves over by doing flashy moves and having great workrate matches. They got themselves over through their personalities and through great storytelling. And that in itself is a valuable lesson for other wrestlers to learn. Doing great spots and having great matches can get you over, but what allows you to break that glass ceiling and really get over is personality and storytelling.
People genuinely liked the team of Gargano and Ciampa for many reasons, whether it be because they were great wrestlers or because Gargano had such a natural babyface personality or because they had a really genuine friendship that everyone could buy into. But one of the most prominent reasons for me is because we got to go on an actual journey with them. They didn’t come straight into NXT and immediately become significant players. They worked their way up the card from the bottom to the top and then had to overcome adversity in order to win the big prize. The vast majority of the time the babyface title win is so much more rewarding for us watching as fans when we get to go on a journey of triumph and failure with our babyface heroes, and that’s exactly why it was such a great moment when they did win the belts. Over time we had all become emotionally invested in the team of Ciampa & Gargano and the journey that they were on together, and that’s the ultimate aim for a wrestling promotion; get your viewers emotionally invested in your product.
Everything I just wrote about is exactly why Ciampa’s turn worked so well. We cared about him and Johnny Gargano. We rooted for them as a team and we cheered with them as they became champions. When Ciampa attacked Gargano after their match, he wasn’t just turning on his partner, he was turning on all of us. It wasn’t just a storyline done for drama that we enjoy watching play out, it was a betrayal of us as viewers and all of the emotion that we had invested in them. He didn’t just break up a team, he broke up the joy that we got as fans watching them.
Don’t settle for WWE’s lack of effectiveness at generating money drawing heat or the indies being focused on showcasing great wrestling over making you care who wins and loses fool you into accepting an inability for wrestling to get you emotionally invested to care about more than star ratings. It absolutely can still be done; it just requires talent from both the writing team and the performers, a combination which is rarely in sync these days.
So don’t tell me that Kevin Owens is a great heel and that he doesn’t get heat because it’s just not possible these days for a guy with his talent. When NXT can get a response like they did from that audience in Chicago for a super-over babyface like Ciampa turning heel, it’s burning proof that the art of getting heel heat is still alive. It’s not some outdated trope from a previous era; promotions just aren’t as good at mastering the art as they once were.
(2) Wins & Losses Matter!
They actually do matter! And the proof of it is in NXT. It means something to be a champion in NXT; the wrestlers who win the most are the ones treated most as stars and the results of matches have consequences that people care about.
Look at the three NXT champions right now – Bobby Roode, Asuka, and Authors of Pain. They’re not only champions because they hold a belt, they’re champions because they’re booked above everyone else in their respective divisions. And that’s valuable, not just because it gets that act over as a star, but because it gets whoever beats them over as a star. Beating someone who is presented as being the undeniable number one wrestler in a division is a big rub for someone and instantly tells fans to perceive them as a star too. There’s no Jinder Mahal type champions where they’re the champion of the division only in the sense that they have the title which results in nobody really taking them seriously despite being the champion and thus whoever beats them doesn’t get the proper rub.
As a result of booking all three champions to be THE guys in their respective division, you also add equity to the title that gets passed on to whomever holds the title next. Winning any of the NXT titles means something. There’s a rub to it that will help to make someone a star and actually has an effect on how viewers react to that wrestler. It’s not like winning any of the titles on the main roster where it just doesn’t matter. Everyone gets a turn holding one; even the WWE and Universal Championships don’t really represent anything. To WWE viewers, titles are just props that different wrestlers at different times get to carry around with them.
Another reason why we view NXT champions as stars is because they never actually lose. If you want someone to be received as being a star then having them win all their matches is a pretty good start. Bobby Roode, Asuka, and Authors of Pain are all undefeated not only as champions, but since they debuted in NXT (discounting Roode walking out on Tye Dilinger in a tag match). They’re all winners. Compare Bobby Roode as NXT Champion to Kevin Owens as Universal Champion. Who comes across as more of a star in basically the same role. Which title change do you think is going to mean more? That’s why wins and losses matter.
It’s not just the champions that NXT do a great job at protecting and presenting as stars, it’s their challengers too. Which makes it really shocking when fans react to NXT’s title matches like they’re a big deal and can buy into challengers beating the undefeated champions. Ember Moon is a great example of someone who can be booked to be perceived as being a big deal despite the fact that she hasn’t really done anything all that great during her run. No memorable promos, no killer matches, no hot programs. Yet, despite all of that, everyone buys into her being a star and being credible enough to beat a tour de force like Asuka.
Another great point of reference right now are Drew McIntyre and Aleister Black. Since they’ve debuted, they’ve been beating everyone who has stood in their way, and guess how everyone is reacting to them? They’re reacting to them as if they’re stars and as if they’re credible enough to beat the undefeated champion, Bobby Roode. Compare them to another recent debutant in Kassius Ohno. He came in and he wasn’t given that same type of protection when it came to wins and losses. So as a result he’s not viewed as being as important of a player in NXT and nobody is talking about him being the guy to dethrone Bobby Roode.
When you watch a WWE PPV, who wins and loses really doesn’t change any of our perceptions because we just expect them to trade wins and losses back and forth afterwards. Go back to Payback this year. Bray Wyatt and Seth Rollins both picked up major wins on that show. What became of it? Nothing. Did anyone expect more to come from it? Doubt it. Seth Rollins beating Samoa Joe didn’t make anyone think: “Wow, that’s a big win for Seth, maybe he’s in line for a title shot soon.” That’s how it should be, though.
And I love how losing means something – not just to the viewers, but to the wrestlers too. I absolutely loved Hideo Itami’s reaction to losing his title match against Bobby Roode. That’s how someone should react when they lose a match like that! Because wins and losses matter, you know that if someone comes up short in their “championship opportunity” they won’t be in line for the WWE-style mandatory rematch regardless of if you win or lose. You as a viewer knew that when Itami lost that was the end of his title challenge and he now had to go back in the queue. You shouldn’t be all “la-di-dah life goes on” about it because it not only kills a reason for viewers to care about you, but it damages the prestige of the title that you’re fighting for if you’re not bothered about not winning it. That one short backstage segment where he flips out after his loss did more to put over the NXT Championship than anything WWE has done in recent memory to put over any of their titles.
Another great example of wins and losses meaning something to the layout of the show is Andrade Cien Almas. It’s fair to say that he hasn’t been a hit in NXT. But what NXT is good at that WWE really needs to take note of is that they’re self-aware when something isn’t working. He wasn’t getting over as a face so they turned him heel to try something new and, when he still wasn’t getting over, he wasn’t being booked to go over guys who were getting over.
So rather than him trading wins like everyone on Raw and Smackdown do, he just loses, and there’s a reason why he loses. It’s part of a story that they’re telling that wins and losses are integral to. A losing streak isn’t the greatest story in the world, but it’s something more likely to get you invested in the story being told than a guy having random matches with little context where sometimes he’ll win and sometimes he’ll lose, but at the end of the day nothing matters. Almas caring more about partying than winning wrestling matches is the beginning thread of a story that people are interested in seeing develop over time. Almas winning a match here and losing a match there isn’t the start of anything; it’s just there.
Wins and losses matter. They always have and they always will. Just look at how NXT has used wins and losses to create acts that you perceive as being stars, how they’ve created equity in their titles so that they mean something, and how they get you to buy into storylines that mean something to you. That’s what making wins and losses matter does. Or you can go with WWE’s 50-50 approach where barely any of their acts are more over than they are when they debut, winning a title doesn’t mean anything, and nobody reacts to you any differently if you get a big win on a big show.
(3) Those “Who Is Roderick Strong” Videos Were Awesome
Roderick Strong was one of the featured stars on Ring of Honor shows when I was first getting into the Independent scene around the mid-2000s and, for a period of time, I was a big Roderick Strong fan. Over time, however, I started losing interest in indy wrestling and my tastes changed and Roderick Strong was no longer the type of act that interested me. Coming into NXT, and for all of his NXT run up to these videos, I did not care about him one bit. And then they ran them videos and guess what? They made me care about Roderick Strong. Granted, I still don’t really care about watching Roderick Strong wrestle, but the difference is that now I’m rooting the guy on to do well. I like him now a lot more than I did before I watched them videos. They got him over with me.
WWE have the means to make videos like the “Who Is Roderick Strong” series a regular feature, not just on NXT, but on Raw and Smackdown too. In fact they already film a lot of great stuff like that which they then only air on the Network to a niche of a niche audience. These types of videos would make great additions to Raw and Smackdown to help get babyfaces over. A key characteristic of a good babyface is to be relatable and sympathetic, and these videos are tremendous at achieving that. After seeing Roderick Strong tell the story of his life, it was pretty much impossible not to like him and want to see him succeed. And it’s not just the Roderick Strong videos that they’ve done. They’ve done great videos with Seth Rollins and Finn Balor leading up to their returns and with the NXT Women leading up to Sasha vs. Bayley and I bet the Kurt Angle video that they’ve done will be just as great at making you like them as actual human beings and not as cartoon TV characters.
The asset of being relatable as a babyface is becoming more and more of an integral part of becoming a successful babyface. A big part of what made Daniel Bryan so popular is that we didn’t view as just a great wrestling character, we viewed as a great human being that we wanted to be successful on a personal level. He was the type of guy that if we met in a bar we could 100 percent see ourselves relaxing back and enjoying a drink with him.
Compare that to the opposite end of spectrum with the marvel that is Roman Reigns. There are a lot of reasons he isn’t getting over as a main event babyface, but a big one is the fact that fans don’t really like him or relate to him on a personal level. WWE doing a behind-the-scenes special looking at Roman Reigns’s life outside of the ring would be really interesting, for the reaction to it if nothing else. On the one hand, it could just reaffirm a lot of people’s beliefs about why they don’t like him (“I don’t peacock, I am a peacock”) or, if done well, it could really help dilute the backlash against him if it focused on his relationship with his family, for instance, and made him come across as more of a human being that we at least begin to sympathise with a little more.
The good work that they put into those videos is made largely irrelevant, though, when they only air them on the Network. These aren’t videos like “Table For 3” that are obviously Network-exclusive content that have no place on Raw and Smackdown. But these types of videos do have a place because they’re about the personalities that you’re trying to promote on Raw and Smackdown. The whole concept of Raw and Smackdown are to be platforms to get the wrestlers over and anything that aids in that goal should be airing on the largest-reaching platform.
Obviously I don’t know any of the wrestlers on a personal level in order to be able to say that many of them have interesting stories that could be told through this type of medium, but I’m pretty willing to bet that a good chunk of them have interesting stories that can be told that would make viewers like them more. Rather than trying to get Bayley over as a babyface by having her lose all the time or by having the heel mock her personality traits that are supposed to be used to get her over, produce some of these videos that are designed to really emphasise positive personality traits of your babyfaces without the roadblock of feeling the need to have heels put them down in the same segment.
Remember when ESPN ran that documentary that featured Adam Rose and how everyone who watched that suddenly found a newly found fondness for him because of his story that was told on that documentary? Wrestlers have amazing stories like this to tell that help to form an emotional bond between them and the viewer but they just don’t get told via WWE’s largest platform.
(4) The UK Championship Match Is How You Put Something On The Map
In the last year we’ve seen WWE debut two new divisions, the Cruiserweight Division and the UK Division. First impressions count for a lot and a bad first impression is a mighty steep fall to try to climb back up from. We’re seeing that in front of our own eyes right now with the failing Cruiserweight Division. In fact we’ve actually seen both sides of the coin with the Cruiserweights.
First we had the Cruiserweight Classic featuring a great presentation of wrestling mixed with strong ring work and, because it had that combination, it got over and it made everyone who watched the show excited about the prospect of a Cruiserweight Division on the main roster. Then they did debut on the main roster and, even after the first night, people had already decided that it was a disappointment and within a month it was being deemed a failure. It’s been nearly a year since that debut, and the division – despite an influx of better talent – is still tarnished by that lackluster first impression.
Although not the official introduction of the UK Division to WWE programming, the UK Championship match at Takeover Chicago was the first exposure of the UK Division to a lot of WWE fans. And what a first impression that they made. Coming into the show, people familiar with Tyler Bate and Pete Dunne knew that they were capable of having a show stealing match. Being capable of something and being given the platform to do something you’re capable of are two different things, though – especially when it comes to WWE. On this occasion, however, they were given that platform to go out, have that show-stealing match, and get themselves over.
If they announce another UK Championship match for the next Takeover show, what do you think the anticipation for the match is going to be like? Everyone is going to be looking forward to it because of what they produced last time and because viewers now have a perception of the UK Division as producing awesome content. Perceptions and expectations allow you to draw people into something. If they have a perception of something as being great and they expect what it produces to be great then they’ll be excited to see it. Not only that, but if for whatever reason something you produce doesn’t meet those expectations but you’ve built a positive impression, that builds up goodwill with the viewer and allows you to get away with not hitting a home run every single time. You just need to make sure you hit enough of them to maintain the perception and hit a lot of them at the start to create that positive first impression and get people on board.
First impressions count for a lot. They set the tone for what people expect is to come and can leave you either fighting a massive uphill struggle or sitting pretty on a pile of praise and goodwill. NXT gave the UK Division the platform to make an incredible first impression and get not only themselves but the entire division over in one night. If the UK Division comes to Takeover Brooklyn with Pete Dunne vs. Mark Andrews, for instance, even though people may not be familiar with Andrews, there’s an expectancy created from that first impression at Takeover Chicago that when you see a match from the UK wrestlers that it’s going to be something to get excited about. Compare that to what you expected from two amazing talents like Neville and Austin Aries at Extreme Rules and I think it’s pretty safe to say that WWE can learn a thing or two from NXT in how to introduce a new asset that you want to make money with and give it the platform to actually make money for you.
(5) Hell Yeah, Kick Ass Babyfaces!
Possibly WWE’s worst problem that they currently face is their startling inability to not only get their babyfaces over but just avoiding not doing damage to them. There are a million and one reasons why they absolutely suck at booking babyfaces, but one of the most significant reasons is that they don’t kick enough ass. Because nobody is going to get behind a badass ass-kicker are they?
It’s not just an issue of them constantly losing. Even when they are victorious, they spend so much time getting their ass kicked. The bulk of the build is the babyface getting beaten down until they get to the match and then the babyface spends the majority of the match getting beaten down as well. And this happens regardless of who they’re facing. It’s so rare for a babyface to come out to shut the heel up and end the segment standing tall firing up the crowd. It’s so rare for babyfaces to get showcase matches where they just run through all their signature moves and completely dominate the match. It’s even rare these days for the babyface to get a strong shine period in a match before they start getting worked over by the heel. Those are three of the biggest platforms to get a babyface over and WWE basically neglects all three. And then they wonder why barely any of their babyfaces are over and why numbers are declining. The babyface is the selling point of the show and people get far more excited about seeing the good guy kicking ass than they do them getting their ass kicked.
NXT doesn’t have those problems because they actually book their babyfaces to be ass kickers. Since WrestleMania weekend they’ve done a great job at presenting Drew McIntyre, Aleister Black, and Heavy Machinery as babyfaces that you want to get behind. And the way they’ve done it is really simple; they just picked guys with strong personalities and sent them out to kick ass and be presented as winners. And shock horror at how the crowds are reacting to them.
Drew is immediately treated as a big deal in NXT because of the presentation of him and because he just runs through his opponents in quick and dominant fashion. He’s allowed to get all his shit in and go over and we’re happy viewers because, yay, he’s a guy we like and we like to see the guys we like kicking ass and winning. Heavy Machinery doesn’t have the benefit of being recognized names outside of WWE, yet they’re getting over – and they’re getting over because along with having their likeable personalities established, they’re just going out and destroying people. Even with Hideo Itami to set his title shot up against Bobby Roode, they just let him come out and leave Roode lying to pop the crowd and make Itami look like an ass kicker and someone to take seriously.
Aleister Black, in particular, is a great template for how a babyface just plowing through his opponents can get him over and start to generate a real buzz. Tommy End wasn’t one of the biggest names on the independent scene before he signed. He wasn’t a name that people who take the occasional glance at the indies would have been overly aware of. Yet now, here he is in NXT, and he feels as big of a star as the more marquee acquisitions such as McIntyre, Itami, and Roode.
He’s actually a great guy to make this point with because he’s been on both ends of this lesson. In his debut at Takeover Orlando he faced Andrade Cien Almas in a lengthy back-and-forth match and the match didn’t get over. Compare the reaction to that match to the reaction to his decimations on the weekly show that last a minute or two. THAT is the difference between WWE’s presentation of their babyfaces and how they should be presented. Showcase your babyfaces kicking ass. It gets them over!
NOW CHECK OUT THE PREVIOUS COLUMN: FIVE COUNT: Five Lessons to Be Learned from WWE Backlash including Shinsuke, Comedy, Matches, Women’s Division, more
(“Five Count” is a Specialist column by PWTorch Specialist Matt Seabridge who presents a list of five lessons to be learned from various categories, theme, shows, eras, or events in pro wrestling.)