SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
I normally write “NXT Tracker.” This week I want to talk about an in-person NXT experience.
I do tell stories from house shows on occasion – for instance, I saw Norman Smiley rear back to punch a heel outside the ring during the main event lumberjack match (the main event in question was Stevie Ray vs. Jeff Jarrett, I kid you not), and Smiley didn’t know Chuck Palumbo was behind him and he elbowed Palumbo hard in the junk. I was in the second row for that dying-era WCW show, and the sound Palumbo made still amuses me and makes me cringe, today.
Such stories are few and far between. For some reason, I’ve attended about 30 house shows over the years nonetheless. Last Saturday night I attended the NXT show in Saint Paul, Minn. at the historic Roy Wilkins Auditorium and I can comfortably say it was in the top three house shows I’ve been at the very least, owing both to the workers in the ring and the fun production bits peppered throughout the show.
In the past, fans attended house shows in part because of the live access to their favorite acts. I remember waiting in long lines for autographs from Bret Hart and Bam Bam Bigelow before shows at the Target Center in the early ’90s. In a world of social media and almost innumerable hours of content to watch in any given week on a variety of platforms, one can get closer to their favorite acts with a few keystrokes than they can by driving out to a show.
If more house shows were akin to the NXT show in Saturday, and word spread, I’m convinced we’d see better house show gates overall. Videos on the big screen above the ramp, produced by Jeremy Borash when the gang pulls into a new town, serve as flavorful bits for the crowd and give a little hype and sizzle to matches that we know are essentially meaningless.
The most obvious but essential of these videos showed Velveteen Dream out in front of Paisley Park, the private estate of Dream’s character inspiration, Minnesota native Prince. He gave a basic promo hyping his main event title match with Tommaso Ciampa, and most assuredly drew us in by honoring one of our favorite sons. Kona Reeves and crony Dan Matha did a spot from Nickelodeon Universe, a theme park inside the Mall of America that I wander through once a week. He was bragging about cutting lines and they did a shot of him riding a zipline from a popular ropes course, yelling at the camera from above. Heavy Machinery did a video where Otis introduced Ricochet as their partner, shot at the venue itself. It’s a silly and fun spot, and was put up on WWE.com the next day.
None of the three spots were time-consuming, and cost to the company is probably small, which raises the question of why we don’t see tours treat their customers this way more often. It’s easy enough to trot out the workers for seven or eight matches and go through the motions at half speed, but I have to think crowds are much more likely to return to a brand that treated their show as special, even though in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t.
It’s telling, I think, that I can talk about how much I enjoyed this show without even saying much beyond Borash’s work. Of course, there was much fun to be had in the ring. For instance…
- Ciampa-Dream was fine and Ciampa did some good mic work afterward (putting over the hard work and the product before, naturally, saying he worked harder than all of them and was single-handedly to credit for the significant attendance spike over the last stop in the same venue)
- Ricochet and Heavy Machinery’s six-man with Undisputed Era was loads of fun, and Otis Dozovic, another Minnesota native, was featured heavily after a hot tag.
- The matchups of Johnny Gargano-Aleister Black and Kairi Sane-Shayna Baszler were predictably solid.
On the less obvious side of the card, Humberto Carrillo had a nice match with Bobby Fish and got a large ovation after the defeat, and Dominik Dijakovic and Kona Reeves may have had the night’s hottest match, pounding each other in a briskly-paced match and making the most of the minutes as Dan Matha overacted to the nth degree outside the ring as Kona’s Hawaiian-shirted lackey outside. (Is Matha actually going to see TV time at some point here?). Kona sometimes gets the wrong side of heat, but in talking to fans and some closer to the company after the show, people are seeing the fruits of his labors and starting to think of it as a decent or better midcard act. (I think he could go higher, but I’ve always been bullish on him.)
The situation for the women’s division was odd because of an injury the night before to Dakota Kai, so the planned six-woman match became the aforementioned Sane-Baszler affair as well as Jessamyn Duke vs. Candace LeRae, with Marina Shafir in Duke’s corner. The crowd was somewhat hard on Duke, who to this point hasn’t been working a lot of singles matches, but I don’t think there’s any cause for alarm there as she hones her craft off of TV.
The entire event left me hungry to see another NXT card, even if (or especially if?) it’s an untelevised show. The entire experience felt like it was unique to us in the Twin Cities, and I assume those in Des Moines were given some local flavor the next night as well. These really aren’t groundbreaking concepts, but treating live events as if the outcomes mean something and the venue is important is a simple, but potentially extremely effective, way to connect to the fans and create repeat business.
After Saturday’s show, if I missed the next NXT trip to Saint Paul, I would genuinely feel like I missed something, and that’s something I haven’t said about a house show in a long time.