More than seven years after its inception, WWE’s NXT brand is making the jump to prime time and, as it turns out, the duo best suited for bringing the next generation of WWE stars to national television come from what many consider the company’s greatest era.
Undeniably one of the best sports entertainers ever, as Paul “Triple H” Levesque’s in-ring career began to slow down, his second chapter in WWE was just beginning. His current role as WWE’s executive vice president for talent, live events and creative means the 14-time world champion plays as big of a role behind the scenes as he ever did in the ring.
Working with NXT since its inception, Levesque has helped elevate what was once a developmental program for wrestlers into a fully fledged third brand alongside “Raw” and “Smackdown.”
“We had been working on this deal for a long time so when it finally came and this deal was announced, I think it was one of those things that was so exciting and then there’s the realization that kicks in and you say, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to be live, every single week on Wednesdays for two hours,’” Levesque told Yahoo Sports.
When NXT debuts on the USA Network next week, Levesque’s brand will be on equal footing with WWE’s longtime television stalwarts — but that doesn’t mean fans will be watching hours six and seven of the same product.
“We will put more emphasis — like NXT has since Day One — on the in-ring product. If you are a fan of what we do, of the art form of sports entertainment and what happens in the ring, bell to bell, then this is going to be in your wheelhouse,” Levesque said. “Whereas Raw and Smackdown — this is very important, too — are more of an entertainment show and has something for everybody, this will be a bit more focused and a bit more intense.”
Bringing an old friend into the fold
As Levesque said, NXT’s calling card from the outset has been its critically acclaimed wrestling. NXT counts stars such as Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch among its alumni (approximately 80 percent of the “Raw” and “Smackdown” roster has come through NXT). While those stars helped pave the way, NXT picked up arguably its most influential talent in recent years — former WWE champion Shawn Michaels.
“I think it was important for Shawn to put the business down for a little bit and walk away,” Levesque said. “As he started coming around the PC, it’s hard to come around there and not start to become invigorated by it. It’s like the fountain of youth. The excitement is contagious, and I could see him start to get that bug and his gears started to spin. I let him build at his own pace and now Shawn is probably one of the most engaged people in the product, talent and brand”
Michaels and Levesque — close friends in real life — were two of the most visible and dominant wrestlers of the 1990s and 2000s. Their pedigrees (pun intended) make them invaluable assets to every person who comes through the WWE Performance Center and NXT brand.
While it may be easy for the decorated pair to rely on old professional wrestling clichés and dip into the nostalgia well, Michaels and Levesque understand that pushing the envelope is the only way to help continually lift NXT to new heights.
“We continue to try and improve on things that are innovative, things that will take NXT into the future,” Michaels told Yahoo Sports. “We don’t spend a lot of time on what has worked or the foundational aspects or values of the wrestling business as a whole. Creatively, as a group, we try to think about tiers we want to go to, and maybe putting ourselves into uncomfortable situations. If we’re getting like that creatively, I feel like that’s a good place to be in because it means we are stretching ourselves.”
As much as NXT focuses on the future, part of what makes Michaels uniquely suited to work with a lot of the talent is his past.
As Michaels rose in the ranks in WWE, he helped dispel traditional professional wrestling stereotypes. With neither a hulking physique nor a powerful, sluggish move set, Michaels created a name for himself as one of the premier “workers” in the industry.
Now, decades later in NXT, that style is considered the norm.
“I would say that on one hand that that mold has been broken, but some people feel it hasn’t,” Michaels said. “It’s not something we pay attention to [in NXT], if for no other reason than because guys like myself, Bret Hart, Daniel Bryan have shown [the talent] that anything is possible.
“Everyone would agree that the [Johnny] Garganos, Velveteen Dreams, [Adam] Coles, you name it, they are talented young men who are getting the recognition they deserve and quite honestly, earned. I think they have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder like I did years ago, but that just drives them to continue to be their best.”
Despite the excitement surrounding the latest endeavor, the move to national television presents a new hurdle for Levesque, Michaels and the entirety of the NXT roster.
Although NXT has aired weekly on the WWE Network for a number of years, those shows were taped in advance at Full Sail University in Florida, providing talent with a safety “net,” that will disappear in a matter of days.
“With live TV on a network like USA, you have a lot of things that are very specific,” Levesque said. “Specific timing of commercial breaks that we don’t control. Hitting time cues, especially going off the air, there’s an art form to that. We try and train for that all of the time, but there’s no net now. While we try to get them there, it’s going to be a challenge. The live aspect takes away the ability to go a little bit over or under on your times [in matches].”
Timing challenge aside, Levesque and Michaels both view the move to USA as an opportunity within creative to give the world a more complete look at NXT’s deep and diverse roster.
“I can’t remember the last time we haven’t wanted more time to showcase more talent or extend a storyline creatively in a show,” Michaels said. “One of the things that we always talk about in NXT is that we have a great deal of depth and this is going to give us the opportunity to show that depth.”
Joining an ‘exclusive’ club
One of the biggest pieces of the NXT equation is its ravenous fan base.
Despite having just five years of television programming under its belt — compared to decades for “Raw” and “Smackdown” — NXT has developed a devoted following through its weekly show on the WWE Network and its TakeOver pay-per-view events. Those ranks should swell — and fast — in the coming weeks.
“When you are still trying to make a name for yourself, or get on the map, you can sense that passion and that desire,” Levesque said. “I think that can be felt in the energy of NXT. It’s been an exclusive club for our fan base and it’s opening up to the world now. I think when people feel that energy, they’re going to want to be a part of it.”
While Levesque explained that keeping the Wednesday night time slot was “important” for fan continuity, it’s hard to ignore that NXT will be going up against All Elite Wrestling, the first outside competition WWE has faced since TNA Impact! left cable television in 2014.
“For me, it’s about putting on the best show we possibly can whether we had competition or not,” Levesque said. “The winner, I think, is fans. Competition brings out the best in people and I think that’s what will happen here. For me, the competition is with ourselves — to constantly raise the bar, to be something better — and I don’t just mean in-ring, I mean for the business in general, to be leaders. It’s something I challenge everyone at the Performance Center to do every day, create the business the way we want it to be. When we say we are the future, that’s what we mean.”
As far as national television goes, NXT will debut two weeks before AEW, but Levesque points out that in reality, his brand has an even larger head start.
“If you talk about the upstart, what they’re going out and saying is that they’re an alternative,” Levesque said. “We were that alternative five years ago. We opened the door for being an alternative, we opened the door to show people that it can be done on a bigger level and on a different basis. As far as being the alternative, great, go put on the best show you can put out, and we’ll put out the best one we can put out.”
It’s a sentiment Michaels — a veteran of professional wrestling’s “Monday Night Wars” himself — echoes.
“I think the NXT roster can go with anybody in the entire world,” Michaels said. “There are a bunch of unbelievable talents. The wrestling business as a whole is in a phenomenal time.
“There’s an abundance of talent out there and I think the world is going to get to see it. I’m sure everybody likes to win, but everybody who has a brain can see that this is great for the business. We want to show what we’ve felt for quite some time and that’s that we have the best talent in the world.”
Regardless of the competition or the challenges this seismic shift in the wrestling television landscape presents, Levesque takes solace in knowing he has one of his closest friends along for the ride.
“For me it’s probably one of the coolest things of all of this,” Levesque said. “For me to be sitting in gorilla [position] and to see these new stars being born and the two of us next to each other just like it was 1998, it’s the most fun. To do it with him, to see how excited he is, it’s phenomenal and one of the highlights for me over the past couple of years.”
Just call them D-Generation NXT.
WWE NXT debuts on the USA Network on Sept. 18 at 8 p.m. ET and will feature a North American Championship match between Velveteen Dream and Roderick Strong; a triple-threat, No. 1 contender match between Bianca Belair, Io Shirai and Mia Yim; and a street fight between Matt Riddle and Killian Dain.
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