From traditional mainstream outlets reporting on sports entertainment concerns such as CBS Sports to the chaotic mess that is reddit’s r/SquaredCircle, a rare note of consensus appears across all screens as wrestling fans looks for recaps and reviews of last nights NXT TakeOver Chicago II pay-per-view.
It was awesome. It was violent, bloody, fast, furious, and had emotional punch. Excepting one big botch between too-cool NXT champ Aleister Black and five-star Lars Sullivan on a whiffed Black Mass kick, the event was almost flawless, it being hard for even a veteran smart mark to find much to complain about.
The opening contest was a strong candidate for match of the year, as perennially undervalued talents Oney Lorcan and Danny Burch went up against The Undisputed Era, with Adam Cole at ringside. The four men fought their hearts out, drawing several loud and lusty “N-X-T!” and “This is awe-some!” chants from the turned up crowd. The NXT Women’s title match ended in a high-intensity climax as Nikki Cross was choked out by the fierce Shayna Baszler in a true nailbiter.
The hotly anticipated main event, a Chicago Street Fight between bitter enemies and one-time best friends, Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa, was a clinic. High-flying dangerous spots, perfectly executed strikes and grapples, and a soul-crushing defeat for the man whom fans adore in Johnny Wrestling put the cap on top of a perfect night of sports entertainment.
With all of that in mind, a few things that the main roster could improve upon as learned from the fine folks in developmental might be worthy of examination.
Develop midcard talents credibly, slowly, and with important feuds: NXT excels at consistently developing an intrepid and dynamic midcard, where superstars actually do have the chance of rising in the ranks. No better illustration can be seen of this than with the fan reaction to Oney Lorcan and Danny Burch’s performances last night, where they won a standing ovation following the match despite being cast as deep heels and booed during their entrance against the wildly popular Undisputed Era. The NXT women’s division has been a breeding ground of hot talent from Ember Moon to Ruby Riott to Asuka, the latter going straight to the top of the main roster card after departing NXT as an undefeated champion. The Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa feud has been one of the best battles between blood brothers ever featured on WWE programming, and was spawned by a tag-team breakup built on the back of two “never really was” talents who are both seeing great returns presently.
More danger, more blood, more workrate: Workrate refers to the speed of the match, the tempo of the wrestlers in the ring, and is something that NXT seems to excel at both during their weekly tapings and during their monthly TakeOver events. Too fast without consideration for story-telling will result in a pointless spotfest, too slow with excess focus on the technicalities will bore fickle fans, drawing CM Punk chants or worse. Injecting the product with enough dangerous moves, more pertinent and story-appropriate violence, and a kinetic movement that ensures viewers are caught up in the action is important, more important than ten or twenty minutes of reheated exposition we are used to seeing pad out Raw and Smackdown for advertisers and an aversion to any sort of controversial content that may damage reputations with the same. A sanitized product is a boring product, and wrestling is at its best when it stays far away from the overly safe and predictable.
No absent champions: NXT reliably produces credible champions who defend their titles with regularity, in full-length matches on the Network and almost always during monthly TakeOvers. While Brock Lesnar may be a big name, and an imposing beast in the ring, casual and hardcore fans alike are growing tired with infrequent appearances on the part of the WWE Universal Champion. Paul Heyman may be a great orator, and always entertaining to watch, but even his schtick can wear thin without substance to back it up. With a roster as large as the current WWE offerings, the champion needs to be the best example of what the company can deliver to their fans. Being NXT Champion seems to have more credibility in some ways than holding the ostensibly biggest belt in the game, and that’s a problem for the flagship brand.
To close on something that seems like a quibble but in actuality makes a great deal of aesthetic difference is a suggestion to drop the lighting on the audience in the stands, focusing the spotlight entirely on the ring, the thrust, and immediate surroundings.
It seems like such a small and slight visual concept, yet NXT frequently dims the audience lights, leaving the squared circle as the one and only spectacle. Not only does this cut down on “annoying sign guy” fans just looking to gather attention for themselves and to put themselves over at the cost of the show, it also creates a sense of greater immersion, something theatrical for those watching in person or at home.
When French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote about “The World of Wrestling” as an essay contained within the volume Mythologies, he spoke of this importance.
“… it is the drenching and vertical quality of the flood of light. Even hidden in the most squalid Parisian halls, Wrestling partakes of the nature of the great solar spectacles, Greek drama and bullfights: In both, a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve.”
This is food for thought, and a notion that still resonates with the visceral spectacle we still love nearly three-quarters of a century later.