Triple H has served, since his initial rise to prominence in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as one of the most controversial figures in contemporary professional wrestling. His influence in the complex web of WWE backstage politics during the Attitude Era, particularly in the later years cannot be denied – from his role as the mischievous voice in the ear of an already shrewd Shawn Michaels, to his relationship and eventual marriage to Stephanie McMahon – a matrimony that saw the couple emerge as the heir apparent pair to the WWE throne. Controversial or otherwise, Paul Levesque may very well be one of the greatest politicians in the history of pro-wrestling, or at the very least, of the last several decades.
Few of his major programmes, perhaps since his true star making rivalry with Mick Foley in 2000, have failed to yield discussion of his true motives and allegedly unprofessional political strategies, as he went on to dominate the early 2000s title scene – using his political sway, to, as some may argue, cut-down potential main event talent such as Scott Steiner and Booker T. Debates continued for the majority of Hunter’s main roster in-ring career, with the lines between work, shoot, politicking, and self (un)-awareness blurring further as the years wore on. The term “buried” juxtaposed with images of Triple H and his numerous championship belts became a common meme, perhaps even losing meaning in some circles as a result. Levesque, and the company’s creative, seemed well aware of this public perception leading into WrestleMania 30, where perennial underdog, Daniel Bryan, was seemingly emasculated, undermined, and as some argued “buried”, before overcoming in the main event of 2014’s largest show.
The “buried” term has given way on a smaller scale to the “political hit” phrase coined by Dylan Hales, with the booking of the supposed future face of the company, Roman Reigns, so poor that the notion of Hunter sabotaging Vince’s main project for his own political gains seeming far less absurd than it would at first site, despite becoming a meme of sorts in its own right.
And yet, despite close to two decades of controversy, well known to observers of the industry, Hunter has in some sense donned a fourth persona, distinct from that of his on screen character, political hit figure, or corporate identity. Paul Levesque, Executive Vice President of Talent Relations, Live Events & Creative, is now to many core fans, perhaps even a majority, the unlikely saviour of the company – a messiah waiting to ascend to position of CEO and spawn a new boom period, fronted by indie darlings, with a focus on the in-ring product, and emphasis on non-scripted promos, and believability. As ludicrous as this notion may be, given out of context and with the above backdrop, there is at least some degree of credence that we may lend to this idea of Hunter as a future positive figure for the business. After all, NXT has become one of the most beloved properties in wrestling over the past several years.
Whilst Triple H is a man to have openly acknowledged perceived differences between the NXT and main roster audiences, he is also the man who signed (or at least approved) El Generico, Prince Devitt, La Sombra, Samoa Joe, Austin Aries, Kevin Steen, Uhaa Nation, Rich Swann, Biff Busick, Axel Tischer, Shinsuke Nakamura, AJ Styles, KENTA, Karl Anderson, Doc Gallows, KANA, and perhaps even Kota Ibushi. He created one of, if not the very best, women’s division the company has ever seen, certainly pushing female NXT talent harder and further than any women’s division at any other time in company history. NXT offers a back to basics approach as far as storylines are concerned, and from an in-ring perspective, at least on the Takeover specials, has often out-shined the main roster. Levesque has even gone as far as to announce a cruiserweight tournament to feature unsigned talent from around the world, a concept nearly incomprehensible but a couple of years ago. Why then, given the successes and positive decisions made in NXT, should we question Hunter’s intentions and NXT’s potential impact on the business? If he is attempting to change the way that the company treats wrestling in ways craved by generations of pundits and observers, why question NXT, and moreover, why question Paul Levesque?
One could turn to conspiracies, suggesting that Hunter is simply attempting to win the support of those in and outside of the company, and given his reputation as one of wrestling’s all-time great politicians, perhaps there is some degree of truth in this assertion. But, for as intriguing as such conjectures may be, what really bears mentioning is not the set of potential deceptions behind the developmental brand, but the very nature of the NXT model itself.
From the perspective of individual international talent, NXT is a wonderful entity, offering better pay and status than any WWE/F developmental system prior. For some independent companies affiliated with NXT, such as WWN, the existence of such a system with whom to partner may be beneficial, at least in the short term. And most certainly in the short term, wrestling fans are receiving a world class product, in some respects superior to the main roster, with a bevy of potential dream matches few would have thought possible but a year ago. However, in the long term, the NXT model of signing indie talent at a rate never before seen, and running NXT shows in direct opposition to the de facto number two promotion in the United States, Ring of Honor, is an unsustainable one – one wholly unhealthy for the wrestling business.
NXT is by no means the first of WWE’s developmental extensions to sign indie talent, as the likes of Jon Moxley (Dean Ambrose), Claudio Castagnoli (Cesaro), and Tyler Black (Seth Rollins) worked their way through NXT’s predecessor, FCW – as did Bryan Danielson (Daniel Bryan). However, these signings were opportunistic in nature, with the majority of company investment going not into refining indie stars, but for better or worse moulding from scratch prospects from outside of wrestling (for better most certainly in the case of OVW generations prior to Punk, with the likes of John Cena, Randy Orton, Brock Lesnar, and Batista all graduating within a few years of one another). In contrast, the current rate of indie signings is more akin to Vince McMahon Jr.’s talent raids of the 1980s. NJPW’s loss of two of its biggest stars within the span of a year, and a similar situation for CMLL, coupled with the high frequency at which NXT runs opposite Ring of Honor stand as a testament to the validity of the need for concern. (*)
By all accounts, the Samoa Joe and Austin Aries of the world, who have been liberated from their years long TNA limbo, may very well be NXT exclusive performers, which is a blessing for younger roster members. However, it would seem that the current faces of NXT, Finn Balor and Bayley, are likely to remain in NXT for at least the next few months, this is despite their months long preparedness for a long stale main roster. These tactics have their respective positives and negatives, but are not the actions of a traditional developmental extension.
Developmental brands don’t tour the country in opposition to Ring of Honor shows, run internationally, or retain main event calibre talent primed for the main roster for extended periods of time unduly – the latter in particular defeats the objective of a developmental territory to begin with. It is in this way that NXT is not a true developmental system, but a third, Network exclusive touring brand, run by the next in line to the McMahon throne.
Whilst both the independents and NXT are seemingly flourishing, it takes years for a Biff Busick to ascend to the level of an “indie star”, where they can work less experienced talent and aid in the creation of new names recognised on a national and international level. In the mid-to-late 2000s Ring of Honor experienced the adverse effects of having Punk, Joe (TNA), Danielson, and McGuinness (TNA) signed away, dropping significantly in popularity and losing much of their cult momentum, which they have only begun to regain in recent years. Those signings were largely independent of one another, and it is doubtful that Ring of Honor in the mid-2000s was targeted by WWE as competition, unlike the 2016 case, where Hunter and NXT may very well be out for blood.
What this process amounts to is tantamount to the “over-fishing” of the independents – signings that reap great rewards in the short term, but that will, given time, deplete what has been the company’s most successful source of new talent for the better part of five years in the American indies. Of course, the notion that it takes in excess of five years to make a star is preposterous, but very few independent talents break out on a national level before surpassing that milestone, and worryingly, if the Biff Busicks, PACs and Rich Swanns are signed away as they breakout, then there will be less marquee talent for those on the ascent to work, which will ultimately stunt talent growth, not only for the bigger non-WWE brands, but for WWE and the business as a whole.
As damaging as these practises may be for the indies, the extraction of top New Japan talent – Styles, Anderson, Gallows, Nakamura, and now a rumoured freelance Ibushi – will have lasting consequences on New Japan – possibly dire should Kazuchika Okada be signed at some point. Precautions can and have been taken by three of the four major non-WWE/TNA outlets: ROH, New Japan and Lucha Underground – all implementing multi-year contracts either over the past few years, or in the case of Lucha Underground, from their inception. But, this is only a temporary barrier in most cases, and whilst there do exist performers like Kenny Omega, Michael Elgin, and The Young Bucks, who are seemingly content with the possibility of never working WWE, the goal for most is, and has been for the better part of two decades, to make it to the WWE. This is by no means a flaw in the thinking of talent, as the WWE, for all of their creative faults, offers not only some of the best pay and the biggest platform, but also safer working conditions, and downside guarantees, where contractual perks of this nature can rarely be implemented in other promotions.
On the other hand, however, there is only so much main roster space available, even with five hours of first run USA content per week. At the same time, however, there is only so much the company is willing to do with talent of a certain type. AJ Styles was pushed as “the hottest free agent in sports entertainment” upon his debut, a huge statement given the company’s reluctance to acknowledge the existence of products other than their own. Within weeks of receiving this moniker and garnering one of the biggest reactions in recent memory within the confines of WWE programming, AJ Styles was positioned as a mid-carder, albeit one on the upper end of the midcard spectrum. Whilst the majority of the roster is positioned in this mid-card malaise, the constant reiteration of Styles having yet proven himself in “the big leagues”, deeming him the “Red Neck Rookie”, and so on demonstrates that whilst the company is able to recognise world class talent and the benefits they can offer the roster, many times talent signings are more about the act itself, than what can be done with the performers in question. This mentality falls well in-line with the company’s aggressive history of talent acquisition – perhaps some talent is signed simply to deny other promotions access.
This mentality is a lasting relic from the Monday Night Wars in a sense, a time when signing talent to high-end contracts just to go unutilised was umpteen times more favourable than letting the competition get hold of them. And historically speaking, this strategy has been a cornerstone of WWE promotional practises, at least during the transitions to cable and pay-per-view, competition with WCW, and now the migration to the WWE Network. The company has demonstrated a strictly predatory mentality towards talent acquisition in recent history, and have only sought to reconstruct the present and past of wrestling in their image. To think that NXT will not be used as a weapon in this conquest, is to underestimate a mentality on which the very foundations of the modern company were built.
Perhaps this company trait was overestimated in the 2000s by fans on the internet, with terms such as “slave name” being thrown about during the signing and renaming of Bryan Danielson. Thankfully, it would seem that most have moved away from this thought process, and understand that on an individual level, WWE signings are often times wholly positive life events for performers who have devoted years of their life and sacrificed greatly for their craft. Attention must, however, be brought to the macro-processes at work – as whilst the company may exhibit much of the same competitiveness and hostility, the NXT encroachment on independent and international wrestling is nowhere near as blatant as the talent raids of the 1980s were. No, NXT’s cannibalisation of the alternative wrestling scene is one hidden behind an ingeniously constructed facade, with one of Triple H’s many faces at the forefront.
Top names from across the globe are being picked off at a rate wholly unsustainable, and with the indies as the company’s most successful talent source for years, this is far from a wise move on the company’s part. As if the systems that created the decades biggest fresh crop of stars collapse, it will have far reaching consequences, both on the smaller companies, and WWE itself.
So, in the future, when Paul Levesque’s NXT persona announces his next talent acquisition, don’t begrudge the signee of their potentially positive career decision, but think not only of the quality of the NXT product or what truly lies behind the understated grin of Triple H in the photo-op, but also the far-reaching ramifications that the company’s latest conquest will have on the industry.
(*) To name a few instances of NXT/ROH cross-over over the last six or so months – ROH 02/05 Nashville Tennessee v. NXT 02/05 Nashville Tennessee, ROH 01/16 Collinsville Illinois v. NXT 01/16 Chicago Illinois (EDIT: As a reader noted, Collinsville is in the Saint Louis metro area, 280 miles from Chicago, and so to say that there was crossover here was a stretch.) , ROH Final Battle 12/18 Philadelphia Pennsylvania v. NXT TakeOver London 12/16 London, ROH 12/05 Fort Lauderdale Florida v. NXT 12/05 Citrus Springs Florida, ROH 09/19 San Antonio Texas v. NXT 09/19 San Antonio Texas, ROH 09/18 San Antonio Texas v. NXT 09/18 Austin Texas, ROH 08/22 New York City New York v. NXT 08/22 New York City New York.