NXT proves simplicity works
As this week in wrestling draws to a close, WWE TLC: Tables, Ladders & Chairs and NXT Takeover: London are both in the bag.
Put side by side, one can see exactly how the shows differ. Putting aside variables such as attendance, production value and star power, a large difference between shows was in the construction of storylines.
WWE’s main roster and it’s A-storyline was thrown into tumult when World Heavyweight Champion Seth Rollins was shelved due to injury, leaving the masterminds in the back room to quickly re-adjust their plans.
This set-back undoubtedly contributed to the somewhat scattered nature of the booking on WWE television over the past months.
Add to this state of disarray a slightly shorter than usual time period between Survivor Series and TLC (3 weeks instead of the usual four), and you have feuds half-formed and programs half-assed.
It also seems as though the WWE creative department exhibits a tendency toward over-complicated storylines. Perhaps fearing wrestling fans becoming bored with old formulas, and feeling the need to stay one step ahead of the curve, writers and bookers are producing ever-more layered and convoluted conflicts, often involving multiple players and angles.
One can understand their perspective, as well as their desire to stay on the cutting edge of intelligent entertainment.
The problem is when you try to do too much.
The latest showing from NXT across the pond proved that simple conflicts with clearly defined characters can be effective.
The WWE Diva’s Championship Match
The NXT Women’s Championship Match
Women’s wrestling has become a defining distinction between the development brand and the Big Fed. And, even though Paige once again has Charlotte, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks to butt heads with inside the ring, it cannot save them from bad writing.
In the weeks building up to TLC, Charlotte and Paige were having the most heated feud on WWE TV. It was a friends turned rivals story, which probably would have gone over more effectively if Paige hadn’t already proven herself disloyal and selfish.
The drama began to get convoluted some weeks back on television, when Paige (verbally) attacked Charlotte’s family, including her dead brother. This crossed a line between edgy shoot face promo and dastardly heel promo, and garnered Charlotte and the Flair family tangible sympathy.
On the heels of that move, however, WWE began incorporating her father, Ric “Dirtiest Player in the Game” Flair into the program. Charlotte began aping the Hall of Famer’s heelish moves as she did in NXT. She even pulled a fast one on her supposed bestie Becky Lynch in order to score a cheap win.
Going into TLC, Charlotte had begun talking, wrestling and strutting like a complete villain. Meanwhile, fans had been given legitimate reasons to boo her opponent. Add to that sordid mix the fact that Ric Flair is the most popular villain of all time.
The result when these two Ace wrestlers squared off at the pay-per-view was a split crowd, unsure of which woman to support – or even, if they should support either.
Compare this to NXT.
Going into the Women’s Championship match, the story was simple: Nia Jax is a monster and Bayley the everyday hero – can the hero stop the monster?
Although not as highly regarded, highly built or highly received as other notable matches this year, Bayley versus Nia Jax was a resounding success built on a storyline angle as old as the Old Testament.
Bayley played David to Jax’s Goliath, and did it well. So well in fact, that at multiple times during the match, it seemed that victory was imminent. Jax’s domination was so complete that it seemed only a matter of time before the champ succumbed.
Using fundamental submission which played as last-ditch desperation, Bayley forced her giant to tap, retaining her title. The David beat the Goliath, and the crowd got their feel-good ending.
At TLC, a Hall of Fame heel helped his border-line heel daughter beat another off again, on again, sort-of heel. How could expect anything more than a tepid pop?
The WWE World Heavyweight Championship TLC Match
The NXT Championship Match
The main event of Takeover: London was an event few wrestling fans have had the pleasure of seeing. Certainly not on television. And certainly not on high definition television in front of a crowd numbering more than ten thousand.
A match the caliber of Samoa Joe versus Finn Balor doesn’t even need a plot for people to pack the stadium. Their reputations and international renown alone sell the tickets.
As fitting tributes to the veterans, NXT creative decided not to give them angles based on overly complicated circumstances. Instead, the drama played true to the characters – to the men themselves.
Samoa Joe joined NXT to prove he’s the best in the world. He challenged Balor, the champ, to a match. The match didn’t happen (through no fault of Balor’s, but anyway), so Joe goes after the champ.
The conflict was played up as friends turned rivals, as Joe and Balor have known one another for a decade and won the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Invitational together as partners. Adding a personal edge to the program upped the drama, but in all fairness it was not necessary. Fans were excited to see this match regardless of the circumstances.
Turning Joe heel, however, allowed bookers to keep a clearly defined Hero Versus Villain dynamic, which has a unifying effect on the crowd and makes for stronger emotional reactions.
Meanwhile, in WWE…
Roman Reigns and Sheamus do not share a long and storied history. In fact, if this match had occurred (and it probably did) a few months ago on Thursday Night Smackdown, it might have been regarded as a mid-card time-filler.
Being thrown together with no real reason to feud with one another, this feud essentially became all about the title. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. The pursuit of gold is, essentially, the ultimate story of the sport of wrestling.
However, wanting this match to mean more and be about more, the creative department went to straw-grabbing.
Sheamus was painted as a bag-man for the Authority. His act of cashing in the Money in the Bank briefcase was played as another in a long line of instances in which the powers that be screwed over the powerhouse, instead of an independent action of a lone, rogue warrior.
The League of Nations was formed the night after Survivor Series, adding more bodies to the feud. The faction was supposed to add more obstacles to the gauntlet, but were only minimally effective to that end leading up to TLC.
The build-up to Takeover saw Finn Balor’s ability to overcome Samoa Joe and his coquina clutch called into question, thus building suspense.
WWE tried to make Reigns an underdog going into his match, as well. This would have been more effective if he wasn’t booked so consistently strong in his dealings with Sheamus, the Authority and the League of Nations in the build.
The addition of tables, ladders and chairs to the championship match makes for a more interesting contest – if the use of such weapons is justified. In the case of Reigns versus Sheamus, it seemed obligatory. This was not the blow-off to a storied and personal rivalry, which is usually when violent gimmicks are employed. This was their first main event match with one another, ever.
The fact that NXT bases their programs on simple angles which are tried, tested and true is a good thing. The young stars of tomorrow, just like young writers, should hone their developing skills on a simple structure before tackling something layered and multi-faceted.
However, they need only look to the main roster to see the potential downfall resulting after too much deviation from angles which have stood the test of time.
Still, one can’t admonish WWE from being ambitious. One can’t blame them for pushing the limits. Success has afforded them the privilege of taking chances.