Tuesday, 26 June 2012

NXT: Redemption Is Dead, Long Live NXT

Okay, so with NXT: Redemption having finally ended, and the sixth season of NXT kicking off last week, now seems like a pretty good time to summarise my thoughts on season five of the show, and also look ahead to the potential highlights of this series. Whilst Redemption recieved a lot of criticism from those who'd grown weary of the brand after the divas got involved, the fifth series still managed to gain a cult following, and there were many who were very sad to see the show wind down, such as this guy, who I pretty much completely agree with.



From the time I first stumbled across it towards the end of 2011, I was one of the seemingly very small proportion of WWE viewers who watched Redemption every week. At first I found it decent, but not great, but as time went on I got to know the characters and understand their relationships with each other, and what they wanted to get out of their time on the show, and I began to love the show, to the point where I frequently enjoyed Redemption more than that weeks RAW or SmackDown. NXT displayed a level of character development and a complex series of interweaving stories and relationships that we haven't seen on the two flagship shows for a long time, and I think that's part of the reason why people became so fond of it.

We had Maxine's relationship with Derrick Bateman, which broke down as she moved on to Johnny Curtis, but then went back to Bateman after a wedding day revelation, only for him to leave her for her arch-rival Kaitlyn. Maxine & Curtis would be paired together again later in the series, but this time against their will, as Match Co-Ordinator William Regal handcuffed the duo to each other as punishment for their part in the kidnapping of Matt Striker, which was eventually revealed to have been masterminded by Curt Hawkins & Tyler Reks, following Curtis' drugging of the long time NXT host in a plot to get Maxine time with Regal so she could try and convince him to grant her the one thing she'd always wanted - a move off the show. Striker was eventually freed by Bateman & Kaitlyn, and the trio discovered Hawkins & Reks involvement, which led to Regal making the two square off in the ring, then firing them. I could continue, but even I know there's such a thing as too much rambling.

Redemption was different to every other show WWE airs, and that was part of the appeal. At a time when RAW & SmackDown were cluttered up with long pre-WrestleMania promos, and subsequent replays of those promos, on NXT there was a small cast of young, talented workers, all of whom were billed equally, and all of whom got the chance to show the WWE universe that they were more than capable of stepping up and becoming interesting WWE superstars with a depth of character only recently seen on the main roster in the utterly stupendous AJ Lee. It was part wrestling show, part soap opera, and thoroughly entertaining.

Make no mistake, even though there was a lot of time given to storyline & character progression, NXT was still above all else a wrestling show, and despite being home to some inexperienced talent we still got to witness some outstanding matches, most notably in the feud between Tyson Kidd & Michael McGillicutty towards the end of the season (this rivalry appeal to be moving over to the new series, as they faced off in the main event of season six's opening show).

Everything about NXT: Redemption was perfectly suited to its roster and its standing within the heirarchy of WWE shows, and it offers plenty of pointers to it's bigger brothers on how to put together a true sports entertainment show without neglecting large parts of the roster, and I hope that the upcoming change to three hour RAW's sees some of the standout NXT talents get their chance to shine on the main roster. It was both a masterpiece in quirky, family friendly sports entertainment, and a throwback to the good old days of balanced rosters, well developed characters and interesting storylines, and I will always look back on the series as the peak of NXT, and the greatest wrestling show nobody watched.



Anyway, I've prattled on about Redemption for long enough, so now it's time to take a look at the new series of NXT and see what's in store, both in terms of the format and the roster.

Season six of NXT sees several changes from the format of Redemption, with the biggest change being that it's no longer filmed out on the road before SmackDown. Instead, we get to witness the next generation of superstars compete in front of crowds who actually came to see them, rather than Randy Orton or Sheamus, on the new set at Full Sail University, Florida.

This venue seems a more appropriate size for a show like NXT, containing only about 500 spectators, and it feels more like an indy show than a WWE program, but it benefits from this downsizing, as the awkward silences of the past are replaced by enthusiastic support from local fans, some of whom may already know the new talent, who have been working at WWE's developmental territory, Florida Championship Wrestling. Similarly, the venue may be more suitable for FCW talent, as it's only slightly larger than the FCW Arena, so they are not immediately thrown out in front of a crowd of thousands who don't know them at all, and they get the chance to develop a fanbase before moving to larger arenas, to (hopefully) a larger reaction than they would otherwise have recieved.

The other notable change between seasons 5 and 6 of NXT is that the backstage shenanigans of Redemption have been cut back, although not as badly as I first feared. Instead of becoming totally match focused, like Superstars, the first episode of season 6 featured several promo videos introducing the new talent, as well as a backstage segment with Johnny Curtis & Derrick Bateman, setting up their match on episode two of the new season. I'm hopeful that the Curtis/Bateman promo will be the first of many such skits, and that we will still be able to enjoy some of Redemption's backstage madness, but it does seem that the new series will be a mix of the earlier NXT seasons, Redemption, and Supertars. As long as they manage to strike the right balance between the three there shouldn't be any problems there, but if they drift too far towards a bland, match only show with no storylines (like Superstars) then the show, and the talent, could suffer.



In terms of the roster, it appears that some of the stars of Redemption will making the jump to Full Sail, as we've already seen Tyson Kidd, Michael McGillicutty, Derrick Bateman & Johnny Curtis appear in the first show of the series. We have also been promised occasional appearances from members of the main roster, with Damien Sandow appearing last week, and names like Hunico and World Heavyweight Champion Sheamus set to feature in upcoming episodes. It's the FCW talent, however, that will take centre stage this season, and there are plenty of very talented young workers - male and female - for fans to get excited about.

The first show saw Bo Dallas (formerly Bo Rotunda) beat Rick Victor, and Dallas is certainly one of the ones to watch. He's got wrestling in his veins - his father was Mike 'IRS' Rotundo, and his mother was the sister of Barry Windham. Also, his brother is fellow NXT cast member Bray Wyatt, who I'll talk about later. Despite having only turned 22 recently, Bo has already been a three time FCW Heavyweight Champion (the only man ever to have achieved this feat) and he looks set for a bright future in the comapny. His look is slightly unusual to me, possibly because of his scarily straight hair, and his promo skills aren't great, but he's a solid in-ring performer and he still has a lot of time to improve on his negatives.

Bray Wyatt may be familiar to some as Husky Harris, contestant on season 2 of NXT and member of the New Nexus. Since getting SuperCena'd back down to FCW he's changed his gimmick and now works as one of the best heels you're likely to see on the show. Unsettling and fascinating in equal measure, Wyatt has recieved many comparisons to Max Cady, the character played by Robert DeNiro in the film 'Cape Fear', and when his gimmick is put together with his size and wrestling ability, it seems certain that Bray Wyatt will become a top heel on the main roster very soon. He debuts this week, and I expect him to establish himself as one of the brightest stars on the show. Just don't expect Eli Cottonwood to be by his side, as he's been released.

When it comes to working under the shadow of your father though, Richie Steamboat trumps the rest of the FCW roster. The son of Ricky 'The Dragon' Steamboat, Richie displays the potential to be just as good as his dad, alhough I do feel his moveset needs to be added to before he can be considered ready for the main roster. That issue aside, there's very little holding Richie back. He's improved his look from his early babyfaced appearance, and can cut a good promo. His matches with Damien Sandow, and later Antonio Cesaro, over the Jack Brisco 15 Championship - a mid-level title usually contested in 15min Iron Man matches - showcased his in ring skill, and it would be no surprise to see him competing against the same two superstars on the main roster soon.

Another FCW standout who debuts this week is Seth Rollins. Formerly known as Tyler Black in Ring of Honour, Rollins has been one of the top talents on FCW, having held both the FCW Heavyweight title and the Jack Brisco 15 Championship, something nobody else has done. He's not the greatest promo cutter, but he's solid, has a good look and he brings an energetic yet technicaly sound style that will help to quickly get him over as a face when he hits the main roster. He's put on some excellent matches with other top FCW guys, most notably three excellent matches with Dean Ambrose, the latest of which took place on the FCW show that aired last weekend.

Stepping away from singles competitors briefly, I am compelled to mention The Ascension, who could well be the team that really makes the WWE's tag team division relevant again. They are totally unique in the current (reality) era, as they work under a gimmick that's most comparable to The Undertaker's 'Phenom' persona, even down to the intense entrance and apparent mystical powers. The duo, comprising NXT season 4 veteran Conor O'Brian and Kenneth Cameron, have been almost unbeatable in FCW (as far as I can recall, only FCW tag champs Graves & Carter have beaten them), and they started NXT in similarly dominant fashion, crushing Xavier Woods & CJ Parker after this promo, which is all I can offer up as the match has been blocked on YouTube. I really rate them as a team, and their gimmick is perfect for a quick rise to WWE tag team gold, so much so that WWE could put the belts on them before the year is out without it looking premature.

Returning to singles competitors, Kassius Ohno will no doubt join his former ROH tag partner Antonio Cesaro on the main roster in the near future. His puroresu/strong style influenced approach is different from most competitors in WWE right now, and he couples this with impressive technical skills, a good look, solid promo skills and surprising agility. Whilst it currently looks like he'll be working on his own, a reunion of the Kings of Wrestling is something that would revitalise WWE's tag team division significantly, so look for that somewhere down the line.

I've saved the best of the men for last, however. Dean Ambrose is, simply put, the most gifted allround talent yet to appear on the main roster. He's excellent in the ring, with surprisingly good technical and mat skills, and he cuts a brilliant promo, but the thing that makes him so good is how convincingly he works his gimmick. He always reminds me of Heath Ledger's Joker from The Dark Knight, but whatever the influences behind his deranged, sadistic character, he plays it so perfectly, right down to the way he walks, grunts and occasionally SHOUTS FOR NO REASON, that you believe he really is Dean Ambrose, and he really is that fucked up. He's so good, that when CM Punk paid a visit to FCW last year, he ended up squaring off against Ambrose. Expect to see that match on the main roster pretty soon. Oh, and he's also been part of a great love/hate angle with William Regal down in FCW, with a second encounter between the two set to finish off the FCW television shows, following Regal's win in their first meeting. Ambrose has the potential to be one of the greatest characters we've seen in a long time, and the sheer brilliance to be pretty much guaranteed to make it to the top, regardless of how badly he's handled by WWE. Remember the name Dean Ambrose, very soon you'll be hearing it a lot.

I've written far more than I intended to here, so I'll just quickly discuss the women and then call it quits. FCW's roster of women is possibly more talented than a large portion of the current divas, with Paige (formerly Britani Knight) and Sofia Cortez (Ivelisse Velez from the last series of Tough Enough) being the two standout performers, although Raquel Diaz (real name Shaul Guerrero, daughter of Vickie & Eddie) and Audrey Marie (possibly the closest thing to Mickie James you could get without hiring the real thing) could also become very good additions to the main roster in the future. I've not seen enough of Summer Rae (former Lingerie Football League star Danielle Moinet) to be able to judge her in ring skills yet, and Caylee Turner (Christina Crawford from Tough Enough, and sister of Alicia Fox) seems to have switched to ring announcing lately, so I can't really comment on her either.

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To summarise that massive load of text into a 'tl;dr' version...

- I loved NXT: Redemption.
- More WWE shows should try to copy Redemption's roster management and character development as well as its delightful mix of wrestling, comedy and soap opera.
- If you kidnap someone, don't leave your cane in the same room as them.
- If you frame someone to steal their girl, don't do it in front of a camera.
- Never use chloroform on Matt Striker, or hire him to play Elvis at your wedding.
- Michael Cole is actually pretty good sometimes.
- Maxine is amazing.
- If you've never watched an episode of NXT: Redemption, I urge you to do so.
- The stars of Redemption have enough ability and potential to merit a main roster push, and not just to job.

- The new series looks promising, and hasn't changed quite as much as I feared.
- The set is somewhere in between a WWE venue and the FCW Arena in terms of size, and this seems to fit the show better than taking NXT on the road.
- There is a lot of talent to keep an eye on.
- The Ascension will rise.
- Dean Ambrose is amazing. And mental.

So yeah, watch NXT. It's nowhere near as shit as you remember.

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