With a historic NXT TakeOver in New Orleans and the Superstar Shakeup behind us, Wednesday marked the start of a new era in the world of NXT.
Recently deposed NXT women's champion Ember Moon, former NXT tag team champions The Authors of Pain and No Way Jose are off and running on Monday Night Raw. Former NXT champion Andrade "Cien" Almas (with Zelina Vega), the Iconic Duo (now The IIconics) and SAnitY have joined the ranks of SmackDown.
Though SAnitY is sticking around to tie up some loose ends in the weeks to come, and Vega made a final appearance, this will be the last we'll hear of their stories in NXT. Each performer and group had their own significant impact on the history of the brand, but it's time to turn the page toward the next chapter.
Truth be told, the timing couldn't be much better.
At NXT TakeOver: New Orleans, we got one of the strongest overall outings that we'd ever seen from NXT. Moon, Almas, The Authors of Pain and Killian Dain all played a part in making it a special night, but the centerpiece of what NXT will be going forward was featured throughout the night. From the other five wrestlers in the NXT North American championship ladder match, to new champions Aleister Black and Shayna Baszler, the budding rivalry between Pete Dunne and Roderick Strong, and of course the payoff to the long-simmering blood feud between Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa, the future of NXT has arrived.
It's become the natural order of things in NXT over the past four years where a few people at a time step up to Raw and SmackDown and the next wave of talent takes their place. There have been some stronger waves than others, but if the performances in New Orleans are any indication, this iteration of NXT might be in as strong a position as any that came before it.
"That level of growth in that short period of time, is awesome. It's one of my favorite things about NXT," said Paul "Triple H" Levesque, during a news conference held shortly after the conclusion of NXT TakeOver: New Orleans. "I think there was a lot of people who thought it was a weakness when we first started -- this turnover, that 'Oh my God, you get somebody over and then the roster takes them and then you're doomed, right?' Might take us a little bit... but we'll get there.
"It's about new talent. I think it's the strength," Levesque continued. "I can look at almost every card...when we go to Brooklyn, almost every year I can look at that card and there's nobody on it from the year before," Levesque said. "I can look at this card tonight, I'm not really sure who's on it from last year's WrestleMania [weekend] card. It's very small, and when you look at the main roster [at WrestleMania], I think there's two matches on that card that don't have somebody from NXT."
The process speaks to how effectively the current system of NXT works.
Not everyone who's gotten the call to Raw or SmackDown is main-eventing WrestleMania, but with a few notable exceptions, those who are thriving on those shows have come through NXT. The record of NXT champions and NXT women's champions is an even better indicator of future success, but Black and Baszler would be well-advised not to take anything for granted.
The driving force of NXT has almost always been to reward those who consistently drive forward and push themselves to their limits.
"I never want to get into the position where I go, 'We've got this,'" said Levesque. "There were a couple of things that nobody in this room would ever notice, that were just little things to me that... we can't make mistakes like that. I'm not talking about in ring, I'm talking production, I'm talking behind the scenes, we can't make that mistake.
"I don't ever want to get sloppy, I don't ever want to get content because that's when you make mistakes and I don't want to make mistakes," Levesque continued. "Not with production, not with any of it, right? When you do that then you've kinda thrown it in already, to me anyways. So, it's just about going in there and doing the best you can, on every single thing, knowing what your intent is."
Complacency doesn't seem to be in the vocabulary of most of the NXT roster, though. One look at Ciampa and Gargano proves that when the story lands right, and the performers commit themselves fully, you can achieve something truly magical.
There's luck and circumstance involved, to be sure, but this rivalry that will surely carry on through the next few months has brought together all of the things that NXT does better than anyone else. The brand owns an old school sense of good and evil that's so hard to find in modern wrestling.
"It's just a classic story, you know, you don't even have to say wrestling," said Levesque. "Classics never get old, it's authentic and it's real. It was done with passion and emotion and feel. There's a ring of truth to all of it, right? We put Gargano and Ciampa together and they weren't best of friends, but they became it. He was in his wedding and all that is legit.
"And to go forward from there, the injuries and just the story... part of it was the plan, and then part of it was just working around the nuances of life to get there," Levesque continued. "But it almost made it better in some way, right? To me this is one of those things that I love because it is the classic bad guy-good guy... to me, that's the art of what we do -- and I do consider this an art form, in every sense of it. Sometimes you hit magic."
The current state of NXT is such that even with this once-in-a-lifetime-level rivalry with Gargano and Ciampa, there was a perfectly good argument to be made that at least three different matches could've headlined NXT TakeOver: New Orleans. Even with the talent that moved on, it's a great problem for Triple H and NXT to have moving forward.
"I feel like any of them could have [main evented], and this was a debate. A lot of points of view on it. There's a part of me that goes, 'Whoa, the title should close,' and then there's a part of me that goes, 'You cannot pass that emotion.' You just can't. No level of moonsault, no level of flip off a ladder, no level of any of that is gonna pass that level of emotion and feeling -- that level of emotion of the storytelling.
"I don't know how you could have gone off the air better than Gargano gets his life back and his wife's in there," said Levesque. "Unless I have Ciampa run back in there and piledrive her, that's the end. There's always next time."
The introduction of the North American championship shines a light on one of the most interesting elements going on in NXT right now -- the integration of U.K. champion Pete Dunne into the ongoing stories of NXT. We're over a year removed from the inaugural United Kingdom Championship Tournament, and Dunne and Tyler Bate have appeared numerous times on NXT TV.
With another, seemingly region-based championship introduced to the mix, and the announcement of another U.K. tournament and event coming up in June, it seems we're closer than ever to the realization of U.K.-based program. The way that Triple H speaks of it, that's just one step in a massive, long-term, global expansion.
In the short-term, it should give more clarity as to the fate of performers like Dunne, Bate and a handful of others caught in something of an in-between state. NXT is taking the best in the world and bringing them to Raw and SmackDown while simultaneously funneling talent from regions all over the world into their system. And with what we've already seen from the expanding recruitment process in WWE, NXT should only grow stronger in the years to come.
"I see a link to NXT," Levesque said of the U.K. championship. "I see these all, in some way, linked to NXT. Hard for me to place exactly. If the individual, regional [territory] is the feeder system for a larger global presence of NXT, where the NXT champion can be, sort of, on a traveling basis of appearing in different places and different promotions for, whether that Australia, whether that's the U.K., wherever it is. I think there's huge opportunities there."