Johnny Gargano has competed in 23 TakeOvers, victorious only seven times. Despite his lopsided record, Gargano carries the title of “Johnny TakeOver,” having competed in the most of any NXT wrestler ever. Gargano is the face of the brand, and has put on the best matches consistently for NXT for years. But is that a compliment, or criticism?
NXT is a two-headed snake; one head develops up-and-coming talent for WWE, while the other produces mainstream television and quarterly specials. Ideally, TakeOvers would feature said up-and-coming talent who, after years of hard work, training, and honing their craft, rise through the ranks of developmental, getting television reps and a featured spot. After all, that’s the entire reason why developmental exists, why you pour millions of dollars into the resources. But that’s hardly the case of NXT’s history.
You wouldn’t judge a baseball team’s minor league affiliates by their trade acquisitions, and the same concept applies to WWE’s farm system. Despite funding a bottoms-ups foundation to raise the next generation of homegrown talent, NXT had their cake and wanted to eat it, too. So while WWE prospects practiced at the state-of-the-art training facilities, independent wrestling talent from all around the world were being signed and performing at the biggest NXT shows of the year.
This trend has fundamentally changed the identity of NXT. And while this has certainly spoiled fans by resulting in some of the best professional wrestling on the planet, it may have caused NXT’s raison d’être to get lost along the way, straying away from their true purpose. After all, what is the point of NXT?
To complicate matters even further, we are now in the era of main roster talent floating back down to the black and gold brand to compete, like a college sophomore putting on the jersey of his high school football team for the second half of the season. Finn Balor dipped back down to Orlando for a memorable run, collecting the vacant title and breathing fresh air back into his career. He’s recently re-debuted on SmackDown. What’s to become of him?
For years, the formula went as follows: wrestler wins the NXT Championship, loses title, debuts on the main roster on either Raw or SmackDown, usually at the Raw After WrestleMania or at least a big moment. The same rule applied for the other champions in NXT, too. Men’s, women’s, tag champ — same idea. You lose, then you graduate.
It was rare to be a multi-time champion. It felt special, momentous when The Revival reclaimed the tag belts from American Alpha for their second reign. And when Somoa Joe and Shinsuke Nakamura traded the heavyweight belt for a few months, it felt different.
Then the inevitable hit.
These NXT graduates were suddenly small fish in a big pond, and swam up against the biggest shark of them all: Vince McMahon. For whatever reason — size, language barriers, injury, or (most often the case) Vince just didn’t “get them,” — they fizzled on the main roster.
With the history of NXT talent on the main roster, Gargano’s “NXT for life” proclamation was understandable. Ciampa certainly agreed, and Adam Cole seems slotted in the alignment as well. But that promo was two years ago, at the origin of AEW Dynamite. Since then, NXT has moved off Wednesday nights and back to Tuesday like a dog with their tail tucked between their leg.
Emerging from the pandemic, Raw and SmackDown feature white-hot crowds while AEW’s enthusiastic fan base is evident on their two-hour program. NXT, however, feels like it’s on a different planet. Masked crowds tucked behind distracting chain-linked fences at the docile Capitol Wrestling Center feels like it’s the opening act for the main event the next evening.
I didn’t buy in to the argument that AEW’s touring full arena shows would have an impact on NXT’s more intimate setting. I thought the novelty and good will NXT had built up would suffice. And I was dead wrong.
NXT has lost its cool factor. The buzz generated by TakeOvers used to radiate off the television screen. And once they get back to full capacity crowds and can finally put Covid in the rear-view mirror for good, I’m sure they’ll get some of that back. But there’s a portion of that I fear is gone forever.
What is this promotion? What purpose does it serve? Of course it has produced talents like Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns, but their time in developmental predates what NXT has come to stand for. Now, I don’t know what they stand for at all.
They’ve shown to be inadequate in producing talent for the main roster, despite that primarily being the fault of McMahon’s out of touch outlook. But he’s still the boss, and he seems determined to go down with this ship. If the purpose of NXT is to develop talent for WWE, it is failing.
But if the purpose of NXT is to produce the best wrestling in the world, a place where developing prospects and independent stalwarts can mesh and provide something unique and alternative….well, they’re failing in that category, too. In the eyes of most fans, AEW is now the alternative wrestling promotion, a position NXT can’t claim due to the toxic relationship it’s fostered with the main roster, with sudden and jarring reminders of who really matters, and who doesn’t. Such was the case when undefeated NXT Champion Karion Kross was defeated in two minutes to perennial loser Jeff Hardy. It knocks you down a peg. It’s now precedent, and a stain on the legacy of the NXT brand.
For a short period in the history of this industry, NXT was producing the best wrestling programming on this planet. But with their failure to produce talent for the main roster — even if it isn’t necessarily their fault — and their inability to adapt to the meteoric rise of AEW, I’m not sure what NXT stands for.
So Johnny Gargano is Johnny Wrestling is Johnny TakeOver. He’s the best wrestler in NXT’s history. So, what?
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