It’s not that it was surprising. Back when WWE announced it was completely reshaping it’s junior brand, NXT, I wrote that it would be the end of what fans of the black and gold had come to love. I guess I’m just impressed (while simultaneously depressed) at how ruthlessly and efficiently it came to pass. It only took a few months. And with these strokes, WWE has erased most of the evidence on how all this made AEW possible in the first place. But we’ll get to that.
On Sunday, NXT ran its first PPV in the “NXT 2.0” era. While NXT had been running its PPVs out of the Performance Center during the meat of the pandemic (I should really stop writing things as if it’s over), every other company had since moved shows to full arenas. NXT’s “Takeovers” used to be the only time that it would escape its Full Sail studios and be in a full basketball arena. It always had the feeling of, “Ah shit, the kids/inmates got out again. Well, guess we’d just better have a show with them before we wrangle them back to Orlando. Keep the cattle prods close by!!” It made them feel truly special, because they looked different than all the shows they ran during the year. NXT was always something of a secret club because 52 shows a year just took place in central Florida, where 98 percent of wrestling fans couldn’t get to (I can’t tell if I’m outsizing or underestimating the ratio of Florida wrestling fans to ones across the globe). There was a celebration of NXT coming to you on these shows.
Not anymore. NXT ran Sunday’s Takeover from the Performance Center, as it has, and probably will continue. That was one change. But the big one, and the one that WWE made it impossible to miss, was the symbolism. It was the traditional War Games Takeover, with both a women’s and men’s version of the gimmick/insanity. The men’s was the heart of the message, though. It pitted three institutions of the old NXT (plus LA Knight for some reason) — Johnny Gargano, Tomasso Ciampa, and Pete Dunne — against four of the new heads of 2.0 — Bron Breakker, Carmelo Hayes, Grayson Waller, and Tony D’Angelo (no, not that one, though he might as well be). Of course, the latter quartet went over the former, with Breakker pinning Ciampa to end it. Given that Breakker seems to be picked as the next top gun of NXT, it was no surprise. And he fits the bill. He’s big, he’s muscly, he follows a wrestling lineage (he’s a Steiner). You couldn’t get a better illustration of what WWE wants out of its developmental brand than this.
It continued last night, as both Kyle O’Reilly and Gargano said goodbye (though only maybe with Gargano, but probably). Both have contracts that run out as soon as this week, and rumors have swirled for months that they would head for the exit door, possibly to AEW, but somewhere that is a far more welcoming place for what they do than the place they have called home for so long.
Quite simply, there just isn’t a place for O’Reilly and Gargano in NXT anymore. Both are expert performers, celebrated in whatever company they’ve called home. But they’re small, plain and simple. And WWE, folding more and more into the caricature of itself, doesn’t want small. They don’t want “highly athletic and fast,” at least that’s how it feels. If they do, they want to make sure it’s bigger guys doing the stuff instead of those who specialize in it. They don’t want technical either, and that’s O’Reilly’s specialty.
While Adam Cole was the leader of old NXT’s “Undisputed Era,” O’Reilly was the heart of it. Whether he was teaming with Cole, or Bobby Fish, or Roderick Strong, O’Reilly’s tag matches were usually the best of whatever show they were on. By the time KOR was routinely running out tag classics, WWE had relegated tag team wrestling to an afterthought. O’Reilly reminded everyone what it could and should be. His brief singles run that ended with a trilogy against Cole was just about the last long-term and rewarding story NXT has told.
Gargano was, quite simply, the foundation of NXT for five or six years. He was what you wouldn’t see on WWE, given that he’s five foot-nuthin’. But he could do everything. First he and Ciampa made tag team wrestling the center of the promotion for a while, and their matches with The Revival (now FTR on AEW) were the purest illustration of the art. Then his breakup and feud with Ciampa was the pivot point for the whole promotion for a couple years. Then his battle with Cole and UE, and finally a turn as a faction leader doing some pretty excellent comedy work with The Way. All the time, Gargano provided things WWE fans just didn’t see anywhere else.
In yet another example of symbolism dropped on your head from the 10th story, Gargano’s goodbye speech was cut short by an attack from newbie Grayson Waller, some other faceless-but-bigger guy that WWE/NXT had to give the rub from Gargano. Maybe Gargano is staying around to finish this feud, or maybe it’s the start of his extended stay. Or maybe it’s just a way for WWE to completely kill any trace of old NXT. That’s how badly they want to do it.
And I can’t help but laugh that WWE is covering its tracks to try and blind everyone to how responsible it is for creating the space for its now competitor. With talent like Gargano and O’Reilly and Cole, and Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens, and Keith Lee and Samoa Joe and Asuka and Io Shirai (honestly this list could just keep going), it showed WWE fans what wrestling looked like outside “New York.” And it put them in the same crowd as indie fans who just wanted to keep watching their favorites from ROH or TNA or just shows from dingy theaters that you can only get to through two buses once a week on WWE Network. And then it was caught so off-guard by those same fans growing more and more of an appetite for it? That they might get used to seeking out where these wrestlers had come from? You already moved them to WWE Network to follow NXT every week. Is it so much of a leap for them to just change the streaming app to NJPW or something else?
But WWE is scrubbing away. O’Reilly seems a dead cert to rejoin his UE comrades Cole and Fish in AEW. Gargano is less of a sure bet, though he certainly could instantly carve out a niche as something of a junior Bryan Danielson and just have great matches with anyone in front of him. It’s what he used to do. It’s what NXT fans loved. AEW has certainly proven with Danielson how much mileage they can get out of “let wrestlers just fucking wrestle.”
There are those who really like the new NXT, and that’s fine. The great thing about the landscape these days is that there’s just about something for everyone. I’m one of those who was hurt by WWE telling me the thing I liked didn’t work anymore, and they didn’t really care that I liked it and it would be going away. That they knew better and I was wrong. I knew it was dead back in August, but there was still a pang of hurt when the plug was finally pulled this week.