NXT Needs to Give Their Wrestlers More Character

NXT Wrestlers
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As the Wednesday Night Wars continue to see both NXT and All Elite Wrestling engage in competition for ratings, numerous fans online debate over which show is superior in quality. NXT, while considered the strongest in terms of enjoyment out of all of WWE’s three branded shows, continues to lose in the 18-49 demographic rating to AEW Dynamite. Not only has AEW thrashed NXT for 36 weeks and counting; this past week it was reported that Dynamite successfully scored higher in the 18-49 demo than WWE’s flagship show Monday Night Raw. AEW has certainly boasted in their ratings victories with passive-aggressive pop shots all as WWE officials lament their displeasure with WCW PTSD.

Both AEW and NXT have their strengths and weaknesses. NXT presents first-rate indie workers across the world who are polished with improved in-ring work. There is a more diverse roster across the black and yellow WWE brand from which to choose from at any given moment. Finally, the women’s division continues to shine and develop, especially compared to AEW’s, and the NXT tag division is treated with a respectable amount of attention. However, NXT’s most crucial flaw is a failure to create more prominent characters that fans gravitate towards. If WWE wants to entice fans away from Dynamite on Wednesdays, then they need to give the NXT wrestlers more character.

It could be speculated that AEW has earned its success by putting on a weekly show featuring match diversity, excellent tag team wrestling, and wrestlers with gimmicks fans are captivated by. Dynamite, on average, features gimmicks such as an Anxious Millennial Cowboy, a Dinosaur with a Master’s Degree in Medieval History, the world’s most passive-aggressive Dentist, an Alien, a Zombie, and a Ninja Luchadore. Meanwhile NXT, and WWE as a whole, force all of their wrestlers to have one of three character archetypes. The smiling babyface who is happy to be here, the cocky and cowardly heel who cuts worked-shoot promos and is only allowed to win by cheating, and Gothic smoke machine enthusiasts.

NXT has typically strayed away from full-faced gimmicks and presented wrestlers as pure athletes with some notable exceptions. Wrestlers such as Shinsuke Nakamura, Dexter Lumis, and Velveteen Dream incorporated unconventional personas that contributed to a unique aura whenever they appeared on the screen. However, there have been some gimmicks in NXT such as Elias and Bull Dempsey, that were wholeheartedly rejected by the Full Sail faithful. In Elias’s case, his tenure in NXT may have been less than stellar and yet his run on the main roster has seen him become more successful than most other NXT call-ups. Viewers are enticed by charisma and personality so when one show features the son of Luke Perry, who is also part Tarzan, fighting Chris Jericho, people are bound to be intrigued.

NXT's Dexter Lumis
Credit: WWE

What is most baffling about NXT is that it features notable Lucha Underground alumni with their personalities stripped away in the WWE recycling system. Shane Strickland, Santos Escobar, Karrion Kross, and Ricochet were more interesting when they performed for LU as Killshot, King Cuerno, The White Rabbit, and Prince Puma respectively. While in the temple, these wrestlers were allowed to show off their personalities with unique personas. The strong writing contributed to compelling stories and vignettes involving characters fans had never seen before. Ricochet dazzled fans with classics against luchadores only for years later to lose clean to 24/7 champion Riddick Moss. Lucha Underground, aka pro wrestling’s version of Mortal Kombat, was ahead of it’s time for cinematic wrestling and the influence it created is still being felt to this day. LU allowed their wrestlers to grow into performers with strong characters. So why does NXT have the same wrestlers occupy tropes instead of giving them more to perform with?

Similarly to Lucha Underground, NXT has operated as an underground indie promotion different from Monday Night Raw or Smackdown. Before it’s launch onto the USA Network last year, NXT was shown weekly on the WWE Network. Fans on the internet used to celebrate NXT as the pinnacle of WWE content. NXT has done well previously by telling engaging stories with the wrestlers between the yellow ropes. Unfortunately, so many of NXT wrestlers are solely defined by their in-ring work. The quality of wrestling is reliably good. The fact remains, wrestling isn’t predominantly enough for people to invest in. When the only character a performer has is that they are really good at wrestling, it becomes strenuous to stick out among the pack. Character is just as important if not more so for entertainment.

The success rate for NXT wrestlers transitioning to Raw or Smackdown has been lackluster, to say the least. Cedric Alexander, Andrade, Sami Zayn and so many more have floundered with constant stop and start pushes. They fail because WWE refuses to grow out of being “the land for the giants” while hoarding the world’s best independent wrestlers. WWE still operates under the mentality that the height attributes to character and personality. The biggest glaring problem is that WWE continues to forcibly script every babyface as though they were The Rock and it isn’t working. Instead of giving them more defined characters, WWE and NXT are simply writing these wrestlers as replaceable, interchangeable plot contrivances rather than anything remotely interesting.

The Rock
Credit: WWE

No one is suggesting WWE return to 1995 and give every wrestler a character such as racecar driver, plumber, or magician. What WWE could and should implement however, is a habit of leaning into a wrestler’s own history and letting them dial up their personality more. NXT may no longer be considered a developmental brand, however, it should absolutely be the starting point for wrestlers to experiment more with their characters. If it succeeds, it could begin to turn the tides in the Wednesday Night War.

When WWE was losing the Monday Night Wars to WCW Nitro, Vince McMahon invested into the wrestlers at his disposal. He accentuated their strengths and wrote stories that properly evolved superstars such as Stone Cold, Triple H, and The Rock into megastars. Now as history repeats itself, NXT needs to invest more into the personas of their wrestlers as well as continuing the strong in-ring work. AEW will continue to win in the 18-49 demo if NXT continues to stubbornly ignore the desires of fans’ preferred content. If they write more compelling characters and stories, the fans will come. Because when it comes to getting more fans into watching the show, NXT is still in the minor leagues.

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