December 5’s NXT War Games touted a definitive face-off between ‘Black and Gold NXT’ and ‘NXT 2.0’. The first pay-per-view to air since NXT’s rebranding, it unfolded under a cloud of speculation about the contract statuses of popular ‘Black and Gold’ era performers Johnny Gargano and Kyle O’Reilly. With both stars’ contracts expiring in mere days, the rumor mill has been galloping apace that both will soon decamp to World Wrestling Entertainment’s rival, All Elite Wrestling. While only time will tell on that score, December 7’s NXT 2.0 engendered more questions than it gave answers about what direction the new incarnation of NXT is striving for.
Only in the environment of what NXT became at its most critically acclaimed heights could a talent like Johnny Gargano rise to the prominence he did on the ‘Black and Gold’ brand. His unconventionally small physique was not an obstacle in NXT as it would have been elsewhere in WWE. Gargano became NXT’s first Triple Crown champion, and his comedic timing in backstage skits was a ubiquitous part of the brand, as well. As the aesthetic of NXT 2.0 changes, the 34 year old, comparatively diminutive Gargano stands out amongst younger, mesomorphic new talent like Von Wagner and Bron Breakker. At WarGames, he looked visibly dejected in a backstage segment alongside ‘Team Black and Gold’ teammates L.A. Knight, Tomasso Ciampa, and Pete Dunne, and gave the Capitol Wrestling Center crowd an emotional, off-the-cuff address after the pay per view stopped broadcasting, footage of which leaked on Twitter.
December 7’s NXT 2.0 eked considerable suspense out of the promise of an update on his future from Gargano himself. When the moment came, one would have to have a heart of stone not to have been moved by his words to NXT’s fans, thanking them for their support literally from the very first, since his try-out facing off against Apollo Crews. He thanked NXT’s cast and crew, as well, and expressed infectious enthusiasm at the impending birth of his and wife Candice Le Rae’s first child.
Then, Grayson Waller struck, savagely attacking Gargano, interrupting what appeared to be a farewell address. Its unclear just what the purpose of the plot twist was. Is Gargano remaining with NXT after all, and this was an ‘injury angle’ that will provide him time off for parental leave? Is Gargano, then, to return? If this was a true sendoff, it was a curious one. In this narrative Waller could only be despised, after having ruined Gargano’s goodbye. This plot twist will do little to put a new talent like Waller over, being met as it was by the crowd with a profane chant of disapproval.
O’Reilly’s narrative is also a blend of real-life speculation about his contract status and ambiguous storytelling. His partnership with NXT 2.0 newbie Wagner began on 2.0’s September premiere. They are a stark contrast to each other, the fresh talent beside the battle-tested O’Reilly, a veteran of Ring of Honor, New Japan Pro Wrestling, and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. In WarGames’s closing minutes, Wagner turned on O’Reilly after they lost to Imperium. Their steel cage match on December 7’s broadcast was mostly a dominant showing of O’Reilly’s considerable technical skill, powered by vehement shouts of “Let’s go, Kyle!” from the crowd. The audience was just as vocal and ready with their assessment of the match’s end, a victory from newly minted heel Wagner: a chorus of boos.
Once again, in another ongoing narrative, the 2.0 player, whom WWE presumably wants the audience to invest in, was the villain of the piece. Once again, the “Black and Gold” star was painted in their best light, the sympathetic figure. Why paint outgoing talent in such boldly Apollonian strokes, and sew hate from the crowd towards talent that is ostensibly being “put over”? Are O’Reilly and Gargano departing NXT, or not? Has a compromise in tone been struck, where NXT’s most popular, veteran performers remain its highly visible babyfaces, while newer talent are their antagonists?
This has been the model followed with Breakker and NXT champion Ciampa, and its been effective. Breakker’s aura of barely contained savagery and brutish charisma are palpable, as are the tensions of his ambition whenever he and Ciampa share space. He is chomping at the bit to ascend, and its imminent that he will be NXT champion: the only suspense lies in ‘when’. Only time will tell if WWE miscast Gargano’s and O’Reilly’s final days on NXT, or if they are beginning new narratives between Gargano and Waller and O’Reilly and Wagner, respectively, as part of 2.0’s continually changing landscape.
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