Diehard wrestling fans continue to rejoice in the glory that is WWE’s developmental program, NXT. The weekly hour-long program has been tight and wrestling-focused, showcasing a plethora of stars from organizations outside of the WWE. Shinsuke Nakamura, Samoa Joe, Prince Devitt (Finn Bálor), KENTA (Hideo Itami), among others have long since been on the radar of the ever-growing fan who grew up watching WWE programming, but have kept with the hobby and have sought out professional wrestling fandom elsewhere.
WWE, namely Triple H, seem to have finally got the picture and are spoon-feeding fans what they want. However, there is an underlying fact that they seem to be forgetting, a fact that should not in any context be described as “underlying.”
These wrestlers have years of pounding their bodies in a wrestling ring. Hopefully, the tearing of Finn Bálor’s labrum set off this alarm in the ears of WWE officials.
One may argue that this point is invalid. Many wrestling legends have taken years of damage through being part of the circus life that is professional wrestling. After all, Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart, The Rock amongst others have all taken years of physical abuse and still became legends, didn’t they?
They did, but the strong majority of their careers were spent within the confines of the WWE. Although each of these men got their starts elsewhere, they did not have a surplus of chances to mangle their bodies before being in a WWE ring.
In order to further illustrate this point, one needs to look no further than the two most tenured full-time performers in the WWE, John Cena and Randy Orton. Before being signed to Ohio Valley Wrestling, the former WWE developmental system, in 2001, Cena only spent two years as a member of Ultimate Pro Wrestling based in California. This means he has been a professional wrestler for 17 years, and WWE has had him for 15 of them. Orton’s situation runs parallel, as he debuted in Mid-Missouri Wrestling Association-Southern Illinois Conference Wrestling (say that five times fast) in 2000, and was signed by WWE developmental in 2001.
Do the math. When combined, Cena and Orton have a combined 33 years in the professional wrestling industry, and WWE had them under contract for 30 of them. WWE was able to utilize 91 percent of the combined careers of John Cena and Randy Orton, who have a combined 27 world titles between them, to make them into stars.
Finn Bálor’s and Hideo Itami’s shoulder injuries need to be a reminder that these world-renowned professional wrestling icons may be on borrowed time. Instead of going down the path of Cena and Orton, WWE may be lucky to even allow Bálor and Itami – and also veterans like Shinsuke Nakamura, Samoa Joe, Austin Aries, and Bobby Roode – to go down the path of Steve Austin and Mick Foley.
Austin and Foley are easily two of the biggest icons in the history of WWE, but their polarizing accomplishments often overshadow the fact that their tenures were abbreviated.
Stone Cold made his wrestling debut in 1989, did not sign with WWE until 1996, and was retired due to insurmountable injuries in 2000.
Mick Foley made his wrestling debut in 1986, did not sign with WWE until 1996, and was retired due to insurmountable injuries in 2000.
After years of being on the road, taking bumps in WCW, Japan, ECW, amongst other places, two of the biggest stars in the history of the industry were only able to devote a combined 11 years to the WWE.
Finn Bálor and Hideo Itami both wrestled for 14 years before being signed by the WWE, accumulating 28 years of taking bumps and risking their bodies before entering a WWE-owned ring. The aforementioned numbers do not lie, and not only is WWE paying for not realizing these numbers, but the fans are as well.
Relatively similar numbers apply to Shinsuke Nakamura, Samoa Joe, Austin Aries, and Bobby Roode, wrestlers who are still in NXT and are only seen by those who own the WWE Network on Wednesday nights. While valuable WWE television time to being devoted to Goldust and R-Truth playing Pokemon Go, Titus O’ Neil and Darren Young fighting over who was the better Prime Time Player, and Primo and Epico oddly being walking advertisements for Puerto Rico, clearly superior talents are being shackled to an NXT ring, kept out of sight from the audience members who really are the faces who run the place.
It is clear, and understandable, that the WWE wants to have another successful brand with NXT, and want to use these aforementioned global stars to carry the flag. What it is forgetting is that it has proven itself capable of making its own stars; Cena, Orton, as well as Batista, Shelton Benjamin and Brock Lesnar are living proof of this (not to mention Bayley, Enzo Amore, Big Cass and Big E).
WWE is also forgetting that these withheld global stars have a degree of mileage on their bodies the likes of which these homegrown talents did not experience prior to their faces being seen on WWE television.
The stars in NXT, assuming the capability and willingness to develop new players is still there, will come.
Enzo and Cass are proof of this, as both were snatched from glorified obscurity and were transformed into one of the hottest acts in the wrestling business. Paige, Sasha Banks, Charlotte, Becky Lynch, No Way Jose, among others were homegrown at the WWE Performance Center, and stand as proof that NXT can thrive without the assistance of veterans who should clearly be on the main roster.
Might the brand struggle a bit to regain its current level of popularity? Perhaps. However, the WWE must keep in mind that it is the programs being broadcast on the USA Network that is the lifeblood of the corporation. Keeping NXT’s current cult-following popularity cannot come at the expense of world-renowned stars who are on borrowed time. These stars bring with them in-ring and creative abilities that many of those currently receiving WWE television time, simply do not.
The WWE must allow its fanbase to experience their greatness while they are still physically able to give it.