Inside NXT's Two-Front Wrestling War

Kyle O'Reilly and Bobby Fish | WWE
Kyle O'Reilly and Bobby Fish | WWE

Johnny Gargano stands in the ring with a mic in his hand. The debut two-hour episode of NXT, the WWE brand of which he's been called the heart and soul, has just wrapped, and it's his job to give the crowd its sendoff.

"In every interview," he says, "people ask me what makes NXT special."

"US!" yells a man in the audience. People laugh.

"Sir," says Gargano. "Sir... you are correct. You guys are what make NXT special."

Gargano isn't wrong. Step into the so-called NXT Arena at Orlando's Full Sail University and you'll find a place that more closely resembles a black-box theater at a drama school than a capacity-crowd wrestling venue. Walls are dark, lighting is stark, and if there's not a bad seat in the house it's because there aren't very many seats in the house at all.

But what NXT's two or three hundred onlookers lack in volume, they make up for in, well, volume. Until you actually see a NXT show for yourself, it's easy to believe that thousands of viewers cram in every week to cheer, chant, and generally lose their minds over the in-ring action, considered to be some of the best in the world. Cheap ticket prices, the proceeds of which go to a Full Sail scholarship program, ensure that a crowd of regulars turn up at every taping -- which now take place live every week for a two-hour time slot on USA Network

These people know and love these performers, and their own performance in turn is crucial to the viewing experience. When "Johnny Wrestling" leads the crowd in shouting the slogan "WE ARE NXT," everyone involved seems to really mean it.

The setup is unique, and addictive -- and a far cry from the atmosphere of WWE's two flagship series, Raw and Smackdown. Collectively referred to as "the main roster" until NXT's move to terrestrial cable from WWE Network, the company's proprietary streaming service, put them on an equal playing field, those two massive brands tour from arena to arena and emphasize spectacle (larger-than-life athletes, literal pyrotechnics), and often schtick (Raw currently features two separate cuckoldry storylines), along with the wrestling to get people in the door.

And for the first time in nearly two decades, WWE isn't the only arena-filling wrestling game in town. Last night, new kid on the block All Elite Wrestling made its debut on TNT with AEW Dynamite, a two-hour show running directly opposite NXT.

Founded by the Jacksonville Jaguars' billionaire backer Tony Kahn and a quartet of the world's best wrestlers -- WWE veteran Cody Rhodes and independent superstars Kenny Omega and brothers Matt and Nick Jackson, AKA the Young Bucks -- AEW very consciously styles itself as an alternative to WWE's more stylistically conservative product, and alienated fans have happily enlisted in its growing army. The in-ring action is fast and daring, the frequent post-match beatdowns brutal and bloody, and the David-versus-Goliath revolutionary fervor infectious in its optimism.

WWE's decision to face that revolution by moving NXT to a competing cable network as a counter-programming maneuver launched what fans are calling the Wednesday Night War, an homage to the period in the late 1990s and early '00s when Vince McMahon's WWE and Ted Turner's WCW went head-to-head for ratings supremacy. But the battle to retain its own identity as it takes its place alongside WWE's main brands leaves NXT fighting a war on two fronts.

Paul "Triple H" Levesque knows it. As Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events, and Creative at WWE, he's guided NXT since its infancy as a developmental brand -- i.e. a training ground for up-and-coming talent, as yet untested under WWE's lights -- to the third head of the wrestling behemoth's dragon. And if anything, he sounds more zealous about differentiating NXT from its sister shows than in squashing the competition.

"Raw and Smackdown are like this band you were into when they first started," he tells me hours before the USA Network premiere. "They were small, and no one had heard of them, and they were the greatest band ever, right? Then, five, six years and two, three albums down the line, they go mainstream and hit it big. Casual people are all into them because they're selling out stadiums, and you're like, 'That is the worst piece of crap sellout song they've ever made. You've got to go back and listen to these first two albums!'

"Raw and Smackdown are the thing that want to try to grab everyone," he continues. "NXT? I want to grab people at that base level, where they started, where this is the greatest band ever. There's not as many of them, but they're super-engaged from day one. We're gonna be laser-focused on the stuff that the more passionate fans will care about -- the pure product, as opposed to just the spectacle."

NXT's stars are confident enough in that product to take the competition with AEW in stride. "I mean, what else can you ask for?" says wrestler Matt Riddle, the UFC veteran whose stonerish "King of Bros" persona has made him one of NXT's top draws. "The last time there was this much attention on wrestling was the Monday Night War between WCW and WWF [WWE's original name before the World Wildlife Fund intervened]. You're going against a new company: another series, another war. Hopefully, it's awesome."

As NXT Champion Adam Cole points out, many of NXT and AEW's athletes came up through the same independent promotions, forging friendships that are still going strong. "I have friends over there; my girlfriend's over there," he says, referring to Dr. Britt Baker, AEW's first female signee. "They want us to do well. We want them to do well. It's fun."

"The biggest emotion is probably excitement," echoes Bianca Belair, the ebullient powerhouse of NXT's women's division. "That's the word everybody uses, but it's the truth. We've been putting on great shows; the only difference is that we're on a bigger stage now, so more people get to see."

"If I'm thinking from a wrestling fan's standpoint, more wrestling's better, right?" says Pete Dunne, aka the "Bruiserweight," NXT's former UK champion. "And then from my standpoint, competition's healthy. Bring it on."

Levesque echoes his wrestlers' enthusiasm for the competition -- to a point. (His company did move NXT to cable to blunt AEW's momentum, after all.) Hours before NXT goes live, I tell him it was NXT's high-impact, high-octane style that got me interested in the similar work of AEW performers like Omega and the Young Bucks in the first place. "That's a great thing, right?" he responds. "I don't mean to knock what they or anybody else is doing, but in a way, NXT created the template to show them that this can be done. The question is, can they continue to do that?

"It's one thing to take athletes and put them in the ring and go, 'Just do crazy shit and see what you come up with,'" he continues. "Fans will tune in, but they won't stay, because it'll lose its luster. After a while, you've seen it." It's a pointed critique of a common complaint regarding the high-flying "spotfest" style of the Bucks in particular, in whose image many of AEW's matches are made. "What will make people stay is the characters and the storylines. If they can create that, then they can be successful.

"In the short term, it's easy to make a moment and a spectacle and have people look and watch," Levesque says. "To continue that long-term and have it grow is a lot more difficult. I've seen that historically prove out with WCW and everybody else under the sun. Time will tell."

But Levesque hasn't forgotten WWE's internal competition either, if only to note he's not attempting to ape them in any way. "If I was worried about what everybody else is doing, I'd be trying to replicate Raw and Smackdown. I'm not interested in that."

For now, NXT and AEW appear to be playing similar games, if at different scales. On last night's dueling premieres, "N-X-T" and "A-E-DUB" chants ran out for their respective brands. Hard-hitting championship matches between Shayna Baszler and Candice LeRae on NXT and Nyla Rose and Riho on AEW highlighted their cards. Surprise appearances popped the crowds: Main-roster superstar Finn Bálor came back to NXT after "graduating," while former champ Tommaso Ciampa returned after a serious neck injury and rapper Wale escorted Montez Ford and Angelo Dawkins of the Street Profits to the ring; AEW champion Chris Jericho, hardcore-wrestling legend Jon Moxley, Cody's veteran older brother Dustin Rhodes, and Bellator MMA star Jake Hager all violently interrupted AEW's regularly scheduled proceedings. 

While AEW appears to have won the first head-to-head ratings battle, I'd give the edge to NXT in terms of match quality last night, from the hard-hitting kickoff in which Cole defeated Riddle to retain the NXT Championship, to the fast-paced and often funny Tag Team title bout that closed out the evening, with champions Kyle O'Reilly and Bobby Fish prevailing over their challengers the Street Profits. (The Profits, who appear poised to make the jump to Raw, joined Gargano for the curtain call.) AEW's best offering was a long-anticipated banger between "Hangman" Adam Page and "The Bastard" Pac; Pac's gorgeous high-flying finishing maneuver, the Black Arrow, was a high point of the night.

But even before last night's battle, the Wednesday Night War has had positive trickle-down effects. Reports indicate that wrestlers have been able to command higher salaries and better contracts as multiple promotions compete for their signatures. Particularly during their recent "King of the Ring" tournament, Raw and Smackdown have showcased higher-quality wrestling than the norm, featuring one-time NXT stars like Ricochet and Chad Gable. Expect Smackdown, which moves from USA to the Fox broadcast network this Friday, to make more waves as it reaches a wider audience -- including an appearance from the sport's most famous alumnus, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

Will the Wednesday Night War generate stars on the level of the Rock, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, and their "Attitude Era" ilk the way its Monday antecedent did? If so, NXT will be a vital proving ground for them, as industry analysts peg the likes of Riddle and Belair as future superstars. AEW has its own breakout talents, like the arrogant young heel MJF and the death-defying daredevil Darby Allin. In theory, anyway -- and certainly, the wrestlers themselves feel this way -- the competition will bring out their best.

"To say it's my baby -- like, there's so many people that have poured so many hours of passion and sweat and tears into this brand to get it to where it is right now," says Levesque of the show many credit him for shepherding to success. "But when you see them knock it out of the park, the pride you have for what they're accomplishing... then it does feel like it's your kids." And sometimes, kids fight.

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Sean T. Collins is a contributor to Thrillist.