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."