WWE NXT: The college football of professional wrestling

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August is the time of the year that I often find myself trying to latch onto the college football world. Even after watching and attending a few games here and there, I can never seem to muster up that same love, passion, and excitement that I have for the NFL.

I can’t deny that tons of college programs have fan bases that glow in terms of excitement and pageantry and when you combine that with the traditions, rivalries, and tailgating — it makes for an experience in the sports world that hasn’t been beaten out for the over 150 years that college football has existed.

There’s no denying that the image of Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium packed with over 100,000 people is a magnificent sight. There’s no denying that when something like College Gameday comes to your town, it’s a must-do experience. There’s no denying that Clemson players gathering around Howard’s Rock before every home game is an amazing tradition. College football from the surface level has all of the pizzazz and desirability that people desire in any type of entertainment form.

College football and NXT share plenty of similarities.

The one thing that seems to muddy my outlook on the collegiate side of things is the player attachment aspect. Most college players will only see 2-3 years of proverbial daylight for their team before joining any number of major league football organizations or even moving on to a different career.

It’s well known that only two percent of college football athletes end up going pro, meaning you have a good chance of losing that attachment you developed for said player. Even if one of your favorite players makes it to the NFL, it’s a puncher’s chance that they end up succeeding. The average NFL career only lasts three years.

To specify my point here – I’m a fan of the Green Bay Packers. In my tenure of being a fan, I’ve developed a strong liking and connection with certain players like Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams, Jaire Alexander, and so forth. If these players ever left the Packers, I’d still be able to keep up with them if they have success with another team.

All of that being said, I genuinely feel that NXT is the college football of wrestling. You could easily make this comparison due to the fact that they’re both considered “developmental” by their respective higher-ups, but there’s much more to the equation.

Let’s start with the fact that NXT will spend an amount of time — anywhere from six months to four years — presenting and building up wrestlers as superstars and can’t miss attractions, only for that same prestige to be ruined whenever they make their way to the “major leagues” a.k.a the WWE main roster.

Keith Lee is a prime example. Lee was treated like a superstar for the majority of his NXT run and even became the first superstar to hold the NXT and North American titles simultaneously. Lee was not only known for winning championships, but also for his great feuds with Dominik Dijakovic and Adam Cole. Lee was also a gif-inducing machine for the black and gold brand.

But much like Trent Richardson or Johnny Manziel in the NFL, Keith Lee had “first-round pick” written all over him when his RAW debut was announced in August 2020. Lee’s run so far has been quite underwhelming and could be compared to the likes of NFL bust.

It’s not just Lee that has suffered this unfortunate reality — plenty of other stars have too. People like Aleister Black, Andrade, Robert Roode, Ricochet, and Shayna Baszler all experienced massive triumphs in NXT and seemed like they were destined for success in the “big leagues”, but didn’t turn out for whatever reason.

While I’m not the biggest fan of Karrion Kross, his treatment on the main roster has been unspeakably bad. Kross was 18-0 in NXT before he was called to Monday Night Raw to lose to Jeff Hardy in under two minutes. The NXT team spent a year and a half building up this unstoppable, unbeatable monster only for him to take his first loss in two minutes to an aging veteran.

Which begs the question: Why should I get invested in these characters and wrestlers when their fate is almost inevitable?

Notice the comparison here? My argument for not liking college football is – Why should I get invested in these players when they might not succeed or go to my favorite team?

NXT and college football both play “dress up” very well. I’ve already mentioned how college football dresses itself up very well with the bowls, traditions, stadiums, and tailgating. It’s stuff that genuinely brings more eyes and attention to the product. NXT has the same dress-up tactics with great in-ring action, different production from other WWE-branded shows, and really exciting events like War Games and the Fight Pit.

But yet again, why should I care about Keith Lee’s fantastic War Games performance if he’s destined to be doomed on the main roster?

In comparison, why would I get invested in tailback Jay Ajayi’s massive college success when he’s prone to knee injuries, something that could hinder his NFL career? (Hint: This became true, Ajayi has 214 yards total in the past three seasons.)

For a short span of time between 2010-2013, I was a huge Johnny Manziel fan. Manziel was a captivating player who transcended the world of college football and was destined for NFL success. However, “Johnny Football” ended up running into legal trouble and other off-field controversies which eventually led to his demise in the football world. This was one of my final straws of being invested in that world.

One of the first NXT acts I ever got truly invested in was the group of Sanity. I thought all four members of the group meshed together very well and had the potential to be a star-making faction. The group lasted all of nine months on the main roster and had an astounding record of 1-8 as a tag team/trio.

After I’ve invested a lot of time and effort into so many NXT characters just for them to be forgotten about, released, or even turned into a jobber on the main roster, I’ve lost significant interest in the NXT product over the past number of years.

I still try to keep my eyes on top NXT prospects like Adam Cole, Isaiah Scott, Io Shirai, and Santos Escobar. While part of me isn’t banking on success for these people once they get to the “Big Leagues”, the other part of me still holds some attachment to them.

The same can be said with college football. Every year I’ll keep my eyes on the scouting boards and watch top prospects like Trevor Lawrence, Kyle Pitts, Micah Parsons, etc – only because these are polarizing figures and have high chances of success in the NFL. Beyond that, I don’t find myself watching college games, or invested in anything remotely close to the sport.

It’s not a secret that many, and I mean many, NXT guys want to stay on the black and gold brand as long as they possibly can. Someone like Tommaso Ciampa has voiced genuine concerns with a trip to the main roster and has even threatened retirement if that ends up happening. Other guys like Johnny Gargano and WALTER have expressed no interest in the call-up either, for many reasons.

I’m not alone in my thoughts. Wrestling legend and Busted Open Co-Host Tommy Dreamer has echoed these same notions on the radio show as far back as August 2020.  Dreamer recently noted on the show that he feels SmackDown is the superior WWE product to NXT because of the factors I’ve listed above.

In 2017-2018, NXT was easily my favorite thing in wrestling. Between the Gargano/Ciampa storyline, the debut of the Undisputed Era, and debuts from guys like Ricochet and Aleister Black, and the rise of the dominant Shayna Baszler. They were arguably the hottest wrestling product in North America at this point.

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But when you combine the constant failure of the “call up” system with the birth of a competitor like All Elite Wrestling, your product slowly loses the prestige and acclaim it once had only a few short years ago. NXT plays dress-up well, but in reality, it’s all pointless if there isn’t a true endgame.