For the last month, WWE has aimed to present NXT as a brand that’s on par with its main roster counterparts: Raw and SmackDown. This renewed focus on the show, a clear attempt to raise the prestige of the brand ahead of TV rights negotiations, has included some baffling choices and some effective ones.
On one hand, fans have seen the likes of Seth Rollins and The Judgment Day intermingle with NXT wrestlers, and their respective star power has reflected itself in the ratings. However, WWE has also tried to pull the okey-doke on fans by presenting the likes of Baron Corbin and Dana Brooke as big stars despite how the company has booked them over the last few years.
The spotty hit rate on the main roster star appearances aside, one thing has remained consistent from WWE throughout this attempt to boost NXT: it doesn’t see any of the wrestlers who inhabit the brand as draws, including top champion Carmelo Hayes.
It’s part of a larger strategy of building up the NXT show without building up the talent that’s there every week.
WWE has made some baffling choices with the NXT Champion over the last few weeks. First, there was the clean loss to Finn Bálor on the June 26 episode of WWE Raw, which also came one night before Hayes defended his title against Corbin. Then, Hayes took another loss to Bálor in a tag match that also involved Trick Williams and men’s Money in the Bank winner Damian Priest.
The promotion at least tried to protect Hayes in the latter match, but even then, the execution didn’t match the intentions, as Ilja Dragunov’s failed efforts to repel Judgment Day’s shenanigans made him and Hayes look like goofs.
Making matters worse, Hayes and Dragunov are scheduled to wrestle each other for the NXT Title at The Great American Bash at the end of the month, and THAT is how WWE kickstarted their feud.
Now, there’s no shame in losing to a wrestler like Bálor, especially when he’s primed to challenge for the World Heavyweight Championship at the second-biggest pay-per-view of the year. And given Bálor’s status as the top contender to Rollins’ belt and Priest being Mr. Money in the Bank, those two don’t need to accrue any losses, either.
But, as usual, WWE could’ve avoided such an impossible choice by simply booking Hayes and Judgment Day against other people. It’s hard to believe that the company couldn’t find a single male wrestler of the nearly 40 that work on Raw that could put Hayes over. Could WWE not find another guy on the equally robust NXT roster to put Bálor over?
Of course, asking these questions becomes pointless once you realize that WWE probably didn’t bother to look for another candidate to lose on Judgment Day because it felt it already had a good candidate for the job with Hayes. In the process, WWE has essentially told its audience that Hayes is not at the level of the real stars who frequent Raw and SmackDown. If it felt otherwise, we wouldn’t see as many main roster cameos as we have for the last few episodes.
More alarmingly, if this is how it views Hayes — who, again, is the NXT Champion — how does it see everyone else on the NXT roster (other than Bron Breakker)? And this is the brand that’s supposed to be at the same level as the other weekly shows?!
If WWE is serious about enhancing NXT, it has to rely on the stars that are down there every week.
To be clear, the influx of main roster stars has generated some interest in NXT. Judgment Day’s quasi-advertised appearance was a net positive and Rollins’ title defense against Bron Breakker brought in viewership numbers that the show hadn’t reached in years. And from a quality perspective, it never hurts to have folks like Mustafa Ali around.
In terms of the bigger names, though, WWE can’t count on them to buoy the show’s numbers on a regular basis. Beyond the potential for diminishing returns with each return to NXT, asking these wrestlers to work Raw, SmackDown, house shows, PPVs, and NXT is asking far too much.
If WWE wants fans to see NXT differently, it will need to convince them that the NXT wrestlers are comparable to the ones that perform on Mondays and Fridays. That starts with Hayes, who already carries himself like a superstar and backs it up with his output in the ring and on the microphone.
It’s at least worth a try because if WWE doesn’t, it won’t matter how much main roster talent migrates to the brand.