Finding the delicate balance between homegrown talent and indie stars

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NXT is home to WWE’s next main roster superstars (or so we hope), and it’s ideally a collection of athletes from a variety of backgrounds. But more often than not, the wrestlers in “developmental” are already established talents from other promotions.

It’s gotten to a point where wrestling fans now wonder if WWE is doing enough to promote its own “homegrown” stars in NXT.

Wrestling fans have seen Charlotte Flair, Alexa Bliss, Braun Strowman, and Carmella flourish on the main roster after coming from backgrounds other than wrestling, and Naomi is a standout example of a current veteran superstar who has become a Hall of Fame talent after joining WWE with an athletic background outside wrestling.

Having people in the performance center with backgrounds in powerlifting, cheerleading, bodybuilding, basketball, football, gymnastics, mixed martial arts or any other sport is enriching. These superstars bring something different to the table as a result of their experiences outside professional wrestling.

Take Eric Bugenhagen’s over-the-top personality, which he crafted as one of the most successful and uplifting lifting-focused content creators on YouTube. Or Kacy Catanzaro’s dazzling in-ring style, undoubtedly a result of her extensive experience as a gymnast.

Looking at the current landscape of talent in NXT, it seems like most of the wrestlers have been established on the independent wrestling scene.

It’s a little murkier than that, since standouts like Shayna Baszler and Matt Riddle competed in mixed martial arts before transitioning to pro wrestling outside WWE. But a lot of the other athletes with backgrounds in track and field, football, gymnastics, or anything besides combat sports like MMA and wrestling don’t seem to be as numerous.

When they get their chance to shine in NXT, they’re rarely booked as champions.

Bianca Belair is a good case study. Now, Belair could easily win the title at some point in the near future in NXT, but it was surprising to see her miss out on multiple opportunities at Baszler’s title.

A former olympic lifter and track star in college, Belair came into WWE with an accomplished athletic background, and has since become one of the most complete wrestlers in NXT. She’s picked up pro wrestling so quickly and has already become one of the most engaging, interesting characters on the roster, clearly showing a brilliant mind for the wrestling business.

Yet, she’s not a champion.

It’s easier for a wrestler in NXT to rapidly rise through the ranks if they’ve had years of experience in wrestling, because nothing makes someone better at pro wrestling than actually performing in front of a live crowd repeatedly.

That’s why Johnny Gargano, Ricochet, Kairi Sane, and others with extensive wrestling experience became champions, major players in NXT, and main roster debutantes relatively quickly.

There’s also a temptation for WWE to sign independent wrestlers (or wrestlers in well-known promotions like Impact, STARDOM, ROH, MLW, and NJPW) since it’s quite clear to their scouting department and executives that they have what it takes to shine in WWE; the evidence is quite literally in front of them.

That said, the “Performance Center” is, in itself, a developmental organization with the resources capable of helping an athlete become an excellent pro wrestler.

Again, Charlotte Flair and Alexa Bliss are two prominent examples of superstars who entered WWE with no real wrestling experience, and have since become massive stars with several championship reigns.

The key for WWE is continuing to sign these athletes and to use them. NXT has gotten to the point where it can stand toe-to-toe with any other show in terms of quality, yet it still needs to be a space where someone like former NFL offensive tackle Brennan Williams can get his reps in.

And those reps need to be in front of an audience and not just in the Performance Center with the other superstars; they also have to be able to move towards matches that go beyond squashes.

But I think it’s equally important to understand that it takes time for these wrestlers to develop. Braun Strowman didn’t start looking like a main event player until having years of experience under his belt, which included some awkward lumps during his time with the Wyatt Family.

Professional wrestling is a difficult skill, however, so these up-and-coming wrestlers from other athletic backgrounds need WWE to show patience and forgiveness while allowing them an opportunity to actually take those lumps.

Just as it takes years to get good at pro wrestling, it also takes years to become proficient in a sport like powerlifting or gymnastics. Wrestlers like Catanzaro spent years working at a different sport, giving them talents and even insight that others simply don’t have.

Those can translate into telling unique stories inside the ring, whether it’s by virtue of their experiences or even the actual in-ring moves themselves. An important aspect of WWE’s growth and ability to serve its audience will be telling different stories, and being able to develop, for example, a former football player can help facilitate that.

WWE’s recent crop of signings includes “Swerve”, Trevor Lee, and DJZ, all of whom have new names, but should quickly become stars in NXT.

However, someone like former rugby player Luke Menzies will take longer to develop into a regular NXT player, and Bugenhagen’s journey of years in developmental before an electric debut on NXT exemplifies how long it can take; not everyone is able to progress into bi-weekly NXT appearances as rapidly as Lacey Evans or Belair.

That said, WWE have steadily signed as many non-wrestlers as wrestlers in each Performance Center class, so in the future, there will be a steady stream of new, unseen (even on the indies!) talent ready to debut in NXT.

These new wrestlers will have styles cultivated by the Performance Center, but tweaked by their own athletic backgrounds. This means their styles will contribute to the diverse pool of wrestling styles collected by WWE from the indies, where wrestlers create their own style that is drawn from the influences of the locales they wrestle in.

The thought of this happening in the future excites me, especially since WWE has recruited wrestlers from China, the Middle East, India, and Europe with ambitions of having Performance Centers around the globe.

Though I do fear a monopolization of wrestling like everyone else, I’m also intrigued by this idea that we’ll have wrestlers from different athletic and, most importantly, cultural backgrounds with an avenue towards the sport.

In order for these wrestlers to make it on the big stage, WWE must show faith in them and understand that it’s just as important for them to develop their own talent as it is to sign established wrestlers from other promotions.

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With AEW joining the fold, NJPW growing stronger, and other promotions looking to capitalize on the wrestling boom, WWE’s ability to cultivate its own talent that can tell slightly different stories will be more critical.

WWE seem more than ready to meet that challenge based on the way they recruit, so it may just be a matter of patience from both the company and the fans before that next step materializes in NXT.

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