What do the letters “NXT” mean to you? Lately, you’re probably conjuring images of the powerhouse stopgap down at Full Sail University that transforms virtual unknowns into WWE Superstars, a place where Bulgarian Brutes, Anti-Divas and Men That Gravity Forgot run wild. But a few years ago, those three letters meant something very, very different.
In February 2010, WWE launched NXT — a competition show that put “Rookies” through unusual and often absurd “Challenges” designed to test their grace under fire, all with the intention of crowning a winner to carry the torch for WWE’s next generation. For four seasons, this left-field trial-by-fire churned out Superstars at a rapid clip, providing a flawed yet fascinating entry point for WWE’s future cornerstones. That is, until the rails came off and it became the most gloriously preposterous show in sports-entertainment history (and we mean that as a compliment).
The alumni of WWE’s biggest cult-classic show since Sunday Night Heat have, between them, held every title in WWE. The veterans who guided them through have main-evented WrestleManias. And yes, that is what Daniel Bryan looked like without a beard. Four years after NXT first went live, WWE.com presents the weird, wacky history of the wild and young, told by the Superstars who lived (survived?) it and the Pros who helped them along the way. And remember: #YellowRopesForever.
Intro (‘I slapped him right in the face’)
AJ LEE (SEASON 3 ROOKIE): It was this giant opportunity for us. We were down in [Florida Championship Wrestling] for years and waiting for that break. We were kind of iffy about it because you don’t want to have to continue to prove yourself. You want to just make it on the road and you’re there. The idea of fighting and clawing and scratching in Developmental for years and then continuing to have to do that and fight and scratch and compete was not the easiest thing in the world.
Challenges (‘We did some really ridiculous things’)
What was to come, as it turned out, was a series of over-the-top, seemingly random “Challenges” that wouldn’t be out of place in a frat-house initiation. Sodas were chugged, Halloween costumes were modeled and, at one point, a bona-fide “American Gladiators” competition was held atop the entrance ramp. But what seemed like assorted nonsense was, in fact, a new and wholly unexpected way to test the Rookies’ ability to work on the fly, with one, all-important twist: Each time the Rookies showed up to work, they had no idea what was coming. Not that it excused them for poor performance …
AJ: It was hilarious. I think the guys had this cool stuff that we really wanted to be a part of, and then our first thing was a dance contest. But no matter how ridiculous they were, they made you realize that you’d do anything, and there was nothing you could not handle, so it was the best learning experience.
Development (‘They main-evented SummerSlam!’)
Despite the freewheeling environment, NXT wasn’t all fun and games. At the end of the day, these were the future flag-bearers of WWE, and they required (and got) a refreshing degree of control in developing their in-ring personas in between the obstacle courses and weekly matches. As a result, the WWE Universe got a firsthand glimpse at the birth of popular personas and styles, from Bad News Barrett’s acerbic orations to Daniel Bryan’s tenacious submission wrestling.
AJ: Any time I can be myself and not try to be anything that I’m not, people will gravitate toward that because it’s real, and that’s a recipe for success. At the time there was a standard for women and beauty in general, and I think I came out in Chucks and was told not to do it again. And then, the second episode of the show, the people who told me not to were busy working on SmackDown and didn’t get a chance to see what I was wearing, so I ran out with my Chucks on, and it went from there where people were on board with it.
Redemption (‘Anything that has chloroform involved is gonna be spectacular’)
The elimination format continued for four seasons before WWE switched it up again and the concept of “Redemption” was introduced, where previously eliminated Rookies would be brought back for another swing at the big leagues. However, that show eventually evolved again, this time into an odd, alternate-universe version of WWE where the Rookies ran rampant and got into crazy misadventures under the observation (or lack thereof) of William Regal and Matt Striker.
AJ: That was actually where Daniel Bryan and I started dating.
AJ: I liked Matt Striker getting kidnapped. I thought that was pretty great.
AJ: It was fun to try stuff out. It really was just a learning experience, trying and failing on a smaller scale so you know what works on a bigger scale.
Legacy (‘I still have flashbacks’)
Eventually, Redemption faded away and NXT was reborn. Now, it’s the home of the “Next Generation of WWE” and as a part of WWE Network it’s already a bigger deal than it ever was in its five seasons on live TV. But give credit where credit is due: Weird as it was, NXT did make its fair share of Superstars. And even as the new NXT blazes its own must-see trail through WWE history, the veterans of its precursor still look back on the nonsense fondly. Well, fondly enough, anyway.
AJ: That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I hope people realize how lucky they are that they don’t have to have chocolate-eating contests and gift-unwrapping contests and dance contests their first day on television [laughs]. We didn’t sleep. Just busy every day, working and training in locker-rooms that were basically large closets.
AJ: It was a trying experience. I have flashbacks. But you’re so much stronger in the long run for it.