Among the sights and sounds of 2014, the most indelible is perhaps the city of Pittsburgh rejecting the 2014 Royal Rumble match like a poorly-matched kidney transplant. With no Daniel Bryan in sight after Rey Mysterio entered thirtieth, nearly 16,000 fans booed as though Donald Sterling was doing open mic at the Apollo.
Bryan’s not alone. CM Punk, Cesaro, Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, and even Luke Harper, for their renowned indy exploits, have built-in fanbases that cheered them on in gymnasiums and lodges on Saturday nights. The same can be said for the ECW contingent of years past: Rob Van Dam, Tommy Dreamer, and Paul Heyman still get residual cheers from anyone that’s ever pronounced ‘W’ as ‘dub’ whenever they appear on the national stage.
It’s the ‘hipster’ effect. Hip-to-the-room fans will gladly tell you “I liked Cesaro when he was Claudio Castagnoli,” in much the same way some snot, wearing thick glasses he doesn’t really need, will scoff at your Green Day shirt, telling you it was all downhill artistically after Dookie.
In other words, they liked that wrestler before it was cool to like them.
Grant you, not every weekend connoisseur with discriminating taste is as snide as the stereotype listed. There is, however, a common thread among every variety of indy geek: loyalty.
It’s because a segment of the audience remembers Bryan kicking people into oblivion at the Murphy Rec Center that they carry on and cheer him today. Same with Claudio Castagnoli’s “Kings of Wrestling” days with Chris Hero, and Dean Ambrose’s out-on-a-limb speeches as Jon Moxley. Other WWE developmental talents have been plucked from more obscure places based on the fact that they’re 6’5 and look hulking in a Speedo (Mason Ryan was reportedly given a *five*-year deal with WWE after just wrestling for two years in less reputable promotions; he spent the summer of 2011 nearly killing Dolph Ziggler with ugly press slams).
Like Ryan, many heavyweights WWE’s filled their developmental program with have come in without impressive resumes. This is hardly news; the notion is that like many Divas, they have the body and the image, and WWE can just teach them that pesky wrestling stuff later.
As such, those like Mason Ryan come in without built-in fanfare like Bryan and Punk. They start behind the blocks and, once overpushed to the office’s content, they oftentimes develop a fan resentment that doesn’t wash off. While the indy darling is sustained, the musclehead bad ass of the future spins its wheels in a mudslide backlash.
This changed about a year and a half ago, when Hulu Plus began airing the revamped NXT development group. From there, The Shield and The Wyatt Family debuted to relative acclaim (though the latter had some impressive vignettes spurring crowd sentiment).
Sure, many loyalists remembered Ambrose and Rollins as Moxley and Black, but even immovable stonewall Roman Reigns had a measure of cred. Consistent booking has buoyed all six men, but having scores of fans ‘in the know’ about them has played a part in that consistent booking: WWE knows that the demand is there.
More than ever with NXT on WWE Network, in the neighborhood of 700,000 subscribers, more people can get on the bandwagons before the wheels begin turning. The audience is there; since NXT Arrival in February, TNA Impact’s dropped out of the Top 100 most watched shows on several Thursdays. Wonder what the cause is? Well, besides their own product.
Seeing the smark-heavy post-WrestleMania Raw crowd go insane for Paige’s victorious debut over AJ, roaring when her name appeared on the Titan Tron, shows the power of the faux-indy brand. At the same time, there’s a weakness to having NXT so prominently available to a larger audience.
Emma would be the prime example of this issue. In NXT, Emma’s character was in many ways what you see now: an oblivious oddity who enjoys herself, despite her awkward mannerisms sticking out like a sore thumb. Punctuated by the swim-thrust arm movements and the soap-bubble entrance, she’s well-received by the NXT cult audience.
For the most part, in spite of her quirkiness, Emma bowls over opponents with impeccable wrestling ability (similar to what Eugene was supposed to be in 2004). On the main WWE roster, however, the creative has put more spotlight on her weird side, as you might suspect, and that gets much more emphasis. When Emma produced her own pink Cobra sock on the April 21 RAW, as part of her ‘peas in a pod’ parternship with Santino Marella, you could literally hear the groans from the crowd. WWE creative’s watered down the nuances, as is their tendency.
It hasn’t been a productive three months on the big stage for Emma. Is her gimmick too ‘small time’ for the contemporary audience? Perhaps, but it could also be a harsh lesson: NXT’s best and brightest may crash and burn under WWE’s brightest lights.
ECW fans loathed what ‘ECW 2006’ had become, an affront to the underground chaos they relished. Large chunks of the audience will verbally fight back if they feel Bryan and Punk are wronged (some crowds still chant Punk’s name out of spite). With NXT getting more eyeballs on it, will more transfers to the main roster go smoothly? If not, will there be accumulated backlash?
NXT is essentially a Triple H investment. The next few talents to debut (and yes, Bo Dallas is among them) need to be impactful. Otherwise, NXT will mean less and less if the ‘stars of tomorrow’ symbolize a tomorrow that never comes.
Justin Henry has been an occasional contributor to Camel Clutch Blog since 2009. His other work can be found at WrestleCrap.com and ColdHardFootballFacts.com. He can be found on Twitter, so give him a follow.
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