It's been nearly a decade since the way WWE operates fundamentally changed. In early 2010, the first episode of WWE NXT aired, putting the spotlight on wrestlers who were new to WWE programming, pairing them with established talent for what was essentially a reality TV competition series. While several names that appeared on five seasons of that show went on to make their mark in WWE–from Daniel Bryan to "The Fiend" Bray Wyatt–this was just the start of what NXT would eventually go on to accomplish, as it revolutionized the future of the company.
Behind it all was Paul Levesque, the multi-time WWE champion and founding member of D-Generation X, who goes by the moniker Triple H. As Levesque's full-time wrestling career began winding down, he was struck by the notion that he didn't know who the next Triple H would be. The late '00s were an interesting time for WWE. While John Cena was a household name at that point, there was no telling who the next Cena was or where he or she would come from. What's more, it wasn't just household names WWE was lacking, but an entire roster that could carry the company into the future.
"It was a little shorter than 10 years ago, somewhere in that ballpark of time, is when I sat with [WWE CEO] Vince [McMahon] the first time, and we had the discussion around like, 'It's amazing all the things that the company is doing, but where is the talent going to come from?" Levesque told GameSpot during a visit to WWE's Performance Center, where future WWE Superstars are trained. "How are we not only going to get talent to continue doing what they're doing, but better talent and bigger talent? And as we grow, how do we grow that pool of talent?'"
He continued, "When you look at [other sports], they have a feeder system of amateur athletics or college athletics. We don't have that. We had the independents, which were drying up. And even then, you're just kind of at the whim of whoever is teaching people, whatever they're teaching them. And sometimes that's great. And sometimes it's terrible. A lot of talent were just out there trying to figure it out themselves, and that's not ideal."
From those discussions emerged what NXT has become; a viable third brand of WWE programming, along with Raw and Smackdown, that showcases talent newer to the company. After shedding the reality competition format, it became unlike any other show WWE produces, and one that's attracted quite a fanbase. It has a larger focus on actual wrestling, letting in-ring competition be the selling point, rather than some of the more over-the-top features of typical WWE programming. And as the show moves from a one-hour taped weekly slot on WWE's own network to two hours of live programming on USA every single week, its current product–and the fans that flock to it–are something everyone involved in NXT is determined not to lose.
"I think that the thing that makes us special is one of those things that we as wrestlers, and we– as our family–have to protect," NXT star Candice LeRae explained. "And I believe that even from the very top, Triple H wants to protect the wrestling part of it. He's like our father, and then the rest of us are like his little children."
That's not something picked up along the way, though. According to LeRae, it's ingrained in every member of the NXT roster from the very start. "Even some of the people that are still just learning at the Performance Center, it's instilled in them," she said. "Our culture here is so different. And I think all of that in this family environment is going to be what keeps us what we should be. And that's the true NXT brand."
It's hard to argue with the results. While nearly a decade ago, Levesque was worried about the future of WWE–with the talent pool drying up–but in 2019 the best and brightest from NXT are carrying the company's other brands.
"When you look at Raw and Smackdown now, 80% of those people came through [NXT]. And it's hard to remember that as you look at it, when you say what Seth Rollins was the first NXT champion," he said. "Braun Strowman, when he walked in the Performance Center, had never stepped between the ropes before. Alexa Bliss and never stepped between the ropes before. Charlotte Flair, even though she comes from that family, had never done it before she came here. Bray Wyatt, that character, was created here."
With over 100 talent currently signed to NXT in various stages of development, from established Champions like Adam Cole and Shayna Bazzler to recent signees like Briana Brandy and Austin White, the future of WWE is in good hands. And for NXT, as is reaches a broader audience due to its new show, the future is now.
NXT airs Wednesdays at 8 PM ET on USA.