Editorials WWE

Wrestling With Paul: The Evolution of Paul Levesque

This is an article I wrote in September 2015. I’m really, really proud of it. I’m reposting it here as part of my “Wrestling With Paul” series. I haven’t updated it. It remains in its original form.

All Hail.

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“Is this Overenthusiasm for NXT a gimmick? I can’t tell. The shows are no good.”
-Twitter DM, received 9/16/2015

Twitter DMs are good for three things:

  1. Hot, juicy scoops that aren’t suitable for public consumption quite yet.
  2. Burials which really shouldn’t be said in the open because you don’t want to suffer public ridicule or blockage via vanity search.
  3. Legit questions from folk asking if you’re trolling or working a gimmick.

I received the third one. Understandable, of course, as I’ve been known to carry on with various burials and praises that are obviously gimmick driven, or I really, really want to get a reaction out of someone.

NXT is the WWE’s developmental television program after all, and at times, it really lacks a lot of the ingredients that make a solid week-to-week wrestling program. The matches are sometimes bad. The promos are downright cringe worthy. The star power has really fallen off with the injuries of Sami Zayn and Hideo Itami and the promotion of Kevin Owens to the main roster.

Yet, I watch. Most weeks I watch live, and I tweet and I banter and I sit in my living room howling with laughter and popping at Eva Marie’s awfulness and Baron Corbin’s sadness. I pause the show to break down and fantasy book their tag team tournament off nothing more than a grainy one sided bracket. To me, it’s great.

Why do I enjoy the TV and the brand so much? I think I figured out the answer during the September 16, 2015 episode of NXT. It’s simple, really.

They make me care.

 I don’t get angry. I don’t worry about who’s getting pushed and who’s getting buried. I don’t have to wonder if something makes sense or not. I just … care.

But how do they do it? How am I manipulated in such a way that this show, of all shows, is my favorite week-to-week show to watch?

Meet Paul Levesque, the master con-man and manipulator, the progenitor of current-day NXT, and the modern day promoter who has set out to prove that “everything old is new again”.

I’ll dive more into Paul Levesque in a moment, but first, I want to look at the final segment of the September 16, 2015 episode of NXT – the one with Bayley and Izzy and Sasha and Regal (and poor Sarah Dobson). For I think that segment encapsulates whatever it is that makes NXT so special for me. More so, I think segments such as that play a huge role into making NXT whatever Levesque wants it to be.

“Ever since Takeover, the only thing I’ve been hearing is how me and you stole the show. That’s all great for everyone except me … I came here to be the best.” -Sasha Banks, NXT, 9/16/15

It occurs to me that the real emotion shown in the last segment of that episode of NXT is what’s missing with the main roster Divas Revolution. From the forced nature of the “NXT 3’s” introduction to the devices used for the story telling, nothing seems “real”. Nothing seems relatable. It’s more and more becoming a catchphrase with JBL yelling aloud about, “KORAKUEN, MAGGLE!” while Charlotte wrestles Tamina to a course of boos and Sasha Banks chants.

Yet on this episode of NXT, you’ve got the women in the main event segment and oh what a special segment this became. Making her return to Full Sail after winning the women’s championship is Bayley and she takes the celebration to the crowd and then finally hits the ring with super fan Izzy by her side. Try to watch that without getting emotional. You can’t.

After Bayley wins her match, Sasha Banks comes out, practically already in tears. Bayley is doing her best to hold it back. Sasha talks about stealing the show in Brooklyn and having the best women’s match in WWE history and that’s all great for everyone except for her. On that one night in Brooklyn, for just three seconds, Bayley was better than Sasha. She goes on about wanting a rematch and Bayley offers to go right then and there. Sasha talks about beating Bayley over and over and over again. And there it is. The often maligned Full Sail crowd figures it out. “Iron woman! {clap clap clap clap clap} Iron woman!” Sasha stops, and she smiles, because she knows. She knows.

NXT General Manager William Regal comes out with the huge grin on his face. And he starts just absolutely gushing praise for both girls. You can tell he’s excited. He announces they’re the main event at Takeover. He announces that it’s a thirty minutes iron man match. The arena explodes. Sasha and Bayley shake hands. Fade to black. I’ve still got goose bumps thinking about it, and the amazing thing about it is that I already knew what was going to happen. That’s how absolutely invested I am in this story.

I wish they could figure out how to translate that type of raw emotion to Raw and Smackdown. Here’s the thing: I’m not sure how you do that given the current landscape. Basically your top program boils down to the tweener champion girlfriend of John Cena versus the daughter of the legendary Ric Flair. And you know what? I’m not even sure if Nikki Bella being in the tweener, mostly heel role is even the problem because look at Sasha in NXT.

“NXT Sasha” is most certainly the heel but no one’s going to truly boo her. The promo she cut on this week’s TV was basically about being the best and proving a point. And you really can’t hate her for it. You sort of go along with it because she’s probably right.

Someone tell me why I’m supposed to care about Charlotte beating Nikki as she did at Night of Champions. There was a point when I thoroughly enjoyed Charlotte but since even sniffing the main roster she’s become Ric Flair-lite. Admittedly, she’s very good at in that role, but it seems to be more or less making the story about “Can Ric’s Daughter do it?” as opposed to anything else.

Compared to Bayley who clawed and scratched her way from the bottom and made them realize what they had in her, even if it took them far longer to realize it than everyone else did.  She’s come a long way from being put in a mask. Even if you just want to stick to her TV character’s motivations only, you still get this girl who was mocked and ridiculed for nearly a year as not being good enough but in the end, she was and she won.

I want to bring this back to Paul Levesque now. You see the dichotomy between the two brands in relation to how they treat the women. I guess the bigger fascination to me is how two brands, trying to do the same thing, with the same guy (Paul Levesque) involved in creative, are so different.

Maybe it’s all nothing more than Paul washing his hands of the Divas Revolution because he knows he’ll not only do it better but he’ll do it in a way to further HIS brand. Maybe it’s the modern day promoter knowing this is what he has to do to keep up the NXT versus WWE illusion even though it all falls under the same banner. Honestly, you can further dissect the September 16, 2015 episode of NXT to get even more glimpses of the direction Levesque is planning to take things.

The entire episode was basically an hour long commercial for the NXT Tour of Texas. From the 90s-like commercials for the tour to the matches being announced to promos for matches WE WON’T EVEN SEE ON TV. There’s even a segment with Kyle Edwards standing in the production control room in Stanford, invoking memories of when Mean Gene Okerland used to do that in the 80s and 90s.

“There will always be sequels, it is part of pop culture, what’s old is new again.” -Robert Englund

Contrary to what some may have you believe, wrestling isn’t as popular as it has been in the past. Maybe there’s more awareness of it, but I believe that’s about it. Clearly, the current model for storytelling as used for the past 18 or so years is broken. There are no new stars (hence Kane standing tall over Seth Rollins at the end of Night of Champions). The branding of WWE isn’t as strong anymore. Need further proof: They recently drew 1,200 fans to a live event in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

“What’s old is new again.”

The funny thing about referring to Paul Levesque as some type of “modern day promoter” is he’s literally just taking what worked thirty years ago and seeing if it’ll work in 2015. The finances dictate that his whole performance center, developmental NXT brand operates in the red. What’s it hurt to try something new …. well …. old?

Paul Levesque’s approach to NXT as a business model is so much closer to what New Japan has to do instead of what WWE has to do. He, like New Japan, is promoting shows to put people in buildings and not necessarily to further a TV program. It’s like the territory days of using your TV to get people to come to your live events. He’s doing a better job than Ring of Honor of promoting arena events and that company actually tapes and releases those events for public consumption.

Why do I enjoy the TV and the brand so much? I think what makes NXT special to so many people right now, particularly those of us deep in the bubble, is that it’s a breath of fresh air.

It’s mindless entertainment. The TV product is only an hour long. Most importantly, it really gives me hope for what WWE as a whole could be when the inevitable happens.

In an ironic way, I want to liken it to early-2006 TNA. You get this sense of competition with the Big Bad Vince and you’re supporting change that comes with it. Joke’s on us though because the Big Bad Vince is fronting this thing. Lucky for us, he appears to be staying out of the way.

Paul Levesque finally did what was tried and failed for so many years with the brand split and WWECW – he fostered an artificial environment of competition.

And that’s what’s best for business.

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