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Starr: The Post-Cole NXT Championship Curse

Going from one of the championships that was coveted and defended fervently, to now claiming almost as many victims as a Madden cover; Tommy Starr explores the NXT Championship curse.

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You have all read the articles about the “NXT Champion Curse” in some form or fashion.  Many wrestling fans have listed every NXT Champion from Seth Rollins on up to determine whether or not their title reigns amounted to them seeing massive success on the main roster.  This is not one of those articles.

This particular curse that I am referring to actually does not date back all that far, but there seems to be a growing statistic with the NXT Champions going back to the summer of 2020 that is really worth analyzing.  That case is that, following Adam Cole’s longstanding reign as NXT Champion for four-hundred three days, the champions we have seen post-Cole and up to the recent Samoa Joe incident have either had reigns cut short due to injury or have had disappointing and/or short-lived runs that left a lot to be desired.  Among the wrestlers on that list are: Keith Lee, Karrion Kross, Finn Balor, and Samoa Joe.

First and foremost, the “injury curse” is something that you can trace all the way back to Tommaso Ciampa’s incident in March of 2019, where he had to relinquish the title for neck surgery.  However, even as far back as 2019, NXT’s main event scene was firing on all cylinders, to the point where they had plenty of options to run with to find a replacement champion and top title program.  Hence, we got the Adam Cole/Johnny Gargano rivalry that many NXT fans still view as the best NXT Championship feud to this day.

However, by July of 2020, things had radically shifted for NXT.  Their main event picture was not as hot, you could clearly start to see the cracks in the long-term booking strategies, and it is also important to remember during this time, Vince McMahon had been assembling a mass group of call-ups to main roster television.  Whereas in previous years, the idea would be that you would see two or three NXT call-ups in a given year, by 2020, you were starting to see double the call-ups in a shorter period of time.  So it really became impossible for NXT to even build their main event scene, with the understanding that Vince would want a hold of these talents if they started to gain even an iota of traction.

It is important to break down and analyze the (in)significance of the post-Cole NXT Champions list to better understand the gravity of the situation:

Beginning with Keith Lee’s NXT Title win (July 8-August 22 of 2020), his title reign had a lot of potential.  Not only did he dethrone Adam Cole as the longest reigning NXT Champion at the Great American Bash, but he also had previously won the NXT North American Championship and came out of this match a duel champion (NXT’s first and only duel champion).  Unfortunately, that crowning achievement was the peak of Lee’s title reign, because everything that happened afterwards completely thwarted his momentum.  First, he voluntarily (randomly) relinquished his North American Championship on TV under his own volition with zero hype and zero reasoning, other than to “prevent others from earning opportunities.”  And that was a blanket statement, in and of itself.  Then, he entered a title feud with Karrion Kross and lost his championship clean at  Takeover XXX in, what I still believe is and was, his only documented title defense.  All of this occurred within the span of a month and a half.  What did Keith get out of all of this?  He received the “don’t let the door hit you on the rear on the way out” treatment, as this match served as Lee’s final swan song for NXT.  And we all know what happened once he reached the main roster.

Then there is the whole Karrion Kross saga.  His first title win (August 22-26 of 2020) lasted all of four days before having to relinquish the title due to suffering a shoulder separation in his match with Keith Lee at Takeover.  His second title win (April 8-August 22 of 2021) served him better, but a common agreement among many NXT fans was that there was always a missing puzzle piece with Kross during his title reign.  In fact, now that I look at it in hindsight, August 22 is not a statistically great day for poor Karrion Kross.  Aside from that, his matches were mostly substandard, his title reign did not seem as impactful as it should have, and there also seemed to be a general consensus that, while Kross was the champion at the time, NXT was deliberately passing up on the opportunity to run with Kyle O’Reilly as the champion.  Factor this all in with him dropping the strap to a forty-two year old, out-of-shape Samoa Joe at Takeover 36, Kross’ “title redemption reign” never felt as meaningful as it should have.  And let us not even begin to detail his main roster run at the moment.

I do not want to gloss over Finn Balor.  Among the list of names of the post-Cole title curse, many people would rate Balor’s title reign as a massive success.  And to an extent, that is true.  However, when you really split hairs and examine Balor’s title reign for what it was, his championship run served as more of a transitional role than anything else.  It was actually something very counterculture to what we were accustomed to seeing with NXT Champions for its entire existence.  The idea at this time was that, even though Kross was out with injury, he was still the priority and the focus of who they wanted as their champion upon his return.  In the meantime, they needed a longer-term placeholder champion that they could rely on to deliver quality main event matches and serve as their top talent for a period of time; Balor was the perfect fit for that moment.  While you still had guys like Ciampa, Gargano, and Cole, Balor was fresher to the scene and had more momentum from fans than most of the roster.  So while Balor was a good-fitting champion for their particular circumstance at that point, he was never their focus of attention; he was “right place, right time.”  His title reign served as more of a “thank you” than any kind of milestone story redemption or career resurgence.  That is not to say that any of this is to degrade or belittle the impact of Balor’s title reign, but we also have to be pragmatic about this.  Simply put, had Kross not been injured, do you think NXT had any storyline plans or long-term goal to put the title on Balor?

That ultimately brings us to the Samoa Joe situation.  His title reign (August 22-September 12, 2021) lasted all of twenty-one days, having not defended his title a single time and having only made one televised appearance since winning the title at Takeover 36.  The odd thing about this “injury” is that it remains undisclosed, even as of the writing of this article, September 18.  No news sources have provided an update on what the damage is, his expected recovery time, a return date, nothing.  It is almost as if there is more to the story that we are not being informed of.  Of course, this is insignificant in terms of course direction for the NXT Title, seeing as how Ciampa successfully won the title this past Tuesday on NXT television in a four-way against Pete Dunne, LA Knight, and (some guy named) Von Wagner (and no, he is not a music composer.  I checked).  All that said, this circles back to the “championship curse” theory, and Joe is not excluded from that conversation.  Whether or not the injury is grave does not invalidate the fact that he is another victim of the post-Cole championship situation.

What do you think?  Is this is the Post-Cole NXT Championship Title Curse?  The only thing we can hope for coming out of this is that Ciampa does not meet the same fate as the other names on this list.

Sources:

  • Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, September 15). List of nxt champions. Wikipedia. Retrieved September 18, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_NXT_Champions.


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Opinion

The Paradox of the Wrestling War in 2021

The IWC has been talking about a certain Friday Night and what numbers matter. Tommy Starr chimes in with his perspective on this “war”.

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“War is peace… freedom is slavery… ignorance is strength.”  These are among George Orwell’s key three slogans in his novel 1984, which exemplify the ideology that when one has the power to lull individuals into false senses of security, they will blissfully ignore truth and reality to serve a perpetual agenda.

Since the inception of AEW, wrestling media has insisted on this idealistic narrative of a born-again “Monday Night Wars” comparative to that of a bygone era of professional wrestling that has not been seen since and will never be seen again.  For one reason or another, modern wrestling fans have bought into this impractical religious doctrine hook, line, and sinker, despite statistical evidence that contradict this ideology.

To put this in perspective, if there is a genuine wrestling “war” in the wrestling market today, it is not merely a war of the companies of AEW vs. WWE, rather it is a frivolous war between the oppositional fans of AEW and WWE.  The center of authority that continues to drive this animosity amongst the opposing fan bases rests at the helm of the wrestling media and the individuals within the business itself.  The manipulative narrative of the wrestling media and wrestlers in the business have managed to perpetrate a falsified creed that AEW and WWE are “at war.”  It is interesting to note that this blanket statement hedges the particular element of what both companies are at war with. The common implication is the war of competition, particularly competition for viewership.  And while this narrative carries some validity, it misses the key detail of what this abstractive war revolves around.  It is a waging fight among AEW and WWE fans to try and claim superiority over the other, despite the apparent truth that both sides are failing to expand beyond their niche audiences.  Hence, neither party can credibly claim any form of superiority.  In essence, this religious irrationality to suggest that one company is directly “winning” over the other continues to miss the essential endgame of what winning a war truly looks like.

In the business world, “smart companies” understand and invest in long-term strategies of acknowledging that when they lose small battles, they allow their opposition to enjoy those smaller victories; meanwhile, they do not allow those battle losses to obstruct their long-standing progress.  So contextually, AEW would be wiser to accept that their Friday night edition of Rampage show running head to head with SmackDown lost in overall viewership numbers by approximately 288,000 viewers, despite the fact that not only was SmackDown running on a different network due to Fox coverage of the 2021 American League Championship Series, but that AEW Rampage had actually gained viewership from the previous week by about 15.14%.  Instead, wrestling media continues to propagate that overall viewership is subordinate to what truly matters in this equation, that being the key male 18-49 demographic.  What this discounts is that when one analyzes actual numbers, both shows essentially tied in the target 18-49 demographic at a 0.24.

A strategic business owner obsessed with “winning wars” understands his opposition’s leader and avoids engaging in projecting irrational and petty beliefs in order to stir up his or her army.  Rather, it would be wiser to quietly and cautiously observe the opposition’s decision-making to effectively counter-program and capture the attention of potential consumers.  This does not bode well for Tony Khan when he engages in social media warfare with the opposition to try and stoke a fire that merely exists in a metaphorical fantasy.  All the while, the rival niche audiences partake in nonsensical arguments over which organization “won” a war that has not, does not, and will not exist, despite a genuine hope that professional wrestling will ever reach that level of popularity again worth necessitating a war.

A true and authentic wrestling war in today’s culture should be the fight to reassemble a lost and/or new audience. Per discussion of a lost audience, that insinuates both parties fight for the admiration and trust of disgruntled audiences that have since tuned the product off from their habitual consumption.  Arguably, this can be seen as a lost cause, considering most of these wrestling fans have long since distanced themselves from professional wrestling. However, a business that can successfully earn back that trust of disassociated consumers is a fruitful investment. Catering to loyal and clinging fan bases may be short-term goals, but they are not expansive business strategies.  And based on the weekly viewership numbers, ratings, and key demos for both parties, AEW and WWE continue to cater short-term appeal to their niche audiences instead of investing in long-term strategic outreach to new audiences.  The art of mastery on this level is a war worth fighting for.

Sources:

  • Casey, C. (2021, October 18). Who won Friday night’s ratings battle between WWE smackdown and AEW Rampage? WWE. Retrieved October 20, 2021, from https://comicbook.com/wwe/news/wwe-smackdown-aew-rampage-oct-15-ratings-war-who-win-tied-demographic-smackdown-wins-audience/.
  • Feloni, R. (2014, August 14). 33 war strategies that will help you win in business. Business Insider. Retrieved October 20, 2021, from https://www.businessinsider.com/war-strategies-to-win-in-business-2014-8.
  • Thurston, B. (2021, January 15). Key demo and total audience: What are they and how much do they matter? Wrestlenomics. Retrieved October 20, 2021, from https://wrestlenomics.com/2020/07/14/key-demo-and-total-audience-what-are-they-and-how-much-do-they-matter/#:~:text=With%20a%20new%20head%2Dto,advertisers%20to%20the%20programs’%20networks.


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Steve Cook’s Fave Five: October 2021

From the Head Of The Table to the Future Head Of The Table, and more, Steve Cook has his Fave Five for October!

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Bron Breakker

From the Head Of The Table to the Future Head Of The Table, and more, Steve Cook has his Fave Five for October!

We’re more than halfway through October, and you know what that means! It’s time to make a list of my five favorite wrestlers! It’s either do this or write about the latest wrestling news, and as fun as it is to talk about television ratings, this seems more productive at the moment.

5. Mercedes Martinez

It’s considered impolite to discuss age. At least it used to be. I’m not sure anything’s considered impolite anymore based off of what I read on the Internet & see on television. People have pitched manners out the window as they’ve become accustomed to not worrying about getting punched in the face. There’s a point I’m trying to get to here, and that point is that it’s nice that women’s wrestling has arrived at a place where I can write about somebody that’s been wrestling about as long as I’ve been an online wrestling journalist, and they’re kicking ass & taking names. Makes me feel a bit less creepy.

Martinez’s return to the indies & emergence in Impact Wrestling has gone well. What Impact is doing with her isn’t exactly rocket science: have Mercedes Martinez destroy everybody in her path to a title shot, and make people believe that whoever the champion will be between Mickie James & Deonna Purrazzo will have a difficult test on their hands. Simple, right? Throw in the incoming debut of the IInspiration, and it’s pretty easy to get excited about the Knockouts Division & where it’s headed.

4. Bron Breakker

Yes, the name is pretty awful. Yes, NXT 2.0 isn’t exactly setting the world on fire after a few weeks. But it’s tough to deny the talent of the son of Rick Steiner. Dude has the physicality & the speaking tone of his father & uncle. Not quite the size of Rick or Scott in later years, but if genetics are any indication he’ll get there. It won’t be long before he’s NXT Champion, heck, I’m kind of surprised he didn’t get drafted to Raw or SmackDown already. He’s got money written all over him.

As for that pesky name issue…names aren’t as big of an issue as we like to think they are. Dolph Ziggler would have been future endeavored years ago if bad names held talent back. You also have to keep in mind that WWE will probably change his name before he gets to the main roster. No need to sweat the small stuff here. This guy will be a star somewhere under some name. Probably for the best the longer he holds off using the Steiner name, given how the wrestling business works.

3. Junior Dos Santos

If you’ve followed mixed martial arts for any length of time, you know that most fighters’ careers don’t end in a blaze of glory. Fighters want to keep fighting, and even if the losses keep stacking up they still think they’re one win away from getting back to the top. Young fighters are looking to make their names, and beating the brakes off of fighters with track records is a good way to do that. At age 37, JDS has entered that phase of his MMA career. He’s lost four straight fights, all via TKO, all to younger fighters looking to make a name. He could keep doing that, or he could move on to something else while his name still has value.

Why not pro wrestling? Granted, I seem to be one of the few people writing words on wrestling websites that actually like AEW’s angle with American Top Team & Dan Lambert, but JDS is the perfect fit for something like this. He’s a large human being, wrestling fans by & large know who he is, and he has the type of athletic ability that should transition well to pro wrestling. He’s lost a few fights, but the people he lost to are doing pretty well in UFC’s heavyweight division. I’m willing to give it a chance. Also, when the inevitable AEW vs. WWE shootfight rumble happens, AEW’s going to need him around.

2. Roman Reigns

It’s like we said years & years ago: Turn Roman Reigns heel and people will start to like him. I don’t know why the idea took so long to enact, but WWE finally turned Roman Reigns heel and people have started liking him. How about that? Amazing how these things happen. Roman’s charisma has become much more apparent in his role as the Tribal Chief, Head of the Table, Big Dog, Island of Relevancy or whatever else they’re calling him this week. The interactions between Roman & Brock Lesnar have made for good television, so good that I think even Patrick O’Dowd is on the Paul Heyman bandwagon these days.

That all being said, I think I’m enjoying his off-screen character more than his on-screen character these days. Reigns has taken the baton from Seth Rollins & become Mr. WWE Defender, and does it in a way that’s less whiny than what Seth used to do. Perhaps a bit delusional, but much more convincing. Who would win in a shootfight between Roman & CM Punk is completely irrelevant, as last I checked none of these people were shooting in WWE or AEW rings, but he managed to make people care about it somehow. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

1. Bryan Danielson

I know we’re supposed to care first & foremost about what company somebody works for these days. So I’m sure there are some of you out there that have decided that the man formerly known as Daniel Bryan has to be washed up and no longer one of the best wrestlers in the world. Or he’s unfairly putting his life on the line outside of the welcoming bosom of WWE. Nah, it’s probably just the easy “B+ player” talking point that most of the same folks went with when Bryan was still with WWE.

Me, I just care about what’s going on in the ring. Whether other people like it or not has never been one of my main problems. As I’ve pointed out before: I don’t get paid by any of these companies, and I don’t get paid by other people to shill for them. All I know is that it’s a joy to have Bryan Danielson back on my television, and his matches have been as good as expected. It really doesn’t take all that much to make me happy, just good wrestlers doing good things.


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