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Friday, April 11, 2014

The NXT Step In WWE's Evolution

The episode of Raw following WrestleMania is most always memorable, and Raw the night after WrestleMania 30 was certainly no exception. The Shield lived up to their “Hounds Of Justice” moniker by rescuing Daniel Bryan from actual injustice at the hands of Triple-H. Cesaro hitched his wagon to Paul Heyman, a move that can only help the “King Of Swing’s” already sizzling momentum. Perhaps every bit as important as either of these things, though, was the large presence the NXT brand had on the show.

The April 7 edition of Raw was notable for the appearances of two NXT stars: Paige (the first and, to date, only NXT Divas champion) and Alexander Rusev (with his valet, Lana, by his side). Additionally, vignettes aired for Adam Rose and former NXT champ Bo Dallas. Rusev dominated Zack Ryder in his first televised singles match on the main roster. Rose and Dallas’ vignettes were both well received. Paige made perhaps the biggest impression of the pack, putting an end to AJ Lee’s nearly 300-day WWE Divas title reign.

When AJ was interrupted by the debuting Paige, a sizable portion of the live crowd seemed to already be familiar with the self-proclaimed “Anti-Diva.” Sure, those in attendance the night after WrestleMania tend to be a hip crowd. Maybe some of those chanting for Paige had been following her since her days on the independent circuit. Still, one can’t help but get the feeling that the increased visibility of NXT (including its recent Arrival special) helped to make her debut all the more newsworthy.

Broad access to NXT programming, both through the WWE Network and Hulu, has fostered an awareness of WWE’s developmental system, which would have previously been unthinkable. Go ahead and watch the debuts of John Cena, Brock Lesnar, and Randy Orton. All three men were products of lengthy stints in WWE developmental (at the time, quartered at Ohio Valley Wrestling). All three made a big impact pretty quickly. Yet few fans seemed to have any idea who these men were when they first appeared. In a sense, they had their work cut out for them. Thanks to the weekly NXT broadcasts being available online, burgeoning stars like Paige, Rusev, and Emma have already established loyal fan bases by the time they get to compete on Raw or Smackdown.

Lest one get the idea that NXT is merely a useful tool for young wrestlers, it’s also important to consider that the brand is good for fans. The sort of wrestling on NXT broadcasts is, for the time being anyway, markedly different than what we see on Raw and Smackdown. It’s quirkier, with a diverse crop of colorful characters that are learning to express themselves in new and unusual ways. The in-ring action is often more vibrant and unpredictable. In short, it is definitely an alternative to the other, more mainstream WWE programming.

At the same time, NXT might not remain a simple alternative for much longer. As more of its stars make the leap to the main roster—Cesaro, The Wyatt Family, and The Shield all cut their teeth at NXT—the tastes of fans change, and the norm shifts. Raw and Smackdown will continue to evolve to meet the desires of fans. That’s how we have come to see someone like Daniel Bryan, who hardly considered a career in WWE years ago, as one of the faces of the company in 2014. It’s an exciting time for the company, as the new guard challenges the old guard and encourages it to step up its game. Fans who want to see into the future know where to look. WWE developmental has, for years now, been a window into the future. It just so happens that millions of people can now peer through that window on a weekly basis.

Kevin McElvaney
PWI Contributing Writer
@OfficialPWI Twitter Contributor

Thursday, April 3, 2014

WrestleMania 30: Staff Predictions

Wrestling’s biggest spectacle celebrates 30 years this Sunday, when WrestleMania takes over  the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. Fans can count on the PWI team to be all over event, including with live Tweeting Sunday night (@OfficialPWI) and the usual wall-to-wall coverage in the July issue (digital edition on sale May 1; print edition on sale May 27), including our annual “Real Winners And Losers” feature. To kick things off, here are our staff predictions for WrestleMania 30, courtesy of Publisher Stu Saks, Senior writers Dan Murphy and Al Castle, and Contributing Writers Mike Bessler and Kevin McElvaney.

Randy Orton vs. Batista vs. Daniel Bryan or Triple-H: 
Triple-Threat Match for the WWE World heavyweight championship

Saks: Bryan
Murphy: Bryan
Castle: Bryan
Bessler: Bryan
McElvaney: Bryan

Analysis: It’s unanimous. We envision WrestleMania 30 ending much the same as most of you probably do: With 70,000 rabid New Orleans fans thrusting their index figers skyward and greeting the new World champ with a boisterous chant of “Yes! Yes! Yes!” 

Triple-H vs. Daniel Bryan: Winner gets added to the World heavyweight title main event
Saks: Bryan
Murphy: Bryan
Castle: Bryan
Bessler: Bryan
McElvaney: Bryan

Analysis: Our unanimous picks for the title match pretty much give away how we all think this match will conclude. That’s not to say it will be easy for the leader of the “Yes Movement.” We expect the Authority to put every obstacle possible in Bryan’s way to prevent him from coming out of this match victorious, and for Bryan to conquer them all.

The Undertaker vs. Brock Lesnar 
Saks: Undertaker
Murphy: Undertaker
Castle: Undertaker
Bessler: Undertaker
McElvaney: Undertaker

Analysis: Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us 21 times, shame on us. None of us are about to bet against the “Dead Man” extending his revered WrestleMania winning streak to 22-0. And, frankly, WWE hasn’t done a very good job convincing us that the former UFC heavyweight champ is even that much of a threat. To be sure, we’ll see 'Taker go down for some convincing nearfalls throughout the match, but we won’t buy it. Or, at least, we’ll try not to.

John Cena vs. Bray Wyatt
Saks: Wyatt
Murphy: Cena
Castle: Cena
Bessler: Cena
McElvaney: Wyatt

Analysis: Finally, something we can’t agree on. We’re leaning toward Cena getting the duke here, if only to make up for slotting WWE’s biggest star in a mid-card match at the biggest show of the year. But with fan favorites expected to triumph in the night’s other big matches, this may be an opportunity to keep Wyatt’s momentum going en route to an even higher-stakes rematch with Cena at next month’s Extreme Rules event.

Andre the Giant Memorial 30-man battle royal
Saks: Big Show
Murphy: Sheamus
Castle: Hulk Hogan
Bessler: Big E
McElvaney: Big E

Analysis: With 30 possible outcomes, it’s not surprising we couldn’t reach a consensus. But a couple of us are counting on WWE taking the opportunity to shine the WrestleMania spotlight on Intercontinental champion Big E. Despite WWE’s portrayal of the 7-foot Big Show as Andre’s heir apparent, only one of us is picking him as the winner. And one of us thinking a battle royal is just the right setting for Hulkamania to once again run wild, without the "Hulkster" never having to leave his feet.

The Shield vs. The New Age Outlaws & Kane
Saks: Shield
Murphy: Shield
Castle: Kane/Outlaws
Bessler: Kane/Outlaws
McElvaney: Shield

Analysis: By a narrow margin, we’re picking the “Hounds Of Justice” to get the win over the veteran team. It’s worth noting that the youngest member of the Authority team, Road Dogg, made his pro wrestling debut the same year The Shield’s youngest member, Rollins, was born. So it’s fair to say The Shield will have youth on their side.

14-Woman Vickie Guerrero Invitational Divas Championship Match
Saks: Natalya
Murphy: AJ Lee
Castle: Natalya
Bessler: Eva Marie
McElvaney: AJ Lee

Analysis: We’re pretty much split on whether AJ Lee will continue her reign as the longest Divas champ in WWE history, or if the sympathetic Natalya will realize her dream of recapturing the title at the “Showcase Of The Immortals.” It will likely come down to what makes for more compelling reality show fodder for Total Divas.

The Usos vs. Rybak & Curtis Axel vs. The Real Americans vs. Los Matadores: Four-way tag team championship match
Saks: Ryback & Axel
Murphy: Usos
Castle: Usos
Bessler: Usos
McElvaney: Real Americans

Analysis: Because the goal of the opening match at WrestleMania is typically to get the fans in the arena and at home excited for what’s ahead, we’re counting on the popular and energetic tag champs keeping their belts in this, the pre-show match.