The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of WrestlingInc or its staff
The NXT Women’s Division is stacked; of this there is little doubt. How good is it? I’d argue that it is the deepest women’s division in wrestling history, excluding all-women’s promotions who are obviously going to have a unique advantage. On regular American television, we have never seen so much female talent all in one place.
However, you can’t think about that while also thinking about why WWE’s supposed “developmental” brand has such a deep, strong division, and the main roster does not. Don’t get me wrong, there is some great talent on WWE’s main roster, but it is kind of odd that the women’s division for a two-hour show that never breaks a million viewers, is superior to the five-hours of weekly programming that WWE has on its flagship show, and a show on major network television.
The NXT division is anchored by Io Shirai, who I’ve written about before and firmly believe she is the best female worker in the history of mainstream American pro wrestling, and probably the best female worker period over the past 20 years. Beneath Shirai is just an embarrassment of riches for one women’s division, featuring Candice LeRae, Dakota Kai, Ember Moon, Mercedes Martinez, Rhea Ripley, Santana Garrett, Shotzi Blackheart and Tegan Knox. If any of those women were outside of WWE (so in AEW, Impact, ROH, NWA, etc.) a case could be easily made that the entire division should be built around them. In NXT, they are often just another fish in the sea.
That kind of depth is what happens when you have WWE financial might, and also when you successfully commit your product to promoting women’s wrestling. WWE gets a lot of flack for the Women’s Evolution being a PR stunt (which it totally was) but at the same time, the company has shown a consistent effort to push women’s wrestling as a serious, athletic-based contest. Not only can WWE likely offer the most money, they can also realistically have the best opportunity to become a star, which is something that other promotions cannot really say.
Yet, if you look at the surplus of talent in NXT you would assume that has trickled onto the main roster, but the main roster depth has shown to be remarkably poor. A huge part of that is that two of the biggest names on the main roster (Becky Lynch and Charlotte) have been out of action for the past several months, while a third key name in Kairi Sane, has left the company. However, that still doesn’t explain that if you look past Bayley, Sasha Banks and Asuka, there isn’t a whole lot there on either RAW or SmackDown, and that Banks and Bayley appearing on both brands throughout the pandemic has masked a lot of those depth problems.
Outside of the three above names, the rosters for RAW and SmackDown either seem to contain veteran talent that have been pigeon-holed into undercard roles (Natalya, Carmella, Mickie James, Tamina, Naomi) or talent that lack the dynamic qualities to justify being placed in a starring role (Nia Jax, Lana, Lacey Evans, Zelina Vega, Mandy Rose, Peyton Royce, etc.). The former group are names that have not been pushed lately and would struggle to feel like legitimate challengers against Asuka/Bayley/Banks while the latter group are pushed intermittently and have struggled when given a chance to work with a top name.
There are other names that fit into more of a gray area; Alexa Bliss is a bigger star than anyone mentioned in the last paragraph but does not appear to be currently used as an in-ring talent. Other stars like Bianca Belair, Mia Yim–I mean RECKONING–and Shayna Baszler are recent NXT call-ups who haven’t been placed in a definitive group yet.
I think the obvious explanation would be that bad booking on the main roster should explain the apparent gap in talent between NXT and WWE. WWE has dropped the ball with some of their NXT names that have been called up to the main roster, but realistically, looking at the rosters on both brands, I’m not sure that is the definitive reason.
The booking of talent on the main roster could be better, Natalya, Mickie James and to a lesser extent Naomi, could all have been given some more legitimacy when it comes to their interactions with the top stars. WWE also probably gave up on Baszler too quickly, and should be trying to do more with Belair although it appears her stock is rising. The booking in NXT is better, but not dramatically so. Talent like Rhea Ripley have been misused after a hot start; and veteran names like Chelsea Green and Santana Garrett haven’t been given much to work with down in NXT. I’m not sure there is a big difference between how the main roster is booked and how NXT is booked when it comes to female talent.
Instead, I think the reason NXT’s division is so stacked and why the main roster has some depth issues is because WWE has consistently called up the wrong people at the wrong times. A large amount of WWE’s women’s roster contains women who were called up from NXT too soon, so when they appeared on the main roster they lacked the in-ring skills to stand out as a top talent, especially in comparison to Banks, Bayley, Charlotte, Lynch and Asuka. That hurt their ability to get over when they were originally pushed, and now they feel like interchangeable, low-level performers on the main roster.
Take a look at the main roster: Dana Brooke, Lana, Mandy Rose, Lacey Evans, Peyton Royce, Billie Kay, Nia Jax; all women who were called up to NXT and pushed to an extent, but probably would have been better off spending more time in developmental and sharpening their skills before being thrust into the spotlight on the main roster. All of those women have shown signs of improvement since coming to the main roster, but once you are on the main roster and pushed, if you fail to get over that is a major strike against you, especially in the eyes of Vince McMahon and to a lesser extent, the fans.
On the flip side, names in NXT like Shirai, LeRae, Ripley, Kai, etc. have been around for years and remain in NXT. Obviously, WWE does not want to bleed the division dry by taking all of the best names on placing them on the main roster, but over the years WWE has had the opportunity to call up and push a number of can’t miss names, but they have resisted that in favor of names with less experience that have struggled to get over on the main roster. That is why I think we see such a surplus of talent in NXT relative to the main roster; in addition to the new names WWE is constantly signing, there are older names who realistically should be placed on the main roster, but remain starring in NXT. Having that much depth in NXT is great for that brand, but there is enough talent to spread around that the main roster could also improve its depth greatly.
There is one particular wrestler who I think represents this problem perfectly: Toni Storm. Storm, in my humble opinion, is a can’t-miss star who checks all of the boxes for WWE. Great worker, great look, and the kind of youthful charisma that I think would be popular with teenage viewers, something WWE desperately needs. After NXT UK went on hiatus during the pandemic, there was some uncertainty about where Storm would end up, but a few weeks ago it was announced she would be going to NXT.
To me, that moves makes no sense. NXT has plenty of talent already, and Storm does not really need to learn anything more in NXT that she won’t be able to learn on the main roster. This was at the same time WWE put Zelina Vega in a random title feud with Asuka. You can’t tell me that bringing in Toni Storm as a new hot challenger for Asuka (and even beating her for the title) wouldn’t be a more interesting move. Storm going to NXT will allow her to arguably wrestle in more (and better) matches since she is more likely to be misused on the main roster, but that isn’t really an excuse for her to not go to the main roster. As long as she was given a serious push, I think she would do great on the main roster. Most of the women in NXT would; they are all very talented.
I don’t think NXT being looked as a safe haven for talent to stand out is a good thing for WWE. The company needs the main roster to shine, and there are so many women in NXT that could shine on the main roster. The company has made some bad decisions in who to bring up, perhaps that is related to Vince McMahon not quite grasping what fans expect out of women’s wrestling in 2020, but there is still plenty of time to make the right calls in the future and turn the tremendous depth in the NXT women’s division into something that is true for the entire company.
On the latest episode of The Gentlemen’s Wrestling Podcast, Jesse Collings and Jason Ounpraseuth discuss one year of AEW Dynamite. The guys discuss their original expectations for the promotion and how AEW has lived up to those expectations, as well as discuss the title reigns of Chris Jericho and Jon Moxley, the much maligned AEW’s Womens Division, the pros and cons of wrestlers doing their own creative, and more.
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