In Melbourne, NXT Wrote the Future of Pro Wrestling

With NXT, the WWE have created brand that competes with, and poaches talent from indie promotions like Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. But it's impossible to complain when NXT so often outshines the WWE's main roster

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09 December 2016, 2:49am

The build up: NXT General Manager William Regal informs newly-crowned NXT Champion Shinsuke Nakamura that he will defend his title against Samoa Joe one more time in Australia.

2016 has been a strange, optimistic year for the once stubborn WWE. We've witnessed a slew of debuts, injuries, even a second brand split – and to cap it off, a December NXT tour of Australia. It almost seems too good to be true. But tonight, 6000 or so hardcore fans are packed into Melbourne's squeaky-clean Margaret Court Arena. We're really here.

What even is NXT? It began in 2012 as the WWE's developmental promotion, where new wrestlers could learn the ins and outs of the WWE style before debuting on TV. But in 2016, after crowning global superstars like Samoa Joe, Shinsuke Nakamura and Asuka as champions, NXT's become its own entity: the WWE's cooler, "alternative" brand.

Since CEO Vince McMahon became an onscreen villain, the act that catalysed the Attitude Era, the WWE have cast themselves as an evil corporation at odds with its underdog heroes – and by extension, the fans. With NXT, the WWE have created their own counterculture: a brand that competes with, and poaches talent from indie promotions like Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. But it's impossible to complain when NXT so often outshines the WWE's main roster.

A women's triple-threat kicks things off: the rookies Liv Morgan and Billie Kay take on the former SHIMMER star Ember Moon. NXT's presentation sets it apart from the indies – the entrance videos, music, lighting and costumes establish the wrestlers' characters even before the match starts. Billie Kay, wrestling in Australia for the first time in two years, slithers into the ring – her silky, translucent cape trails over the top rope. She gets raucous cheers, but she's supposed to be a mean girl! She rolls her eyes, tries to wave them away. Tonight's hardcore crowd has its own snarky agenda. Can too much enthusiasm be a bad thing?

Wrestling doesn't always take itself seriously. When Wesley Blake kicks out of an early pin, someone yells "this is rigged!", to affectionate laughter. It can even be a delightful farce. In a match between Oney Lorcan and Patrick Clark – whose ridiculous Prince gimmick has its own Pitchfork thinkpiece – Clark starts whipping Lorcan with his headband. He gets an equally ridiculous pop – chants of "holy shit!", "ECW", "fight forever!" When have Australians ever been known for our sense of irony?

In the night's first tag bout, the villainous Elias Samson and Bobby Roode take on Buddy Murphy and Tye Dillinger. Two heels could not possibly get more opposite reactions. Samson is "The Drifter", a tuneless blues guitarist who insists on singing before matches. His gimmick is so bad it's brilliant – he deliberately plays his character as dumb as possible, to nuclear heat. His partner Bobby Roode gets, of course, a glorious welcome. But he, too, knows how to turn the crowd back against him.

Tye Dillinger, the self-proclaimed "Perfect 10", was a conceited heel just months ago. But lately, he's become the spirit of NXT. A decade-plus veteran, he's the rare underdog in a division of established stars – and now he's getting his chance to shine. Chants of "ten!" interrupt punches and ref counts in every other match. And his partner Murphy, a former Melbourne City Wrestling champion, might be even more underrated – and athletic.

The four men have a match that's 80 percent crowd chants – like an absurdist Rock v. Hogan. It's to their credit that it becomes into a legitimate contest. Dillinger hits his signature Tyebreaker, flipping Samson's head onto his knee for the pin. But he leaves the ring to Murphy – the hometown boy gets to bask in the glory.

Modern wrestling fans are fickle – we don't always root for clear-cut heroes and villains. The Revival are dastardly heels, but they're genius tag team wrestlers – so in the post-internet era, they're practically worshipped. Their opponents, Riddick Moss and Timo Sabbatelli, are impressive wrestlers – but they don't have characters beyond "rich trap music bros". The crowd makes this match an uphill battle. With no prior storyline, and no reason to admire the faces, the four men have to create something from nothing. They put together a compelling match despite, not because, we threaten to derail it with chants.

Peyton Royce challenges Asuka for the NXT women's championship. NXT house shows are best defined by odd matchups like this one, that no one necessarily came to see. Asuka and Ember Moon could tear the house down every night, but it's more important for veterans and rookies to mix and match. It's on-the-job training – they can practice sequences and play off the crowd without the pressure of TV cameras. Wrestling's as much about character work and improvisation as, well, wrestling.

Royce doesn't stand a chance. Her Poison Ivy gimmick and Sydney billing get boos – which, to be fair, is the point. Asuka, with her mask, eye-popping robe and King Crimson-inspired theme, is a fucking rockstar. Asuka house matches are weird – she's so fearsome that the crowd doesn't buy it when she sells her opponents' offense. Peyton Royce loses, but in getting to work with Asuka, she gains more than anyone.

In the two best matches of the night, we don't have to suspend our disbelief. Nick Miller and Shane Thorne, Perth's TM-61, take on DIY, Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa, for the NXT tag championships. It's the rare face vs face tag match – something that almost never happens in WWE. Even more than singles matches, tag wrestling requires clear heels and faces. Unless, of course, you're as fluid as these two teams. All four men have the uncanny ability to pull off any move at any time, in any place. In a single, impossible movement, Johnny Gargano dropkicks Thorne and uses the momentum to hit Miller with a tornado DDT. DIY retain, but both teams get a standing ovation. This match proves that wrestling can have heart and spectacle. They work the exact kind of chaotic, athletic match they'd have in, say, PWG. But it's just a tad slower, more focused on emotion than flips – and that makes all the difference.

Ominous music plays as the steel cage lowers to the ring... diagonally? The crowd chants "Botchamania!", "you fucked up!" – and when the cage lowers in place five minutes later, "you still got it!" In the age of UFC and Brock Lesnar, wrestling fans are obsessed with the malleable concept of "reality" – whether that means technical difficulties, or Samoa Joe and Shinsuke Nakamura's stiff martial arts strikes. They're so intense that neither the cage botch nor a Nakamura singalong can defuse the atmosphere of a real fight.

These days, titles never change hands at house shows. Or so we thought – until Samoa Joe won his first NXT championship in humble Lowell, Massachusetts. Likewise, Nakamura ended Joe's second reign a week ago in Osaka. This steel cage match, to be televised next week, raises the stakes beyond any WWE event Melbourne's ever seen. In NXT, anything's possible.

Instead of the usual chain wrestling holds, Joe and Nakamura open by pawing at each other like MMA fighters. They go for takedowns, try to pass guard. It gradually morphs into a professional wrestling match – but a brutal one, even by their standards. They take turns throwing each other into the cage walls, until Joe starts to take control. He pulls out every submission, head kick, and power move in his repertoire – but it's not enough.

Nakamura tries and fails to scale the cage walls – but then he hits his signature Kinshasa, a knee to the side of Joe's head, off the top rope. He crawls for the door – the most anticlimactic way to win a cage match – but he pulls it shut. He hurtles himself at Joe with another three consecutive Kinshasas, then gets the pin – one, two, three. The symbolism isn't lost on us. Nakamura could have escaped, but he chooses to once and for all to prove his superiority.

It looks like Joe's NXT run is over, but be grateful that it happened. Twelve months ago, this would have been unthinkable. It's a wrestling fan's dream match, televised from our doorstep. Still, we ask ourselves: why Melbourne?

In wrestling, bigger isn't always better – NXT is proof. But the same is true of the Australian wrestling scene. The inferiority complex is practically part of our national identity. But in the last few years, a true Australian wrestling identity has emerged.

The likes of Emma, Buddy Murphy, TM-61, Billie Kay and Peyton Royce have already "graduated" to the WWE. Their homecoming serves a dual purpose: earlier in the day, eight MCW wrestlers get their chance at an NXT tryout. Hours later, word breaks that Evie – a future star to rival Bayley and Sasha Banks – has already been signed.

The WWE can poach as many as they like, because Australian wrestling's never been stronger. Wrestling is art; no one gets into it to make a living. But that would be the ultimate validation. They deserve it.

You can follow Richard on Twitter.