Wild and Young: The oral history of the original WWE NXT
What do the letters “NXT” mean to you? Lately, you’re probably conjuring images of the powerhouse stopgap down at Full Sail University that transforms virtual unknowns into WWE Superstars, a place where certified G's, demons and huggers run the roost. But six years ago, those three letters meant something very, very different.
On February 23, 2010, WWE launched NXT — a competition show that put “Rookies” through unusual and often absurd “Challenges” designed to test their grace under fire, all with the intention of crowning a winner to carry the torch for WWE’s next generation. For four seasons, this left-field trial-by-fire churned out Superstars at a rapid clip, providing a flawed yet fascinating entry point for WWE’s future cornerstones. That is, until the rails came off and it became the most gloriously preposterous show in sports-entertainment history (and we mean that as a compliment).
The alumni of WWE’s biggest cult-classic show since Sunday Night Heat have, between them, held every title in WWE. The veterans who guided them through have main-evented WrestleManias. And yes, that is what Daniel Bryan looked like without a beard. Four years after NXT first went live, WWE.com presents the weird, wacky history of the wild and young, told by the Superstars who lived (survived?) it and the Pros who helped them along the way. And remember: #YellowRopesForever.
(Note: Quotes with an asterisk were taken from earlier interviews.)
KING BARRETT (SEASON 1 WINNER): When I first heard the idea I didn’t like it. I thought it was like a “Total Divas” kind of reality show. I thought it was gonna be a bunch of us living outside the ring and being followed around, which I really didn’t like at all. But once I realized it was a competition based on in-ring talent and in-ring talent only, I got a lot more comfortable with it. That’s when I sized up the opposition and really felt confident of winning.
Vince said ... "We're going to do a competition reality show."
DANIEL BRYAN (SEASON 1 ROOKIE): NXT was kind of a last-minute thing, the whole show. I don’t think they really knew what they were gonna do with the concept of NXT, so a lot of it was very interesting and wild to be a part of.*
CHRIS JERICHO (KING BARRETT’S SEASON 1 PRO): Vince said, “Listen, I’m doing this show, I got a bunch of guys down in Tampa that I want to put on TV. Some of them are ready, some of them are not, so we’re going to do a competition reality show where we have the Rookies with the Pros and I want you to be one of the Pros.” I said, “No freaking way. There’s no way that I want to be one of the Pros.” We were working four days a week as it was and that’s an extra day, five days on the road a week, which at the time was not something that happened. I was also a big bad guy at the time, I was like, “Why would I care about anyone else enough to be on this show? Why would I care about a Rookie?” Vince basically said, “Whatever, you’re doing it.” So I went into it reluctantly because it was an extra day of work I did not want. At first I wasn’t the happiest guy about it [laughs].
It was terrifying. I had an ulcer in my stomach every week.
CURTIS AXEL (SEASON 2 ROOKIE): NXT was a new idea that came along [when] I was training down in Developmental. I was interested in watching my friends get brought up to the big leagues. Seeing what they had to go throug on that show was incredible, man.
AJ LEE (SEASON 3 ROOKIE): It was this giant opportunity for us. We were down in [Florida Championship Wrestling] for years and waiting for that break. We were kind of iffy about it because you don’t want to have to continue to prove yourself. You want to just make it on the road and you’re there. The idea of fighting and clawing and scratching in Developmental for years and then continuing to have to do that and fight and scratch and compete was not the easiest thing in the world.
KAITLYN (SEASON 3 WINNER): The show started out as almost a test that all the Rookies had to go through to prove they were worthy of being on Raw or SmackDown. It was terrifying. I had an ulcer in my stomach every week before the show because they were putting us on the spot. We had no preparation and it was very scary.
Even though the prospective Superstars were being thrust into the spotlight before they’d ever run the ropes on live TV, they did have one safety net: Each was assigned a “Pro” to guide them through the often-absurd landscape of NXT and WWE in general. The feature didn’t only offer the WWE Universe a proxy by which to measure the Rookies, it gave the Rookies themselves a sounding board, no small amount of veteran support … and, when necessary, tough love.
THE MIZ (DANIEL BRYAN’S SEASON 1 PRO): The idea [for the Pros] was treat [the Rookies] like you’d treat a person coming into this business. I was the first person you see when the show first aired. First premiere, first scene, the first person you see is me and I was basically telling the Rookies exactly how it is to be a WWE Superstar. I don’t care if you were a big-leaguer in the independents, a great football player, basketball player, if you were a huge reality star, it doesn’t matter to me. The fact is, we are WWE Superstars and we are at the top echelon of entertainment. If you’re not ready for it, you’re done.
AXEL: [The Pro system] was a good little feature. The audience didn’t know who you were, because you’re new, so you got help from whoever your Pro was. It was kinda cool that you could get some advice from your Pro and people related to that Rookie/Pro thing where you’re looking up to your mentor and getting advice from him.
Miz was perfect to be my Pro. He is the antithesis of everything I stand for.
JERICHO: I tried to give [Barrett] as much wisdom, as much confidence, as much encouragement and as much criticism as I could. I was completely honest with him. I told him, “Listen, man, I don’t want to hurt your feelings but I’m gonna tell you my opinion. Not because I think I’m always right, but I’m here, I’m taking being your mentor seriously. I want you to win and go on to be the World Champion and make millions of dollars.” And he was really receptive to that. I like Wade to this day. I think he’s a main-event star just waiting for that opportunity to show it.
MIZ: I thought it was genius [to pair me with Bryan]. Everyone hated me in the WWE Universe, and he was this beloved independent wrestler, the king of the independents. He was loved by all the WWE enthusiasts even though he’d never been in WWE. It was fun to kind of absorb that hatred of me and the love for him even though I’d been here and was proven as a WWE Superstar.
BRYAN: Miz was perfect to be my Pro. He is the antithesis of everything I stand for.
MIZ: I did slap [Bryan] in the face right in that first show, just to give every Rookie a taste of what was to come.
BRYAN: I think it ended up being very good for me, them putting me in that role. Because right away, people who were fans of me were [ticked] off that they were putting me as a Rookie with The Miz as my Pro. And most of the audience had never seen me before and started to feel bad for me. So I got that sympathy role of the underdog.*
What was to come, as it turned out, was a series of over-the-top, seemingly random “Challenges” that wouldn’t be out of place in a frat-house initiation. Sodas were chugged, Halloween costumes were modeled and, at one point, a bona-fide “American Gladiators” competition was held atop the entrance ramp. But what seemed like assorted nonsense was, in fact, a new and wholly unexpected way to test the Rookies’ ability to work on the fly, with one, all-important twist: Each time the Rookies showed up to work, they had no idea what was coming. Not that it excused them for poor performance …
NAOMI (SEASON 3 ROOKIE): I hated doing those Challenges. They were always on the spot, we had no time to prepare, so what the audience got was real, it was us. That was the scariest thing about doing NXT. I look back at it now and I just laugh. Back then it was scary.
BARRETT: Week one we were a little unsure about what was going on. People were coming along and thrusting live mics into our hands on live TV. It was something we really weren’t prepared for at the time. That was when we realized it was sink or swim.
AXEL: They kind of laid back on some of the harsh things the Rookies had to do [for Season 2]. We still had to do the Challenges, we never knew what was going to happen to us. They kind of toned it down for us, though, because it was pretty harsh before.
They kind of toned it down for us [in Season 2] ... it was pretty harsh before.
BARRETT: I think pretty much unanimously the eight of us who were on that first season thought the Challenges were completely ridiculous for the most part. They really had no bearing on our abilities as a Superstar or anything like that. The only one that did give an idea of the kind of Superstar you’d be was the “Talk the Talk Challenge,” which is the one that I won.
NAOMI: The worst was the “Talk the Talk Challenge.” I hated it.
JERICHO: Justin Gabriel had to [talk about] flowers. And afterwards, he was like, “This is stupid, why would I ever have to [talk about] flowers?” And I told him, “No, you’re missing the point. It’s not flowers, it’s that you could be asked to do something at any time and you have to be prepared for any situation. That’s how WWE is — you never know what’s going to happen.” It wasn’t about flowers; it was about doing the best you could under pressure.
KAITLYN: It was funny to watch, like, “Oh, what are the Rookies gonna have to do this week?” We did some really ridiculous things, and it was so terrifying for us. But I can see how great it was for the fans, because they got to see us in our raw state, which is super scary. I feel like they got an opportunity to see the real us.
AJ: It was hilarious. I think the guys had this cool stuff that we really wanted to be a part of, and then our first thing was a dance contest. But no matter how ridiculous they were, they made you realize that you’d do anything, and there was nothing you could not handle, so it was the best learning experience.
Despite the freewheeling environment, NXT wasn’t all fun and games. At the end of the day, these were the future flag-bearers of WWE, and they required (and got) a refreshing degree of control in developing their in-ring personas in between the obstacle courses and weekly matches. As a result, the WWE Universe got a firsthand glimpse at the birth of popular personas and styles, from Bad News Barrett’s acerbic orations to Daniel Bryan’s tenacious submission wrestling.
BRYAN: I had this idea of what I wanted NXT to be for me. I came out in very basic gear — I had better gear —thinking, “OK, if I have a mentor, obviously Miz is going to have a very hard time teaching me how to wrestle.” So I came in as pale as I possibly could, came in basic gear because I thought they might do some stuff where he’s trying to jazz me up and make me an entertainer. They never did anything like that, we just did goofy contests and stuff like that.*
We had a lot of control whenever we had a mic in our hands.
JERICHO: For me, Barrett and Bryan were the two that I knew could be huge stars. Barrett is still working on it, but could easily, easily, easily be there. Bryan is already there. The first time he had a mic live without a net, he came up with something like, “You will tap out” or “I’m gonna make you tap out,” so he almost had a catchphrase right off the bat. He was good thinking on his feet, and he didn’t give a crap. He was gonna do his thing no matter what.
BARRETT: We had a lot of control whenever we had a mic in our hands, which is something that really suited me. I’m very confident on the mic and that’s something that allowed me to excel above some of the other competitors on the show.
JERICHO: I remember the very first episode of NXT I wrestled Daniel Bryan for the first time. I was the World Champion at the time and I remember being like, “Why am I wrestling on this show against this guy that nobody knows when I’m the World Champion?” But we had as good of a six-minute match as you could possibly have. We tore it up. And that’s when I knew this guy was going to be a star.
BRYAN: I was super excited to be in the ring with Jericho, because he was one of my favorites when I was in high school. He was the guy on TV who was never given that great opportunity to be with the main-eventers, but he was always the most entertaining guy on the show. And then he comes into WWE with the Y2J thing and he's been phenomenal ever since. He's one of those guys who, as a smaller guy, I looked up to and said, "I'd like to be as good as that." So getting into the ring with him was a dream come true.*
It took seven nobodies and made them Superstars.
AJ: Any time I can be myself and not try to be anything that I’m not, people will gravitate toward that because it’s real, and that’s a recipe for success. At the time there was a standard for women and beauty in general, and I think I came out in Chucks and was told not to do it again. And then, the second episode of the show, the people who told me not to were busy working on SmackDown and didn’t get a chance to see what I was wearing, so I ran out with my Chucks on, and it went from there where people were on board with it.
The first season of NXT also produced a significant aftershock: The entirety of the Rookie class was brought up to the main roster, uniting under the banner of The Nexus, with Barrett leading the charge. The young guns ran roughshod over the main roster for months, netting a pair of WWE Tag Team Championship reigns for Heath Slater & Justin Gabriel, as well as launching Barrett into near-immediate contention for the WWE Championship.
JERICHO: The first season did end pretty cool. Much as I didn’t want to do it at first because it was extra work, I did enjoy watching the development. I could see who was gonna make it and who wasn’t and I thought it was pure genius when they formed The Nexus because it took seven nobodies and basically made them Superstars overnight. It was amazing … They main-evented SummerSlam! What more could you ask for from a bunch of unknown, quote-unquote “Rookies”?
The elimination format continued for four seasons before WWE switched it up again and the concept of “Redemption” was introduced, where previously eliminated Rookies would be brought back for another swing at the big leagues. However, that show eventually evolved again, this time into an odd, alternate-universe version of WWE where the Rookies ran rampant and got into crazy misadventures under the observation (or lack thereof) of William Regal and Matt Striker.
AXEL: [Redemption] was by far the best NXT. I had so much fun doing that.
[NXT] was our own little world and it was really amazing to be a part of.
MIZ: I think they did a great job to keep it going. They started forming those love triangles, and it felt like a soap opera.
AJ: That was actually where Daniel Bryan and I started dating.
KAITLYN: Yeah, NXT kinda turned into this soap opera! It was our own little world and it was really amazing to be a part of. Everything from those weird relationships to Matt Striker being kidnapped, it was this hilarious, amazing little world that we were a part of.
NAOMI: I actually loved those shows back then. I miss Maxine a lot. I think she was an awesome villain, probably the most villainous of all of us on NXT.
AJ: I liked Matt Striker getting kidnapped. I thought that was pretty great.
KAITLYN: Matt Striker was a really good sport about it, and anything that has chloroform involved is gonna be spectacular.
AXEL: I had that awesome rivalry with Tyson Kidd. Being involved in a rivalry was not something I was accustomed to at the time. I would just go out there and have random matches with random Superstars. But it was great to finally get that, and it was fun! We got to do all kinds of cool stuff, so I really enjoyed that.
I liked Matt Striker getting kidnapped. I thought that was pretty great.
AJ: It was fun to try stuff out. It really was just a learning experience, trying and failing on a smaller scale so you know what works on a bigger scale.
KAITLYN: I look back on [Redemption] and I couldn’t wait to be a part of it every week. There were surprises every week, all these hilarious twists and turns, and watching it was amazing. It doesn’t seem like a show that would make it on WWE TV, but it was amazing.
Eventually, Redemption faded away and NXT was reborn. Now, it’s the home of the “Next Generation of WWE” and as a part of WWE Network it’s already a bigger deal than it ever was in its five seasons on live TV. But give credit where credit is due: Weird as it was, NXT did make its fair share of Superstars. And even as the new NXT blazes its own must-see trail through WWE history, the veterans of its precursor still look back on the nonsense fondly. Well, fondly enough, anyway.
BARRETT: You never know how things are gonna be remembered long-term. I’m still unsure [about] how people look back on those first couple seasons of NXT. They produced a lot of new stars and, for me, personally, it has a special place given that it was my introduction to WWE and the boyhood dream coming true for me.
MIZ: Look at how far some of [the Rookies] have come. My Rookie [became] one of the most beloved people in all of WWE. I like to take full credit for making that happen because of my hard work and dedication in showing him how to be a top guy. And now he’s a top guy.
AXEL: It’s become a stepping stone for WWE talent. You look around the locker rooms and it’s a lot of guys from NXT.
JERICHO: I mean, the proof is in the pudding! They main-evented SummerSlam in August! Seven main-event guys on the second-biggest pay-per-view of the year! That says it all, you know what I mean? I told them, “Listen, for some of you guys this will be the highlight of your career. Some of you will never be in this position again. So enjoy it and work as hard as you can.” And I was right. Because I’m aaaalllways right!
They main-evented SummerSlam! That says it all, you know what I mean?
NAOMI: It definitely helped me out a lot. It was a way for me to debut, a way for the audience to get to know who I was. I was able to showcase my athletic ability. I was very new at the time, but I think it was a great starting point for all of us. I still have people coming up to me and asking me about things from NXT that I would rather forget. But that’s awesome, because that’s how people remember me.
AJ: That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I hope people realize how lucky they are that they don’t have to have chocolate-eating contests and gift-unwrapping contests and dance contests their first day on television [laughs]. We didn’t sleep. Just busy every day, working and training in locker-rooms that were basically large closets.
NXT is a show where you have the opportunity to develop yourself into whatever you want to be.
KAITLYN: What it’s transformed into is still, in a way, NXT. Because even though [the old show] was here with main roster talent, it was still a place where you got to be whatever you wanted to be and have a chance to develop who you are as a person and as a Superstar. So it still has that element of freedom. NXT is a show where you have the opportunity to develop yourself into whatever you want to be.
AJ: It was a trying experience. I have flashbacks. But you’re so much stronger in the long run for it.