WWE Developmental Through the Ages
Posted by Wyatt Beougher on 05.18.2014
411's Wyatt Beougher looks at the history of the WWE developmental system and explains why it is something that WWE is doing very right.
Introduction: So it occurred to me over the last seven days that I've written five columns about professional wrestling right now, and 80% of what I've written has focused on the negative. Because I don't want to be labeled as another negative internet wrestling writer, I figured I'd use the next two weeks' worth of columns to look at the one thing that I think the WWE has absolutely gotten right. (Note: This isn't to suggest that this is the only thing WWE is doing correctly, just the thing that I think they're doing the most correctly.) So what is it that the WWE has done so well? The current iteration of their developmental system, between the Performance Center and NXT.
Who would've thought it would be the older wrestler in this picture who was still with the WWE today?
This week, we'll start with a history lesson, as we look back at what got us to this point. Prior to the opening of the WWE Performance Center, WWE assigned its talent to Florida Championship Wrestling, which is where NXT actually began. But FCW wasn't the WWE's first developmental promotion, as they had working relationships with smaller promotions dating back at least to 1996, when Jerry Lawler and Jerry Jarrett's Memphis-based USWA was officially designated as the promotion where green WWE-contracted talent went to improve before debuting on WWE television. The most famous alumni of this relationship are easily The Rock and Sock Connection, as Mick Foley fine-tuned his Mankind gimmick there and Dwayne Johnson cut his teeth as Flex Kavana. Some other notable WWE talent that spent time in the USWA included JBL (back when he was still just Justin Hawk (sometimes Bradshaw), Kane (as both Doomsday and Fake Diesel), and even Sunny as a color commentator. Based solely on the strength of Johnson and Foley's respective runs in the WWF (and WWE), it's hard to argue with the success of the the WWF's relationship with the USWA. If the USWA hadn't been sold and then closed in 1997, maybe the WWE Performance Center would be in Memphis instead of Orlando.
But the USWA did close, and less than six months later, WWE started sending their developmental talent to Memphis Power Pro Wrestling, which is where Kurt Angle, Charlie Haas, Sean Stasiak, and Tensai/Albert among others, cut their teeth. After Doug Gilbert's controversial shoot promo where he revealed that Brian Christopher was Jerry Lawler's son, that PPW owner Randy Hales allegedly smoked crack, and called Jerry Lawler a child rapist, the WWE pulled their talent out of PPW and the promotion floundered before eventually closing in 2001.
The Minnesota Stretching Crew
As a result of the controversy surrounding Gilbert's interview, in 1999, the WWE opted to put their development eggs into two baskets: Jim Cornette and Danny Davis' Ohio Valley Wrestling, based in Louisville, Kentucky, and Terry Golden's Memphis Championship Wrestling, based (obviously) in Memphis, Tennessee. Both of these promotions produced their fair share of stars, with OVW alumni including Brock Lesnar, John Cena, Randy Orton, Batista, Shelton Benjamin, CM Punk, Bobby Lashley, Charlie Haas, Victoria, Dolph Ziggler, Johnny Nitro/John Morrison, Joey Matthews/Joey Mercury, and more. On the other side of the coin, MCW featured Daniel Bryan (as "The American Dragon" Brian Danielson, Brian Kendrick (then going by Spanky), Paul London, Lance Cade, Victoria (again), Rosey and Jamal before they were 3-Minute Warning, and R-Truth (then called K-Kwik/K-Krush). This arrangement lasted until the WWF purchased WCW in 2001.
After acquiring WCW and a whole slew of their talent (including many wrestlers who were trained in WCW's developmental Power Plant), the WWE opted to end their relationship with Memphis Championship Wrestling, keeping only a handful of wrestlers from that roster. They added Les Thatcher's Heartland Wrestling Federation, which, like OVW, had already enjoyed success as an independent promotion, with the added benefit of being only 90 miles or so from OVW. This allowed WWE to more easily ship talent from one developmental roster to the other and also to save on production costs by taping both promotions' television shows in the same location. Because of this roster co-mingling, HWA can also claim a lot of the same alumni that OVW can, although they also have a pretty famous alumnus who made his way through FCW and NXT in Dean Ambrose, whose stint as Jon Moxley in HWA started roughly two years after the WWE ended their association with the promotion in 2002 after releasing the majority of the talent they'd acquired from WCW.
That left OVW as WWE's sole developmental promotion until 2005, when they decided to add Deep South Wrestling based on the strength of the pitch from former WCW Power Plant trainer (and one-half of the famous Assassins tag team) Jody Hamilton. DSW was pretty much doomed from the start, as Hamilton hadn't actually run DSW since 1988 and had no facilities with which to train the talent he was being sent. While the school was being completed, the talent assigned there could do little more than calisthenics and conditioning exercises. The WWE pulled its support from DSW in April 2007 after less than two years of working together, allegedly because of how substandard the whole operation was being run. Some of DSW's biggest alumni are the Miz, Mike Knox, Ryback (who wrestled as "The Silverback" Ryan Reeves), "Roughhouse" Ryan O'Reilly, who is one-half of the current NXT tag team champions as Konnor of the Ascension, and Deuce and Domino.
Yes, that is the Eater of Worlds delivering that crossbody/double axehandle. More importantly, why did so many FCW wrestlers wear "cowboy" wrestling boots?
After WWE unceremoniously ended its relationship with DSW, they chose Florida Championship Wrestling, which was run by Steve Keirn, and, like DSW, which wasn't actually a promotion at the time they received their deal from the WWE. Thankfully, Keirn (who wrestled in the WWE as Skinner and later as Doink in the mid-90s) managed to get his act together and FCW flourished until 2012 when it was rebranded as NXT Wrestling. They also became the only WWE developmental promotion in 2008, after after a series of events that started in 2005, when Jim Cornette had been fired from OVW for slapping Santino Marella (then going by Anthony Carelli, his real name) for laughing at the Boogeyman. He was replaced by Paul Heyman, but when WWE opted to bring back ECW, Heyman was pulled from OVW to run that brand. In Heyman's absence, neither Greg Gagne nor Al Snow could run the promotion to the standard that the WWE wanted, so they ended their nearly decade-long relationship with OVW to focus their developmental efforts in a single area. While Keirn and a few other FCW executives were let go when the WWE moved operations to their Performance Center in July of last year, the NXT we have today wouldn't exist if not for FCW, and their list of alumni is almost as numerous as OVW's, although it remains to be seen if the likes of Jack Swagger, Sheamus, Curtis Axel, Heath Slater, Justin Gabriel, Bo Dallas, Adam Rose, Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose, Luke Harper, Erick Rowan, Bray Wyatt, Fandango, The Usos, Damien Sandow, and a whole slew of others will be able to capture the same level of success that the OVW alumni achieved.
And it's worth noting that while it wasn't an official developmental promotion, the then-WWF had a working agreement with Extreme Championship Wrestling, having hired ECW promoter Paul Heyman as a consultant. It was in ECW where Heyman took New Rocker Leif Cassidy and turned him into the Head-loving Al Snow that delighted fans for a decade. Also, PJ Polaco, who hadn't connected with audiences as "Portuguese Man of War" Aldo Montoya in the WWF, was shifted to ECW when the USWA closed its doors. He eventually made it back to the WWE, but it wasn't until after he'd been reinvented as Justin Credible in ECW. ECW ended up being more of a feeder fed for the WWF, where Heyman would develop the talent and then Vince would sign them to more lucrative WWF contracts (see: Austin, the Dudleys, and Taz, among others), as well as those ECW stars who came to the WWE after the closure of the promotion (most notably RVD and Tommy Dreamer during the inVasion angle and Sandman during the WWECW relaunch).
Clearly, some of these WWF/E development promotions were hugely successful, both in their own right and in churning out WWE Superstars (probably none more so than OVW). So what is it about the current set-up that I think is so much better than in the past, especially considering that the current setup isn't all that different from FCW? You'll have to check out next week's column to find the answer to that question, and I can promise you that the devil, in this case, is very much in the details. For now, let's get some debate going in the comments - which previous incarnation of WWE developmental do you think was most successful?
Wyatt Beougher is a lifelong fan of professional wrestling who has been writing for 411 for over three years and currently hosts MMA Fact or Fiction and reviews Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.