Since the death of the wrestling territories, such as the then-local Championship Wrestling from Florida in the late 1980s, national wrestling promoters have faced a conundrum: How can they give their talent the necessary ring work so they look polished before putting them on the main roster? For World Wrestling Entertainment — far and away the leading outfit on Earth — the solution has been farm leagues; it's had them for the last couple of decades.
Over the years, WWE has had arrangements with a variety of outfits, like Louisville's Ohio Valley Wrestling and the United States Wrestling Association of Memphis. Those companies had plenty of success stories emerge from their bare-bones indie rasslin loops. Despite this, none of these solutions was permanent. This explains why WWE moved its training to Tampa, Florida, using the cryptically named NXT territory as its instruction base.
Why Florida? Why Tampa? The simple obvious reason: Wrestlers gravitate to Tampa after retiring, and so a lot of those who could teach greenhorns the ins and outs of the game are there already. Plus, Tampa has traditionally been a hotbed for pro wrestling. It was the spiritual center of the CWF decades ago; more recently, it's the spot from which all indie Florida wrestling emanates organically – again, due to the natural migration patterns of wrestlers, who enjoy the climate and the adult entertainment, to name two of the city’s main amenities.
NXT has television – only in Tampa. But, as has happened historically with Tampa promotions, the company's branching out, running shows throughout the state, as it did on Feb. 22 at the National Guard Armory on Normandy Boulevard. Now, this is <> Westside, way past I-295 — and the drainage reflected that. My subcompact car navigated a lot of standing water along the way.
Local event promoters know that rain kills crowds. Not pro wrestling, though; not on the Westside. Perhaps the marks were drawn in by the promise of meeting former WWE superstar “Bad Ass” Billy Gunn before the show. Whatever the case, by the time I arrived – at the end of the first match – the room was full and the crowd was hyped. I approached the ticket table – an interview with ring legend Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat had been scheduled. However, in the parlance of pro wrestling, a “swerve” was pulled immediately after I told him I was from Folio Weekly.
“No interview – we thought you were with the mainstream media,” said the short, hypertensive, middle-aged man in an NXT polo shirt. Apparently, he isn’t aware of Folio Weekly’s broad readership.
The wrestling itself? Fairly basic. A lot of muscular bouncer guys with tacky sleeve and back tats, who were still figuring out how to work and how to work smoothly. The names on the NXT level are deliberately kept generic; the idea being to “repackage” the wrestlers once they're on the main roster. There were some highlights, though.
The best “worker” on the show, by far, was a tall blonde named Summer Rae. She wasn’t in the ring too much during her tag match, but in the ring or on the apron, she was in perpetual motion, egging on crowd reactions and making even the most jaded fans in the audience want to see her get her comeuppance (except for me, of course, but I have a predilection for assertive women that bleeds over into my appreciation of the sport of kings).
In addition to Gunn, there were a couple of other special attractions on the card. One was former WWE ring announcer Howard Finkel, who used to be subjected to a lot of harassment when he was on the road with the main roster. Finkel seemed off his game during the match he announced, as the mike turned off a couple of times during his spiel.
Another special attraction: the daughter of Ric Flair — Ashley, who will eventually be known as “Charlotte” on the main roster. It's harder than it might seem for second-generation talent to break into the business, but from what I saw, Ashley was genuinely well-liked by her co-workers – a tribute to her legendary dad, to some degree, but also to her willingness to learn the business from the ground up. That’s the great thing about indie wrestling. Like indie rock, you never know who'll be famous until years later, so the best practice is to see what you can when it’s available.