On the most recent broadcast of NXT, Tommaso Ciampa defeated Aleister Black to become the 14th NXT champion.
That victory happened because Johnny Gargano, blinded by jealousy and rage, went out of his way to do anything and everything to try to prevent Ciampa, his former tag-team partner and longtime rival, from winning that title. That plan backfired, as a struggle over the title belt led Gargano to strike Black in the face with it and ultimately made Gargano the key factor in his mortal enemy becoming champion.
It was the latest example of NXT cashing in on a big moment, the fans buying in completely and a result that keeps everyone tuning in to see what happens next week. The combination of simple, layered storytelling with incredible in-ring performances has led to a trust that the audience will come along for the ride without hijacking the story for its own purposes.
Those are a few of the many reasons why NXT is the most dynamic, entertaining product that WWE is producing at the moment, and why NXT holds the key for how WWE can shape Raw and SmackDown in the years to come to maximize on the depth of talent currently under WWE contract.
However, it's important to understand that there's no one simple answer that can be taken one-for-one and ported from NXT to the main roster. Raw and SmackDown are catering to a much broader audience and have to achieve much different goals than NXT, but there are plenty of lessons to be learned from the way NXT has produced its incredible run of TakeOver shows dating back well over a year.
First and foremost, NXT offers a commitment to telling a cohesive story on both an individual and a roster-wide basis. Granted, it's a much simpler task to tell a story with a consistent through-line when there's only an hour of TV per week and five TakeOver specials to worry about per year, like NXT, rather than three live hours a week for Raw, two live hours of SmackDown and a 3.5-to-4-hour pay-per-view once a month. The roster sizes are also dramatically different.
The dividends for NXT are so obvious that even a cursory glance at where the brand stands can tell you there are lessons to be learned. The current champion has gone through a complete transformation over the last three years and fans have been there and invested in that story every step of the way.
Ciampa went from being an unsigned and unlikely participant in the first Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic alongside Gargano to being part of a heartfelt one-on-one battle between Ciampa and Gargano in the Cruiserweight Classic, and now one of the underdog favorites of NXT. Both guys signed WWE contracts, fought all the way up the NXT tag-team ranks as #DIY and then put together a rivalry for the ages with The Revival, which culminated with a pair of TakeOver matches that stole the show in Brooklyn and Toronto in 2016.
Just as it all came together, the Authors of Pain swooped in and knocked them down a few pegs, and as #DIY's last challenge for the titles fell apart, serious injury concerns for Ciampa opened up the door to the heartbreaking betrayal that broke the team apart at the first NXT TakeOver: Chicago special.
As Ciampa sat on the shelf recovering from surgery, Gargano fought all comers and the demons of Ciampa's betrayal all at once, becoming the most beloved character in NXT history in the process. His matches against Andrade "Cien" Almas helped bring NXT to a level it had only seen once before in its existence -- the hallowed days that produced the likes of Finn Balor, Kevin Owens and the Four Horsewomen of WWE, which now stands as a significant portion of the core of the main roster.
Ciampa returned to break Gargano's heart and cost him the NXT championship upon his return, which set them on a path toward destroying one another at TakeOver: New Orleans and TakeOver: Chicago II. Along the way, Black swooped in and defeated Andrade Almas to become NXT champion, and on Wednesday night all three men came crashing together at once in what's likely to set the stage for an incredible main event at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn IV.
That synopsis only scratches the surface-level storytelling of a few characters and one key ongoing storyline for NXT. It doesn't get into the resurgence of the NXT women's division so soon after the once-in-a-lifetime dominance of Asuka, the rise of a tag-team division anchored by the Undisputed Era, Moustache Mountain and a growing depth of teams that prove tag-team wrestling isn't as dead or worthless as the last few months of Raw and SmackDown might indicate.
There's also the ascendance of guys like Adam Cole and Ricochet, who each took part in a six-way ladder match for the NXT North American championship in New Orleans that felt head-and-shoulders above most anything Raw or SmackDown could pull off. Now, opposite one another in the lead-up to NXT's return to Brooklyn, their likely match to come is just as likely as two or three others to steal the show.
NXT has proven successful as a living, breathing ecosystem. It's not four, five or 10 different segmented storylines that occasionally cross over slightly in the occasional tag-team match. Consequences and alliances carry over from match to match and intersect and interact with everything else going on on a weekly basis, so that it feels less like a show where the scripting overwhelms every performance and more like a platform that lets its biggest stars sink or swim.
The commentary on NXT helps sell everything that's going on by giving each match a real, gritty feel. There's not an apprehension toward calling each move in the ring as it happens in NXT, whereas Raw and SmackDown often shy away from technical names outside of signature and finishing moves to such a degree that it feels as though there's an embarrassment toward getting too invested in the nuances of the match.
The biggest problem that Raw and SmackDown suffer from is a perceived lack of self-awareness. There's a confusion as to why fans won't commit to certain stars and stories, even though Raw and SmackDown take alliances and key character traits for granted, drop certain ideas altogether at the drop of the hat and struggle to allow many of their characters to show depth beyond one-dimensional personalities. In general, the track record of the transition from NXT to the main roster hasn't been good. Take a look at the current status of Bobby Roode, Tyler Breeze, The Revival, The Ascension and the Authors of Pain, just to name a few. Of course there is the counterpoint of the rise of Alexa Bliss, Elias and Carmella, but still, the ratio isn't great.
Of all the mistakes being made on the main roster, though, most of it boils down to not adapting to crowd reactions enough and not committing to storyline decisions to such a degree that it has dragged down multiple performers. While there's not enough space or time to address how sideways things got with guys like Zack Ryder, Tye Dillinger or Rusev along the way, the journey of Roman Reigns provides more than enough context.
The negative reactions for Reigns started when he became the perceived "corporate choice" as the breakout star of WWE and the next "guy." Rather than steering into it by making him an on-screen corporate champion for a stretch -- a move that helped forge The Rock as a star -- they set him up as the anti-corporate guy striving to pick off Brock Lesnar.
That move might've been effective had they pulled the trigger on it at WrestleMania 31. Or SummerSlam 2017. Or WrestleMania 34. Or Greatest Royal Rumble. Instead, the audience has been stuck in a purgatory in which Reigns is not only viewed as a character being forcibly pushed upon the WWE universe, but he's all of that while being entirely ineffective in establishing himself as a top champion.
Simply put, that's not a problem that would ever come to pass in NXT. When a guy like Velveteen Dream started garnering positive reactions across the board, NXT ran with it, gave him some runway to work with, and allowed him to maximize on both his potential and the reactions that he gets. It's the same kind of story we've seen dozens of times over in NXT as it has continued to cash in on its stars with big matches, memorable storylines and TakeOver specials that have proved what they were doing was hyper effective.
It will be clear once WWE returns to the Barclays Center in mid-August. On Saturday night, a sold-out NXT crowd will blow the roof off the place with three or four title matches that feel like they have real stakes to them. On Sunday, it's likely that the main event of SummerSlam will get booed out of the building as fans wait on some kind of payoff on a story that's stalled for more than three years.
I'm not a professional wrestling veteran or creative genius by any measure. But it seems pretty clear to me which approach is working better.