WWE has been treating tonight’s episode of NXT as a refresh. The overall aesthetic has changed, the logo is different, the roster’s been tweaked and the set has a different structure and vibe.
To really drive home that point that this is a change—likely to appeal to people who have grown tired of the NXT brand in comparison to AEW—WWE has decided to harp on this idea that it is “NXT 2.0”
That sounds good if you’re looking for buzzwords and marketing phrases. However, if you’ve been following the program since its inception, this is not version 2.0 at all. In fact, it’s arguably version 5.0, maybe even 6.0
Version 1.0 – Out of the Ashes of ECW
Originally, NXT was a completely different animal. Replacing the ECW time slot, this was less of a brand in and of itself and more of a competition show. Basically, it was a somewhat more scripted version of Tough Enough featuring talent from the then-current developmental territory, Florida Championship Wrestling.
Those wrestlers were dubbed “rookies” and were each assigned a “pro” from Raw and SmackDown who would be their mentor. In some cases, the pairings appeared to make sense, like Justin Gabriel having Matt Hardy as his pro. In others, people couldn’t be from further ends of the spectrum, which is where the feud between Daniel Bryan and The Miz started.
After that first round of rookies went through and became The Nexus, a second batch competed. Kaval was the winner of that season, but some others saw varying success, such as Percy Watson and Alex Riley, ranging higher to Titus O’Neil and Michael McGillicutty (Curtis Axel), but most importantly, Husky Harris (Bray Wyatt).
The third season saw a set of women as the rookies and AJ Lee, Kaitlyn, Aksana, Naomi, Maxine (who would later be Catrina in Lucha Underground) and Jamie Keyes (who was out of WWE soon enough).
Season four was back to a group of men, including winner Johnny Curtis (Fandango), Brodus Clay, Derrick Bateman (EC3), Byron Saxton and Conor O’Brian of The Ascension (as well as Jacob Novak, who was gone after this).
That was the first true iteration of NXT. But then, there was the first reset, as well.
True Version 2.0 – NXT Redemption
WWE wants to dub this paint-splatter version of the brand as NXT 2.0, but that ignores the fifth season of the competition-based NXT, dubbed NXT Redemption.
This season consisted of rookies from the previous seasons getting a second chance to win. Nothing of that sort ever came to pass.
Four of the Superstars were eliminated from the competition in weeks 11, 13, 15 and 17. Then, the remaining contestants simply floundered for months with no competition aspect continuing.
Instead, this became the dumping grounds for talent WWE didn’t know what to do with. Lower-card performers at the time like Yoshi Tatsu, JTG, Tyler Reks, Curt Hawkins and others simply kept wrestling there. It was a brand without any championships, no solid fan base, no real viewership and no real purpose.
This was by far the worst era of the show, as it was even lower on the totem pole than Main Event, which is saying a lot. Thankfully, WWE decided to change things up yet again.
Version 3.0 – NXT at Full Sail University
NXT ditched the competition format and started recording out of Full Sail University in June 2012. This was the start of the modern-day NXT, featuring actual championships, a general manager, a roster of developmental talent that wasn’t just a handful of rookies, and a structure that mirrored Raw and SmackDown.
For years, this aired on WWE Network with specials like NXT Arrival, the TakeOver events and the weekly episodes that were recorded in bulk in advance. To many, this was the best the brand ever was, featuring talents like Seth Rollins, Paige, Neville, Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Shinsuke Nakamura and The Four Horsewomen.
Unless you’re brand new to the scene, you remember this NXT. You’ll hear stories about these matches (like Sami Zayn vs. Cesaro) and see clips of title reigns from Finn Balor and Samoa Joe. Nobody mentions the competition version of NXT, which is almost treated as non-canon, outside of referencing the Bryan and Miz relationship.
However, this wasn’t the last incarnation of NXT before the one we’re in now, either.
Version 4.0 – The USA Move
On September 19, 2019, NXT aired its first episode on USA Network. That premiere was a monumental shift in the way NXT was produced.
No longer was this an anchor of the WWE Network. Now, people with cable could watch it—a good thing for those with cable who didn’t want to sign up for the streaming service, but a bad thing for those who already wanted the WWE Network and were now forced to get cable to watch NXT, too.
This was also the switch over to NXT being two hours per week and recorded live, which was a massive change to the overall structure of the show. Now, WWE couldn’t plan things in advance, do retakes, test things out in front of the audience and cut them from the show if they bombed, or anything of that sort.
This led to more chaos and a frazzled presentation in some ways. It just wasn’t as tight of a product as it once was.
Also, this is when WWE started treating it like a legitimate third brand. The red brand and A-show, Raw, the blue brand B-show SmackDown and now, the C-show of the black and gold NXT were all involved in Survivor Series to showcase how they were on a theoretical equal playing field, even though everyone knew that wasn’t fundamentally the case.
Then, a little something called COVID-19 hit.
Version 5.0 – PC and CWC Era
It can be debated we saw an entirely new version of NXT once March 2020 came around, even though this one wasn’t planned by WWE in any fashion.
One week, WWE wasn’t able to film at Full Sail University and opted to do NXT at the WWE Performance Center. The next thing anyone knew, that was forced to become the default home of WWE programming for every show going forward during a pandemic that wouldn’t allow for anything else but recording in an empty warehouse.
NXT TakeOver: Tampa was cancelled and reworked into episodes of NXT at the Performance Center and Full Sail University. When the primary brands and the pay-per-views took priority, WWE managed to set up the ThunderDome for those shows, but kept NXT in the dark (quite literally) for a while longer.