WWE has been a globally dominant brand for half a century now, but independent wrestling has seen a surge of popularity all around the world in recent years. The UK wrestling scene has been on fire thanks to promotions like PROGRESS and ICW, and in the States, Ring of Honor’s partnership with New Japan Pro Wrestling brings some of the world’s biggest non-WWE talent to the US, while companies like PWG create unbelievable buzz from a broken down American Legion hall. WWE has made a habit of raiding these companies to groom the next generation of talent to great success, but there’s still a huge piece of that pie they aren’t receiving; a whole subculture of wrestling fans the conglomerate monolith isn’t reaching.
That all changed when the company established the WWE United Kingdom Championship early last year. What started as a tournament held in a Full Sail-size arena in England evolved into the beginning of a rollout of a cunning new strategy to spread WWE’s brand in promotions they don’t own. The first time the WWE United Kingdom Champion showed up with a WWE title belt on a non-WWE television program, wrestling fans’ heads exploded. It has a dream match, otherworldly feeling to fans, but to WWE, it’s just a new outlet to promote their product. Just look at this promo from PROGRESS:
What’s the most important thing to Pete Dunne, PROGRESS World Champion, here? Being a mid-card champion in WWE. WWE’s brand is elevated above PROGRESS, on PROGRESS’s own show. It’s free advertising, and it’s quite frankly brilliant. The fact that the WWE United Kingdom show never quite came to fruition doesn’t even matter; there are plenty of already existing UK promotions chomping at the bit for that kind of exposure to WWE’s vast fanbase, and plenty of hardcore wrestling fans for WWE to convert into card-carrying members of the WWE Universe. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, and WWE doesn’t even have to do anything beyond being a little more flexible than they’ve been in the past with talent exclusivity.
So that’s WWE’s plan to plant the seeds of WWE fandom throughout the world, but what about capitalizing on the many popular independent promotions inside the United States? Enter: The NXT North American Championship.
NXT General Manager William Regal announced the creation of a new NXT title on March 28’s episode of NXT, the inaugural holder of which to be determined in a five-way ladder match at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans the night before WrestleMania between a debuting Ricochet, a returning/debuting EC3, Lars Sullivan, Killian Dain, and Adam Cole (baybay). It’s the first new championship in NXT since the creation of the NXT Women’s Championship all the way back in 2013, and the only title in the promotion that is anything less than the top tier of the division (that honor for the men’s singles division would of course go to the NXT Championship). So what is the role of a secondary championship on a secondary brand?
It’s simple: World domination.
Think about it: How surreal would it be to see a WWE champion show up in Reseda for BOLA? Or to see an active member of Bullet Club vie for it? Instantly, the conversation shifts from the most anticipated indie tournament or the most popular faction in all of wrestling to WWE. These types of dream scenarios are just business for the company, and it’s genius. Suddenly WWE is the center of attention in circles that are ambivalent to them at best, and vigorously anti-WWE at worst. And all they had to do was let one of their developmental talents wrestle their friends for the weekend. Hell, in that way, it’s also a form of talent scouting: who matches up well with one of our current champions?
The wrestling landscape in 2018 is unlike anything we’ve seen since the 1980s. Did you ever in your life think you’d see the Impact World Champion go up against a current WWE champion in a completely separate promotion for that company’s top title? Here in wrestling Bizarro World, that’s just another main event somewhere in Canada. It’s also part of WWE’s very intelligent plan to subsidize the recruitment process, and have their hand in the development of damn near every indie wrestling promotion in the world, without actually having to buy and manage any of them.
Independent wrestling fans love to rip on WWE — it’s only natural. WWE is McDonalds; independent wrestling is a lovingly crafted farm-to-table meal. It’s Marvel Comics, indiscriminately rebooting and starting event after event just to spike sales, and all your favorite writers are doing their best work for Image. It’s the inoffensive pop artist selling out stadiums while your favorite band who’s ten times more talented self-funds shows at a half-full House of Blues.
But deep down, most every wrestling fan recognizes the importance, the pomp, the grandeur of WWE. Just look this clip from the UK’s ICW, where a smattering of boos upon the mere mention of “WWE” turns into a deafening pop and a “this is awesome” chant once it became evident WWE’s heir to the throne was actually gracing them with his presence:
Truly, this is Triple H’s vision of WWE and professional wrestling as a whole going forward. Vince McMahon’s WWE would never mention lesser competition, and why would they? It’s just free advertising for your competitors. But Triple H sees things a little differently. For pro wrestling to survive, WWE cannot be the only game in town. So initiatives like the WWE United Kingdom Championship and the NXT North American Championship are more than WWE brand awareness, they are WWE’s way of preserving the lifeblood of the business — while also benefitting from it on every level.
It’s fitting that the first-ever NXT North American Champion will be decided in a match featuring one of the hottest indie stars in the world, the former face of Impact Wrestling, a former pillar of Ring of Honor, one of the UK’s greatest exports, and a single homegrown Performance Center graduate. If WWE’s plan works out, it will end up representing all of them.