It’s hard to look down to Orlando and imagine NXT as anything but a success. The new developmental brand has been one nearly constant bright spot for an ever waning WWE. Comparatively the NJPW version of developmental is often invisible, or at the very least unhighlighted. Known as “young lions” NJPW rookie wrestlers go by a completely different set of rules dictated mostly by Japan’s own wrestling culture. It’s that difference that sets NJPW’s young lion system apart and might just make it better than NXT.
NXT began as a replacement to the languid developmental system WWE had throughout the late 2000s and into the early 2010s. Based on the old territory system, new recruits to the WWE would be sent to Florida or Ohio where they could learn the basics, wrestle in front of crowds, and hopefully move on. Despite some success these territories were often producing wrestlers who weren’t ready for the intense demands a WWE lifestyle places on wrestlers. Live shows, travel, and character development were brushed to the side in favor of wrestling basics. The system didn’t fit the mold. Then came NXT.
Birthed from an already dead brand for recruiting “new” wrestlers to the WWE, NXT set a different pace pretty early. NXT had a weekly show, a PPV, and a roster of notable talented indie wrestlers. It took years before NXT was something to chant in massive arenas but the hard work had paid off. NXT was the place to be, even more so than the big brother brands of Raw and Smackdown. Across the ocean in Japan however the Young Lion system was the kind of stepping stone NXT had quickly outgrown.
Young Lions live in a dorm right next door to their gym. They cook, clean, and carry bags for the wrestlers already on the NJPW roster. When they do wrestle they must all wear the same black trunks and ring shoes. After three years as a Young Lion they leave Japan on an excursion to learn. When they return they graduate and finally move up to the main roster. It’s a rigid system, one fitting the country and promotion it’s attached to. This system has produced some immense talent and it’s difficult to look down the roster of names and not be impressed. Where NXT invites established names and promotes based on name value, the Young Lion system is based solely around results.
It comes down to results. NXT isn’t about tomorrow, it’s about today. Originally designed to prepare the future of WWE, now NXT is the future of WWE. The best matches happen there, the best wrestlers showcase their talents there. WWE has turned into a retirement home for indie wrestlers who gave their last wonderful gasps of wrestling down in developmental. Contrast that to the Young Lions who have no show to produce, no traveling to do. Their duty is to learn how to wrestle, and learn how to respect the business their in. They are learning the hardships and nothing else. It seems harsh because in some ways it is. They aren’t producing superstars, they’re producing wrestlers.
The differences between NXT and the Young Lions is as stark as the differences between WWE and NJPW. Despite making the same product they have wildly different approaches. Style or substance.