NXT UK: Prime Target Gets Right What Everyone Else Gets Wrong
It's an early wake-up this Sunday morning because once again, my body hates me. I started getting crippling neck and shoulder pain around midday yesterday, not because I did anything to injure myself, but because I'm almost 30, but my body decided I was really 60 about 5 years ago now. Stupid disability.
Anyway, the early wake-up call gave me time to try a few remedies- hot shower, painkillers, TENs machine... and when none of that really worked, I decided to try and distract myself by watching wrestling. I went to the WWE Network- which, just quietly, is the streaming service I use the most. I also have Netflix, and Disney Plus thanks to the generosity of my best mate, but it's the graps that I enjoy the most. The Network is airing a live special later today, from WWE's FIFTH brand (yeah, they don't have a monopoly), NXT UK. It'll be entitled NXT UK Takeover: Blackpool II. To hype the event up, WWE put together a 40 minute documentary called Prime Target. And... damn, it was amazing. Here's why.
First of all, it did a tremendous job hyping up each match on the card. As a piece of hype, it was better promotion than anything I've seen from main roster WWE in seemingly forever. I'm not a regular viewer of NXT UK. I tried at the beginning, and while it's a perfectly solid hour of weekly wrestling, in conjunction with Raw, Smackdown, the US version of NXT, and AEW, it's just too much to keep up with even for someone that loves pro wrestling as much as I do. Same reason I don't watch 205 Live any longer (also, last I checked, they were REALLY phoning 205 Live in). But Prime Target did an exceptional job of introducing the uninitiated to what the matches were and who the wrestlers were. But that's not entirely the reason that it was a great program.
I have no idea who the creative force was behind this documentary. Their approach to it, though, was amazingly refreshing. They made the matches and wrestlers feel important, but it's the way it was done that really took me aback. I mentioned that Prime Target was a documentary. One thing that WWE Network documentaries do (and this also holds true for DVD releases etc) is pull back the curtain and talk about wrestling in a behind-the-scenes manner. Prime Target was different. It was an "in-universe" documentary. It dealt with the reality of the characters and the conflict, not the performers portraying the characters and acting out the conflict.
We all know wrestling isn't real. We've been beaten over the head with it ever since Vince McMahon coined the phrase "sports-entertainment". However, it's nice to see a wrestling product treated as real within its own universe. In Game of Thrones, you don't see Jon Snow winking at the camera. In Marvel movies, the superheroes don't break the 4th wall (unless they're Deadpool). In pro wrestling, every shoot promo, every snide comment, and all the talk wrestlers give about "stealing the show", it chips away at the illusion that pro wrestling is a fight, that it's a battle to resolve tension and personal issues.
In Prime Target, wrestlers were interviewed- the ones in the feud and the ones surrounding it. Interspersed with training footage inside no-frills gyms, walking around bleak cities with their friends, and being interviewed at sporting events, we saw what motivated these athletes at a personal level. Why they wrestled, how the wins and losses through their career affected their psyche, what they hoped to accomplish by beating their rival. Joe Coffey talked about battling Pete Dunne for the NXT UK Title and coming up short- so in this championship match with current champ WALTER, he wants to prove he is worthy of being champion. Also, WALTER made his NXT UK debut by storming the ring after Coffey lost to Dunne, overshadowing the tremendous effort Coffey had put it to try and take the gold from the Bruiserweight. Just like that, we have insight into what the championship means to Joe Coffey, and we know he has a personal issue with the champ beyond the spirit of competition.
That said, when real life elements can be used to further the story, Prime Target smartly wove them into the narrative. The NXT UK Women's Championship will be contested in a triple threat match, where defending champion Kay Lee Ray takes on former champ Toni Storm, and the powerhouse Piper Niven. All three ladies are friends and have a long storied history together. Once again, I haven't watched NXT UK in several months and I'm not overly familiar with any of these wrestlers. Yet, in a few minutes of screen time, where soundbites from KLR, Storm and Niven were mixed with pictures of them travelling the world working their way through the independent wrestling scene, I understood the dynamic perfectly. KLR used the close friendship to reveal personal demons that Toni had. Niven tried to reach out to support Storm, but driven by anger and the desire to get her title back, Toni pushed her away. Consumed by a singular desire to face Ray and take the gold, Storm asked Piper to step aside from the match, which she took exception to. Nothing about having a five star classic, it's not about putting on a great performance or delivering an incredible promo. These are things that WWE (and AEW) are often guilty of, openly talking about the showmanship of wrestling. By NXT UK steering away from that, even in a Network documentary, it makes the personal issues resonate more. It's easier as a fan to buy in.
The closest we get to referencing wrestling as a show is Jordan Devlin talking about being the "Ace of NXT UK". Typically, the Ace is the wrestler in a given company that has the best matches. For example, the legendary Hiroshi Tanahashi is known as The Ace of New Japan. But even in that context, Devlin is still referring to himself as better than his Takeover opponent, Tyler Bate, because Bate "couldn't get the job done" challenging WALTER for the title. Devlin's better than Bate, not because he has better matches, but because he WINS more. Bate lost, Devlin's confident that he wouldn't lose if given the chance, he's angry that he's been passed over for a title shot (in a nice touch, he believes it's because he's Irish, not British), Devlin is determined to run through former champion Bate, with the thought that the Takeover win makes him an undeniable contender to the NXT UK Championship. Lovely stuff.
It's simple stuff, but so often overlooked. As fans, we want to suspend our disbelief and buy into what we're watching. Sure, we read dirtsheets and write on forums and analyse matches and all that jazz, but while we're watching wrestling on our screens, we want to be invested. The emotional ride that we get taken on when we care about the characters makes every move mean so much more. Prime Target gave us ample reasons to want to see the matches, and also provided reasons to either want a wrestler to win or lose. Don't beat us over the head with the notion that we're watching a performance. That'll all come back to us when we're giving our star ratings. Should it be ****1/4 or ****1/2? Hmm...
Until next time, take care,