Shinsuke Nakamura and NXT Graduation Day


Wednesday night’s edition of NXT marked a proverbial changing of the seasons. The show features a new (albeit predictably) nu-metal theme song, feuds began and talent debuted.

But after Drew McIntyre made an impressive debut (and Oney Lorcan damn near stole the show in a loss), and a ragey rage-filled theme raged, NXT bid farewell to Shinsuke Nakamura. The King of Strong Style’s goodbye to the crowd at Full Sail Live was impassioned, proud and emotional — so emotional, in fact the camera panning the audience for reaction captured one woman wiping away tears.

Miss? I feel your pain.

Now, pro wrestling is a television drama with sport as the vessel. Think Friday Night Lights, if the football sequences were more physical. As a college-educated adult, I’m savvy enough to get that.

I also understand the best television series are those that strikes a genuine emotional chord with the audience. Nakamura’s farewell struck such a chord for me personally. His departure from NXT reminds me of college graduation.

Though under the same corporate umbrella, viewers won’t shy from pointing out the differences between NXT and the main WWE product. WWE grew from a regional promotion into an international conglomerate with toys and video games and a network and a freakin’ movie studio. It’s a universe all its own like Oz, and Vince K. McMahon is the Wizard.

NXT exists in that universe, but feels like its own outpost in the Land of McMahon.

I took friends to an NXT house in Las Vegas last December, and they understood the federation as something of a minor league for WWE. While technically correct, the brand functions as a unique entity. Storytelling is straightforward yet effective, with the wrestling functioning as the primary channel through which those stories are told.

NXT has its own fans, and most are rabid. While there’s overlap with the WWE fanbase, I would estimate it’s comparable to the crossover between college football die-hards and the NFL audience.

Likewise, much as the NFL has a way of chewing up and spitting out cherished college stars, so do does the WWE with some NXT talent.

Plenty make the transition just fine: Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins were early-era NXT talent who have since moved into the main event. Charlotte Flair helped revolutionize women’s wrestling on NXT before moving to Raw. Kevin Owens wrestled the face of WWE, John Cena, while holding the NXT title.

Just as many NXT talents have also languished on the main show. Bo Dallas and Tyler Breeze were both top-level heels in NXT, for example. Emma was a beloved babyface in the federation’s early days, then badly flopped upon her move up to the big-time. Mojo Rawley…well, Rob Gronkowski’s bestie is actually just about the same at both levels.

Point is, success in NXT is no guarantee of success in WWE — just as success in college basketball is no guarantee for NFL. Or, how success for any college student won’t necessarily translate to the real world. And that brings us back to Wednesday night.

Shinsuke Nakamura will flourish on the main WWE roster. He was a superstar before coming to America, playing a critical role in New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s growth into an international federation. His time in NXT further solidified his stardom, as American audiences took to him instantly. And if there’s any doubt his NXT popularity will translate to WWE, his debut should assuage those concerns.

Nevertheless, he’s leaving a tight-knit community for the proverbial rat race. Nakamura’s speech transported me back about a decade, when I received my Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University of Arizona.

Graduation day itself was a blast. I met several friends for breakfast* at Frog & Firkin, an on-campus hot-spot at UA. Like Nakamura saying goodbye from Full Sail Live, Frog & Firkin was the perfect spot for one, final bash to raise a toast. I watched Arizona basketball games on movie projectors at that bar. I attended informal staff meetings as a reporter for The Daily Wildcat.

That morning on the Frog patio, we reminisced about the past few years — the best years of our lives to that point, and in some ways for me, they are still. We talked about our impending futures. None of us knew what we’d be doing in a few weeks, let alone a few years.

All told, that table of goons taking Jaegermeister shots at 10 a.m. did pretty well. One of us became a famous comedian and has a recurring role on Billions (seriously!). Another is a father and success in the medical industry. I continue to chase my sports journalism dreams, which really began to take shape in college. I have dozens of goals to meet, but having just worked my second Final Four, I just might be on the right path.

None of it came without hard times, though. Everything anyone tells you about “The Real World” when you’re a college kid? Unless you’re inheriting a parent’s business, it’s all true. The world’s hard; even as I’ve found more professional success, I find myself watching NXT on a Wednesday night, surrounded by stacks of boxes because my family is in the middle of a move.

College is a dreamland with $8 pitchers and carbs at every meal, just as NXT is a world where every fan knows every word to your theme song. The real world is a juggling act of responsibilities and bosses and future endeavors. No matter what the real world may throw, though, I’ll always have the memories of drinks on the Frog patio — much as Nakamura will always have NXT.

(*breakfast consisted mostly of drinks)

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