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Can WWE grow their own talent to be stars anymore?

AJ Styles vs. Nakamura | WWE

Once Upon A Time, in a Business Far, Far, Far Away…the idea that Vince McMahon could push main eventers who had never experienced success outside of the WWF was absurd given how aggressively they had poached the biggest and the best pro wrestlers from rival promotions. Indeed, with only two exceptions, the WWF did not own the exclusive rights to their champion’s gimmick until "Stone Cold" Steve Austin won the title in 1998.  

Even then, at a time when McMahon’s main even roster was arguably at its weakest, it was still focused on guys such as Mick Foley and Austin who had won championships in WCW. Even The Undertaker had a notable run in WCW as part of The Skyscrapers. But Triple-H and The Rock were different; the former had achieved nothing during a short-stay in Atlanta whilst the latter didn’t even get that far south after leaving the Canadian Football League. Instead, they were WWF-lifers, men who debuted to much fanfare, suffered a vicious yet deserved backlash, only to finally grow into the shoes they had been given upon entering the Titanverse.

It’s a journey that most of WWE’s late Attitude era draws have trodden. Whether it’s John Cena, Randy Orton, Dave Batista or Edge, they are all were similarly devoid of pro wrestling accomplishments away from the McMahons, and were all strongly pushed upon their debut only to temporarily falter due to the promotion and performer having failed to perfect their persona away from the main stage. Yet, they all eventually achieved real success after tweaking their characters.

It has been more than a decade since the promotion has found the same success in ‘hothousing’ talent in this way. Whether that’s due to the developmental system not recruiting the right performers or creative not letting talent grow into more marketable personas is up for debate. What cannot be argued is that the inability of WWE to grow its own superstars has had the most profound impact on the product they present.

The careers of CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose are all evidence of how the WWE has been forced to reach into the very same independent scene they used to dismiss to find the next generation of superstars. Still, at least, the promotion was able to console itself with the fact that these men all needed the McMahon Family to get them to the big stage. After all, without the WWE, they wouldn’t be performing in arena shows or on national television.

Indeed, it seemed that this became WWE management's collective egos' Maginot Line; anybody could be hired provided they had no national television exposure and weren’t so infamous that WWE couldn’t remould them. Kevin Owens was the first to hint that this defence was creaking. Sure, he was given a slightly different name but he was essentially playing the same character as he had in Ring of Honor. Worse, he had appeared extensively on ROH syndicated television and had even had his own action figure produced.

But that was nothing compared to this week's news that A.J. Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura are on their way to WWE. While both men are just as revered by smart fans as the ‘indie darlings’ that WWE has been busily signing to NXT in recent years, they have far more tenure in "mainstream" pro wrestling.

Styles was not just regularly featured on Spike TV rom 2005 to 2014, but was the TNA champion during the period Eric Bischoff and Hulk Hogan tried to turbocharge TNA to new heights. A show Styles appeared on as champion was watched (at one point) by more than 3 million people. His merchandise includes action figures, t-shirts, DVDs and video games. He’s wrestled all over the world, and so while the WWE could insist on renaming him, it would likely hold them up to ridicule and lessen the impact of his debut.

Styles has also been the highest profile foreign star in New Japan Pro-Wrestling for the past two years. However, his impact there has been nothing like that of Shinsuke Nakamura. An art-college vision of bad-ass, he is easily the flashiest character and most dynamic performer in New Japan’s main event scene. Not even Sting could boast having headlined a show with as high a paid attendance as Wrestle Kingdom 8, where Nakamura’s Intercontinental Title defence went on last in front of more than 30,000 people.

To underline how significant a change in WWE’s recruitment policies these signings are, consider this. The last person to be recruited by WWE having successfully drawn more than 10,000 buys on pay per view for a rival pro wrestling promotion within a year of their debut was probably Hulk Hogan in 2002! Other than the ill-fated Mistico, WWE has simply not recruited anybody with the success or profile of either Styles or Nakamura since they cemented their dominant market position.

And the reason they are doing so is not because they want to, but because they’ve finally acknowledged that they can’t grow their own talent. That they are being forced to face up to his failure does raise questions about what the millions of dollars being invested into NXT are actually achieving.