“Hard Knocks,” meet headlocks.
Anyone who has watched HBO’s documentary series chronicling the turmoil and triumphs of NFL training camps will see a lot of similarities watching ESPN’s “E:60” special “WWE: Behind the Curtain.”
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The show airs tonight at 8 p.m. on ESPN and focuses on NXT, WWE’s Florida-based developmental system. ESPN and WWE hosted a sneak preview for the media last week in Manhattan.
Hardcore WWE fans looking for the equivalent of “Coach wants to see you, and bring your playbook” will quickly realize no such moment is coming.
The three trainees spotlighted -- Xavier Woods, Adam Rose and Corey Graves -- currently have spots on WWE’s main roster. (Woods and Rose perform in the ring, while Graves was signed as an announcer after dealing with concussion issues.)
The individual stories are compelling, including Rose needing to make a sink-or-swim character change work to continue supporting a young son with major medical issues.
But the investment WWE is making trying to create the next “Stone Cold” Steve Austin or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson takes center stage.
At the head of table — literally — is wrestler-turned-executive Paul Levesque (aka “Triple H”), whom WWE Chairman/CEO Vince McMahon put in charge of talent development in 2011.
At one point, Levesque is in a coat and tie leading a meeting at the then-recently opened WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, in 2013 with the likes of Dusty Rhodes, Michael Cole, Paul Heyman, Jim Ross, Michael Hayes and others.
The similarities to Jerry Jones leading a Dallas Cowboys player personnel meeting on “Hard Knocks” are striking, with Triple H going around the room seeking suggestions.
Rhodes says the company needs to fish or cut bait with Woods, who spends his free time away from the ring studying for a Ph.D., joking that he wants people to be forced to call him “doctor.”
Levesque, a big Woods fan, quickly responds that the company is fishing. But the mood is much less positive when it comes to Leo Kruger, with Hayes saying he wouldn’t go see him wrestle if someone gave him a free ticket.
WWE then waves its magic wand and Kruger transforms into rave-party patriarch Rose. He hits it out of the park in his debut with the new character, earning kudos from WWE trainer Bill DeMott, who helped him through the process. (The documentary mentions in the epilogue DeMott leaving the company last March amid accusations of abusive behavior.)
The last-second wrinkle with DeMott is unique in that it anchors a documentary in which WWE cites NXT as an example of a much more progressive working environment, with a training facility not unlike what NFL teams utilize.
During his interview with Jeremy Schapp, McMahon declared, “NXT really guarantees the success of our future.”