Published on March 26th, 2015 | by Gareth Davies0
WWE’s Developmental Hell
When Brock Lesnar left the WWE in 2004 it was probably written off as an isolated incident. After all, despite having come through the WWE’s developmental programme Brock had always been a bit of a strange cat. A loner who would rather spend time in the Minnesota woods than out partying with the boys, maybe The Next Big Thing simply wasn’t suited to pro wrestling.
But when Lesnar’s heir apparent Bobby Lashley did the exact same thing in 2008, alarm bells must have started ringing in Titan Towers. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that the seeds of Bill DeMott’s rise and fall as head of developmental were sown all the way back then.
Lesnar and Lashley were almost carbon copies of each other. Both were collegiate grappling stand outs. Both were insanely gifted natural athletes. Both were pushed to the moon within their first 12 months on the main roster. And both ditched the WWE after only a couple of years on the road, fed up with the never ending grind and being dictated to by an insular and indecisive corporate office.
And imagine, if you will, how much this would have hurt Vince McMahon personally. Having dedicated countless hours of television and sacrificed his top stars to get these guys over, to have both of them pack their bags and abandon him must have left a scar. The ferocity with which the WWE pursued Brock’s no compete clause in court certainly attests to that.
So when the decision was made in the late 2000’s that all new talent would go through the developmental system, and that they would rather build their own wrestlers than take on those with independent experience, it’s not a shock that an insurance policy was drawn up to ensure nothing like that would ever happen again.
As such, slowly but surely, the ethos behind training the stars of tomorrow changed. No longer was an emphasis put on teaching good fundamentals and sound ring psychology. Instead it became all about farming out the mentally weak. The mentors with an encyclopedic knowledge of the business, men like Les Thatcher and Tom Prichard, were phased out, and sessions went from practising chain wrestling and reversals to revolving around punishing cardio drills.
The man entrusted to deliver this philosophy was Bill DeMott. A former midcarder in WCW under the names Hugh Morrus and, er, Hugh G. Rection, DeMott had been previously employed as a head trainer in Deep South Wrestling, a precursor of sorts to NXT. There DeMott garnered a reputation for being not only a terrible booker but also a fierce bully, brow beating trainees and forcing many to quit under his harsh regime. After being let go from DSW in 2008 he re-emerged 4 years later as head trainer of NXT and WWE’s new Performance Centre, an initiative spearheaded by the new Executive VP of Talent Triple H.
The reasons for this were surprisingly simple. When Dusty Rhodes complained in his Hall of Fame speech about WWE’s reliance on email rather than face to face conversations, he echoed the thoughts of many a technophobic old timer who now found themselves backstage staring at flickering screens like confused cavemen. DeMott on the other had was far more corporate friendly than most of his contemporaries. Organised and precise, he kept meticulous records on those under his headcount, keeping stacks of graphs and statistics charting their progress. With countless documents at his fingertips, Bill was breath of fresh as far as the suits in HQ were concerned.
Secondly, while the Performance Centre offers numerous advantages for the WWE when it comes to moulding trainees in to what they want them to be, it also nullifies the time old wrestling tradition of paying your dues. 600 mile road trips, eating cold tuna out of a can, squeezing 7 people in to one motel room, the business was built on these things. It’s a lifestyle that naturally eliminates the waste, separating those who were truly dedicated from those who weren’t.
It also helps develop trust. No matter how much of a jerk the person in the ring with you is, you’ll trust them with your health because they’ve had to cope with the exact same hardships you have. With NXT however grapplers are put on a liveable wage, with free access to a cutting edge gym, while wrestling in the same local buildings week in and week out. Without an arduous journey to the bright lights of the big time and with some cash in their back pocket, the fear is that these wannabe superstars will become soft and petulant, just like Brock Lesnar and Bobby Lashley were. Therefore they need something, or in this case someone, to toughen them up a bit.
Roughly two weeks ago the former NXT wrestler Judas Devlin was being interviewed by the Vendetta Pro podcast. In order to drum up interest for the show, Vendetta released a memo that Devlin had initially sent to WWE’s HR department back in 2013. In it he detailed a list of complaints directed at DeMott including unsafe practices, homophobic and racist slurs, and questionable training techniques. The memo went viral, taking root on Reddit, and soon other former WWE and Developmental stars came out of the woodwork to share their horror stories.
With Twitter as the primary broadcast platform more fuel was added to a fire that was by now spreading wildly. With allegations of sexual harassment and physical assaults thrown on top of the pile for good measure, the scent started to attract the hounds of mainstream media outlets. WWE tried to control the damage by claiming a full investigation in to the claims had been carried out at the time and no compelling evidence had been found. This was soundly debunked when Ryan Nemeth – one of those named in Devlin’s memo as having been on the receiving end of some rough treatment – confirmed that no one from WWE had ever spoken to him about it. With the din growing louder and the situation starting to become a distraction from the build to WrestleMania, DeMott publicly resigned on March 6th 2015.
The internet, which had been baying for blood ever since the story broke, rejoiced. The dragon had been slain. Mean old Bill DeMott had been usurped and sent packing. Now NXT could become a healthier environment, one where the trainees could flourish under good vibes and a shower of positive reinforcement.
However the reality is that DeMott, while nowhere near just an innocent party in all of this, was exactly what the WWE wanted him to be. He wasn’t a lone wolf stalking the woods looking for little pigs to terrorise. He was a hired gun, intentionally employed to be a spirit crushing drill instructor, making life miserable for those who couldn’t measure up and pressuring them to walk away. Much like when he was “The Laughing Man” or spraying crowds with super soakers, DeMott was playing a role.
For example, when in 2013 Triple H apparently came to the conclusion that those in NXT were not physically fit enough, Bill was tasked with pushing them as hard as he could. According to Dave Meltzer of The Wrestling Observer, this resulted in 43 of the 70 trainees in Florida ending up on the injured list. Or to put it another way, roughly 61% of the entire roster had been ruthlessly over-trained to the point where their bodies had broken down.
Now the point here is not that DeMott was too harsh on the recruits. Rather that these actions and many others like them were encouraged by members of WWE’s senior management. This wasn’t the result of an overzealous employee taking things a step too far, but instead a systematic and concentrated campaign to demoralize and depress developmental talent.
That’s the underlying issue here. The WWE genuinely believed that how they conducted their training was absolutely the right way to go, and only an online tornado of negative publicity forced them to reconsider.
Happily the WWE’s history is littered with PR disasters leading to significant change for the better. And with DeMott gone and the dirty linen of the Performance Centre strewn all over the World Wide Web, the time is ripe for attitudes to change. The recent u-turn about hiring independent talent and the signing of superb workers like Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Hideo Itami, and Finn Balor may also negate the need to instil discipline in performers that already have thousands upon thousands of road miles under their belt.
And yet whether or not WWE will learn their lesson from all of this remains to be seen. It’s been a bumpy ride for Vince McMahon and chums over the past couple of months. First there was the uproar over the Royal Rumble, then we had the controversy about how women are portrayed on WWE TV (followed by a very public spat between AJ Lee and Stephanie McMahon), and now a key employee has resigned after a vocal fan backlash. With ratings spiralling quicker than Harrison Ford flying a plane, it has become obvious that the WWE needs to modernise it’s thinking and implement some drastic changes to the product. Truth be to the old formulas simply aren’t working any more.
Refreshing the way the developmental system is run could potentially kickstart that transition. But whether the WWE will be forward thinking enough to do that is another thing entirely. Remember this is a company that has bet the farm on their OTT network, yet has marginalised the wrestler with the biggest online following in favour of someone they believe is better looking. Sometimes common sense and WWE simply don’t go together hand in hand.
Still, hopefully this time around they will take heed. After all, the last thing anyone needs is another Bill DeMott.