When NXT debuts on USA Network on Wednesday night, it will mark a significant shift in the WWE’s programming strategy and be the first time in nearly a decade that the company has had three live shows airing on cable television.
Among the talent that has been and will continue to be featured prominently on NXT programming is Bianca Belair.
A track and field standout in college and former CrossFit competitor, Belair was initially discovered by WWE Hall of Famer Mark Henry and has been one of the most promising female wrestlers on any brand.
“When Bianca Belair is there and I step out, I’m going to be shining and all of the attention is going to be on me,” Belair told Yahoo Sports. “I’m the EST of NXT. I show that I’m the strongest, the toughest, the quickest, the fastest, the greatest, the best. That’s what you get every time you see Bianca Belair.”
Belair’s seamless transition in and out of character — and ability to put herself over — illustrates just how quickly she has taken to the industry despite not having any wrestling background prior to joining WWE.
The 30-year-old is one of the longest-tenured female talents under the NXT umbrella, and has received a push toward the top of the card on the brand’s pivotal TakeOver shows in 2019. She’s caught the eye of several key figures in WWE, including Charlotte Flair, who has regularly referred to Belair as a future star in the women’s division.
“Those words flatter me,” Belair said. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a smile on my face when I read those things. It gives me a lot of validation and encouragement. Charlotte and Becky [Lynch] were in the main event of WrestleMania, so to have these women acknowledge me, my hard work and my attributes and athleticism, it validates me.”
If Flair’s words are validation for Belair, the move to USA serves the same purpose for the brand she wrestles on.
“For a long time we have been looked at as the developmental brand,” Belair said. “They bring in talent from all different backgrounds. Some of us do have wrestling background, some of us don’t and they teach us. We’ve proven that we’re not just a developmental brand anymore. We’re a brand that can stand on its own.”
While Belair isn’t wrong when she says the debut on USA is the final step in solidifying the black-and-yellow brand’s standing within WWE, it’s hard to understate the significance of this move.
Although NXT has aired weekly on the WWE Network on Wednesday nights, the move to cable television is part of a drastic shift in the industry’s television landscape, meaning the show takes on added importance.
“I’m ready to get out there and show the world what we’re about,” Belair said. “I think everyone has those same feelings, excited, anxious, nervous. This is something that is different. It’s something that we know is a big deal. We know that there’s a lot on the line here. At the same time, we’ve been doing this so we have to just go out there and do what we’ve always done.”
Belair’s gimmick — calling herself the EST of NXT — has a double meaning and makes her a perfect representative for the brand. While she refers to the suffix attached to the myriad adjectives she uses to describe herself, Belair takes pride in being a homegrown talent.
Part of the equation for NXT’s current and future success is the building of characters — such as Belair — and keeping them under the brand’s umbrella for an extended period of time.
“The next goal, next step was always to go up, to get called up and go to Raw or Smackdown Live,” Belair said. “The term going up, we’ve done away with that. We see NXT as a third brand. It’s Raw, Smackdown and NXT. Being a part of NXT is an accomplishment of its own. I’m a homegrown talent and I love being here.”
On the surface, it doesn’t appear as if much will be changing for Belair and her NXT peers. The show will still air on Wednesday nights and film at Full Sail University in Florida. The biggest adjustment will be the shift to live television. Paul “Triple H” Levesque, the creative force behind NXT, told Yahoo Sports last week that the safety net would be gone for the talent after the USA Network debut.
The ever-confident Belair doesn’t seem to be worried, however.
“We’ve been down here, they’ve been grooming us, prepping us,” Belair said. “Before it was to go up to Raw or Smackdown. The whole point of NXT was to prep us to be prepared for whenever that call comes because it could have come at any time. It’s not anything that we’ve had to do different. We’ve been ready, we stay ready, we’re going to show that now.”
Instead of worrying about hitting commercial breaks, Belair is focused on the creative opportunities the extended time slots will offer the diverse NXT roster. Belair referenced a recent TakeOver match between Io Shirai and Candice LeRae — two of her opponents on the inaugural USA broadcast — to illustrate how the roster is chomping at the bit.
“We are definitely excited because our roster is so deep,” Belair said. “We have a lot of title matches on TakeOvers and for the first time ever at [NXT TakeOver Toronto] we had a non-title women’s match between Io and Candice. They proved the roster is deep and we deserve these opportunities. Having an extra hour will open up these opportunities to showcase them. We have talented women who need to be showcased.”
There’s also larger opportunity for Belair beyond what she accomplishes in the ring. As WWE continues to grow and showcase its diverse talent pool, Belair is one of a handful of African-American women on the NXT roster.
“I think that’s one of the most special opportunities that is presenting itself to me,” Belair said. “I am able to be a role model for little girls who look like me. I want every single little girl — adults too — to shine and go do whatever makes you feel special. That’s a huge responsibility. I take that to heart and it makes my job more than just a job. That’s one thing that I’m very, very excited about.”
NXT debuts on USA Network at 8e/7c on Wednesday night and Belair will face Shirai, LeRae and Mia Yim in a Fatal Four-Way No. 1 contender match.