Triple H on NXT's ever-shifting role in the WWE universe

Shinsuke Nakamura and Samoa Joe's names are constantly bandied about for main roster call-ups, but until the culmination of their recent rivalry each played too big a role on NXT to leave the brand. Nick Laham for ESPN

In some ways, it is strange to think that WWE's developmental show has, for the last four-plus months, had two men with a combined 30 years of professional wrestling experience feuding over its main championship.

The NXT title changed hands three times between independent veterans Samoa Joe and Shinsuke Nakamura -- 37 and 36, respectively, and certainly not what was expected in the earliest days of NXT. They have main-evented two NXT TakeOver specials in front of 10,000-plus people in Brooklyn and Toronto, as well as dozens of live shows across the globe, including a show in Osaka, Japan, in which Nakamura became a two-time NXT champion in early December in front of a familiar crowd.

Samoa Joe, a former Total Nonstop Action and Ring of Honor world champion, finally signed with WWE in 2015, debuting on NXT in May of that year. Many thought his stay on the brand would be brief before a main roster call-up. But he's still there in NXT, having propped up the main-event picture for more than 12 months.

Nakamura, a former three-time IWGP heavyweight champion with New Japan Pro Wrestling, is likewise recognized as one of the premier talents in world.

Yet, in July's brand extension draft, both Joe and Nakamura remained in NXT while the comparatively green Alexa Bliss, Nia Jax, Mojo Rawley and American Alpha all got call-ups to Raw and SmackDown Live, whose rosters could both certainly do with bolstering at the main-event level.

"One of the things that's funny to me -- I always laugh at it -- is when people say to me, 'I watch Nakamura every week in NXT. I don't know why they don't put him on Raw so I can watch him on Raw every week," WWE executive Paul 'Triple H' Levesque told ESPN, pulling a confused facial expression.

"You're getting to see him, right? You're getting to see him doing what he does, in a big way. The opportunities are there. He's got that clean path now to get here, when he gets here he might go there, he might go back."

NXT is the brainchild of Levesque, the 14-time world champion who headlined Wrestlemania 32 this year as WWE world champion in Dallas.

While initially conceived as a developmental brand twinned with WWE's Performance Center and based solely out of Florida, NXT has caught fire over the past two years. It has grown into its own distinct entity, garnering a growing fan base on the WWE Network with its weekly taped hour-long shows and NXT TakeOver specials, as well as its live events across the globe.

NXT can take credit for laying down a significant portion of the backbone of both Raw and SmackDown, with main eventers Kevin Owens, Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns all developing their craft there, along with fan favorites Sami Zayn and Bayley.

But that could change, according to Levesque.

"We say that it's developmental, but at the same time it's a third brand -- 200 events this year, specials and the weekly show itself which are one of the most popular things on the Network," he continued. "I think over the years you're gonna begin to see Raw is its own brand, SmackDown is its own brand, NXT -- you're gonna see people move around. It's no longer gonna be just, this guy got called up, it's gonna be maybe 'this guy got moved over, she got moved here,' and see that transference of talent."

"At the end of the day, it's all content; it's all product that our fans wanna see. The difference in those products is big, but there's something there for everybody. I think that's what's exciting about it."

In the past two-and-a-half years, there is perhaps no talent whom fans wanted to see called up from NXT more than Finn Bálor. The Irishman was a first-round pick for Raw in July, but that opportunity only came after a record 292-day reign as NXT champion came to an end during a two-year tenure with the promotion.

Bálor became the inaugural WWE Universal champion at SummerSlam, quickly making his mark on the big stage, but relinquished the title the next night having suffered a torn labrum in his match against Rollins. He's been out of action ever since, with a target return date of Wrestlemania in April.

Now 35, in a business that takes its toll on the bodies of its performers, it is perhaps fair to question why WWE didn't sooner exploit Bálor's talents to their maximum potential. But Levesque still sees NXT as a vital stop for any professional wrestler making the transition from the independent scene to WWE.

"Guys have things to learn along the way," he added. "Unless you've done this, you can't understand the difference in what the television product is at a Wrestlemania level, to a Raw level, to an NXT level. We're trying to create that product.

"Finn Bálor is a guy that came in from an indie group -- so successful, a great in-ring performer, but had never really talked much. The first NXT event we did, he looked at me afterwards and was like, 'Dude, my mind is blown, because I never once thought where cameras were, or any of the other things that we do.'"

The experience of NXT seems to rarely be viewed as a punishment or purgatory for those who choose to sign with the WWE. Rather, it seems to hold a special place in the hearts of every performer -- veteran and rookie alike -- who is fortunate enough to pass through its ring ropes.

Owens, the current WWE Universal champion who wrestled on the independent scene for 14 years, said to ESPN in an interview over the summer that his time in NXT provided some of the greatest moments of his career; former TNA star Bobby Roode told ESPN before NXT TakeOver: Toronto last month that he is proud to be part of what he feels is the hottest brand in wrestling worldwide, despite the fact that, at 39 years of age, he certainly seems to be ready yesterday for a main-event slot on the main roster.

"We're a television product, in every single way," Levesque added. "And part of that is knowing how to make a television show. That's what we're teaching guys, and getting them along that way. And that's where the pathway now begins. It begins at a much lower level.

"You get guys that when they come out of NXT, they're TV-ready. You pull the trigger, and they're ready to roll on Raw or SmackDown. You didn't see that before. It was a big learning curve when they got up there. We're taking that learning curve and putting it way earlier in the process. That's where you're gonna see guys over the years be able to succeed and deepen that talent roster and that talent pool."