Things are changing at a rapid speed in the world of the WWE today. Raw and SmackDown have become separate shows with unique rosters due to the brand split. The biggest benefactor in this has to be the talents in NXT looking to move up to the main roster. While we all love NXT, the majority of performers are on modest contracts and make a fraction of what the main roster performers do. The call-up is the ultimate dream to perform in front of a bigger crowd and make more money. We saw Finn Balor, American Alpha, Nia Jax, Mojo Rawley, Alexa Bliss and Carmella get the promotion to Raw and SmackDown via the draft.
Many more NXT stars will be promoted in the upcoming months with stars needed for both television brands. The growth of NXT continues to amaze and they need elite performers to continue the momentum. With established stars having to leave, WWE will have to find the next top star or two to lead NXT into the future. Neville, Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens and Finn Balor have held the position as the face of the product through different time periods. Following in their footsteps will be extremely tough but there are talents out there that can do it. We’ll look at them here with the top fifteen rumored replacements as “the guy.”
15 Kota Ibushi
The Cruiserweight Classic is quickly becoming one of the biggest hits on the WWE Network. There’s no doubt the star of the first episode was Kota Ibushi. New Japan saw him leave the company in hopes of achieving success in the WWE. Ibushi has already been spotlighted as the standout performer in the Cruiserweight Classic. Rumors have circulated that Ibushi has already signed with WWE to continue following the culmination of the tournament.
Ibushi is arguably the best high-flying wrestler in the world today and has the skills to become the top star in NXT. Pure fans will remember Ibushi having one of the best matches in recent history against Shinsuke Nakamura at Wrestle Kingdom last year. The match showed he could hang with the best of the best and can grow into an even bigger star in an atmosphere like NXT. Wrestling fans expect the elite in-ring talent to lead NXT and Ibushi fits the bill better than most.
14 Jay Lethal
Jay Lethal has held the ROH World Championship for over a year now and has become the top star in the promotion. Lethal's contract will expire towards the end of 2016 and there are already rumors of him heading to NXT. WWE is aggressively going after the best talent around the world, as they have three unique rosters for the three-hour-long episodes of Raw, the new SmackDown brand and the growing NXT.
The skill set of Lethal is best suited for a noteworthy run in NXT at the top of the card. Following TNA wasting his talent for years and unceremoniously firing him, Lethal reinvented himself in Ring of Honor. Many fans believe he has become the “best in the world” as he's showered with that chant at ROH shows. Lethal can adapt to any ring style and portray various different forms of characters. Triple H will go all in on him when he hits free agency and this could make Lethal “the man” in NXT.
13 Tommaso Ciampa
One of the best things to happen to the wrestling business in years is Triple H taking a chance on independent wrestling talent to make sporadic appearances in NXT. Tommaso Ciampa continued to have tremendous matches on the indie scene to keep his reputation at a high while slowly implementing himself into the NXT system. Ciampa’s tag team with Johnny Gargano has become one of the high points of NXT TV and changed the dynamic of the show.
The recent news of Ciampa no longer taking independent bookings after September means he is likely getting exclusively signed to NXT. Gargano and Ciampa have the benefit of being a fun tag team, but also tremendous singles wrestlers. Ciampa has taken his game to another level and held his own in an NXT main event level singles match against Samoa Joe earlier this year. Ciampa is among the most impressive wrestlers on the NXT roster and he has all the tools to become the top star as the brand goes through changes.
12 Roderick Strong
Roderick Strong has been one of the best independent wrestlers over the past decade, but has yet to get his chance in the WWE. The veteran recently announced his departure from Ring of Honor and will be hitting the open market in hopes of a new deal. WWE needing more credible talent makes NXT an absolute perfect fit. Strong’s athleticism has him guarantee you an impressive match every single time he hits the ring.
The one weakness for Roddy is his poor promo skills. Strong has improved a little but still lacks the personality typically needed in the WWE. Luckily for him, things have changed and he can get by with his work rate in an environment like NXT. The potential of pairing him with a manager is also there to get the best of him. Expect Strong in NXT before the end of the year and he could be in for a big push as a hot commodity arriving to take over the scene.
The wrestling world will probably never have a viable competitor against the WWE for the top spot in the industry, but alternatives are starting to pop up all over the world. Ricochet is proof that you can make a living outside of the WWE if you are talented enough to excel in a combination of other promotions. The talented high-flying master delivers moves to precision that human beings should not be allowed to even think of inventing.
Ricochet is among the top stars in Lucha Underground (as Prince Puma), New Japan and PWG. His aerial displays makes him one of the most exciting talents in the industry today. WWE has been rumored to have interest in him lately after making the error of turning him down after a tryout a few years ago. The writing is on the wall and Ricochet will likely join the NXT roster whenever his Lucha Underground contract expires. It will be one of the biggest moments in NXT history and he’ll be an instant Superstar.
10 The Young Bucks
The Young Bucks have created an independent wrestling empire by betting on themselves. Matt and Nick Jackson were at a crossroads after failing in TNA. The brothers struggled to make a living before embracing their personalities and turning it up to become the most exciting act on the independent wrestling scene. Between New Japan, ROH and PWG, The Bucks are dominating tag team wrestling. They are actually reported to make more money than the majority of NXT talents and a few WWE main roster stars.
WWE will have to open up the checkbook to bring Matt and Nick over to NXT, but it would absolutely be worth it. The best talents from all over the world in every style and field of wrestling are heading to the WWE nowadays as it seems. For the tag team division to truly thrive in NXT, The Bucks have to come over and take it to the next level.
9 Matt Riddle
Former UFC fighter Matt Riddle is trying his luck in pro wrestling and he’s already one of the best wrestlers on the independent wrestling scene. WWE apparently worked out a deal using their relationship with Evolve Wrestling to get Riddle acclimated in his new career. Riddle has instantly grown into an elite performer with classic matches against the likes of Chris Hero, Roderick Strong and Cedric Alexander. There is absolutely zero doubt he is good enough to excel in NXT.
WWE needs to stop waiting and start pushing him on NXT television as soon as possible. Evolve is a highly competitive environment with unbelievable talents. Riddle has not only held his own but outshined the majority of them. He is ready for the big time and should be positioned on NXT television in a storyline with Samoa Joe. His potential is unlimited and he can easily be “the guy” on NXT for a long time.
8 Adam Cole
Adam Cole is joining many of his fellow ROH wrestlers by having his contract expire in late December. Cole's reputation is second to none on the independent wrestling scene and everyone expects him to end up in the WWE sooner or later. Kevin Owens has gone on the record saying Cole should be signed to a contract as soon as possible and belongs in the company. It is impossible to argue there because Cole truly has it all.
His in-ring work has always been adulated. ROH has been carried by his character and promo work at such a level where he comes off like a big fish in a small pond. Triple H is very aware of the top prospects outside of the company and it would be obvious to have Cole at the top of his list. NXT needs a top tier talent that can get it done in every aspect of the business. Adam Cole is the dream pick and should be given a huge shot in NXT.
7 Cedric Alexander
The most intriguing participant of the Cruiserweight Classic has to be Cedric Alexander. Following poor booking and no direction in ROH, Alexander decided to give up a spot on the roster for a chance to prove himself in the CWC Tournament. His first round match delivered on the initial episode. Alexander reportedly had a classic match against Kota Ibushi on the tapings for the second round that caused Triple H to show him respect.
WWE signing Alexander for NXT is an absolute no-brainer. His talent is obvious and he has all the potential to become the biggest star for NXT going forward. Alexander has the hunger and drive on his side to gain back all of the momentum that was squandered. The precedent has been WWE stealing ROH stars, but this may be the case of them saving one. Alexander is here to show he’s one of the best in the world and he can do that with a top NXT run.
6 Johnny Gargano
Much like his NXT tag team partner, Johnny Gargano has the strength of being an established singles wrestler to add depth to his experience level. His work in Evolve, PWG and various independent promotions made him one of the most decorated wrestlers of the past few years. Gargano was instantly met with celebration in NXT and the popularity has landed him a far bigger role than anyone expected.
WWE’s need for new talent means big things for the future of Gargano in NXT. The long term could see him become a part of the main roster as a singles competitor or in a tag team with Tommaso Ciampa. Gargano has the most important thing in pro wrestling – a dedicated fan base that supports him. Gargano was one of the rare wrestlers to make a good living outside of the WWE and now he is cashing in by going after the dream. NXT making Johnny Wrestling the top star in the promotion is very realistic and could happen sooner than you think.
5 Rich Swann
The story of WWE developmental prospect Rich Swann is quite inspiring. Swann lost both of his parents at a young age and almost fell in line with the bad crowd. With his future on the line, Swann turned to pro wrestling as a way to channel his emotions and ended up finding his passion. The perfect combination of charisma and athleticism landed him in WWE and he is a strong favorite in the Cruiserweight Classic.
Swann is going to be a standout and find his way to a prominent role on NXT television regardless of the CWC match results. The early reports have indicated the fans reacted to him as much as anyone else in the tournament. Swann’s stock rising gives him the chance to become the next big star in NXT. Very few have the personality and skills to get fans invested the way Swann does with complete ease. Look for big things in the future of Rich Swann.
4 Hideo Itami
Don’t call it a comeback. Hideo Itami has been here for year, dominating the wrestling world with his intense style of stiff kicks and overall badass pro wrestling. Unfortunately bad luck has been forcing his standing in NXT to diminish due to time on the injury list. Itami arrived with equal interest to Kevin Owens and Finn Balor. Both are stars on the main roster and Itami is starting from scratch in NXT.
The benefit of being the top Japanese star in the WWE developmental provided a huge bonus for Itami, but that’s no longer the case. Shinsuke Nakamura has become the most beloved star in NXT. Kota Ibushi is tearing it up in the Cruiserweight Classic and has the potential to surpass Itami by the time he arrives in NXT. All of this comes off as negatives, but Itami can easily get back to the top of the mountain. Itami's drive is strong and the challenges could easily put him as the face of NXT going forward.
3 Zack Sabre Jr.
Zack Sabre Jr. has rejuvenated the art of technical wrestling. Grappling and intelligent mat wrestling used to get met with loud “BORING” chants anytime a wrestler tried straying away from the traditional match. Sabre has added finesse to the style that makes it highly entertaining and he has delivered a great library of superb matches to back it up. Wrestling fans view Sabre as one of the best wrestlers in the world due to his work in PWG, Evolve and the United Kingdom wrestling scene.
The technical wizard is putting together a string of momentum very similar to Daniel Bryan when he was dominating the independents. Sabre is arguably the most popular star in the Cruiserweight Classic and it is almost a lock he will be in the finals. NXT will likely sign most of the top stars from the tournament and Sabre will become a huge star. The opportunity is all that’s needed for Sabre to get to the top and he could lead NXT into the future.
2 Shinsuke Nakamura
The obvious choice is usually obvious because it’s the best. Shinsuke Nakamura is on a trajectory to become “the guy” in NXT. Many pundits are calling for him to defeat Samoa Joe for the NXT Championship at the huge NXT TakeOver: Back 2 Brooklyn event during SummerSlam weekend. It would certainly cement him as “the guy” in NXT, but for how long? Nakamura should already be on the main roster and could find himself called up at any time.
We are going to find out just how important NXT is to the overall WWE landscape. If it is pivotal to see the brand grow even bigger, Nakamura will likely be there for at least another year as “the guy.” The more realistic option is Raw or SmackDown introducing The King of Strong Style to the national audience and using his drawing power on a larger platform. Nakamura would be the best choice to be the star of the NXT brand, but his potential may prevent it from coming to fruition.
WWE’s best option to become “the guy” in NXT is someone that isn’t even in NXT. Cesaro graduated to the main roster, but he is clearly unhappy with his direction. The talented in-ring star gets his momentum squandered and is always hit with a low ceiling. A recent promo showed him expressing frustration with getting drafted to Raw because he felt SmackDown would have given him a chance to hit his potential by just showing off his amazing skills.
NXT needs star power and Cesaro wants to wrestle to the best of his abilities. The fit is perfect for all parties involved. NXT fans will treat Cesaro like a god and his body of work will be as great as anyone else in the business. Money is the only issue and he’s already on a main roster contract, so he’ll be happy. WWE would be investing in NXT growing with a legitimate star getting to have artistic freedom. Cesaro would be a very happy man taking NXT to the next level as “the man.”