Back in 2012, Triple H went to his father-in-law, WWE owner Vince McMahon and asked if he could take over the company’s developmental program. Whether it was because McMahon wanted to groom him as the future chairman of the company or because he wanted to just give his son-in-law a chance, the decision was made to hand the reigns over to Triple H – and as the old saying goes, the rest is history.
During his time as the head of the developmental program, Triple H changed the name from Florida Championship Wrestling to NXT, moved shows to Full Sail University, opened up a state of the art performance center that has everything an up and coming wrestler needs and brought a feeling of uniqueness to an otherwise stale WWE product.
However, in order to change and revamp the program, Triple H needed more talent – specifically some who would bring a different feel to the product. Because of this, Triple H decided to look after and sign many of the top talents all over the world on the independent scene; and now, NXT is bigger and better than ever.
Today, you can see a weekly television show on the WWE Network, quarterly specials titled NXT TakeOver, the integration of live events across the United States and superior in-ring wrestling to that of the big brothers on Raw and Smackdown.
None of this would have been possible if someone didn’t want change; and because it was Triple H who wanted it, the decision was made to go forward with his plan.
And even with all of the positive things stated above, NXT is going to even bigger heights, including having their specials in big arenas while also becoming arguably the best wrestling show in the world.
While Triple H has much to do with the success, this also wouldn’t have been possible without the talent he brought in to make NXT what it has become. With that being said, here are the best signings he has made to develop NXT into WWE’s next brand.
10. James Storm
Although James Storm is ranked number 10 on this list, it’s not because he is the worst; it’s because he just came in, and if he lives up to the hype he has surrounded himself with over the years, he will be in better standings next time around. Because of Samoa Joe, Storm became the second TNA mainstay to break the mold and jump ship to the WWE, who is notorious for not thinking too highly of their talent. However, that shouldn’t be a question for Storm; although he was signed to WCW during their latter years between 2000 and 2001, he broke out as a future star while performing in TNA.
During his 13-year career with the company, Storm established himself as a top tag team competitor, as he won 13 total Tag Team Championships with successful teams America’s Most Wanted with Chris Harris and Beer Money with Bobby Roode. Although it didn’t last long, Storm’s TNA career culminated when he captured his first singles title as the TNA World Heavyweight Champion. With NXT looking to break away from the developmental category and branch out as its own brand, Storm will be a great veteran presence and is a quality signing by Triple H.
Much like James Storm in the first slot, Kana, who is now renamed Asuka, will eventually be higher on this list. However, she just had her debut match recently. If her first appearance on the show was any indication, she would continue the tradition of very talented women’s wrestlers on the NXT roster. After impressing on the Japanese independent scene from 2004-2010, including former WWE superstar Tajiri’s Smash promotion, Asuka made her jump to the United States, where she competed in notable female promotions, including Shimmer, before returning to her native country.
In all, Asuka has won nearly 10 women’s championships, including five reigns as the Ironman Heavymetalweight Championship for the Dramatic Dream Team promotion. Her stiff in-ring skills and strong submission maneuvers will win over the Full Sail University crowd, as Asuka will flourish under either the face or heel role.
8. Solomon Crowe
When Sami Callihan signed on with the WWE as Solomon Crowe back in the summer of 2013, it appeared that big things were on the horizon for the independent standout. After all, Crowe’s wrestling biography is both long and impressive. Over a seven-year career traveling to different circuits all around the country. After succeeding in both the Heartland Wrestling Association and Insanity Pro Wrestling from 2006-2011, Crowe finally joined the upper echelon of independent promotions as he wrestled for both Chikara and Combat Zone Wrestling. During his time there, Crowe won many titles, including CZW’s Iron Man/New Horror Championship and CZW World Junior Heavyweight Championship, among others. After showing that he can both be violent and work as a technician, he wrestled for the elites: Ring of Honor, Pro Wrestling Syndicate, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Evolve and Dragon Gate USA.
Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to establish his character with NXT; however, because he has both strong talent and time to grow, it appears to be only a matter of time before he makes his impact on the brand.
7. Hideo Itami
Back in 2014, Triple H pulled off a move that could only be compared to your favorite sports team signing the top three free agents on market – and the first of those three signings is Hideo Itami, the former KENTA. Before joining WWE, Itami was a standout performer in Japan, wrestling mostly under the Pro Wrestling Noah and All Japan Pro Wrestling companies before joining Ring of Honor, all the while earning multiple championships. After accomplishing pretty much everything he could, Itami took the logical step to WWE, and with much fanfare; the company even got Hulk Hogan to announce the signing in front of a Japanese crowd at a WWE Live Event in the country.
Although it took him a bit of time to adjust to the WWE style of wrestling, Itami really came on towards the beginning of 2015. During WrestleMania weekend, Itami even entered the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal as the only NXT participant. Big things were on the horizon for Itami. While he was scheduled to win a triple threat number one contenders match at NXT TakeOver: Unstoppable, Itami ruled out due to a shoulder injury. The hope is he will return by the end of the year.
6. Samoa Joe
Samoa Joe’s wrestling background is extensive. After starting his career in 2000 in Ultimate Pro Wrestling, Joe made his way to Ring of Honor, where he became arguably the top name in the country that wasn’t signed with WWE. During his original three-year stint with ROH, Samoa Joe held the company’s top title for nearly two years. Once he made his way to TNA, Samoa Joe was booked as a dominant force, as he didn’t lose a match over his first year and a half with the company.
Samoa Joe became one of the biggest draws in TNA history, as he won almost every award and championship he could have, including the TNA World Heavyweight Championship, X-Division Championship and King of the Mountain. After making appearances in Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and Mexico’s AAA, Samoa Joe finally inked a deal with WWE, as he debuted against Kevin Owens at NXT TakeOver: Unstoppable. While he started off looking a bit off and rusty, Joe eventually caught on, as he’s impressed in matches with Baron Corbin and in the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic tournament, just to name a couple.
Neville, formerly Pac, was the first top independent wrestler to join NXT, and he was one of the wrestlers who established what the brand is all about today. The well-traveled high flyer started his career wrestling in both the UK and Italy before making the jump to the United States. Once he arrived in the country, Neville wrestled in notable promotions like Ring of Honor, Chikara and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. Once making a name for himself stateside, Neville made the move to Japan, where he wrestled for New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2012 – arguably the second biggest wrestling company in the world.
From there, he finally made his way to WWE. During his time on the NXT brand, Neville became both an NXT Tag Team Champion and the longest reigning NXT Champion. After succeeding at all levels in NXT, Neville is currently impressing the WWE Universe with his high-flying move set on both Raw and Smackdown.
4. Apollo Crews
Although he hasn’t spent much time on the NXT roster, it truly appears that the sky is the limit for Apollo Crews, as even Triple H has said that he sees the athletic wrestler as a future WWE Champion. However, before he was signed to the WWE, Crews, also known as Uhaa Nation, was dominating the independent scene. After getting his start in small promotions in the south, Crews made the jump to Dragon Gate USA and their partner companies Dragon Gate (Japan), Evolve and Full Impact Pro. For four years (2011-2015), Crews was working for each of the four groups, as he split time between the United States and Japan. It was with these companies where Crews not only received the adoration from wrestling fans around the globe, but also the eye of Triple H.
Believing that he could make a seamless transition to the WWE style of wrestling, Crews was signed this past April. Soon after, vignettes aired on episodes of NXT, and Crews made his official debut at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn. After an impressive back and forth bout with Tyler Breeze at NXT TakeOver: Respect, Crews jumped up the ranks as a contender.
3. Finn Balor
As mentioned above in the Hideo Itami slide, Triple H signed three elite wrestling talents in 2014; the second of the three to appear on the list is Prince Devitt, now known as NXT Champion Finn Balor. After competing in smaller circuits and NWA affiliates in Ireland for six years, Balor made the jump to Japan and joined NJPW in 2006. After rising up the ranks over his first seven years in New Japan, which saw Balor capture the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship three times, he created arguably the strongest stable in all of professional wrestling, Bullet Club. The dominant group helped Balor gain even more success, including helping him emerge victorious in the Best of the Super Juniors Tournament.
Once he accomplished everything he could in New Japan, Balor finally made his way to NXT, where he was able to keep his same look and style of wrestling, which has translated to massive success. Today, you can watch Balor as the face of NXT. It is only a matter of time before Balor is a star on the main roster.
2. Sami Zayn
While the aforementioned Neville was the first top independent talent to join the WWE and NXT, it was Sami Zayn who followed in his footsteps to do so as well. Zayn, who wrestled as El Generico before coming to the big show, was yet another standout performer while wrestling for various promotions around the world. The native Canadian, who wrestled under a mask, caught on very quickly, as he wrestled in Canadian independents for a short time before garnering the interest and eventually signing with Pro Wrestling Guerrilla.
Zayn also competed for Chikara and Ring of Honor, with the latter being where Zayn truly began to turn the heads of wrestling fans and decision makers alike, in feuds with Kevin Steen and the Briscoe Brothers. Zayn eventually signed with WWE in January of 2013.
After a tremendous feud with Cesaro, Zayn became a household name, as his in-ring prowess and showmanship won over the audience. After competing time and time again for the NXT Championship, he finally captured the title at NXT TakeOver: R Evolution. Although plans were made for Zayn to be a full-time member of the main roster after his United States Open Challenge match against John Cena, he injured his shoulder, thus ending those plans. After having surgery in May, the long awaited return of Zayn should happen rather soon.
1. Kevin Owens
Not only does Kevin Owens round out the list of Triple H’s best free agent signings for NXT, but he is also the final member of the three best signing’s in the brand’s history, along with Hideo Itami and Finn Balor. Owens – who went by Kevin Steen – broke the mold of the usual WWE cookie cutter looking wrestler, and instead impressed with his in-ring and mic skills. After working small circuits in his native Quebec, Owens made the jump to Combat Zone Wrestling. From there, Owens moved on to Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, where he worked with Neville, A.J. Styles, Davey Richards and Willie Mack, among others, while also capturing the company’s world championship on three different occasions.
In his final stop before NXT, Owens joined ROH, which is where he became one of the best wrestlers in the world. His feud with Zayn was one of the best the company ever had, while also putting on great matches with Steve Corino. Owens made a great impact once debuting in NXT. After winning his first match at NXT TakeOver: R Evolution, Owens and Zayn reignited their feud as Owens attacked the newly crowned NXT Champion after his celebration. Just two months after his debut, Owens captured the NXT Championship and dominated the brand during his short stint. His presence was felt even more so on WWE television, where he debuted against John Cena and defeated him in his first match, all the while becoming one of the top heels in the company en route to an Intercontinental Championship reign.
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