During the fifth season of NXT, it was clear that that TV show had long jumped the shark. Originally meant as a second-chance opportunity for eliminated male competitors from the first, second, and fourth seasons, NXT Season 5 turned into a never-ending search for “Redemption,” and by the start of 2012, more and more main roster competitors were joining the show, thereby ending its rookie search format. And by August 2012, NXT as we knew it then was no more – it had become NXT the developmental company, a rebranded, rebooted version of Florida Championship Wrestling (FCW).
Since then, NXT has been to WWE what the NCAA has been for major professional sports; some touted rookies made an immediate impact and are now among the finest in their field, while others became wrestling equivalents to the NFL's Trent Richardson or the NBA's Anthony Bennett. Who lived up to their NXT billing and became legit WWE main eventers, and who turned out as busts in terms of performance, push, and/or living up to expectations?
NOTE – This list is limited to NXT call-ups who have been on the main roster for at least four months, which disqualifies Finn Balor, Bayley, etc. from inclusion. Also not included are Daniel Bryan, Curtis Axel, and others who debuted via the NXT rookie search, but not the promotion.
15 SAMI ZAYN - BEST
At this point in Sami Zayn’s main roster run, it looks like WWE is taking the slow burn approach with the indie sensation formerly known as El Generico. Injuries had derailed his development in the past, but his skills, exciting in-ring style, and charisma easily make him one of WWE’s top NXT call-ups of 2016 so far. As an aside, his fun ring theme is a big hit with the fans.
Now about that slow burn approach: it hasn’t really made sense why Zayn, after winning his intense feud against Kevin Owens earlier this year, has been relegated to midcard duty, losing about as often as he wins. One can only hope it leads to Zayn getting a rematch with Owens and winning his Universal title at some point in the future, but for the meantime, Zayn’s lack of a consistent push is the only thing keeping him from ranking a bit higher in this list.
14 BARON CORBIN - WORST
Even if Baron Corbin is getting a decent midcard push on SmackDown, you’d be hard-pressed to find a fan who actually cares. His moveset is limited, his promo skills are rudimentary, and watching him wrestle is just about as fun as filing your tax return. Worse, he’s attained that decent push at the expense of more talented individuals like Kalisto and Apollo Crews. Even Dolph Ziggler couldn’t get him over with the fans, though that may have something to do with how their feud dragged on for too long.
Remember the time when rumors suggested The Shield was reforming with Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, and…Baron Corbin? Thank goodness those never came to pass.
13 BECKY LYNCH - BEST
With her recent SmackDown Women’s Championship win, the Irish Lass Kicker makes her way to seventh on this list. And since that win established Lynch as the SmackDown brand’s top female talent, she’s got lots of potential to move up a place or two in the months to come.
What’s not to like about Becky Lynch? Among the “Four Horsewomen” of NXT, she’s got the best promo ability. She’s versatile and talented in the ring and has a unique steampunk-influenced look that sets her apart from her fellow Women’s Division competitors. She’s a classic example of a wrestler benefiting big-time from the 2016 brand split, as she probably wouldn’t have gotten the same opportunities had she still been in a unified Women’s Division with Charlotte and Sasha Banks.
12 THE VAUDEVILLAINS - WORST
Just five months into their main roster debut, The Vaudevillains are seemingly nearing the end of their WWE ropes. That's a pity, since they had such a great gimmick of old-timey throwbacks to the days of Gotch and Hackenschmidt, and had decent potential when they debuted on Monday Night RAW in April 2016. But when they faced Enzo and Cass at Payback in a number one contender match for the WWE Tag Team titles, a botched move had accidentally sidelined Enzo Amore with a concussion, forcing the match to be declared a no-contest.
Since then, The Vaudevillains appear to have been punished with a jobber role, and are mainly on SmackDown to take the lowest rung on the tag team totem pole. That’s not what you’d expect from former NXT Tag Team champs, but as you’ll find out later, they’re not alone in winning the NXT tag titles but getting buried in WWE.
11 ROMAN REIGNS - BEST
Roman Reigns hasn’t improved much since his late-2012 WWE debut, has delivered some of the goofiest promos in the recent history of WWE (sufferin’ succotash, anyone?), and has been given three WWE World title runs and now, the U.S. Championship. His ring music, which used to be The Shield’s, almost makes fans boo right on cue. And that’s despite being booked as a babyface since the spring of 2014!
Even if few fans want to chug down the Roman Reigns-flavored Kool-Aid WWE wants them to drink, you can’t deny that he’s a decent worker, even a good one for a big man. And when he was booked as The Shield’s silent muscle, he was awesome. What he needs now, and what he’s needed for a while, is a proper heel turn.
10 BO DALLAS - WORST
I have a soft spot for Bo Dallas. Despite having a ludicrous gimmick of a disingenuous motivational speaker, he was somehow entertaining in this role. Being the real-life son of Mike “IRS” Rotunda and brother of Bray Wyatt, he showed that making the most out of risky gimmicks runs in the family. He also isn’t that bad in the ring. But one has to wonder, does WWE Creative really “Bo-lieve” in Bo?
Dallas is one example of how Vince McMahon tires quickly of certain ex-NXT guys with potential. Despite his success as a former NXT Champion, Dallas’ early hot streak ended with a loss to R-Truth, of all people, and his push hasn’t recovered since. Currently, he’s working a tweaked gimmick where he delivers self-motivational poetry and squashes local jobbers, and at the rate things are going, it might not be long before Dallas once again becomes the jobber on the losing end of squashes.
9 SASHA BANKS - BEST
If not for her history of injuries, Sasha Banks could have been a notch or two higher. But with that taken into account, and with WWE intent on pushing Charlotte as the most dominating woman in the company, the Boss has to settle for a fifth-place ranking on this list. But that’s not a bad thing at all, given that she’s one of three women who have made this list, and proof positive that women’s wrestling has come a long, long way from the days of eye candy Divas with little in-ring AND microphone skill.
Speaking of mic skill, that’s one area for improvement Banks might want to work on, though she’s been cutting better promos lately, while using her exceptional in-ring ability to look strong against taller, larger competitors. Kind of like what her childhood hero, Eddie Guerrero, used to do back in the day.
8 ADAM ROSE - WORST
Leo Kruger was a badass in NXT and the old FCW, and was a two-time FCW Florida Heavyweight Champion before the rebranding. Even in NXT, he was still a regular title contender, and looked promising as a tough hunter. That gimmick had boom-or-bust written all over it, but it wasn’t as ludicrous as the Adam Rose gimmick that we saw make its debut on Monday Night RAW in 2014.
The best part of Rose’s act was The Bunny (yes, a man in a bunny suit), and aside from WWE mishandling their feud, The Bunny was gone from WWE in January 2015, having been played by Rose’s fellow South African, Justin Gabriel. Rose, by that time a heel, tried all sorts of gimmick tweaks in hopes of getting over. But creative and fan apathy toward the original Adam Rose gimmick had him typecast as a jobber till he left WWE in the spring of 2016.
7 CHARLOTTE - BEST
Charlotte didn’t get off to a very good start in the WWE, as she debuted in July 2015 as a babyface, as part of the ill-fated “Divas Revolution” storyline that eventually ended up as a hot mess. She didn’t seem to be well-suited for a face role, and her non-wrestling deficiencies were very apparent. As such, she was partnered with her father, the legendary Ric Flair, and that proved to be the catalyst to a heel turn and serious success in the WWE. As the final WWE Divas Champion and a two-time RAW Women’s Champion, the rest is history.
Like Sasha Banks, Charlotte still has lots of room to improve on her promos, which is ironic, as her dad was one of wrestling’s best mic men back in his heyday. But as WWE’s flagship female talent, Charlotte has done very well for herself, living up to her potential and improving each time we see her cut a promo or compete in the ring.
6 SUMMER RAE - WORST
When Summer Rae debuted in WWE as Fandango’s dance partner in early 2013, she was an integral part of the kayfabe ballroom dancer’s act. Then Fandango ended their partnership via Twitter. Then she began to speak. Then she began to act. Then she began to wrestle more regularly. This was all part of a horrendous angle where Rae and Layla feuded over Fandango’s affections, but ultimately formed a short-lived partnership that drew nothing but apathy from audiences.
Since that debacle, Rae has also been aligned with Rusev and Dolph Ziggler (in an even worse and higher-profile storyline) and helped Tyler Breeze break in when he made his main roster debut. And while she’s missed lots of time recently due to injuries, fans haven’t missed her too much, as she still doesn’t have what it takes to be a successful wrestler or valet.
5 SETH ROLLINS - BEST
Seth Rollins was the “Architect” of The Shield, which came out of NXT in late 2012 to become one of the most talented and dominating WWE stables of all time. And he had singlehandedly destroyed what he had built, executing a classic heel turn when he "bought in" to The Authority and turned on his Shield brothers in June 2014. That set Rollins up to become the top heel in WWE, and eventually the WWE World Champion when he became the first man to successfully cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase at WrestleMania.
Rollins held the belt for over seven months, and was recognized as a great all-around worker, albeit one who'd do anything to keep his title. And while the aforementioned injury took him out for quite a while (and cost him a top ranking on this list), he made a successful return at 2016’s Extreme Rules PPV, and turned face late in August after being betrayed by onetime Authority buddy and superior Triple H.
4 BRAUN STROWMAN - WORST
Braun Strowman has had a solid push and lots of exposure since his WWE debut as the “Black Sheep” of The Wyatt Family in 2015. So why is he the second-worst wrestler to come out of NXT since its rebranding? It’s easy – this list isn’t just based on push and the meeting of expectations, it’s also based on talent level.
To be fair, WWE has done a good job working around Strowman’s glaring weaknesses in the ring, booking him post-2016 brand split as a silent monster heel who dispatches quickly of local jobbers and smaller wrestlers in creative purgatory, e.g. Sin Cara. But even with a year of main roster exposure under his belt, Strowman’s lack of finesse and skill is still painfully evident. Hey, at least he’s STILL a better worker than The Great Khali and Giant Gonzalez.
3 KEVIN OWENS - BEST
Triple H’s aforementioned actions against Rollins helped one man, and that man was Kevin Owens, who became the new WWE Universal Champion just 15 months after his main roster debut. It was the crowning achievement for someone who, despite his unorthodox look and build, had carved out an impressive career in the indies (using his real name, Kevin Steen) and in NXT, where his championship feud with Sami Zayn was a highlight of the company’s programming from late-2014 to the spring of 2015.
Unlike many of the names filed under “Worst,” Owens avoided the curse of start-stop pushes and quickly waning interest from Creative by getting over not just with ability, but also with an interesting twist on the old-school arrogant heel gimmick. He incorporates his sarcastic sense of humor very well within his heel character, which not only informs his promos, but also his occasional guest appearances on commentary.
2 THE ASCENSION - WORST
The Ascension once held the NXT Tag Team titles for 364 days, and they were brought into the main roster with vignettes welcoming the WWE Universe to the “Wasteland”. These were two face-painted brutes in a similar vein to the post-apocalyptic warriors of ‘80s and ‘90s WWF. But as it would turn out, Konnor and Viktor wouldn’t have a career that was even worthy of The Powers of Pain.
They didn’t have a skilled manager like the late Mr. Fuji was for Demolition and The Powers of Pain. They didn’t have the charisma and mic skills of Road Warriors Hawk and Animal. What they had were limited in-ring skills, and a gimmick meant to be buried six feet under by JBL’s condescending commentary. Instead of future WWE tag champs, regardless of brand, you’ve got two jobbers buried deep in the lower card. Talk about being welcomed to the Wasteland.
1 DEAN AMBROSE - BEST
Say what you want about his “Lunatic Fringe” character becoming too goofy; in terms of overall performance and post-NXT achievements, Dean Ambrose is the developmental promotion’s biggest success so far. On the mic, he was at his unfiltered best as arguably the most popular member of The Shield, and later on in his early babyface days. He got over in the ring with his reckless, yet extremely watchable style of wrestling. He was completely unhinged, yet clearly talented, and the fans loved him for it.
Ambrose got his chance at main event gold when he won the WWE World Championship, cashing in just hours after he won the briefcase at Money in the Bank 2016. And while there were some dull moments, his championship reign produced some great matches, including the one where he lost it to AJ Styles at Backlash earlier this month. Currently, he may be teasing a heel turn on John Cena, and if it pushes forward, that should make for some compelling matches and angles, and a freshening-up of a character that has arguably gone stale.