At first glance, it’s a little difficult to indulge into WWE NXT. Why should you care about a WWE-produced television show dedicated to showcasing up-and-coming talent, without any real storylines to fall back on?
For starters, this is nothing like Tough Enough.
WWE NXT is the home to many future world champions, already getting the groundwork done in their respective careers on the independent scene. If “sports entertainment” has you upset because “wrestling” feels somewhat non-existent in the biggest pro wrestling promotion on the planet, look no further than a weekly show based in Winter Park, Fla., dedicated to some of the best programming on television today.
The beauty about WWE NXT is every wrestler has a chance to progress into something big, showcasing the capabilities each of them have once they move up to the main roster (if they do warrant a spot at all). There is a downside to the division, since the head honchos won’t sign everyone, and releases are imminent. However, it gives talent a chance to showcase their skills, improve greatly in a small amount of time, and truly come into their own instead of being rushed to the main stage with practically no experience for such a demanding job.
Granted, some of WWE NXT’s major players tore up the Indy circuit during their respective times, yet we can all agree WWE is a different kind of beast. Popular superstars such as Daniel Bryan, Bray Wyatt, AJ Lee, Seth Rollins, Paige, Bad News Barrett, and Ryback, to name a few, have all graduated from the division and went on to dazzle crowds as some of WWE’s hottest stars.
Under the tutelage of such notables as head trainer Bill DeMott (better known as WCW’s Hugh Morrus), Billy Gunn, Brian Duncan, and wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes, the developmental territory produces some pretty great shows, including some special events that have taken the wrestling world by storm. Although studs such as Enzo Amore, Bayley and Sasha Banks are popular with the fans, and prospects like Sylvester Lefort, The Vaudevillians, and Kalisto are presently getting the job done in their designated fields, this list is dedicated to the talents you should already be aware of, if not fascinated with already.
Without further ado, here are the 10 WWE NXT major leaguers you should be watching, and out of respect, Tyson Kidd will be omitted, because it’s a damn shame he keeps fluctuating from the developmental territory to the big stage for no apparent reason after years of hard work and satisfactory service.
10 Kevin Steen
“Mr. Wrestling” has been tearing up the independent scene for the better part of 10 years, finding success in Ring of Honor (ROH), Pro Wrestling Guerilla (PWG), and Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW), where he won major titles and cemented himself as a major player in the industry. He’s developed some of the best mic skills out of anyone in modern-day wrestling, while earning praise for his innovative maneuvers such as the “Package Piledriver,” the “Cannonball,” and the “Steenalizer.” Kevin Owens (his WWE moniker) hasn’t made his NXT debut yet, however, based on his accomplishments alone, there’s no way he was going to be excluded from the list. We just had to use him as the icebreaker.
9 Baron Corbin
It feels like Corbin’s character is a calling to the many big men of pro wrestling, yet the major difference is the tattooed brute is building a lot of charisma without having to speak at all. That’s why his persona seems so refreshing; it comes naturally, being the towering motorcycle-riding badass he portrays. Then again, he has gone through some changes, too. As of late, he’s been billed to destroy opposition without working too much (as we’ve seen against CJ Parker), although his talents include being a former National Football League (NFL) player for the Arizona Cardinals and Indianapolis Colts, alongside being a three-time Golden Gloves boxing champion.
So, yeah… keep an eye on this one.
8 The Ascension
Comprised of Konnor and Viktor, this stable-turned-tag team will count as one selection, since it would be pretty silly to divide them based on trying to fit all the noteworthy selections on this listing.
Rumors of the gruesome twosome moving up to the main roster remain lively, and losing the WWE NXT Tag Team Championship to The Lucha Dragons would be another hint. Resembling a tag team fitting for a group like The Ministry of Darkness, The Dungeon of Doom, or even The Brood, these monsters hold the record for the longest tag team title reign in the territory’s history, being a day short of a full year. During that time, they’ve crushed their foes and instilled fear in the hearts of young fans smart enough to understand the terror they bring to the squared circle. They’ll probably do the job to Finn Balor and Hideo Itami at NXT Takeover: Our Evolution, and then be on their way to bigger projects.
7 Charlotte Flair
The daughter of the prolific “Nature Boy” Ric Flair doesn’t have a problem stepping outside of her old man’s shadow, bringing forth enthralling performances thus far in her young career. The reigning NXT Women’s Champion knows the ring well in terms of movement and psychology, already partaking in a critically acclaimed contest against Natalya at NXT Takeover earlier this year. The only criticism that could be made about Flair is her theme song. We hope they ditch the techno remix of her daddy’s theme song, but that’s hardly her fault.
6 Solomon Crowe
Much like Dean Ambrose and wrestler-turned-NXT referee Drake Wuertz (aka Drake Younger, who had a brutal series of matches against our worthy contender), Solomon Crowe was racking up paychecks by performing in some brutal hardcore matches, whether they were seen in backyards, or in small venues across the globe as the notorious and beloved Sami Callihan. This fierce and ferocious competitor was one of CZW’s most popular stars.
Currently on the shelf nursing an injury, Crowe should be making his return shortly, but probably not as the evil hacker that controlled the lights in the arena via a tablet, based on rumors that Triple H doesn’t see a purpose to it. It would be a shame since it would really get him over in an era where social media is shoved down the throats of the fans, and having him screw around with the Interweb would be a missed opportunity.
5 Tyler Breeze
Obsessed with his physical appearance and taking selfies -- or straight-up short videos of himself -- on his phone, Breeze’s gimmick was pretty ridiculous at first, yet he’s really come into his own as a cult favorite. Stemming from the characters played by Rick Martel (“The Model”), Shawn Michaels (“The Heartbreak Kid”), and paying homage to the more glamorous stars such as Adrian Adonis and “The Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, this pretty boy has vastly improved when it comes to his work in the ring and has given observers a reason to care when the ring announcer declares he’s either entered or left the building. He had chances to win the WWE NXT Championship, but has fallen short on multiple occasions. He would be the ideal candidate to hoist the gold once the two biggest stars of the territory, Adrian Neville and Sami Zayn, part ways for greener grass, but as you’ll read below, there’s some “stiff” competition that waits.
4 Adrian Neville
You may be more familiar with “The Man That Gravity Forgot,” or Pac, the European ace that tore up Dragon Gate and formed a partnership with the extremely underrated Roderick Strong in PWG to hold the promotion’s tag titles (after winning the Dynamite Duumvirate Tag Team Title tournament in 2007). After stints in NJPW, Chikara, and in Europe, Pac’s career came full circle as Adrian Neville, a burgeoning cruiserweight who would defeat Bo Dallas in a ladder match at NXT Arrival in February 2014, after winning the territory’s tag titles twice.
The current NXT champion sits in the same boat as Sami Zayn (more to come later) when it comes to a promotion to the main roster, but he may crossover before his counterpart will. Nothing is set in stone, and although this assessment may be fruitless to some, his physique may come into play based on how Vince McMahon has done business in the past by choosing the ones he felt were easy to look at. But, that’s not to say he doesn’t deserve it. Watching him perform is a joy, since his work ethic and creative move set would make him standout anywhere.
3 Sami Zayn
Watching Zayn perform on WWE NXT is kind of bittersweet, and in no way is that a knock on the guy.
On one end, you’ve got a performer who always delivers when summoned, but on the other, someone that did enough damage as El Generico (who made a cameo in WWE NXT) in a bunch of small wrestling promotions to warrant an immediate spot on shows like Monday Night Raw or SmackDown (similar to Steen, a bitter rival and real-life best friend).
With that said, WWE NXT has been good to Zayn, yet it’s time to move on. The Canadian had the best wrestling matches ever on WWE NXT television against another underutilized performer in Cesaro, he put over past champions like Bo Dallas, and demonstrates some of the best high-flying sequences in all of WWE today. At this point, the former PWG World Champion and Battle of Los Angeles 2011 winner should either be given the WWE NXT strap after his feud against Adrian Neville, or simply show up somewhere on WWE’s flagship show, even if it’s to lay down for a top heel, since good things come to those who wait -- or, at least climb up the ranks appropriately.
But, how long will we have to wait for this to become a reality?
2 Finn Balor
Formerly known as Prince Devitt, Balor hasn’t seen much television time (his debut was two weeks ago), yet based on his past success, he could have moved up to the main roster with minimal complaints. The former leader of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s (NJPW) popular stable The Bullet Club has an astonishing and almost flawless physique, and his style is reminiscent of a mixture of Puroresu meets Lucha Libre, had the latter been born in Europe. The starlet has already amassed his fair share of accolades, winning the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship three times, holding the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship six times with only two different partners, and being crowned the winner of NJPW’s prestigious Best of The Super Juniors tournament twice in 2010 and 2013.
1 Hideo Itami
Kenta Kobayashi, better known as just KENTA, is regarded as a Japanese wrestling legend. He was a massive player in Pro Wrestling Noah, where he acquired the GHC Heavyweight Championship, the GHC Junior Heavyweight Championship (three times), and the GHC Tag Team Championship. Debuting in Japan’s famous All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW) promotion, KENTA rose to prominence after his stellar encounters against Bryan Danielson (you know who he is) in both Pro Wrestling Noah and ROH, in matches regarded as some of the best showdowns in wrestling history.
Having shared the ring with legends such as Jushin Thunder Liger, Yugi Nagata, Kensuke Sasaki, Kenta Kobashi, and Keiji Mutoh, the Japanese wrestler now known as Itami brings a unique style to the American promotion, using the stiff, strong style made popular in Asia to WWE NXT. Using an abundance of strikes in his repertoire, including kicks that would knock your head off into the ninth row, he could wrestle Bryan every single week or month on a pay-per-view (PPV) event and do more than just deliver.
Currently forming a partnership with Balor in Florida, it would be best if that tandem could break up, so we could see a mouthwatering encounter between the two develop before our very eyes. If that fails, talk about a dream pairing you’d only see in the world of video games.