NXT elicits near-universal praise amongst wrestling aficionados for its simple, effecting story-telling, clearly-defined characters, superb in-ring action and dedicated fanbase. It has become must-see weekly programming, not only as a window into the future superstars of WWE but as it's own, stand-alone brand.
Where surprise appearances on Raw and Smackdown Live have grown increasingly elusive with online reports spoiling any big debuts and NXT storylines making call-ups fairly obvious, NXT has managed to provide shocking moments through the unveiling of newly signed recognizable indie wrestling stars. WWE's main rosters will typically get any arriving household names, such as Goldberg or Kurt Angle. But NXT boasts knowledgeable wrestling fans who can appreciate when a Roderick Strong or a Kassius Ohno emerges on the scene.
This constant influx of new, recognizable names represents one of both the greatest strengths and biggest weaknesses of NXT. On one hand, the new additions offer an on-going and incoming talent stream to help balance out a roster whose top stars will continuously be lost to one of either Raw or Smackdown Live. It is owing to the sterling reputation of NXT that established wrestlers who made their name in promotions like TNA and ROH would be willing to join what, at its core, amounts to WWE's developmental brand. However, the continuous signing of outside talent has also served to de-emphasize the importance of growing in-house talent. One of the dirty secrets of NXT is that its top talent, from 36-year-old Shinsuke Nakamura to 40-year-old Bobby Roode, isn't as young as you might expect stars of a developmental brand to be.
Warts and all, the pipeline of indie stars coming into the ranks of NXT probably isn't slowing down anytime soon. Outside of WWE, NXT has come to be viewed as something of a coveted commodity among top indie talent. As a branch of WWE, it guarantees decent, secure money and an environment where you can work with world class talent while touring packed arenas instead of bingo halls. If WWE is constantly looking for new NXT talent and top wrestlers from around the world remain open to joining their developmental brand, then there's no shortage of potential big names who could be added to the ranks. Here are 15 of the most likely and intriguing candidates:
15 Brian Cage
Few noticed when Kris Logan was quietly released from his contract with Florida Championship Wrestling (FCW) after a one-year stint. However, as time has gone on, the decision on the man who now goes by Brian Cage has come to appear more perplexing. You'd figure that a professional bodybuilder trained by Chris Kanyon with a look that prompted comparisons to Wolverine (hence the 'Logan' part of the name) would thrive in WWE. For Cage, though, that wasn't the case.
He was released in 2009 in a decision that he disagrees with to this day. Calling the agents he dealt with in WWE "idiots" for releasing him, Cage has made them regret it since. The 33-year-old has demonstrated an impressive versatility while starring in Lucha Underground and AAA, putting on stellar clash-of-styles matches with elite luchadors. While he still admits that he would consider a return to what is now NXT, he's pretty happy with where he's at after coming along so far.
14 Marty Scurll
Ring of Honor carries a long-held practice of typically holding off on title pushes for their stars to allow for maximum payoff. They are currently in the midst of a storyline featuring Christopher Daniels making a late-career push for the ROH title after the likes of Jay Lethal and Jay Briscoe already finished long journeys that culminated in gold. Meanwhile, young talent will often see their storyline arrival put off by participation in the Top Prospect Tournament.
These rules didn't apply to "The Villain" Marty Scurll, and he has wasted no time highlighting why. The charismatic heel, who makes no bones about his inherent badness, won the ROH World Television Championship on the final day of his debut three-day tour of the UK. Although he had to sell himself to wrestling fans stateside, a unique look that includes a large beard and umbrella, coupled with a loudmouth presence that makes him easy to hate, has already helped. "The Villain" might just be too compelling not to make it to NXT one day.
13 Candice LeRae
A true indie veteran, Candice LeRae still hasn't landed with a promotion that has a national TV deal. But there is still reason to believe that the 31-year-old former Pro Wrestling Guerilla (PWG) star might be on the radar screen for NXT. She happens to be married to Johnny Gargano, one half of the wildly populay DIY tag team alongside Tomasso Ciampa. WWE has long loved to incorporate real-life relationships into storylines and the addition of LeRae would be an easy way to do it.
But to suggest that LeRae's only value to NXT would be as Gargano's on-screen arm candy would be to do a great disservice to a talented performer. A tremendous in-ring worker, she has held her own against the likes of Amazing Kong, Gail Kim, Nikki Storm and Veda Scott on the indie circuit. Personality-wise, she has demonstrated a fun-loving, comedic side through her partnership with Joey Ryan as "The World's Cutest Tag Team" and with a moveset that includes something called the "balls-plex". You can already here Vince McMahon cackling at that one!
12 Bobby Fish
There was a time not long ago when a guy like Bobby Fish would probably have been quickly dismissed by WWE for not having the cookie cutter superstar look that they strive for. Fish skews towards the quirky, with unique facial hair and a prominent mouth guard dominating his appearance. A muscle-bound, larger-than-life Adonis, he isn't. But a stellar run in ROH as both a singles star and standout tag team wrestler alongside Kyle O'Reilly has helped raise his profile, just as an NXT-driven embrace of unconventional stars has prompted WWE to reconsider their definition of a superstar.
Fish was originally seen as the Marty Jannetty to O'Reilly's Shawn Michaels in their ReDragon team, but blossomed on his own thanks to considerable mic skills and a look that helps him come across as a believable bad-ass. He was rewarded with a Television title run and has even flirted with the main event scene in ROH. Fish would be higher on this list, but he reportedly re-upped with ROH back in January after receiving offers from WWE, among other promotions. Already 40, he may be too much of a graybeard the next time he comes available.
11 Will Ospreay
Age is hardly an issue for the guy that took the ROH World Television Championship away from Bobby Fish. High-flying Brit Will Ospreay enjoyed a breakthrough 2016 that put him on the radar screens of numerous promotions and is now just 23 years of age. Riding high off of an attention-getting NJPW Best of Super Juniors match against Ricochet, Ospreay agreed to a contract with ROH. He reportedly was set to join TNA and get a sizeable push, but those plans were derailed after they learned of his Japan deal.
Ospreay could fill a number of different roles in WWE. He would be an asset to both their newly developed cache of English talent alongside the likes of Tyler Bate and Pete Dunne. He could also be a major player in the Cruiserweight division on Raw and for 205 Live. But being one of the fastest-rising indie wrestlers in the world only gets you so far in a company that targets mainstream audiences. An introduction on NXT to a fanbase that would surely be eager to embrace the Brit would be critical.
10 Jeff Cobb
Perhaps the most anonymous name on this list, Jeff Cobb has had some independent success on his own, but has really risen to prominence under the mask of his alter ego Matanza in Lucha Underground. As "The Monster" Matanza, the Hawaiian-born Filipino has opened eyes for his adaptability and versatility amongst experienced lucha libre wrestlers. Though he is primarily known as a muscled up big man, Cobb has demonstrated his ability to mesh with high flyers and technicians alike, blazing a path to the LU championship.
That versatility could serve him well in NXT, which has served as home to a wide array of athletic big men including Bray Wyatt, Apollo Crews and, more recently, Tucker Knight and Otis Dozovic. For WWE, the biggest question would surely be one of recognition. Would fans embrace the largely unknown Cobb? Would there be a way to put him in a mask that wouldn't violate any copyright infringement laws? If they can find a character hook, he could well be worth it.
9 Kyle O'Reilly
Kyle O'Reilly was little more than an enhancement talent when he made his 2009 debut with ROH. It was only when he was paired with Adam Cole in Future Shock that he was viewed as anything beyond a mere jobber. Even still, the journey from tag team wrestler to ROH World Champion represented a long climb for the master technician, one that put him on the radar screen of many other promotions.
When O'Reilly's contract came up recently, speculation immediately percolated as to where he would wind up landing. At present time, O'Reilly's wrestling future hasn't gotten any clearer. In late January, he told RollingStone.com, "I'm kind of just needing a bit of a break to reassess my future and weigh my options. [...] I'm certainly not definitely done with Ring of Honor, but I'm just going to see what comes my way and remain optimistic." In other words, who's to say that the 30-year-old British Columbia native isn't already on his way to wrestling in front of an appreciative NXT crowd?
8 Io Shirai
Ever since the beginning of the "Women's Revolution" in WWE saw Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch all join the main roster, NXT has faced a daunting task in maintaining depth in the Women's Division. And pretty soon, division anchor Asuka will inevitably find her way to either Raw or Smackdown Live, thereby putting some serious pressure on the likes of Ember Moon and Nikki Cross to carry the load. They'll need help and may find it in the form of another talented Japanese grappler.
Rumors grew loud in late 2016 that Io Shirai, along with Kiara Hojo, was heading to WWE from the Stardom World Association (SWA) women's promotion. It is no surprise that WWE would covet Shirai, a lucha-style high flyer with Asuka-like ass-kicking capabilities. For now, the 26-year-old remains the SWA champion, but rest assured that online speculation will again reach a fever pitch once she drops the title.
7 Zack Sabre Jr.
The widely acclaimed Cruiserweight Classic WWE network special wrapped with some booking decisions that confounded those who had followed the tournament from its beginning rounds. Presented as three of the tournament's biggest stars, Gran Metalik, Kota Ibushi and Zack Sabre Jr. all fell short, allowing TJ Perkins to earn a surprising CWC victory and become the first champion of the new Cruiserweight era. The booking ultimately came down to the wrestlers who were already under contract with WWE, as none of Metalik, Ibushi and Sabre had signed on the dotted line.
Since that time, Metalik has joined the fold, whereas Ibushi has plainly stated that he will never sign with WWE full-time. Somewhere between those two poles sits Sabre, who has happily continued along as an international star for promotions like PWG and NJPW while offering teasing hints to suggest he might eventually be WWE-bound. If Sabre wants to maximize his stardom and showcase his considerable talents for the widest audience, then a stint in WWE is inevitable. Although the Cruiserweight brand may seem like an obvious destination for the 29-year-old Brit, he might have a sufficiently broad appeal to transcend the cruiserweights. If so, a future stop in NXT is a distinct possibility.
6 Adam Cole
Let's be real - there are countless high flyers and in-ring technicians floating around the indie scene right now. This means wrestlers boasting a high work rate are in ample supply. Less common, however, are those with mic skills who can cut a promo, an essential component of being a WWE superstar. Adam Cole doesn't have that problem. From his "Adam Cole, bay bay!" catchphrase to a perfected smug, arrogant persona, Cole has a firm grasp on his heel character in ROH.
Cole is currently doing some of the best work of his wrestling career as ROH World Champion and one of the key forces within the Bullet Club faction. The 27-year-old boasts a WWE-ready look (albeit slightly lacking in muscle tone) and, like one-time Future Shock teammate Kyle O'Reilly, heard his name linked to the Stamford, Connecticut-based powerhouse recently. Once Bobby Roode is ultimately called up to a main roster following his current NXT title run, Cole could fit in seamlessly as the next main event heel for the brand.
5 Pentagon Jr.
WWE likes to hire in-ring storytellers and there might not be a better on in professional wrestling right now than Lucha Underground's Pentagon Jr. For his part, Pentagon admits that he hasn't been approached by anyone from WWE, but wouldn't rule out a run with the company if the offer was right. The lack of interest is surprising. LU's US television deal means that American wrestling fans can now see how compelling and dynamic a performer the 32-year-old is.
An elite in-ring worker, Pentagon's greatest asset comes in his mastery of ring psychology and his ability to play off of the crowd. Although he may have trouble adjusting to the heavily controlled setting of WWE, a stint in NXT would help bridge that adjustment while allowing fans to get to know his unique and violent moveset. Ever since Rey Mysterio Jr. left, much has been made of WWE's pursuit of its next Hispanic superstar. Alberto Del Rio flopped out, Sin Cara never caught on and Kalisto doesn't appear to be the answer. Maybe Pentagon Jr. can succeed where the others have failed?
4 Matt Riddle
Kurt Angle is about to earn his deserved Hall of Fame induction after a sensational and decorated WWE (and, to a lesser extent, TNA) run. It didn't take long for Angle to open eyes in professional wrestling, wowing observers for how quickly he adapted after transitioning to the sport from amateur wrestling. In that sense, Matt Riddle might be the contemporary Kurt Angle. The one-time MMA standout and The Ultimate Fighter contestant took up professional wrestling in early 2015 after being released from his UFC contract on account of two positive drug tests and hasn't looked back.
In two short years, Riddle has already earned a WWE tryout that netted him a contract with partner promotion Evolve, debuted with Pro Wrestling Guerilla (PWG), earned a high-profile match with Cody Rhodes and won a world title for Progress Wrestling. He has said in interviews that he had expected a call from WWE to come by now, but he embraces the opportunity to develop outside of the world's biggest professional wrestling brand. Provided the drug issues don't re-surface, Riddle's realistic, MMA-inspired moveset and natural charisma could play well in NXT.
3 Eli Drake
After years of TNA being known as a sanctuary for WWE castoffs, the company's financial woes and WWE's emphasis on their NXT brand has seen more talent move the other way along the pipeline. AJ Styles and Samoa Joe have both arrived on the main roster, while the likes of Roode and Eric Young remain in NXT for the time being. This would seem to point to other wrestlers following that path, but a closer look seems to reveal some slim pickings. WWE is rumored to have some interest in a reunion with Drew Galloway, but less clear is their interest in other TNA main eventers (and former WWE talents) like Bobby Lashley, Ethan Carter III and the Hardys.
One TNA name that could well be on WWE's wish list is irritating loudmouth heel Eli Drake. Drake continues to be a fixture just outside of the main event scene, valued for a gift of gab that seems to be rare in TNA. His interview show "Facts of Life with Eli Drake" is a regular highlight on Impact shows and he has found instant chemistry in both opposing rivalries (ECIII) and unlikely partnerships (Tyrus). Under his real name of Shaun Ricker, Drake had a few flirtations with WWE over the years, but would surely be an asset now that he's come into his own as a detestable mouthpiece.
Few wrestlers have encountered the frequency of speculation over a potential WWE signing as Trevor Mann, who is better known by his popular aliases Prince Puma and Ricochet. For his part, though, the 28-year-old isn't sweating a potential future in WWE as of yet. While acknowledging that he'd like to wind up there one day, he quickly added during a recent appearance on Steve Austin's podcast that he has goals that he'd like to attain in NJPW first.
Mann has already climbed pretty high, both in NJPW and during a two-year run in Lucha Underground as Prince Puma. In NJPW as Ricochet, he became the youngest winner of the Best of the Super Juniors tournament and won the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships alongside Matt Sydal. Under a mask in LU, he became the company's first ever champion. Mann might truthfully carry different aspirations before joining WWE, or he may just be biding time thanks to a no-compete clause that prevents him from joining another major promotion before LU's season three finishes airing. Either way, Ricochet (or whatever they'll call him) could be a major force in NXT in the near future.
1 The Young Bucks
Is NXT ready for a superkick party? Nick and Matt Jackson, better known as The Young Bucks, have gained such a global following on the independent scene that they may be too big for WWE's developmental brand. Currently the tag team champions in ROH, NJPW and PWG, the Bucks are pretty well main eventers everywhere they go. Despite being firmly entrenched in the heel Bullet Club stable, they elicit cheers as a 'cool' act for their manic, fun-loving personas.
There will soon be an urgent need for fresh blood in the NXT Tag Team Division. Both the Revival and DIY appear poised to move on to one of WWE's main rosters soon, leaving the Authors of Pain and not much else. The newly formed Heavy Machinery has potential but remain raw, while TM-61's Shane Thorne remains sidelined for the foreseeable future. But before we fantasy book the Bucks to NXT tag gold, there must be interest on the part of the one-time WWE developmental talents. The Jackson brothers recently re-signed with ROH, reportedly rejecting an offer from WWE due to reluctance over being away from their families for lengthy stretches. Still, the two men are both - ahem - young and will likely arrive one day.