The spring of 2014 was special for wrestling fans. It was the arrival of the most consistent wrestling brand in the modern era. NXT TakeOver ushered in a new era for the WWE and more importantly Pro Wrestling.
Triple H’s pet project quickly became an all star roster of indie wrestlers best. Headlined by the likes of Adrian Neville, Sami Zayn, Hideo Itami, Kevin Owens and Finn Balor. These five would become the pillars of NXT for the next two years pushing the brand from a 500 seat arena in Florida to selling out the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
All five men either held or competed for the NXT title at some point in their tenure with the Yellow Brand. Their success inside the brand would eventually catapult them all to the main roster. The unfortunate part is only one of them would find the same wild success.
For the most part all but Kevin Owens were left to kick around in the mid card of the main roster. Having their characters seriously altered losing their NXT glow. Even Kevin Owens to an extent lost a bit of his shimmer. Had it not been for Chris Jericho and their friendship we may feel the same way about the Prize Fighter.
Yesterday the WWE announced that Hideo Itami aka Kenta has left the company to return to the indies. This marks the second departure of the big five. Itami never seemed to get going in WWE. He was hurt most of the time. When healthy Itami was forced to rebuild his character. On the indies he was known as Kenta, a stiff worker with a famous move set. Two of his more devastating maneuvers the Go To Sleep and Running Knee were at the time being used by two of WWE Main Event Players in Daniel Bryan and CM Punk. So between injuries and being forced to do an overhaul on character and move set Itami was a bust.
Adrian Neville is a truly tragic story. An absolute stud for NXT, and a dominant champion. When he came to the main roster his entire gimmick was re-worked into a mighty mouse esc character. In NXT Neville could work with anyone, his size and style were never seen as a hindrance. His time on the main roster was different. Nevels early opponents were mostly jobbers set for him. He then disappeared for awhile. He resurfaced as the King of the Cruiserweights on 205 Live. This was gold! Neville had turned back to a proper heel, and was going toe to toe with guys who could work. His feud with Austin Aries had an amazing build one great match then nothing. After that Neville was feed to Enzo Amore, and that was the last straw. Neville famously walked away from the WWE and now has returned to the indies under his original name PAC, but still carrying his king mentality with him.
Neville was one of my favorites in NXT, he blurred the line between good guy and bad guy in his fed with Sami Zayn. Their chemistry was electric and was their feud that pulled me into NXT, and wrestling as a whole.
Since 2016 Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens and Finn Balor have all made it to the main roster, but to mild success. KO being the stand out of the three carried the Universal Championship for awhile and has won the Intercontinental and United States Championships. His story line with Chris Jericho was the best thing on TV for over a year.
All three have suffered prolonged injuries coming at terrible times, essentially snuffing out their pushes. After the departure of Kenta and PAC signing with All Elite Wrestling I’m afraid of what comes next for the remaining three. Three years after NXT Brooklyn the WWE landscape is the most talent heavy it has been in a long time. I personally wonder where the three former NXT Champions fit in.
Balor looked like he was going to be in the title picture headed into Mania, but now Seth Rollins will be Brock Lesnar’s opponent. Daniel Bryan looks to have his hands full with half of the male roster on Smackdown. So Finn is left to kick around the mid card. He could be IC Champion by Mania but is that really where Finn belongs?
In New Japan he was competing against the companies best for every title he qualified for. He was the leader of the hoest faction in wrestling The Bullet Club. If Okada was the number one guy Finn was 1A. In NXT Finn Balor was a fan favorite. He stole the show on a nightly basis and he elevated talent around him by simply sharing the ring with them. Since leaving NXT he has never been a permanent member of the Main Event scene. You may hope with the departure of Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose their would be a spot for The Demon, but I have no faith that they will use him in that space.
Sami Zayn is every internet marks favorite masked wrestler. Unfortunately that’s exactly what the WWE sees in him. He is either in the mid card as the happy go lucky ska guy, or the opponent they give to Kevin Owens between title matches.
Kevin Owens is the one member of the big five to have a good run. His first appearance on the main roster was magical. Defeating John Cena for the United States Title. Then having a series of matches that somehow out did the previous one. He then had an amazing feud with the greatest Intercontinental Champion of all time The Miz. After that he won his first major title as Universal Champion, and would go to the Chris Jericho Storyline that we never wanted to end. Since then he sort of kicked around the mid-card until he was injured.
His return is imminent, and when he comes back to the main roster it will be to a huge reaction that will shuffle the Main Event Scene. I just worry where he fits in. It seems like Seth will be “The Guy” on Raw moving forwards. No doubt KO would be a great opponent for Seth, but let’s not forget Braun Strowman is always lurking. Drew Mcintyre is overdue for a title shot, and who knows if or when Roman Reigns will return. The Smackdown Main Event picture is just as crowded as AJ Styles, Daniel Bryan, Samoa Joe, Randy Orton, and The Miz are all title contenders.
I guess what I’m afraid of is by the end of 2019 the prime years of some of the greatest workers of a generation could be over with no real impact on the main roster.
Recently Triple H has teased the idea that some talent will never leave NXT. I wonder if there is a chance for some of the Yellow Brands former stars to return home. Can you imagine Finn Balor returning to Full Sail to take on Tommaso Ciampa? What about Sami Zayn returning to faceoff with Johnny Gargano? Imagine Kevin Owens rejoining his Ring Of Honor brethren Adam Cole!
For me these matchups are dream scenarios. I also think these matchups would allow the Yellow Brand to grow to the size of Smackdown or RAW. For a long time NXT was all about three titles the addition of the North American title has created a second singles prize to fight for. Yet NXT has never had to rely on the titles to build stories. They build feuds and characters not champions. Maybe that is why some of NXT once brightest stars have failed on the main roster. Because they were not bred to be champions they were bred to be great characters. On Vince McMahon’s Main Roster characters are often jobbed out to his purebred wrestlers. Guys like Tyler Breeze would never find the success because in Vince’s eyes a male supermodel could never be a legitimate threat to a guy like Roman Reigns. Yet in NXT Prince Pretty was hands down the most over guy on the roster for over a year.
NXT brought me back into wrestling, and it was the big five at the time who gave me taste of great pro wrestling. It breaks my heart to see what has become of them. I have hope, but it is slowly fading.