WWE Prized Rookie Round-Up Part 1: A Look Back at NXT Season 1
A couple of years ago (doesn’t feel like that long), I wrote an analysis about NXT’s Season Two and where they might be heading.
Flash forward to now: some things have turned out how we’d thought with the NXT rookies, some have not.
So, what with WWE’s season five—aka “Redemption” aka “Holy Crap, Are We There Yet?—coming to close (I think?), I think it’s time to take a look back at the first five seasons of WWE’s developmental program NXT and how their participants have done so far.
Today, I'm going to look back at the first season of the show, featuring the group that would become The Nexus. For the first season of NXT, one would think that WWE would decide to bring up the best crop of rookies to start off with a bang, especially when all of them were brought up together to try to take on the established order.
The story of The Nexus is one for another day, but in short Nexus vs. WWE was both 1) awesome and unexpected, and 2) the biggest bust since the WCW/ECW Invasion, mainly due to the fact that some of the rookies were pulling their weight, while others…
Well, let’s take a look.
If we’re going to talk about NXT and the newer generation, we have to start with the current “It Guy” of the WWE. It was obvious from the start that WWE was—to some degree—trying to build NXT around Bryan, since the smart fans in the audience knew that Bryan Danielson was a big deal on the independent circuit, and many of us in the IWC were curious to see the potential car crash that was coming.
Vince and the Powers That Be have never really been kind to guys that weren’t “theirs,” but it wasn’t like the company had never pushed smaller guys who could work their butts off (Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, etc.) It was obvious from the jump that WWE was going to test Bryan to see if he would give up or not: yes, they had him job to pretty much everyone, but he also took Chris Jericho—the world champion at the time— to the limit, and despite being “fired” from the show he still took up a great deal of air time in his feud with Michael Cole, and got a nice push by getting on WWE’s team at SummerSlam and then taking the US Title from his old pro The Miz.
It took him awhile, but Bryan finally reached the pinnacle by winning MITB and cashing it in on the prone Big Show and then turning into one of the best heels in the company and developing the latest hit catch phrase (and if you need me to tell you what it is, you haven’t been reading B/R).
It’s obvious that WWE—to a large extent—has always been high on Bryan, but they wanted to build him up on their terms and as one of their guys. Has it worked? I’d say yes, absolutely.
I am worried, though, that Creative might drop the ball with him because they have the occasional issue (to put it mildly) with balancing a hot hand; despite him being in an awesome feud with CM Punk, I’m worried that someone backstage might balk at the idea of two non-traditional WWE guys being in a top feud over the title and panic-push Kane into the mix. We’ll have to see how it plays out, but as of now, Bryan is the top guy from the recent rookie crop…
Of course, I say that Daniel Bryan is the top guy, but it has to be taken with a little grain of salt. Had Wade Barrett not gotten injured and dragged down early on by random stables (The Corre? Really?), he might have gotten the super-push that Bryan is getting now.
Rumors have it that Barrett was headed for a MITB win (and still will likely get it once he’s healthy), and he’s obviously the next guy up for WWE, and with reason. While Bryan was the hottest commodity in NXT season one, it was obvious from the get-go that Barrett was their potential blue-chipper, being partnered with Jericho and getting the leadership role in Nexus.
Yes (no pun intended), Daniel Bryan is the current star, but I can’t see WWE keeping up with his push due to their little-man bias. Barrett, on the other hand, is exactly what WWE likes. He’s a big guy, a good worker, and he’s got good promo skills. If anyone is the future of the company, it’s Barrett.
As long as they don’t cut his legs off once he takes his inevitable MITB briefcase off the hook, I see multiple title reigns for Barrett, possibly by feuding with Bryan (and if so, who turns face?).
In Bill Simmons’s basketball opus, The Book of Basketball, he spends some time comparing actor Billy Crudup with basketball player Vince Carter: both had all the skills, Simmons argued, but they just didn’t want it enough. David Otunga falls into this same category, along with guys like Shelton Benjamin (you know it’s true, don’t deny it) and Alberto Del Rio (didn’t get the burial I predicted, but it’s still in play). Otunga has the fatal flaw that so many people have fallen victim to for so many years: he’s got the tools, I just don’t think he’s got the want-to.
Otunga’s time on NXT was marked by the fact that he was the guy with the great physique, the marketable Hollywood connection, and the great promo skills—however, he was nearly clueless what to do with all of it (something Barrett himself pointed out in the final round of the competition).
WWE was obviously giving him the green light to go out and grab the brass ring that was NXT season one, and with it the leadership role in The Nexus. He didn’t do it.
Fast forward two years: yes he is a former tag-team champion, but his career at this point involves wearing Cosby sweaters, sipping coffee, being John Laurinaitis’s assistant and sometimes mouthpiece, and getting the crap kicked out of him by John Cena. Is being the right hand man of the boss a bad gig? Not at all—I could think of worse ways to spend my day.
However, this should not be where he wound up with all of his potential, and that boils down to the fact that he has not improved in any appreciable area since he first came on the scene. He is still awful in the ring, despite having time to improve. His promo skills are good, but they are still what they were during NXT. He should be at least in the US/Intercontinental Title picture by now, but the only way I see him breaking out at this point is if Laurinaitis pulls the strings for him (not a total stretch).
He’d better figure it out soon, because his Executive Assistant role is being seriously threatened by Eve (who obviously has worked hard to improve as a performer).
For his sake, I hope he gets it.
An interesting case, since he was a goofball/meathead/whatever on NXT, then when he joined The Nexus, he became an intimidating monster. Then he got hurt, came back to Smackdown as Ryback and starting squashing people left and right. Not only that, but he’s squashing people left and right as a babyface, which is notoriously hard to do and get over as well (though it could be argued that both Ryback and Brodus Clay are doing the same thing).
Ryback’s success is interesting for a number of reasons, mainly the aforementioned Monster Babyface routine that is hard to pull off. However, Ryback is doing it and is getting cheers for it. I’d still like to see more of a feud, but it’s obvious that his shtick is working. I enjoy the “feed the machine!” line he’s using.
I’d love to see a better finisher than the Fisherman Muscle Buster; the backpack stunner should be his finisher, just without all the awful lead-up—the current incarnation looks like a move you try to create in WWE ’12, but it just comes out looking awkward when you play it through.
I’m wondering how they’re going to progress from here with him—is he going to stay the unstoppable monster babyface and maybe feud with an unstoppable monster heel (maybe have him feud with and/or “retire” Big Show or Kane?) Is he going to take back some of the goofball mentality he had before?
While his time in NXT was not entirely memorable, what he’s done since then has me as intrigued as anyone. Stay tuned.
WWE has never really done that well with the smaller, high-flying babyfaces, at least since Jimmy Snuka’s heyday. The smaller, technically proficient babyfaces, yes, but the high-flying ones have always gotten the shaft (and don’t give me the nonsense about Rey Mysterio—he won the World Title because of Eddie Guerrero, who was more a technician and entertainer than a high-flyer himself, and was arguably the worst-booked champion ever).
So what does that mean for Justin Gabriel? They had their chances to do good things with him but they never did; he got close to winning NXT season one (third place) but couldn’t overcome the more traditional WWE guys like Otunga and Barrett. He was always the guy who finished off The Nexus beatdowns with his beautiful 450 Splash, but it always seemed like more of an afterthought than anything.
So many times while he was up on the top turnbuckle, it seemed like Gabriel was feeling apprehensive and a face turn was coming, but they never pulled it off. He’s a face now, but his career has stalled.
Now, don’t get me wrong—it’s not like the smaller guys (Punk and Bryan, to name two) have all suffered. However, there is another piece to keep in mind: Gabriel, despite having a great finisher, has never been that interesting. He’s got a generically good build, he’s not a good promo guy (not because of the accent, Sheamus has a far stronger accent and is the World Champion), and his move set is okay, but not what you’d expect from someone like Gabriel.
What makes Gabriel special as opposed to the other guys like him in the past? Eddie Guerrero was a premier entertainer and showman on top of being a great technical wrestler and high-flyer, Rey Mysterio’s appeal is partially based on the mask as well as the fact that he’s an underrated talker; Shawn Michaels was pretty much great at everything, and Jimmy Snuka was an original prototype.
Gabriel? He’s got a great finisher. And that’s it.
Maybe you’ll disagree with me, but if so please tell me: what makes Gabriel interesting?
Of all the guys they brought up for NXT season one, it’s Slater that made the least sense. He brings nothing to the table besides being a decent worker.
His voice is hilarious sounding, his promos are iffy, his nickname (“the one-man rock band”) might be the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard if only because it doesn’t fit him in the least bit—there’s nothing rock-and-roll about a pasty redhead who can’t talk.
Yet, from all I saw, it seems like he was one of the bigger stars down in FCW and was one of the top choices to bring up for the show. Was he better in FCW? What happened? Why do we care about Heath Slater?
If I had to put money down on the first guy to get released in the inevitable spring cleaning to come, I’d lay some nice odds down on Mr. Slater.
Made his name as the “Black John Cena,” which totally worked except for the fact that Young had none of Cena’s charisma, in-ring ability (yes, John Cena is a solid in-ring worker—five-star match ratings aren’t bestowed upon stiffs, even if they are fighting CM Punk), or marketability.
But, you know, they look alike and all. So there's that.
Then he got kicked out of the group, went back to NXT Redemption, and is now back on the main roster in a tag team with Titus O’Neil that is a half-assed, blatant rip-off of Cryme Tyme.
Come on, Darren Young—make me care about you. I challenge you.
Tarver was a non-entity on NXT, but I think he was interesting as part of The Nexus. He looked genuinely menacing with the mask he wore, and he showed some decent promo skills when given the chance.
I feel like if he were really given an opportunity, he could’ve been better than he seemed, but he never got the chance and faded into obscurity quickly.
I guess we’ll never know.
Next time, I'll take a look at Season two's rookies and where they are now.