Projecting NXT and Developmental Stars' Chances of Succeeding in WWE
It's an exciting time to follow WWE's developmental system. NXT Takeover 2 is in a few weeks on September 11, and if it's anything like the previous pair of NXT specials, we know the in-ring action will be some of the best of the year.
Also, WWE just announced its third big signing from the independent/international wrestling scene, formally introducing Kevin Steen as the newest talent to take up residence at Full Sail University. Steen, one of the top draws on the U.S. indie scene for the last few years, joins recent international signings Kenta and Fergal "Prince" Devitt as the latest additions to WWE's rich farm system.
NXT has regularly been one of the best pure wrestling shows on a weekly basis since the launch of the WWE Network. The show has introduced a number of talented performers to the WWE Universe with hopes they will carry momentum to the main roster and become stars of Raw and SmackDown.
Recent NXT graduates, though, haven't found much luck after moving up. Adam Rose jumped to the main roster quickly after debuting the Exotic Express gimmick and has floundered. Bo Dallas, the former NXT champion, has struggled to make an impression.
With some names already starting to circulate as potential call-ups and new talent arriving in NXT shortly, I'd like to share my thoughts on how some of these NXT favorites may fare at the next level.
If we're going to talk about NXT, we may as well start with the current standard bearer. Adrian Neville won the NXT strap from Dallas on the very first NXT special and first WWE Network live broadcast. Neville, formerly known as Pac on the indy scene, is a pint-sized (5'10", 194 lbs), high-flying Brit with a great physique.
I was surprised when WWE signed him initially, thinking he didn't really fit its style. When it made him one of the leading stars of NXT, it's not an exaggeration to say I was stunned.
Neville is sharp, quick and powerful in the ring. WWE has continued to use his moniker from the indies: The Man Gravity Forgot. He hits big, impressive spots from all over the ring, and his Red Arrow corkscrew shooting star press is a thing of beauty.
All this said, though, Neville cannot cut a promo. I repeat: He is absolutely miserable on the mic. He does not carry any character or convey any personality. His charisma is reminiscent of Chris Benoit—meaning, it's sorely lacking. It took years of consistent lower midcard in-ring brilliance before he was a feared competitor and accepted as a potential main event threat.
Neville, at his size is not threatening.
I worry for Neville's future beyond NXT. I don't believe Vince McMahon will get behind a diminutive wrestler who struggles to cut a convincing promo. In a WWE landscape without a consistently booked midcard, not to mention lower midcard, and no division focused on light heavyweights, it will be difficult for a work-rate-first wrestler like Neville to thrive.
What Neville does have going for him is that he's British. WWE's future is in its network, and this hinges on growth across international markets and with subscriptions. If WWE thinks Neville can help capture a European audience, he may get some push.
Ceiling: Consistent midcarder with intercontinental/U.S. title run.
Floor: Justin Gabriel
The powerhouse tag team of Konnor and Viktor has dominated the NXT tag scene since the WWE Network launched. And when I say dominated, I mean they have primarily crushed "local" jobbers. NXT is currently running a tag tournament to try to develop competition.
Konnor and Viktor may be an act that gets the call-up sometime soon. Neither man is getting younger, sitting at 34 and 33 years of age, respectively. The WWE is not booming with tag teams right now, so The Ascension could make an impact quickly.
I'm not a huge fan of The Ascension. Konnor is just not a very good wrestler, and while Viktor is a better technician, his look is lacking and entirely beholden to the eerie gimmick. That said, they are completely different than anything on the traveling main roster right now and would get the attention of the crowds if introduced properly.
The Ascension is the type of group that needs to be dominant to be a draw. Once the menacing aura is gone, so is fan interest. The Ascension will need to be booked strong and consistent. It needs to have a purpose.
As a generic, pseudo-vampire, gothic, angry, brooding, unfocused duo without direction, they'll flop.
As a menacing, vicious, brutal tandem hellbent on winning the tag team titles and dispatching any competition in their way, they could develop a cult following and be a serviceable part of the roster.
Ceiling: Tag champs and regular contenders
Floor: The Basham Brothers
I know you're probably thinking at this point I'm incredibly pessimistic about our favorite NXT guys getting ruined as they move up to the main roster. That's true in most cases, but I'll break up the downers with a few high notes. Here is our first.
Sami Zayn is too good to be ignored. I wasn't sure how El Generico would transition to the WWE, but it's been incredible. Face it. El Generico was a comedy character that should never have succeeded in the ways it did.
The only reason a red-headed guy from Quebec could become the biggest star on the independent scene as a fake luchador is because Rami Sebei (Zayn's real name) is one of the most talented wrestlers on the planet.
Here is the line that will send some of you dear readers into a frenzy. Watching Zayn, I repeatedly say to myself "He's like Daniel Bryan...but better."
Zayn is one of the most fluid in-ring performers I've seen since Eddie Guerrero. He just doesn't miss moves. He doesn't sell every move like he was hit with a bazooka from short range. He sells the right move like he just got blasted in the chest with a cannon, and it makes it that much more impressive.
And with all of that precision and instinct, he has developed his own style. He's perfected his form with years working wrestlers from all over the world and can pull a great match out of anyone. I even think he might make six minutes with Bull Dempsey watchable.
Zayn has an endearing, natural babyface personality that is reminiscent of Ricky Steamboat. He's just a likable guy whom you want to see win because he comes off as a genuine human being without forcing it. Fans want to cheer for him because he's great in the ring and seems to be a nice guy.
This describes Bryan, but then comes the "better." Zayn can cut a promo. He's over 6"0" tall and a legitimate 200 pounds. He looks like a guy who could win a street fight with a bigger man and can convey why he wants to tear him apart on the mic.
Yes, Bryan did just beat up a burglar with a bum shoulder and bad neck, but I still stand by my point that Zayn has a better look than Bryan.
Zayn is a potential franchise player for the WWE, and I think Triple H knows that. For better or worse, WWE knows that Zayn sells NXT right now. That is probably more valuable for the company at this moment than anything. He'll eventually be called up, and it will be with a very specific plan and the right situation because WWE knows it has something special.
Ceiling: Multi-time WWE champion
Did anyone expect this gimmick to work so well? Full credit to Tyler Breeze for taking the Derek Zoolander character and making it work in a wrestling environment. From the voice to flashing Blue Steel (or is it Ferrari La Tigra?) at the camera, the only thing he's missing is an orange mocha frappuccino.
Breeze and NXT are completely committed to the character, showcasing him in promos, making references to him before he is even involved in a segment through the ring announcer, and changing his "seasonal residence" routinely. It's the type of attention to detail that you don't see in gimmick-heavy characters on the main roster.
And this is the biggest reason Breeze will never be a successful WWE star. We've seen it repeatedly. From Damien Sandow to Fandango to Zack Ryder, every time the WWE has the chance to make a ton of money, sell lots of merchandise and establish a strong, gimmick-driven midcarder, it finds a way to ruin them.
It feels like the company makes a concerted effort to gut these guys of their marketability.
Breeze is a good, not great, in-ring talent. He bumps like a young Dolph Ziggler and works hard to sell all aspects of the match. He doesn't have the move set to really captivate an audience. He hung with Zayn in their match at Takeover and didn't look out of place. But he still doesn't have the key spots needed that fans wait to see.
For Breeze to be successful at the next level, he needs a tag team partner. While I know the Ziggler comparisons are obvious, Breeze (6'0", 206 lbs) makes Ziggler (6'0", 213 lbs) look like a giant. Breeze could flourish in a tag division that was booked competently. He's still very young, just 26, and could bloom as he gets more experience.
The aforementioned Fandango would be an ideal partner. Send him down to NXT and have them cross paths. Fandango has the looks and the ability to commit to a gimmick to make an insufferably vain character work. WWE seems to accept gimmick-heavy tag teams (The Ascension, The Vaudevillains, Los Matadores).
Fandango is in serious need of a character reboot. This would breathe new life into his career and elevate Breeze in the process. If the team were allowed to get over and connect with fans, it would be a serious midcard hit.
Ceiling: A member of a successful tag team
Floor: Tyson Kidd circa 2014
It doesn't take more than one match to see that Mojo Rawley is terrible. He's an atrocious wrestler and a nightmarish flashback to WWE's not-so-distant history of refusing to sign trained independent wrestlers and focusing on athletes.
Rawley can't do basic wrestling moves. He looks like a guy who showed up for a Tough Enough tryout, went through two weeks of training and was put on television.
He's an impressive physical specimen (6'4", 290 lbs), and his big finish is jumping and gently sitting down on his opponent's chest. This is probably because the company doesn't trust him to actually hit a finisher. A fitting move would be a running powerslam, but he probably can't even do that.
I worry that WWE sees the reaction he draws from the NXT fans at Full Sail and thinks his Ultimate Warrior impression is enough to get over with a larger audience. Unfortunately, NXT fans are about as bad as TNA fans at the Impact Zone who love everything because they get in free to see a wrestling show.
With the number of talented guys they've signed, Rawley needs to head back to the developmental side of the Performance Center, stay away from the NXT broadcast and learn a few moves.
Ceiling: Mason Ryan
Floor: The Arena Football League
Colin Cassady and Enzo Amore
Here's another positive one. My love of Enzo Amore knows no bounds, and Colin Cassady has really impressed me with the way he keeps improving in the ring.
First, we'll start with Big Cass. He looks like Test without steroids and is developing nicely into a solid big man. He hits the big boot, the sidewalk slam, Diesel-style elbows and knees in the corner. These are all a good foundation for a guy his size (6'10", 276 lbs).
Big Cass is never going to be a 5-star guy, but he doesn't need to be. He has good charisma, a good look and a nice selection of power moves that fans will pop for. He needs to work on selling, but that will come with time and experience.
Now for Enzo, the little man (5'11", 200 lbs) with a big mouth and an endless bag of catchphrases he can pull out at any moment. If WWE allowed Enzo to be Enzo, he'd be the star of Raw every week. If it let him spit catchphrases and put them on shirts, hats, mugs, wristbands—anything—it'd make a mint.
There was already a "Sawft" (soft) sign in the first few rows of Raw this week. The man is pure gold and would be one of the most over acts in the company within weeks of debuting.
The only problem is Enzo isn't much in the ring. He's not especially athletic and is small. He has a great look and uses facial expressions to drive home the story of the match, but his move set is limited. For a guy his size, he needs to be a technician or a high-flyer, and he's neither.
This doesn't mean WWE can't use him and make a lot of money, though. When WWE is at its best, it's filled from top to bottom with great characters. Enzo is a truly special character who doesn't need a belt or a main event slot to energize the crowd and draw an audience.
Enzo and Big Cass could work tag or singles matches against lower-card guys, fill in the middle of pay-per-views, and be a valuable asset to the company. Have Enzo bounce off anyone—heels or faces—and each will be a golden segment.
The worst-case scenario if Enzo doesn't improve in the ring is that he can work as a manager. We haven't had a great babyface manager in a long time, and he could bring that home.
Big Cass's Ceiling: Test
Floor: Perpetual NXT performer
Enzo's Ceiling: Captain Lou Albano
Floor: NXT legend relived on YouTube
Kevin Steen is going to be one of the most divisive performers when it comes to the opinions of members of the WWE Creative staff and leadership. From the moment he takes the ring in NXT, he's going to be one of the biggest stars of the brand.
They will chant his name and pop for his moves.
The problem is that WWE is resistant to making stars out of guys who don't fit its mold. Chris Hero got his walking papers despite being one of the most accomplished indy wrestlers under contract, because he didn't have the physique.
Well, Steen's physique makes Hero look like Mason Ryan. I think Steen is a far superior all-around performer to Hero, but he still needs to wrestle with a shirt on.
Steen can talk. He can work face or heel. He can brawl with the best or work a technical match. And boy can he talk. Usually mic skills are the worst part of a guy coming off the independent scene, where work rate is most important. Steen gives the best promo out of the indies that WWE has signed since Dean Ambrose, and if it gives him a mic, he'll prove it.
One thing that Steen has going for him is that Dusty Rhodes is the lead writer for NXT. Nobody ever confused Dusty, one of the greatest of all time, with a bodybuilder. Dusty won't think twice about putting a doughy brawler with a big mouth out there and letting him rip.
Steen will be one of the biggest draws in NXT and will receive rave reviews from across the Internet Wrestling Community. However, he'll need to convince those up in Stamford, Connecticut, that he can deliver on a big stage to make it.
Personally, I would like to see Steen debut as a heel in NXT. Have him introduced as an old friend of Zayn's, playing off their real-life friendship and history working together on the independent scene. Once Zayn turns his back, Steen destroys him.
Zayn and Steen had one of the most acclaimed feuds in recent years across the independent scene, running in both Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla at the same time. They are good friends and work together well. If the Full Sail crowd is going to turn on Steen despite his pure talent, it's going to be against their favorite son, Zayn.
That said, it wouldn't shock anyone were McMahon to flip on NXT on Thursday night this spring and see Steen in the main event of the show with the crowd chanting his name only to decide that he's fat, out of shape, and he should cut him. This is going to be the biggest ceiling-to-floor gap on the list.
Ceiling: WWE champ
Floor: Fired and working in New Japan Pro Wrestling by this time next year
Kenta Kobayashi (stylized KENTA in Japan but written Kenta in all WWE materials) is a curious case. Short of another man later on this list, he's the most seasoned, finished package that WWE has signed in a decade.
Ever since McMahon bought WCW and had all of the talent known to American audiences other than Sting under contract, there have been very few polished wrestlers for WWE to sign. For many years, WWE wouldn't even consider signing someone who wasn't primarily trained in its program.
Kenta, on the other hand, has been revered as one of the better workers in the world for some time.
And when I say polished wrestlers, I include the likes of Bryan, CM Punk, Cesaro and others on that list. None of those names had consistently sold shows or performed in front of national audiences. Kenta was the cornerstone of the second-biggest wrestling company in Japan. He was the Japanese equivalent to AJ Styles.
He's also older than most WWE signings at 33. He's short, listed at 5'9". All of this considered, I struggle to call Kenta a "developmental" signing. He's going to have to move through the system quickly.
It wouldn't be a shock were Kenta to be on the main roster by WrestleMania (March 29, 2015) with a Royal Rumble debut. He should get a few months in the Performance Center working with WWE trainers to help him transition his style and a series of matches with one of NXT's better hands (likely Neville). Then it's up to the big show.
This said, there is no assurance that Kenta will be a hit in the WWE. He doesn't speak English, and WWE has not demonstrated any willingness to make a Japanese wrestler into anything other than a Japanese stereotype. Remember Yoshi Tatsu, anyone?
Of course, Kenta comes with a bigger price tag and greater acclaim that Tatsu. I don't believe the company would sign him without the intention of showcasing his ring work. WWE is in a position where it has to sell the WWE Network to international markets, and one of the biggest potential jackpots sits in Japan, where there is a rabid pro wrestling fanbase.
And while Japanese fans scream and turn out for WWE live events, it's not proven that they'll plop down a monthly commitment without seeing Japanese stars featured. The video on-demand library is completely focused on American wrestling. From American pay-per-views to legends round-table discussions, there isn't much time spent on Japanese or international wrestling as a whole.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, NWA/WCW made such an outreach to Japan by partnering with New Japan Pro Wrestling on shows and even bringing on one of the nation's most legendary performers, Keiji Mutoh, as a premier act. Wrestling as The Great Muta, he faced the biggest stars in the company with matches against Sting, Steamboat and Ric Flair.
Kenta may be WWE's way of reaching out to those fans, so I think he'll get a good shot—at least until McMahon changes his mind, of course, and wants Kenta to wear a kimono to the ring because he thinks it's funny.
Ceiling: The Great Muta
Floor: Sin Cara
The new tag team of Aiden English and Simon Gotch is one of the most fun parts of NXT. Their over-the-top gimmick and complete commitment to their characters makes it fun to watch.
This team, though, is all about Gotch, who created his character on the independent scene and has actually had it adopted by WWE under a new name. Were this tag team to ever lead to a WWE debut and sustained run, English would be wholly indebted to Gotch, who is a far superior wrestler and overall performer.
All this said, I don't ever see The Vaudevillains reaching Monday Night Raw. The characters are too goofy and the references too obscure for a mainstream audience to connect. This is especially so for a tag team.
WWE has not shown a willingness to have a rich tag team division. There are The Usos and then the field. Goldust and Stardust might get a push if McMahon is willing to actually utilize one of the most talented guys he has on the roster in Cody Rhodes. The Wyatt Family doesn't appear interested in the tag belts anymore.
Then there are a series of jobber teams in RyBaxel, Los Matadores and Slater Gator. Were WWE to bring up The Vaudevillains, they would settle into this second tier immediately. I'd be surprised if they ever won a match.
From this point forward, though, I'll remove English from the conversation. His actor/opera gimmick is so bad that it's not worth discussing further.
Gotch, though, is a much better in-ring performer with a good look and knack for comedy wrestling. Now that Santino has retired, Gotch has an opportunity to fill this void on the roster. He's a talented performer who understands his character and can bring it to life.
Could Gotch rise up the ranks further were he to gain a big fan following? Of course. But that's not the point. Gotch, if given the chance, could find himself with a great six- to seven-year run in WWE as a consistent opening act and comedic relief. This fits well into the WWE Universe, and I hope to see him thrive.
Ceiling: Santino Marella
Floor: Future endeavored
Even more than Kenta, this signing had be floored. Devitt, an Irish-born wrestler, was one of the biggest gaijins in New Japan Pro Wrestling. He was one of the leaders of the vaunted Bullet Club stable in NJPW and a top heel. As I said about Kenta being polished, Devitt takes it to a different level.
The separation between Kenta and Devitt in being a finished product is the language barrier. Devitt is a native English speaker with a slight accent. He's not known for having great promos, but his ability to communicate without a translator or in broken English makes him immediately more ready for WWE television than Kenta.
The obvious comparison is also an ominous one. Don't tell McMahon, but Devitt once portrayed the character Pegasus Kid II. The original Pegasus Kid was played be none other than Chris Benoit.
Devitt, like Benoit, is a brilliant ring technician who can also bust out great high-flying moves. While not as acrobatic as Neville, Devitt can go to the top rope and awe the crowd with crisp aerial moves.
The reason I was so surprised by the signing was that I didn't believe Devitt would agree to the deal. Devitt was certainly making very good money in Japan, where NJPW sells out massive arenas and still lets him work other shows outside the country for added income.
Devitt could name his price, probably pricing out most independent companies in the U.S.
Like Kenta, he's also 33 years old. He's in the middle of his prime years and, as fans, we should hope that WWE takes advantage of what he can do. Devitt isn't going to learn new tricks. He is a finished product ready to be unleashed.
But in the WWE, it's difficult for the creative staff to have a foreign wrestler who isn't a foreign character. Bad News Barrett is probably the only guy who isn't American or Canadian who isn't defined by ethnicity. Kofi Kingston may fall into this category, but we have to remember his short-lived run as a Jamaican guy who is actually from Ghana.
Sheamus is a cartoon character. Even in NXT, another Irish talent, Becky Lynch, looks and acts extremely stereotypical. I struggle to imagine a world where McMahon doesn't sit down with the WWE Creative staff and ask why Devitt isn't wearing green trunks with shamrocks. He'll want Irish-themed entrance music and tell him to push his accent further in promos.
If not saddled with a ridiculous look and gimmick, Devitt is one of those guys who could get over on his ring work. To return to the Benoit comparison, Devitt could work great matches with the likes of Cesaro, Swagger, Ziggler, Luke Harper and others who win fans and draw eyes while not being in the main event scene.
While not young, he still has years left to reach a main or semi-main event level where he works Bryan, Seth Rollins, Ambrose, John Cena, Randy Orton and others as a potential title contender. Devitt doesn't need a belt to be successful. If given a chance to be a workhorse and have great matches, it will improve the quality of the program.
Floor: Sheamus' little buddy