WWE's experimental prototype program, NXT, is rolling towards a second “season” just four months after its inauspicious debut. Throughout the first season, we were promised a new, cutting-edge program that was unlike any in wrestling history.
What we got was a different sort of monster altogether. The concept of WWE Pros and Rookies provided more moments of “real” action than any other WWE program in years, attempting to stage the true creative concepts that both smart marks and casual fans have craved for years. Did it work? Were the eight rookies enough to get over NXT as the true “next evolution” of professional wrestling?
With the first season in the books, let's take a comprehensive look back at the eight rookies who ranged from provocative to prepubescent in this final ranking of the NXT roster.
No. 8: Michael Tarver
WWE Pro: Carlito
Arguably the worst selection for this kind of show, Michael Tarver was billed as a shoot fighter with a knockout punch and a carefree coach. Tarver's KO gimmick was dropped before he ever gained any traction thanks to similarities with the Big Show's current moniker.
Incorporate a duller-than-a-doorknob attitude in the ring (appropriate considering his coach was the often-indifferent Carlito) and Tarver's blueprint for success was scrapped very quickly. In the weeks following his elimination, Tarver showed more sparks of life by guaranteeing he would make an impact for years to come.
And then, much like his pro, he did very little as we waited for him to disappear completely, as nothing more than a footnote.
No. 7: Darren Young
WWE Pro: C.M. Punk
Profiled as something of a party-hungry competitor, Darren Young was another of NXT's first season of weak entries. Though we expect some duds to emerge from a bag of buttery goodness, Young's kernel couldn't pop if it was exposed to an open flame.
Young quickly became known as “that rookie with the weird hair” before playing second fiddle to his pro, C.M. Punk, and his ongoing rivalry with Rey Mysterio. In fact, the most memorable moment of Darren Young on the entire program was that he outlasted other NXT rookies like Daniel Bryan and Skip Sheffield despite his outright awfulness.
If anything, each and every Darren Young appearance reminded WWE fans of what Orlando Jordan used to look and wrestle like before his TNA push.
No. 6: Heath Slater
WWE Pro: Christian
Perhaps the best face pairing on the show, Heath Slater benefited greatly from the huge fanbase behind Captain Charisma. Week to week, Slater racked up the victories while portraying this laid-back, surfing redhead the kids could embrace in the PG era.
The drawback to Slater, however, was that his gimmick as something of a California beach boy left him with little recourse when he opened his mouth to reveal a Virginian drawl. Slater's slow pace of speech wasn't exactly going to get fans energized in the same way that we've seen for more than 30 years (the old “yell at the TV” technique).
Despite this, he was the first rookie to pin a pro and first to do it twice, defeating Carlito and Chris Jericho en route to a fourth place finish on the show.
No. 5: Skip Sheffield
WWE Pro: William Regal
Talk about a missed opportunity.
Skip Sheffield looks like a miniature version of Nathan Jones without all of the emotional and psychological baggage the Colossus of Boggo Road brought to WWE.
But instead of taking advantage of his raw power, WWE billed Sheffield as a bumbling buffoon who would be foiled, on a weekly basis by his WWE Pro William Regal. As the “Cornfed Meathead", Sheffield was comic relief on a show that otherwise attempted to take itself seriously.
For William Regal, this certainly wasn't his first rodeo as the straight man in the running gag. He'd already been paired up with both Yoshihiro Tajiri and Eugene, a nagging aggravation that seemed to finally bubble to the surface in the final minutes of the NXT season finale.
For Sheffield there's still great hope, given that his first sign of real personality and ruthless dominance showed through with a simple “I don't care” response to a question about who should win the competition.
No. 4: David Otunga
WWE Pro: R-Truth
He may have developed the most legitimate character in his brief time on the big stage, but David Otunga still has a lot to learn before he can make a true impact on the business. Despite finishing second on the season finale, Otunga is miles from competing on the WWE's big stage.
Since the beginning, the former I Love New York contestant has drawn comparisons to Batista thanks to his build and move set. But more comparisons can be drawn to an early Batista, due to his impeccable and inevitable ability to botch simple moves, turning them into anxious nightmares.
He almost injured his opponent during week one after a sloppy spinebuster (a fairly simple move), and managed to one-up that performance each week, while the rookies were programmed to tell him how bad he was whenever they got the chance.
Luckily for the "A-List", somebody is clearly high on his potential and is willing to make him a big star in the business.
He's got a built-in feud with his pro R-Truth somewhere down the road and looked very comfortable feuding with WWE Champion John Cena.
No. 3: Justin Gabriel
WWE Pro: Matt Hardy
After the ridiculous outfit he debuted in, it was hard to see Justin Gabriel making much progress in this competition. But Justin Gabriel was the definition of the slow build, eventually becoming a darkhorse candidate by the end of the season.
His in-ring athleticism and his signature 450-splash (borrowed from 2 Cold Scorpio) actually won him a lot of respect (and fans), as he evaded the bottom of the Pro's Poll each week. Gabriel also had the sentimental card going for him with pro Matt Hardy always getting some sort of pity vote.
Despite his abilities as one of the top wrestlers in this octagon, Gabriel's South African dialect was difficult to decode, a fact the other rookies were quick to point out each week.
No. 2: Daniel Bryan
WWE Pro: The Miz
It was easily one of the best scripted builds in recent memory, and all it took was a dose of reality mixed with a smattering of overt favoritism. Daniel Bryan came into the WWE NXT competition as Bryan Danielson, the unquestionable favorite to win the whole thing thanks to his genuine talent inside the ring.
As a can't-miss prospect, the WWE wisely bided their time with the rookie, having him go on an epic losing streak despite great contests with the likes of Chris Jericho and even Batista. Though most wrestlers can never hope to get over with a losing streak gimmick, Bryan didn't need any help as his pure ability was enough to carry him.
From there, the real fun began with a quiet commotion followed by a thunderous roar. WWE commentator and often-criticized announcer Michael Cole stepped in to detract from Bryan as much as possible on a weekly basis. Finally, it hit a boiling point when Bryan called out Cole for his actions and attacked him. What WWE fan can honestly say they were horrified to see someone slap Michael Cole in the face?
The many dimensions and facets of Bryan's character development continued to evolve with the aid of his undeserving pro, The Miz, and continuous bashing from Cole at the announcer's table. To go into that much detail at this point seems redundant given the level of exploration several of my colleagues have already achieved.
Bryan didn't need to win the competition to come out looking like a winner, he just needed to avoid a total burial. And he (narrowly) escaped just that.
No. 1: Wade Barrett
WWE Pro: Chris Jericho
Wade Barrett fit the mold of a WWE-look superstar from the get-go. He was the tallest combatant and had muscles and tattoos amongst his chiseled physique. With a face of stone and a thick English accent, Barrett had the kind of heel charisma that many current WWE stars lacked.
He wasn't a bad wrestler, either, and managed to keep fans entertained with Chris Jericho in his back pocket. Barrett received minimal opportunities to shine outside the confines of his Tuesday night slot, tapping out to John Cena in his only big-brand breakthrough. Still, Barrett exuded a sort of charisma that, again, is lacking within the WWE's heel locker room.
He may be green and still without a true direction, but the WWE made the smart choice by selecting Barrett to take the competition over other breakout heel contenders, namely David Otunga. “A-List” may have had instant heat, but Barrett could be a long-term draw that shows the company actually made the right choice for once.
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