Mount Rushmores of Wrestling is a series that breaks down the cream of the crop of professional wrestling in our quest to come to a consensus on the top 4 of any given category. In today’s edition, we’re talking the greatest NXT Superstars of all time as based on their importance to the brand’s history.
Darius: The original soul of NXT, Sami Zayn was a pretty big fish in a small pond. Zayn was the epitome of the idea that the money is in the chase, as Sami Zayn’s race to the top while facing off with the likes of Bo Dallas, Tyson Kid, and Tyler Breeze was compelling all throughout his time in NXT. His matches with Cesaro and Adrian Neville were early classics in the brand’s history, and the strained friendship that led to that Neville match was one-upped immediately afterwards by the full-on breaking of Zayn’s friendship with Kevin Owens.
Even after Zayn was tentatively called up to the main roster during John Cena’s United States Championship Open Challenge, Zayn was still tied to NXT to the point where when he returned from injury months later, he still had to say goodbye to the yellow gang. Ending his NXT run on the high note that was his match with a debuting Shinsuke Nakamura was one last gift that Zayn gave the NXT faithful before finally ascending to the main roster full-time with an amazing performance two days later at WrestleMania 32.
Though he’s thriving in his current role as heel Intercontinental Champion on SmackDown, Zayn will always be the top face and top star of NXT in my heart.
Vishal: NXT, for a while, was a developmental brand. And even with stars like Sasha Banks and Kevin Owens, there was always an understanding that when someone got big enough and climbed their personal mountain, they’d get called up to the main roster and NXT fans would not get to see them at Full Sail again. That is, until Johnny Gargano. Sami Zayn created the prototype of the NXT babyface – a long, arduous journey to the top, rife with betrayal and heartbreak, only to lose the title and be called to the main roster. Johnny Gargano followed and surpassed this formula, repeating it three separate times, but skipping that final step.
What Gargano brought to NXT was a sense of stability – for a very long time, he essentially served as the brand’s main character. Between his feuds with the Revival, Andrade Almas, and Tommaso Ciampa, Gargano’s journey to the NXT Championship spanned longer than anyone’s before him. And then he stayed on, continuing his story, because everyone realized he would not have a good time on SmackDown or Raw. Instead, we got Johnny fighting as hard as he could to regain the prize that made all his struggles worth it, before finally turning against the fans. This sort of long term storytelling is something NXT’s never had the opportunity to do, and the brand as a whole really got to cement itself as a fixture of WWE.
Even to this day, Johnny Wrestling is an NXT mainstay, using his status as a veteran of the black and gold to help push more up and coming stars like Damian Priest and Leon Ruff. And while he’s no longer taking up the main event spot, he’s still making every program he works a must-watch. If anyone were to be considered the icon of modern NXT, it’d have to be Johnny.
Darius: The women of NXT are incredibly important to the brand’s legacy, and so many of them could’ve come for this spot. Paige and Emma started the women’s revolution on the yellow brand. Asuka and Shayna Baszler dominated as NXT Women’s Champion. And at least two of the other three Horsewomen made a real mark in NXT before they got called up (sorry, Becky).
The reason why Bayley gets the nudge, however, is because she was the one who got left behind to hold down the fort. In the summer of 2015, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, and Charlotte (pre-Flair) were all called up to take part in the gang war that was PCB vs The Bellas vs Team Bad. But Sasha Banks was still NXT champion and The Boss was having an amazing heel run as champ, but the best thing about runs like that is seeing who they’re used to put over. In this case, it was Banks’ rival and the heart to Zayn’s soul, Bayley, who kicked off this run with a match at the inaugural NXT Takeover: Brooklyn that was lauded by many as one of the best women’s matches of all time.
Bayley was one of the greatest faces in all of wrestling when she was in NXT, and as champion, she was on a different level as her character became more nuanced. She was still a hugger, but her passion didn’t come with naivety anymore. She was smart and confident when going up against Carmella, Nia Jax, Eva Marie, and finally Asuka, and she had great matches with all of them (yes, ALL of them).
If NXT is supposed to be a developmental system, I would say their biggest win was developing the Bayley character, because with a little guidance from Hunter and Dusty, the bad-mouthing Davina Rose from the indies transformed perfectly into my friend and yours, Bayley.
Vishal: If you were to look for the exact moment NXT became more than just a WWE-owned imitation of the American indies, it’s when they started importing talent from Japan. Finn Balor wasn’t the first overseas talent to come with massive hype to NXT, but he was inarguably the one who made the trend visibly worthwhile. (Sorry to KENTA, but unfortunately injuries prevented him from reaching that status.) Balor came to NXT fresh off of his heel run in New Japan Pro Wrestling as Prince Devitt, forming the now-massive Bullet Club. Bullet Club was not nearly what it is today when Devitt was running it, but his run as IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion was certainly enough for Balor’s debut at NXT to be met with some buzz.
Balor’s tenure in NXT was built organically – he started off as the new guy getting hazed by the then-unstoppable tag champs in the Ascension, and teamed up with fellow foreigner KENTA to fend them off. Over a series of feuds, he worked his way into the main event, and beat Kevin Owens for the NXT Championship, starting a title reign whose length stood undefeated for years. His style as a wrestler was something genuinely fresh compared to the likes of Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens, who were the faces of NXT when Balor first joined. And with the addition of The Demon, he quickly became the face of the changing NXT – a place filled with characters and bursting with talent, not just where talent developed the skillset to make it to the main roster. While Sami Zayn was definitely the babyface the crowd rallied behind, Balor served as something cooler – he was someone you could cheer but who still wrestled as brutally as heels like Kevin Owens.
But Balor’s position on this Mt. Rushmore isn’t just because of the crowd’s reaction to him – it’s because of what he made WWE realize. There’s no better illustration of just how much management loved Finn Balor than the fact that he was called up and immediately became the first ever Universal Champion. Had Balor not gotten injured in his first PPV match, it’s very likely he’d have remained in their good graces for quite a long time. But that aside, what Balor made management realize is that foreign talent was a worthwhile acquisition. WWE no longer needed to take talent from Ring of Honor or TNA or the indies, they could look overseas to get people like Asuka and AJ Styles. This impact on NXT is honestly impossible to overstate – without Finn Balor we don’t get Shinsuke Nakamura, Andrade Almas, or even Adam Cole.
It’s really exciting to see Balor back in NXT and back as champion, and I’m loving the nastier persona he’s developed over the last year. If his current run in NXT is anywhere near as influential as his first, we’re very possibly going to enter a new golden age for the black and gold brand.
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