Monday, December 29, 2014

2014 Year in Review/2015 Year in Preview: NXT

Destined to do this forever...
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WWE and its developmental territory are two different worlds, and I will fight you to the death in defense of that viewpoint.

Promotion: WWE NXT

What Happened in 2014: The year 2013 saw the NXT show take a big step forward in terms of exposure. Even though it was without regular distribution, the buzz created mainly from the work Paige and Emma did in the women's division and the feud between Antonio Cesaro and Sami Zayn made people subscribe to Hulu Plus and make the developmental program a must-watch each week. As 2014 began, however, the major pieces of the show were mostly floating around aimlessly. Paige and Emma had become de facto partners trying to repel the BFFs. Zayn was distracted in a mini-program against Leo Kruger, against whom he would score a resounding 2-0 victory in a best two-out-of-three falls match on one of the first episodes of the year. Cesaro had just bested mentor William Regal in a match on the Christmas day episode. The only real endgame that was clearly in sight was Adrian Neville chasing the wily NXT Champion Bo Dallas.

Then, the WWE Network was announced, and with it, Triple H announced that the weekly show would make its home on the over-the-top venture. The debut would be the first ever live two-hour supershow called ArRIVAL. Keeping with the theme made known by the weird capitalization, old rivalries would be brought to a head in the major three matches. The main event would pit Dallas against Neville in a ladder match for the former's NXT Championship. Emma would cash in her number one contendership for a Women's Title shot against Paige. And the opener would pit Zayn against Cesaro for the fourth and final time.

That match would set the tone not only for ArRIVAL, but for the three Takeover Network specials that would follow, as they did everything and then some to top their critically-acclaimed best two-of-three falls match from the summer of '13. While Zayn lost to the eventual Andre the Giant Battle Royale winner, he gained Cesaro's respect, which is presumably all he wanted. Emma would not fare as well against her eternal rival Paige. Despite breaking out everything in her quirky arsenal, Paige would retain her Championship with the Scorpion Crosslock, a move she adopted from WWE and joshi legend Bull Nakano. And in the main event, Neville would realize his destiny and snatch the NXT Championship from atop the ladder, sending Dallas on his way the main roster.

Great changes came to NXT after that landmark first event. Cesaro would leave developmental for seeming good, going off to be adopted and then abandoned by Paul Heyman. Dallas tried weaseling his way back into NXT, but his plans were ultimately thwarted. Emma was the first to make her main roster debut between her and her rival Paige, but the latter would ultimately get the last laugh, as she won the Divas Championship on her first night as a main roster member. NXT General Manager JBL saw her dual titleholding as a detriment to her duties in NXT, so he stripped her of the title and put it up in a tournament.

Meanwhile, Neville's first challenge after winning the Championship would come from Tyson Kidd. Instead of returning to the main roster after the knee injury that sidelined him for much of 2013, Kidd returned to familiar stomping grounds (he was a member of the nearly endless fifth season of NXT v. 1.0, NXT Redemption) as a big man on campus of sorts. Kidd's newfound self-centered attitude alienated fans as well as put his relationship with Natalya in a bit of a bind. Nattie continued to play the loving wife to her husband, but no matter what she did, Kidd found ways for her actions to annoy him. Nattie's own wrestling career began to annoy Kidd. She was a participant in the NXT Women's Championship tournament and made it all the way to the finals, where she'd face off against Ric Flair's daughter, Charlotte. While any normal husband would be happy for his wife's successes, Kidd took it as an affront, mainly because crowds let him know who was better.

Those same crowds clamored for Zayn to be Neville's first challenger. The popular former El Generico had attained folk hero status with his beguiling charms and plentiful smiles, but where were his results in the ring? Tyler Breeze asked why Zayn should be moved to the front of the line when he'd been toiling for all those years and winning since he reimagined himself as Prince Pretty. While Kidd was granted the outright title shot, Zayn and Breeze would be given a chance to be the next contender at the next supershow, Takeover. Meanwhile, the Ascension had pretty much razed the tag ranks since winning the Championships from Neville and Corey Graves. After obliterating Too Cool (Yes, that Too Cool) at ArRIVAL, they thirsted for new challengers. Fiery newcomer Kalisto stepped forward with El Local (an elseworlds Ricardo Rodriguez in a mask) to challenge the Champions.

Charlotte celebrating her biggest win with her daddy
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At the first Takeover special, the Ascension dispatched Kalisto and Local. Shortly afterwards, Rodriguez would leave the company, and Kalisto was left scrambling for a new tag partner, which he would find in Sin Cara (not Mistico, who also left in 2014, but Hunico). While Zayn fought valiantly again, he couldn't finish the job on Breeze, who earned his number one contendership with his pop-up spinning heel kick, the Beauty Shot. Charlotte came out of her shell in a big way and had the match of her life defeating Natalya to become the Women's Champion. In the main event, Neville would repel Kidd's challenge and retain the Big X.

Even though Neville beat Kidd cleanly for the title, the last graduate of the Hart Family Dungeon had other ideas as to who deserved the next shot. He campaigned for a rematch, and when he didn't get it, he interrupted Breeze's shot at Neville on a weekly episode, causing the match to end in disqualification. When Zayn came out to make the save for his friend, newly appointed GM William Regal came out and put all four men in a title match at the next Takeover event. Deciding the next contenders to the Ascension wasn't nearly as easy. With El Local gone and Kalisto taking on a new, unproven-to-NXT partner, the field had become muddled. A tournament was announced that came down to the Kalisto/Sin Cara team and the Vaudevillains, a dastardly teaming of old school individuals Aiden English and Simon Gotch.

However, the build towards the second Takeover event was overshadowed by three huge signings. First, Pro Wrestling NOAH legend and junior heavyweight innovator KENTA inked a deal with WWE, which only made sense since the two guys who ganked his big finishes quit the company and got badly hurt respectively. Then, Prince Devitt, the Irish phenom who most recently was the head of the Bullet Club in New Japan Pro Wrestling, signed his name on the bottom line. Finally, Kevin Steen, perhaps the most well-rounded and entertaining second wave indie wrestler, made his signing official. The three represented a sea change within WWE's signing process. In the past, even guys who'd garnered international and domestic acclaim like Cesaro, Zayn, and Neville were given low-key debuts with little fanfare. Whether or not at least those three signings would have been heralded more if the Mistico signing didn't blow up in Triple H's face is up in the air. However, no one had ever entered the company with such pomp since the last of the WCW mainstays finally came aboard in the early Aughts.

His style is kick!
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KENTA was the first to officially debut. He made his entry at Takeover, casting off his former name and taking on the mantel "Hideo Itami." However, his debut was marred by the angry Konor and Viktor of The Ascension. The show opened with the Tag Team Championship match, and Kalisto and Sin Cara were able to wrest the titles away from the team that had held it for one day short of a year. To take out their frustrations, they hit the ring and tried to wail on the debuting puroresu icon. In the other matches, Charlotte kept her Women's Championship by defeating Bayley, who killed Sasha Banks with kindness en route to her title shot. In a hair vs. hair match, Enzo Amore beat Sylvester LeFort, but it was Marcus Louis who got his hair chemically removed after LeFort jumped bail.

The main event is where the dynamite went boom. It was perhaps the finest fatal four way match in WWE history, as all four competitors went balls to the wall. Each of the four wrestlers had chances to escape with the gold, but Zayn had Kidd seemingly pinned after a Helluva Kick until Neville pulled the referee from the ring. Zayn was aghast that his good friend would pull such a cheap move on him, but the action saved Neville's title. He hit the Red Arrow on Kidd and retained his Championship.

Zayn was miffed at the move. He came as far as he did playing by the rules and showing good sportsmanship and all that, but Neville, who also was renowned for his fairplay, stated that when getting ahead was at stake, or in this case, staying on top, he had to do whatever he needed to do. He accused Zayn of not having any killer instinct. In response, Zayn said that he would start back at the bottom and work his way all the way to a title match without showing that he needed to take the shortcuts that Neville did at the second Takeover. He avenged losses to Titus O'Neil, Kidd, and Breeze en route to getting his one-on-one shot at Neville and his title.

Zayn looked to have the match in hand when Neville landed awkwardly from a top rope leap. Instead of going for the pin, however, he checked on his friend, who immediately rolled him up to keep his title. Zayn insisted that he did the right thing and that Neville used dirty pool, and he asked for one more shot at the title, one that if he didn't win, he'd retire. Neville granted it, and he needled Zayn until he snapped and broke his nice guy veneer. The match would happen at the third Takeover event.

Meanwhile, the Ascension turned their attentions away from the Tag Championships and decided bullying Itami was the better course of action. While the former KENTA got his licks in, his first month or so of WWE employment was spent getting his lunch money forcibly taken from him by the former Champs. After they beat the Christ out of his translator and fixer, Sho Funaki, Itami decided he had enough of the Ascension's shit and brought out the heavy guns, Devitt, under his new, NXT name, Finn Bálor. They challenged the Ascension to a match at Takeover.

Charlotte, meanwhile, faced a new challenger. Over the course of the year, she drifted apart from her BFF stablemate Banks to the point where Banks had started antagonizing her directly. She took up arms with a new running buddy, Becky Lynch. They dubbed their new group BAE (Best At Everything), and Banks took aim at the Women's Championship, all the while still taking her shots at Bayley along the way.

Next. Level. Shit.
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Despite doing her best to get into Charlotte's head, however, Banks faltered in her attempt to get the Women's Championship at the third Takeover. Speaking of mind games, Bálor broke out his body paint ring get up for the first time, painting himself red and black as he and Itami beat The Ascension all the way up to the main roster. In addition to all the matches at this final event of the year, Kevin Steen made his debut as Kevin Owens. Despite CJ Parker breaking his nose, Owens beat the conservationism out of him in his first ever WWE-branded match.

The main event was not only one of the matches of the year, it was the falling action and resolution to perhaps the entire calendar slate of the company. Zayn was pushed to his limits, and Neville kept responding back with answer shots. They threw bombs at each other until the referee got knocked out. Neville brought the NXT Championship Belt into the ring, but Zayn wrested it from him. He stood with the belt, ready to give into his dark side and do whatever it took, but his conscience got the best of him. He threw the belt down, kicked EMPHATICALLY out of the rollup that Neville saddled him with, and then knocked the Champ out with his Helluva Kick. Sami Zayn won the NXT Championship his way, the right way. Everyone came out to celebrate, including his old friend and rival from the indies Owens. They walked away together, happily ever after...

...well, that is until Owens kicked him in the gut and powerbombed him onto the apron. Zayn was stretchered out of the arena, marked for hunting in the new year by the ambitious Owens. Neville didn't take to kindly to the action and challenged Owens on the very next show, but he too got stretchered out for his troubles. The year ended with Owens as the new Big Bad in NXT, and I'm sure that's the way everyone wants it to be.

The best wrestling resolution of the year
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2014 MVP: NXT truly was an ensemble cast with wrestlers from all card positions lending a hand. However, even with the strong cast, NXT had only one major protagonist, and his name was Sami Zayn. The year was set up to revolve around him from the very second it began. A lot of people were mad that he didn't beat Cesaro at ArRIVAL, but if he had won that big one, would his final victory have been so sweet? Of course, being the centerpiece is not enough; one has to excel at his role to be honored. Zayn, however, hit every single note with impeccable brilliance. No other wrestler in America came close to being as important to his promotion's narrative as Zayn was to NXT.

What's Going to Happen in 2015: The feud that would not end on the independent circuit has finally come to the mainstream. Many wondered when, not if, Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens would cross paths, and it didn't even take one full show for the latter to be on the roster for it to happen. The two reinvented what it meant to feud on the independent circuit, so it's not hard to see why so many folks are excited for this go around. The question is now if and then when Owens takes the title from Zayn. Zayn's days in NXT seem to be numbered; he's done all he can do at Full Sail. The question is whether his final arc in developmental will only last through the first supershow or whether it'll get six months. Either way, I doubt their interactions will end when they both get to the main roster. Maybe WWE officials shouldn't give too much away in Florida?

Of course, the question after Zayn loses the title and is promoted is who populates the challenger list. Adrian Neville and Tyson Kidd appear headed to the main roster, and both Hideo Itami and Finn Bálor are rumored to be on the fast track. If that's the case, who will be left to challenge Owens' title reign? Tyler Breeze is a good first option. He's NXT royalty at this point, and despite his lengthy time in developmental, he doesn't seem to be headed to the main roster any time soon. He also never got his one-on-one feud for the title, and while he and Owens may not seem like likely feud partners, their personalities and in-ring styles both appear to fit in with each other.

At this point in time, despite having a smaller roster, the Women's Championship may be equal in prestige to the Big X. Charlotte is already getting main roster flirtations, and the question now becomes whether she'll drop the title to Bayley or Sasha Banks. Either way, those two are bound to clash over the title in 2015. They had stellar matches on NXT TV this past year, but I think they have something special in store for when they get to do their thing on a future edition of Takeover.

The Tag Team Championship scene seems more muddled than the other two title scenes right now. I'm not sure how many more shots the Vaudevillains have after they get their rematch in the future, although I can see them taking the titles at the next supershow since Kalisto may be the most main roster-ready wrestler in NXT right now. Would Enzo Amore and Big Cass be the next team in line? Then again, the seeds for their breakup may be being planted right now as Amore's infatuation with Carmella could end up driving a rift through their partnership. Maybe one of the "jobber-plus" teams will get a step up. I wouldn't mind seeing either the Dubstep Cowboys (Wesley Blake and Buddy Murphy) or the Tye Fighters (Tye Dillinger and Jason Jordan) getting a chance to run with the ball.

Five Wrestlers to Watch in 2015: Solomon Crowe - Sami Callihan left for the Performance Center in the middle of 2013, and outside of a cameo as the Rosebud DJ and an appearance celebrating Sami Zayn's title victory, the redubbed Solomon Crowe has not made it past the dark match/house show stage of NXT development. For someone who was as gifted as he was on the indie circuit, this state of affairs seems criminal. He seems primed to overcome dead-in-the-water gimmicks and injuries and is set to make his debut on NXT television early in 2015. With the extra attention and care showed to indie transplants, Crowe could become a main player in NXT by year's end.

Whither Prince Pretty?
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Tyler Breeze - This coming year might be a make or break year for the former Mike Dalton. Breeze has been in developmental the longest of anyone who hasn't already gotten a shot at the main roster. He's clearly over at Full Sail, and he's improved so much in the ring over the last year. However, will his gimmick translate? Or, if what Triple H says about his intention for NXT as a separate promotion/viable alternative for the RAW narrative is true, could he be the first NXT lifer? It wouldn't necessarily be a bad position, and he's grown comfortable into his role there. Either way, Breeze is an interesting wrestler to watch.

Becky Lynch - Bayley is more than likely the one to unseat Charlotte for the title, but she's going to need a strong contender afterwards. Sasha Banks seems headed for the main roster alongside Charlotte. Lynch has main evented major joshi promotions and gone through the wringer in the American indies, so she seems suited for the in-ring half of the load. She still needs a lot of character seasoning, as "headbanging and throwing up devil horns" isn't so much a persona as it is "things people on uppers tend to do." However, she's finally got a finisher, and she seems to be in the future plans for the NXT women's division. This coming year could be when she makes the leap.

Elias Sampson - Sampson was formerly known as Logan Shulo in the Rust Belt indie scene, and he was signed midway through last year. I saw him live once at National Pro Wrestling Day in 2013, and even though his match was near the end of the two-part mega event, he was able to elicit a good response from a spent crowd just on look and body language alone. Of all the new, non-Kevin Steen signings, Sampson seems like the guy with a better-than-average shot of taking the WWE training regimen and becoming a success story. Keep an eye on him.

Curtis Axel - Much in the same way Tyson Kidd rejuvenated his career this past year by going back to NXT, Axel could very well find the spark he's been lacking since his repackage ran into a brick wall known as Triple H from jump last year. Axel's always been a solid hand in the ring, but his characters have never found footing since his first run in NXT with the disastrous "Genesis of McGillicutty" promo. With solid direction, Axel could bust out and possibly exceed what Kidd has done this year. This chance certainly could be his last, but desperation has a way of motivating performers with potential.

Three Things I Want to See in 2015: 1. Quick exits to the main roster for Finn Bálor and Hideo Itami - I have nothing against the former KENTA and Prince Devitt, and I know that getting over on the main roster is no sure thing for them. In the womb of NXT, they can go up against familiar wrestlers and get the care they need to please a crowd that is eager to cheer them, but as Brandon Stroud correctly pointed out, they seem to be stunting the growth of the wrestlers who've had to work their ways up through the wringer from the bottom. Even Adrian Neville and Sami Zayn, who are NXT royalty, didn't get handed their main event mantels on a silver platter. It sucks to realize that in NXT, the two are analogous to Brock Lesnar and The Rock, but the beauty is that once they hit the main roster, they will become the new Daniel Bryan archetypes. That is, they will become the battleground characters that shitty dorks like me get behind until the rest of the fans follow suit and Vince McMahon has no other choice but to elevate them. Either way, it's clear that Itami and Bálor were being fast-tracked from day one. Hopefully, that fast-track will get them to the roster sooner rather than later so that the process can continue to work the way it has since inception.

More of this, please
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2. A better fleshed-out women's division - Real talk, NXT's treatment of women wrestlers is leagues better than the parent roster's by far. In fact, the NXT women's division is closer to a fully-realized women's promotion like SHIMMER than it is to the "Divas Division" up top. However, usually, only one feud is going on at a time for this subset of wrestlers. One could argue that time constraints are to blame, but in order to change the game, one needs to break barriers and shift paradigms. Who says that a wrestling company, even one in the mainstream, needs to focus most of its energy on male wrestlers? Why do the NXT fans need to see a bullshit feud on who can destroy jobbers quickest between Bull Dempsey and Baron Corbin at the expense of building towards a Bayley/Becky Lynch match to supplement the Charlotte/Sasha Banks title bout at the special event? Triple H and his crew are putting in work at the Performance Center and Full Sail, but it's not nearly enough if the fruits of that labor only bear one match for the supershow. WWE has four wrestlers who are in the spotlight, two more who are on the rise, and a few more who are in the pipes, looking to make a splash. They need more spots to open up or else the good is negligible.

3. Resist the urge to expand too much - NXT might seem like a prime candidate for expansion without too much being lost from the narrative, but I'd argue that the paucity of time helps NXT's must-see status. The showrunners have so many moving parts to fit into a mere 60 minutes of time, and it makes for a compelling, quick watch every week. Even if NXT expanded to two hours for regular shows and three for supershows, the slog that haunts RAW might creep into the show. NXT has a good thing going right now, and it would be foolish to want more, no matter how good the limited output may entice expansion.