Tuesday, January 5, 2016

2015 Year in Review/2016 Year in Preview: NXT

The image of NXT's year
Photo Credit: WWE.com
It's what WWE would be if it were actually good and not overexposed!

Promotion: WWE NXT

What Happened in 2015: Sami Zayn and Charlotte entered the year as the two main singles Champions. Zayn recently culminated the first chapter of the Network Era in NXT's history, finishing the final coda on his redemption song and carrying the Big X into the New Year with a target on his back from frenemy extraordinaire, Kevin Owens. Meanwhile, Charlotte's grip on the Women's Championship entered its eighth month in January, her grip growing ever so tenuous. Bayley took her to the limit at Takeover: Fatal Four Way, and Sasha Banks nearly snatched gold like it was the edges on a weave at R Evolution. Their entry into the year marked the beginning of a long, strange, exciting trip that brought the brand to big arenas with monstrous acclaim.

Welcome to 2015, Sami Zayn
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Zayn was more than happy to offer Owens a chance to throw hands, even if William Regal felt skittish about putting the Big X on the line. Owens only populated Full Sail for barely a month before the match was brought about, but Owens, the master manipulator that he is, took advantage of Zayn's rage and got him to put his prize on the line at Takeover: Rival. Even though the two immortally tangled competitors had their battle at the forefront, it didn't stop Regal from conducting a tournament for the next contender to that top title. Eight wrestlers were thrown into the mix, with Finn Bálor and former Champion Adrian Neville making it to the finals.

Meanwhile, Charlotte had pretty much taken out everyone in her path, and yet the natives were still beating down her door. Banks, Bayley, and fiery newcomer Becky Lynch all staked claims to the title. Lynch's claim came to the chagrin of her Team BAE partner Banks. The partnership began to unravel when Lynch cost Banks a match against Bayley in February, leaving the four-way match with no shortage of love lost and more importantly, no alliances to be found. The Tag Team Champions coming into the year, the Lucha Dragons, didn't make it into Takeover: Rival with their belts in tow. They were upset on weekly television by the upstart team of Blake and Murphy, forever to be known as the Dubstep Cowboys. The move was both surprising in how short the Dragons' reign was and yet somewhat expected since the team, especially Kalisto, was always bound to make splashes on the narrative WWE considers as its primary.

Bálor ended up punching his ticket to a shot at the NXT Championship with a statement win over Neville. The Cowboys ended up keeping their titles, but the other two incoming Champions were not so lucky. Charlotte put up the fight of her life, but she ended up corralled in the Banks Statement after a whirlwind of a match where all four wrestlers had shots to take home the gold. Charlotte offered a sign of friendship to her former BFF, but Banks rebuked her. Meanwhile, Owens sucker-punched Zayn and laid upon him the beating of a lifetime. Zayn, ever the fighting Champion, didn't relent and at times even fought back, but Owens' raining down of blows upon his former friend was too much for the referee to allow to happen. The match was stopped and Owens was named NXT Champion.

Zayn was murked so hard that he left town for a little bit, which allowed things to reset in the run up to NXT's first road trip as a developmental brand to WWE. The Arnold Classic bodybuilding competition was taking place in Ohio, and not only was Proud Papa (that's his title) Triple H directly involved in the administration, but future serial head-patter Dana Brooke was scheduled to compete. Cleveland and Columbus were the sites for the shows, and Bálor and newcomer Alexa Bliss would be scheduled to take on the new Champions at those dates. However, Owens' attention was divided among two other targets. Alex Riley took to hilariously inept Twitter banter against Owens, and Zayn, who sojourned from his beatdown on tour in the Middle East with RAW, promised he would be back to get his rematch at the next Takeover in May.

Cowboys get them some backup
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Owens fended off the challenge from Bálor at the actual Arnold Classic itself, but he wasn't finished with the Irish superstar. In his match with Riley, Owens took the punishment a bit too far, drawing out Bálor to make the save, maybe the only questionable thing he's done since signing (I would have let Riley burn, the fucker deserves it). Even though he fell short, he still showed worthiness for a title shot. However, so did stalwart Tyler Breeze and fellow traveler from Japan Hideo Itami. Meanwhile, Bliss scored the upset countout win over Banks, earning herself a rematch for the title. She came up short in the title contest, and thus, Banks' vision was turned towards her short-lived best bud, Lynch. As for the Tag Titles, the fan-favorite team of Enzo Amore and Colin "Big Cass" Cassady were looking to hit the promised land.

Takeover: Unstoppable's stage set several big battles. However, before the show, Itami was found laid out in the parking lot, a victim of a beatdown from an unidentified assailant to cover for a real-life injury he'd sustained to his shoulder. The scheduled three-way with Bálor and Breeze became a singles match. Bálor punched his ticket for a return match with Owens. Amore and Cass were so, so, so close to winning the Tag Team Championships, but Blake and Murphy had an ace up their sleeves. Alexa Bliss showed her true colors, completing the trio and shoving Amore off the top to allow the Cowboys to keep their titles. In another Match of the Year candidate, Banks fended off the challenge from her fiery former Irish bestie. In the main event, Zayn put up less of a fight than he did at Takeover: Rival. Owens preyed on Zayn's injuries and due to the heinous attacks during the match and Zayn's physical state, the match was declared a no-contest. Owens looked to put Zayn on the shelf for good until Samoa Joe surprisingly made his debut to make the save. He stared down Owens, seemingly building towards a bigger showdown along the line. However, Owens recently made his debut on RAW by throwing down the gauntlet at John Cena. His days on NXT were at that point numbered.

Owens' issue with Joe was settled with a largely unsatisfying singles match on regular television, which set the stage for Bálor to get his shot, which he would get in Japan at the WWE Network special, Beast in the East. In the match that made the Big X a true World Championship, Bálor, in full Daemon regalia, won in convincing fashion. Owens, however, would invoke his rematch clause. Additionally, his antics caused Regal to react more strictly. In return, Owens believed Regal to be biased against him, so he demanded a ladder match.

Meanwhile, Bayley, who had spent the time since Rival either harangued by a returning Emma or on the shelf, decided she had enough of being left in the shadow of the other wrestlers who shared the "Four Horsewomen" moniker with her. All three, Charlotte, Lynch, and Banks, made debuts as part of the (LOL) Divas Revolution. But Bayley wasn't done with NXT yet. She demanded to prove herself worthy. So after she took out Emma, she was determined to go through the other Horsewomen on her way to the title. She took out Charlotte and Lynch on weekly television, putting Banks right in her crosshairs.

With Owens out of the picture, Joe was left without a dance partner. Thankfully for him, Baron Corbin had no issue calling him out for his indie stock. Bitter at the run of outsiders coming in and usurping spots from the wrestlers at the Performance Center, Corbin took dead aim at their avatar. Meanwhile, the Dubstep Cowboys continued their reign of terror, tormenting eventual number one contenders the Vaudevillains. Aiden English and Simon Gotch were confounded by Bliss' presence on the outside, so they promised a partner.

Additionally, two notable wrestlers were scheduled to make debuts at the next Takeover event, which would be held in Brooklyn the night before SummerSlam. One, Apollo Crews, would be coming to stay. The other, Jushin "Thunder" Liger, would make one historic appearance to check WWE off his bucket list. Crews debuted successfully over Tye Dillinger, while Liger's big appearance saw him take out Breeze. The Vaudevillains turned to Full Sail enhancement talent and erstwhile indie standout Blue Pants (Leva Bates) as their third to counteract Bliss and take the NXT Tag Team Championships. Joe put down the threat of Corbin in what was the latter's best match in a WWE ring to date.

The Match of the Year. Full. Stop.
Photo Credit: WWE.com
However, the best and most important match of the night, and in fact the entire year, total, was the showdown between Banks and Bayley. Rivals since the former turned on the latter to join the BFFs in 2013, they fought tooth and nail for 18 months to get to a money match in front of the largest crowd in NXT history. Their war captivated the crowd and caused oohs, ahhs, gasps, and chants. In the end, Bayley emerged triumphant, culminating a build that started from humble, some would say infantile beginnings to become a fully-formed Champion. In celebration, she and her rival embraced, followed by the arrivals and hugs of Charlotte and Lynch. The Four Horsewomen had a NXT curtain call, and if the show had ended there, no one would have blamed them for cutting short. But Bálor had to defeat Owens in a match that probably should have happened before the Women's Championship match.

Takeover: Respect would course-correct that mistake in a big way. To honor the late patriarch of both the Rhodes family and NXT itself, William Regal announced the Dusty Rhodes Memorial Classic Tag Team Tournament, featuring many of the best tag teams from NXT's past, present, and future. That tournament included Bálor with his tag team partner, Joe. Joe agreed to partner up with the Champ if he could get a shot at the gold sometime down the line, however. The finals would be held at Takeover: Respect, but it wouldn't be the main event. Regal also gave Banks the opportunity to recoup her Women's Championship in the main event against Bayley in a 30 minute ironman match. Not only would it be the first time two women in NXT would partake in that particular gimmick, it would the first special event/supercard/pay-per-view to be headlined by two women in WWE history.

The tournament played out to a final four of Bálor and Joe, Corbin and Rhyno, Jason Jordan and Chad Gable, and Dash and Dawson.. The first two teams in that list made the final, and the NXT Champion and his ornery Samoan partner took home the trophy. Also of note, Crews upended Breeze to gain some more forward momentum, while Asuka, the former Kana, made her in-ring debut by defeating Dana Brooke. However, the spotlight shone brightest on Bayley and Banks in the main event slot, and they delivered as close to full capacity as they did in Brooklyn as well. Bayley retained, and Banks bade farewell to NXT.

The Women's Championship scene was thrown into upheaval in the absence of any other Horsewoman on the roster. Emma, Brooke, and Asuka all could have staked claims to the title shot, but they were too busy involved among each other. Eva Marie and Bliss both tried to wrangle the belt from Bayley. Bliss had a few shots, and at one point even stole the hardware from Bayley for a short time. Eva asserted herself as a contender verbally, and that led to a much-ballyhooed title shot on the weekly show. Eva got herself Nia Jax, the hulking newcomer, as muscle. However, once Eva's shot at Bayley failed, Jax took over as the main contender, putting Bayley right in her sights.

Why, Joe, why?
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Meanwhile, Joe came calling to Bálor for his own title shot that he was promised. The Champ was seemingly more than willing to give Joe the crack at it, but as it turned out, Regal had other plans. He made a battle royal for number one contendership, one that was won by Crews, who got his shot the week after. The match would end in a no-contest when Corbin, again incensed that another indie star got dibs over him, interrupted the match and caused it to be thrown out. Joe came out seemingly to make the save, only to wallop Bálor afterwards. Joe felt that Bálor reneged on their deal, and he was getting him his pound of flesh.

The Tag Team Championships were thrown into a state of flux again with another title switch on the weekly show. After blowing through Amore and Big Cass (putting Cass out for a bit), Dash and Dawson upset the Vaudevillains to become the fourth team to hold the Tag Team Championships in 2015. Of course, Cass and Amore weren't going to take their injustice sitting down. They came back with a vengeance. And they looked to stake their claims at Takeover: London. They almost had the titles won, but Dash and Dawson escaped with roughneck grit, questionably legal tactics, and an avalanche Shatter Machine. Meanwhile Asuka continued to confound Emma and Brooke, while Corbin scored the surprise win over Crews.

In the two big title matches, Jax looked to have Bayley squished on several occasions, but her hubris got the best of her. Bayley showed immense fighting spirit and a proclivity towards submission wrestling. She garroted Jax with a guillotine choke and kept it on for several minutes until the behemoth tapped. In the main event, Bálor once again summoned the Daemon, but Joe looked ready for it. The Samoan Submission Machine gave Daemon-Forme Bálor the toughest fight of his life. But the Champ retained his title after a hard-fought battle.

The year for NXT ended with the return of Sami Zayn. Out for nearly half a year with his arm injured, Zayn announced a return at the beginning of December, and stormed the ring the week after Takeover: London to get his feet under him against Tye Dillinger. Zayn won, putting his eyes towards regaining in 2016 what he lost in 2015, even if Owens isn't there for him to gain revenge from.

Photo Credit: WWE.com
2015 MVP: It's hard to go against Bayley, who spent a cool two more months in NXT than the winner of the award, and who also got the same treatment this year that Sami Zayn got last year to similar results. But I look at Sasha Banks' year, and it's hard to say anyone but her deserves the award. Every match she was in was guaranteed to draw major snowflakes for good reason. She occupied the absolute marquee of NXT, even when Kevin Owens was finishing up his short but triumphant run at Full Sail. About the only thing keeping this selection from being a slam dunk is how she was called to RAW with about two or three months left in the year. However, her body of work was enough over ten months, probably better than some wrestlers' 12-month resumes both in NXT and in other promotions.

What's Going to Happen in 2016: Well, the titleholders who ended the year, Finn Bálor and Bayley, both came out of Takeover: London with challengers in flux. Bayley, who is arguably the top Champion in NXT, but also the most prestigious Champion in the entire company (if not America and possibly the world depending on how one thinks about IWGP World Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada) fended off Nia Jax in what could be considered an upset to those watching without the context of the Champ's entire NXT run to date. Jax will almost certainly get another run at Bayley for sure. She proved she was ready at Takeover against perhaps the most fully-formed babyface character in company history. She's also a threat to get called to up to Mondays and Thursdays at any time to join her Horsewoman brethren. The big question is how Jax will fare against the bevy of wrestlers who are at varying levels of awesomeness right now. Emma and Asuka are two who are at Bayley's level, but Emma's a heel. Dana Brooke and Alexa Bliss are surprisingly and swiftly tremendous, but still a bit underseasoned (and also heels) for roles as foils for Jax.

This throws into question the true direction of the women's division. Clearly, Asuka's going to get a run at the title, whether in Dallas or thereafter; she, like Samoa Joe, was signed to bolster the NXT brand rather than stay there for a sojourn before storming the RAW roster. She'll get the title and have no shortage of challengers awaiting her. Brooke, Jax, Bliss, the Aussie ladies, and eventually, Athena will all look to make Asuka's Steamboat Award campaign for 2016 interesting and exciting. The Women's Championship scene won't be the Horsewomen's run, but it doesn't have to be, and quite frankly, it shouldn't be. As long as the women are allowed to continue to forge eras like the men have, they will be fine, even if RAW may eventually claim them to be culled down by corporately-mandated hashtag revolutions. Ell-Oh-Ell.

As for Bálor, his crystal ball is clearer. Sami Zayn is back, his head's buzzed, and he's ready to get back what was taken from him by his once-and-maybe-future friend, Kevin Owens. Owens is no longer stomping around NXT and for good reason (he kinda rules hard enough to make a difference on Monday nights). Bálor, for however a gentleman he is when he's not all Daemon'd up, still is a fighting Champion. Zayn makes too much sense as a first challenger, but he's also been away for a terribly long amount of time. In his absence, a few others have stepped up to the plate. The most notable new challenger is Baron Corbin, the former stiff who has loosened up and become a serviceable hoss at the very least. He upended Apollo Crews at Takeover: London, which is a good enough sign as any to put him next in Bálor's path. Samoa Joe is certainly not done as a contender either, but at this time, he may be the one trying to cut down Zayn before his reclamation project is completed.

Itami will be back, and he will be mad
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Of course, the wildcard in all this is the potentially-returning Hideo Itami. Out since May with a shoulder injury, Itami's comeback is nearing completion. He was written out of the narrative via a parking lot attack, which I'm almost certain was supposed to be Owens. However, with Big Kev throwing stones at goliaths and crazed loons like John Cena and Dean Ambrose now, plans may have changed. Itami's injury and absence could be the perfect avenue by which NXT's showrunners can turn Bálor heel, which would then open up worlds of opportunity at the top of the card, including building to an eventual, Zayn-esque rise to the top by Crews later on in the year.

The biggest continuing story going into 2016, however, may be the ascendancy of Chad Gable and Jason Jordan as the most popular and possibly the best tag team in NXT right now. Gable debuted as a wunderkind, immediately taking to WWE rings like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to a concert piano. Jordan has broken out from relative irrelevance to becoming one of the most combustible hot tags in all the land. Their chase of Dash and Dawson, henceforth known as the Grease Mulkeys, and their NXT Tag Team Championship belts, will no doubt lead to what could be the hottest and most anticipated match at Takeover: Dallas.

Quietly, NXT has made its most glaring weakness into perhaps its biggest strength. Even if Enzo Amore and Big Cass (and obviously Carmella) are on their way to the RAW roster, the number of perfectly cromulent tag team acts in NXT remains at an all-time high. Team Gable and the Grease Mulkeys are only two. The Vaudevillains, Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano, and even the Dubstep Cowboys are all teams that could come off the bench and throw hands in solid fashion in the new year.

One other thing to look out for are the outside names rumored to be on NXT's radar. While James Storm, who was in the year-end retrospective, has reportedly signed back with TNA, other big names could be on their way in. Phil "Gunner" Shatter, Austin Aries, AJ Styles, and the king (of strong style) fish of them all, Shinsuke Nakamura. Big signings make sense given Triple H wants to turn NXT into a national touring brand, and with RAW siphoning talent to its touring schedule, NXT will need name brand replacement as well as steady hands. The women's and tag divisions are strong right now, but the solo men's division feels a bit shallow. While reinforcements are on the way, whether sooner (Elias Sampson) or farther (Rich Swann/Biff Busick), no one can deny that adding those big names can be a great short-term shot in the arm.

Five Wrestlers to Watch in 2016: Hideo Itami - Obviously, Itami was going to be a big deal before his injury, but now, he comes into a men's main event scene that is suddenly the third in the pecking order in terms of interest. His re-injection into the narrative could be the boost that the Big X division could use. He has a feud tailor-made with Finn Bálor should NXT turn the latter heel. But even if it isn't the current Champ's lot to go bad, Itami has a veritable rogue's gallery, starting with a big Pacific Islander who's no stranger to prestige Japanese wrestlers...

Brooke could make some noise in '16
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Dana Brooke - Brooke was at the center of controversy over her abilities, or lack thereof, at the beginning of her run. While she was a bit rough at first, she's totally cashed in on her potential as of late, becoming one of the best heel characters on the show while having some modicum of ability to speak, wrestle, and walk and chew gum simultaneously unlike Eva Marie. She's already ready to hold the Women's Championship, but even if that isn't in her cards, she can definitely hold up her end of a secondary feud culminating in a hot Takeover undercard match.

Billie Kay - Fellow Aussie Peyton Royce may have more upside potential, but the former Jessie McKay is more ready now. While she made her bones as a babyface at home and in SHIMMER, she's shown flashes of having a great, arrogant heel character going forward. Rumors of her being paired with Sylvester Lefort mean she could be in for a HUGE push in the future. Perhaps she's the next in line to feud with Asuka? They have prior history in other indie promotions, and thus have an existing chemistry.

Rich Swann - He came in along with Biff Busick and Athena. All three could own Full Sail if they wanted to, but Swann's magnetic personality and aptitude for flips could make him the most ready to own the crowd of the three. He hasn't even gotten his new appellation from the Name Generator yet, but once he does, he should hit the ground running. The first time he hits that standing 450 splash, he will have any crowd eating out of his hand. From there, he's a total dark horse to enter 2017 as NXT World Champion.

Chad Gable - Honestly, this pick might just be cheating, because Gable is on his way to being the most special performer in WWE since Kurt Angle. Even though reports are already filtering out that WWE officials think he's too small or some shit, his innate in-ring ability is off the charts. He has a certain charm to his personality that has endeared him to the Full Sail crowd. NXT fans know what's up with him, even if he probably needs to cultivate that charm into something bigger if he wants to overcome the curve on RAW should he ever get there. However, even if he stays in NXT for a year or two, he will end up owning it. His eventual Tag Championship win with Jason Jordan over the Grease Mulkeys should be one of the loudest pops of WrestleMania weekend. Could he follow that up with a win of the Big X at the final Takeover of the year too? Don't be surprised if he does.

Is '16 Gable's big  year?
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Three Things I Want to See in 2016: 1. PAY 'EM LIKE RAW ROSTER MEMBERS! - Some members of developmental are still learning the ropes and are there because they need the kind of seasoning that comes with being on television and involved in big angles. However, the main players in NXT aren't necessarily there for seasoning. Wrestlers like Emma, Asuka, Finn Bálor, Samoa Joe, and others are ready for prime time, and for whatever reason are not on RAW. Obviously, Emma has been on RAW before and probably has a contract to reflect it. I would also assume that Joe and Asuka are getting paid well too since they've given up lucrative opportunities elsewhere to stay in NXT. But what about guys like Bálor, Apollo Crews, Baron Corbin, and the others who haven't made RAW yet, but are being counted on to draw house show crowds and drive subscriptions? WWE is always reporting on record revenues, and NXT is a part of that. If a wrestler is going to be part of an angle on NXT TV, or is being presented as something more than enhancement, then they should get paid a rate that would make it financially sensible for them to be in NXT rather than surfing the indies or taking a chance with New Japan Pro Wrestling, Ring of Honor, or, *shudder* TNA.

2. Continue "special attraction" and true independent contractor signings, please - Jushin Liger appearing at Takeover: Brooklyn was surreal and awesome all in the same breath. NXT has more freedom to bring in wrestlers for the short term because it's not necessarily governed by ratings. The big tournaments like the Dusty Classic were also great opportunities to bring in indie wrestlers for a spin like with Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano. While I'd rather not see the special guests spammed into becoming something not special, I would like to see the trend of special guests continuing. Whether it's a return from Liger, hot indie wrestlers coming in for various one-shots, or even imports of other guests like Johnny Saint, NXT needs to be the place where the strange and wonderful continues to happen.

3. Samoa Joe as the King Shit of Fuck Mountain - If Joe's not gonna go to the RAW narrative, then he should have a run as NXT's final boss. I don't think this needs to be explained further.