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What Does the Future Hold For the Current Batch of NXT Call Ups?
Phew. Say what you will about the past two weeks, but you certainly can’t call them boring. Maybe I’m an over-the-top optimist, but it feels like the WWE has put some large plans into motion to retain fan interest, build a wider fan base, and avoid the lull that often occurs between now and Summerslam. The roster shakeup last week wound up being a bigger deal than anticipated. Most people speculated that a handful of wrestlers would switch sides, with maybe one or two top stars involved. Instead, this wound up being a large endeavor, with close to two dozen people switching brands.
What could get lost in the roster realignment are the four recent acts from NXT that made their debut over the past two weeks. Followers of the developmental brand have clamored for most of these guys to come up for a long while now. Their entrance to the main roster makes for a good time to speculate on what the future might hold for them.
“THE DRIFTER”/ “EL VAGABUNDO”/ ELIAS SAMPSON
This is the outlier among the group. I guess there are worse ways to make a living than as enhancement talent to the stars. This NXT call up is a bit of a head scratcher. It’s not like Sampson got himself over to a huge degree with the NXT crowds, nor can I recall a single money angle in the territory that he was involved in. Sampson does have a good look and does deliver crisp offense in the ring. However, if he remains saddled with this limited gimmick, pre-Raw Main Event tapings might be his ceiling.
The two time NXT tag team champions got the long awaited call up to Raw last week. While neither show has done a stellar job with the tag team division, at least on Raw Dash & Dawson have a chance to be featured players. Smackdown has gone weeks without featuring their thin division. The more traditional wrestling fans have backed The Revival for their no frills, classic tag team style that features cutting off the ring, isolating opponents and working body parts, and taking advantage of referee distractions to work in some great heel work to gain an upper hand. Favorable and accurate comparisons to Arn & Ole Anderson along with The Midnight Express have certain segments of the fan base salivating over a return to classic tag team action.
The fear is this style doesn’t fit in to Vince’s disdain for “Southern wrassling.” The Revival could become one of those acts Vince doesn’t get and loses interest in. Worse, he could turn them into a comedy duo stuck delivering cornball catchphrases as the antithesis of their characters.
Back-to-back solid wins over the New Day along with tremendous audience support should help assuage some fears. In fact, the WWE looks to be on board with the no frills, traditional wrestling gimmick. Dash Wilder sported a spiffy “We Broke Kofi’s Leg” t-shirt this past Monday in order to play up the attack that put Kingston on the shelf, and give a wink to the smart fans familiar with the Greg Valentine-Wahoo McDaniel blood feud that tore up the NWA Mid-Atlantic territory in the late-’70s. It looks like Dash & Dawson will get an opportunity to be an anchor point in a revitalized tag team scene that features Sheamus & Cesaro along with the returning Hardys. Their NXT feuds with the American Alphas and even more so Team DIY demonstrated how a well-executed, fast-paced tag team match can pull the crowd in and get them to fully invest on an emotional level with the action in the ring.
The “Perfect 10” gimmick is one of the most over things with the crowd right now, but just as important, the guy behind it has a ton of charisma and the respect of his peers in the locker room. As far back as 2015 Kevin Owens was on the record saying how Dillinger was being underutilized and was one of the best guys to work with in the ring.
The fear is that once the shiny appeal of chanting “10” over and over wears off, fans will grow tired of Tye. That looks past the connection he has made with the crowd as a guy that has paid his dues and is in line for good fortune. I found myself impressed by Dillinger’s character in the run up to NXT Brooklyn this past summer. Tye spoke about how the past few months hadn’t been too great for him as he had spent far too many matches counting lights. He spoke of a renewed focus and a need to go out and prove himself as a top performer. When wrestlers talk about wins mattering more than providing entertainment, they have my attention and appreciation.
While I don’t believe fans are going to be clamoring for Dillinger vs. Lesnar anytime soon, there’s no reason he can’t serve as a solid mid-card babyface attraction. I could see Dillinger as an anchor for the secondary title picture in the near future, or even one half of a hot, new, fan favorite tag team along with a parter that might get lost in the shuffle otherwise. That’s no bad place to be. Professional wrestling is littered with performers that may have never been a main event player but still drew in crowds that paid to cheer or boo them in large numbers.
It’s no accident that the WWE chose to Nakamura’s main roster debut to coincide with a skit that let fans know John Cena will be off the air for an extended absence. Fans blew the roof off the place for Nakamura’s debut and again a week later, serenading the former NXT champ who had to do little aside from show up to establish himself as a star. The best thing the WWE could do right now is center Smackdown around A.J. Styles as the week-to-week workhorse and make Shinsuke the special attraction.
Some have pointed to Shinsuke’s NXT arrival coinciding with the brand cooling off a bit. There’s merit to that argument. However, having Nakamura in Developmental for a year seemed a waste of his talents, and the NXT crowd seemed to understand that. Nakamura should have been on the main roster after a brief spell in NXT that would serve as his introduction to the American audience. Having him wrestle mid-card acts in a 500 seat Full Sail arena downplays how special this guy is.
I’d hold off on Nakamura’s main roster in-ring debut for as long as possible. Instead, I’d put the WWE video promo team to work, and have them fire off a series of vignettes to whet the crowds appetite. Produce a series of packages where his past opponents now on the current roster discuss what makes Nakamura so unlike anyone else the WWE has ever seen.
Since the rise of NXT, WWE has done a much better job acknowledging there’s a world of professional wrestling that exists outside their “Universe.” Have Vince open up the checkbook and pay the licensing fees in order to include clips of Nakamura’s work in Japan. Basically, build him up in the audience’s mind that Nakamura is a performer like none other and make the audience want to fork over their cash to see him wrestle. In Nakamura, WWE has a chance to develop a second, Brock-like special attraction who makes every appearance on TV or at a house show feel like a bigger event.
It’s true that the buzz around NXT quieted down over the past few months. That seems inevitable given its primary function as a feeder system for the main roster. If creative plays to the strengths the recent spate of call ups, fans should look back at this period as a boon that saw the rise of one mega star surrounded by solid team players that made the most of the provided opportunity.
NOW CHECK OUT THE PREVIOUS COLUMN: THE CREATIVE CORNER: Why Stephanie McMahon is not what’s best for business