It’s getting pretty difficult to accuse the WWE of burying young, flyweight talent in favor of hossy beatdowns. Daniel Bryan remains the hottest guy in the company, CM Punk owns the longest WWE Championship reign of all time, and Dean Ambrose just headlined two straight nights of Raw. In fact much of the top talent, The Shield, The Wyatts, Paige and Rusev to name a few, have been filtered through NXT, the Triple H-helmed, critically acclaimed, in-house minor-league affiliate to the main roster. Basically the WWE goes out and signs talent to their developmental squad, and nurtures them into the highly specific craft of top-tent wrestling beats. They also produce their very own NXT show, which airs every Thursday on the network. This allows performers to rev up a significant fanbase long before they get called up to cable, which is very, very important in the notoriously temperamental world of pro wrestling.
With that in mind, we decided to take a look at some of the top talent down in NXT. We’ll give you their name, their experience, some comparisons to other wrestlers, and a quick blurb about why you should care. Hopefully when Sami Zayn makes his debut, you’ll be popping with the rest of us.
Pre-WWE Names: Kevin Steen
From: Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, Canada
Experience: Combat Zone Wrestling, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Ring of Honor
What Makes Him Unique: He’s a big fat guy who’s still strong, and mobile, and a ton of fun.
I’d Compare Him To: Mark Henry, Yokozuna, Bad News Barrett
Kevin Steen signed with WWE this year, and he’s yet to make an appearance on television. With his style, it wouldn’t be that surprising if he spent some significant time in the performance center before making his way to the product. Don’t get me wrong, I love Steen, I love the way he picks people up and drops them on their head, but I think even he would agree that some refinement wouldn’t be the worst thing. But no matter what he’ll still have his charisma, and I think out of all of the guys on this list, Steen is the one 100% guaranteed to be a fan favorite.
Pre-WWE Names: Mercedes KV
From: Cambridge Massachusetts
Experience: Chaotic Wrestling
What Makes Her Unique: She’s just a wonderfully nasty heel.
I’d Compare Her To: Chris Jericho, Lita, Stephanie McMahon
Sasha Banks is excellent at playing her sassy, bawse gimmick in the ring. She comes out in fake gold sunglasses, she puts women in submissions and yells “SHE GIVES UP, I’M THE CHAMPION NOW” at the ref, and she’ll occasionally forgo traditional offense to simply step on your fingers and toes. Wrestling writer Brandon Stroud sometimes mentions that a performer needs to “work their gimmick walking,” in the sense that you shouldn’t solely reserve your characterization for the promos and make sure every moment in the ring is filtered through the persona. It’s like method acting with suplexes, and Sasha is a genius at that. Her mic skills are still awful, and her character might get lost in the sea of Camerons, Nikkis, and Eva Maries on the main roster, but she certainly knows what it takes to be memorable.
Pre-WWE Names: Um, it’s Prince Devitt guys.
From: Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland
Experience: New Japan Pro Wrestling
What Makes Him Unique: Used to come out of a coffin and look awesome, is really good at drop-kicking people.
I’d Compare Him To: Heath Slater, Chris Jericho, Seth Rollins
Finn Balor was the quintessential vanilla midget. A technically gifted performer who could front-flip over top ropes and drop-kick anything that moves, but with absolutely no charisma on the microphone. Vanilla midgets are celebrated on the internet, but kept at an arm’s length on the big show. Why? Well, listen to anytime Daniel Bryan cuts a promo, that’s why.
This began to change in Balor’s heel run with NJPW’s Bullet Club, which has gotten a ton of IWC (internet wrestling community) buzz. He’s become an expert in drawing heat, which lead to WWE swallowing him up very, very quickly. Balor has barely been introduced into NXT, but it’s not hard to imagine that he’ll be one of the primary storyline focuses going forward. Kenta/Balor/Steen in a triple threat match for the strap, anyone?
Pre-WWE Names: Um, it’s Kenta guys.
From: Sōka, Saitami, Japan
Experience: Pro Wrestling Noah, Ring of Honor
What Makes Him Unique: Blew out Daniel Bryan’s eardrum once upon a time, invented the Go To Sleep, is really good at wrestling.
I’d Compare Him To: Cesaro, Rob Van Dam, CM Punk (but really that should mean CM Punk reminds you of Hideo Itami.)
Itami only signed with WWE a couple months ago, fulfilling what he’s described as a lifelong dream. He’s one of the most gifted technical performers in the world, and in a perfect company this would mean a long, fruitful career running up against guys like Daniel Bryan, Sheamus, Brock Lesnar, and Dean Ambrose.
Of course the WWE isn’t a perfect company, and things like the language barrier will always be an issue for shareholders. But the big show they’ve made of his signing implies that Itami’s debut will be treated as an appropriately big deal. Hopefully dozens of barnburners await on the grandest of stages.
Pre-WWE Names: Davina Rose
From: San Jose, California
Experience: Big Time Wrestling
What Makes Her Unique: Pure, lovable charisma.
I’d Compare Her To: Shawn Michaels, A.J. Lee, Stardust, John Cena if John Cena was a good person and his character didn’t pretend he doesn’t watch anime.
There’s very few purely likable characters in WWE. Even the greatest of babyfaces came with significant acid. The Rock was full of himself, Stone Cold liked doing bad things to bad people, and Hulk Hogan once feuded with Macho Man because he wanted to uh... have relations with Miss Elizabeth. They remained our heroes, because we are all flawed people, but Bayley might be the sole pure-of-heart superstar on the roster. I mean, her finishing move is a hug, she comes out to giant, used-car-lot wacky wavers, and she’s really, really good at getting bullied.
It’s a well-known fact that WWE aren’t exactly paragons of innovation when it comes to their female talent. Usually they boil down their women into “bitch,” “jilted ex-lover,” or “girlfriend,” and to be fair Bayley’s “weird nice girl” isn’t exactly avoiding those trope-y pitfalls. But it is still a step in the right direction. She’s literally the only positive role-model in the company, and she can wrestle. We once watched Vince McMahon tell Trish Stratus to bark like a dog, so any progress is progress.
Pre-WWE Names: Pac, Jungle-Pac
From: Newcastle upon Tyne, England
Experience: Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Dragon Gate
What Makes Him Unique: The highest of high flyers.
I’d Compare Him To: Shelton Benjamin, Jeff Hardy, Kofi Kingston
“Flippy sh*t.” It’s the affectionate, rudimentary term we use to describe guys who’s primary attribute is their ability to look really, really cool when bouncing around the ropes. Our current NXT champion Adrian Neville comes with The Red Arrow, a corkscrew shooting star press that seems specifically designed to make people say “man, I don’t like wrestling but that was cool.” It’s hard to know how high Neville’s ceiling is exactly, top-rope maestros are sometimes left to job in the mid-card (see: Kofi Kingston,) but he’s already leaps and bounds ahead of guys like John Morrison on the microphone. If you caught the match Neville had with Sami Zayn, Tyson Kidd, and Tyler Breeze on Raw, you’ll know that Adrian is already getting treated like the next big thing. That’s certainly possible, but either way we’re gonna get some incredible Money in the Bank spots from him for a long, long time.
Pre-WWE Names: Nothing. She’s Ric Flair’s daughter. Ric Flair’s daughter doesn’t start in the indies.
From: Charlotte, North Carolina
Experience: Again, just NXT.
What Makes Her Unique: She’s perhaps the most authentic heel in the business.
I’d Compare Her To: Trish Stratus, Brock Lesnar, and yes, Ric Flair.
If you go back and watch the title match between Charlotte and Bayley at the recent NXT Takeover: Fatal 4-Way, you’ll see Charlotte stroll out to her fluorescent Flair trance-remix, and get a huge pop because HEY! THAT’S RIC FLAIR’S KID. WOO!
Then, a few minutes later, she’s repeatedly, automatically brutalizing the woman who gives headbands to kids as part of her entrance. Within a few minutes Charlotte forces everyone to forget about her familial legacy, and earn some straight-up nuclear acrimony.
That’s the thing we’re all excited about with Charlotte. Like everyone else on this list she’s a gifted performer, but the women’s division hasn’t seen a heel like Charlotte in quite some time, if ever.
Pre-WWE Names: Mattias Wild, Mike Dalton, Mike McGrath
From: Vancouver, British Columbia
Experience: Power Zone Wrestling, Extreme Canadian Championship Wrestling
What Makes Him Unique: Fantastic in-ring ability, and one of the best executed gimmicks I’ve ever seen.
I’d Compare Him To: Ravishing Rick Rude, Shawn Michaels, Edge, The Ravishing Cody Rhodes
Tyler Breeze will mostly get over on his ability to cut amazing promos. He also follows the great pretty-boy Shawn Michaels tradition of singing his own theme song. He seems destined to be a comedy wrestler, because that’s generally the slot male-model gimmicks are made for. But don’t be fooled, Breezy can go, and The Beauty Shot might be the coolest looking finisher in all of NXT.
Pre-WWE Names: El Generico, El Local, Rami Sebei
From: Hill Valley, Quebec
Experience: CHIKARA Pro Wrestling, Ring of Honor
What Makes Him Unique: High-flyer, an incredibly precise Lucha style, and a genuinely nice guy.
I’d Compare Him To: Ricky Steamboat, Daniel Bryan, Rey Mysterio
Undoubtedly the top guy in NXT, and probably the best wrestler in the WWE period. Sami Zayn comes packaged in Bad Religion shirts and a litany of awesome, mind-boggling moves. Top brass hasn’t even bothered giving Zayn a gimmick beyond “friendly dude,” because he’s the sort of wrestler totally equipped to get over on pure ability alone (a la Daniel Bryan, or Dolph Ziggler.) If for some reason you don’t like skyscraping cross-bodies, or ropes-bouncing, split-legged moonsaults, well, you’re probably watching the wrong show.