NXT is the proving ground for the next generation of WWE stars.
While the black-and-gold show has become a brand unto itself, it’s still very much a developmental territory.
A very well-funded one with high production values. But it’s developmental nonetheless. A place where the young men and women in the business can cut their teeth before heading to the big time.
But even the best developmental stars hit road blocks. Matt Riddle’s call-up to SmackDown is now mired in the ‘Speaking Out’ controversy within the wrestling industry. A lot of times, though, WWE itself makes a main roster call-up the kiss of death for some talents.
Here’s five NXT call-ups that resulted in disaster.
Honorable Mention – The Ascension
The who? Exactly.
The Ascension were NXT’s answer to the Road Warriors or Demolition. But with a quieter, creepier edge.
It didn’t take WWE long to dull that down. Pitting them in 90-second matches with jobbers. And then jobbing them to established teams. Before taking them off TV altogether. Neither are even still with the company.
Which begs the question a lot of NXT guys probably ask when they get called up. Why even bring them to (wellllllll, it’s) the big show if you’re not going to use them?
5. The Revival
The Revival all but redefined tag team wrestling during their time in NXT.
They were an old-school team that, by their own account, wanted nothing more than for tag team wrestling to be taken seriously. To be seen as a valuable commodity to the product that can generate money for the company and the performers.
So, when they made the jump from NXT to the main roster, the Revival did just that and became the epitome of tag team wrestling.
Just kidding. They did an angle where the Usos tricked them into rubbing Icy Hot on their balls. Then they jobbed the tag titles to Hawkins and Ryder.
The Revival is a perfect example of NXT sending up overqualified talents only for Vinnie McFartjokes to make a mockery of them and make them wish they were unemployed.
They held the Raw and SmackDown tag titles numerous times, but it didn’t matter. Tag team wrestling is alive in WWE only in NXT, and now the Revival/FTR is probably about to make money hand-over-first for AEW.
After years of tearing it up on the indies as King Ricochet, Ricochet got his big break. A spot on the NXT roster.
The high-flying artist was firing on all cylinders on NXT when he, Aleister Black, Tommaso Ciampa, and Johnny Gargano got inexplicably called up to Raw and SmackDown in the lead-up to WrestleMania 35.
Gargano and Ciampa went back to NXT after Ciampa got injured, but Black and Ricochet stayed on the main roster.
And while Ricochet was never made to look a fool by any means, he wasn’t made to look like a star, either. He jobbed countless matches he should’ve won despite tearing the house down every time he stepped in the ring.
His ultimate reward was getting murdered by Brock Lesnar at Super Showdown 2020. Granted, Ricochet’s time in WWE is far from over. But it’s hard to see him bouncing back after getting shunted down so many times in such a short span.
3. Sami Zayn
Sami Zayn was the first real standard bearer of the modern NXT era.
His chase for the NXT Championship was the stuff of legend and the pillar of the brand as we know it today. The image of Kevin Owens debuting and savagely attacking him after he defeated Neville (now PAC in AEW) for the gold is still burned in my mind.
Now this is one of those instances where his fall down the card on the main roster was sort of his own doing. He answered John Cena’s US Championship open challenge in his debut on Raw. With an introduction by fellow Canadian Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart, no less. And on his way to the ring, he pumped his fist so hard that he screwed up his shoulder.
When he returned, he paired up with Owens as part of a comedy team. Then he went on his own as a comedy singles act. Well, I say “comedy singles act,” but I mean, “WWE made him a joke.” The former NXT standout was relegated to basically being Shinsuke Nakamura’s manager.
Eventually, he worked his way up to becoming the Intercontinental Champion, but then the world ended with the coronavirus pandemic. Zayn, uncomfortable working in a potentially-compromised environment, was stripped of the title due to “injury.”
Definitely a cautionary tale for any NXT stars with dreams of Raw dancing in their heads.
2. Kevin Owens
I know, I know. Hang in there, I promise this will make sense.
Kevin Owens might be one of the five best NXT Champions of all time. His aforementioned debut in NXT was all goosebumps and shudders. In NXT, Owens was a single-minded prize fighter. A guy willing to destroy anyone to get to the top. And a guy willing to annihilate anyone to stay at the top.
It’s a character he carried over to his debut main roster feud with John Cena for the US Championship.
In the course of that feud, though, something became clear to the WWE fans and writers. Owens was funny. He always had a good share of wit in his promos in NXT, but on the main roster, KO was legitimately side-splittingly funny.
He became so funny, in fact, that his cut-throat “destroy anyone to win” edge was blunted. I can’t be the only one who didn’t suddenly take him seriously when he turned on Jericho during the Festival of Friendship.
Make no mistake, Kevin Owens is a success on the main roster. A former Universal Champion, Intercontinental Champion, US Champ and tag team champ. In pro wrestling, though, your window to catch on as a big deal is short. A missed opportunity is the same as a failure. KO is not someone to be feared like he was in NXT.
That’s something you can’t just get back.
1. Viking War Machine Raiders Experience
Speaking of something you can’t just get back. By the way, see what I did there? With the wacky names? Anyway.
War Machine was a killer tag team on the independent circuit. They were already a name team in the industry when they came to Ring Of Honor. And an even bigger name team when they came to NXT as the War Raiders. When they won the NXT Tag Team Championship from Undisputed Era at NXT TakeOver: Phoenix in January 2019, they got the biggest pop of the whole Royal Rumble weekend. I know, I was there.
So imagine my disappointment when, still a hot item in NXT and still the NXT tag champs, they made their Raw debut as the “Viking Experience.” A name Vince McMahon wrote on a napkin five minutes before they went on the air. And then the backlash to that name led to a rebranding as the Viking Raiders.
Imagine the first major news story about you upon getting called up to the big leagues being about your employers screwing up your name.
And it only gets worse from there. They spent most of their existence on the main roster squashing local talent. Now they’re trapped in a comedy feud with the Street Profits (they aren’t failed NXT call-ups; they weren’t ready to be called up). Playing golf, bowling, and fighting in dumpsters.
Erik and Ivor were legends in NXT. Getting called up to the main roster turned them into cartoon characters.
To sum it up, be careful what you wish for.
If this recent era of WWE has taught us anything, it’s that the dream of working on Raw or SmackDown usually ends up as a nightmare for NXT call-ups.
Tommaso Ciampa knows what he’s talking about when he says he wants to stay in NXT.
You might make more money on the main roster in the short term. But you’re likely to have a longer (and more credible) career in NXT.
All images courtesy of WWE.