NXT: 4 Evolutions – Introduction (2014)

Sami Zayn with the NXT Title
Sami Zayn, NXT Champion. Photo credit: Smarkoutmoment.com

In four weeks, NXT will put on its fourth Takeover event in Brooklyn, and if it meets the expectations for Takeover shows being set thus far in 2018, it’s going to be something special. It’s also the perfect opportunity for me to elucidate something I’ve been working on for years now, a kind of Unified Theory of NXT, which views the show’s history since the dawn of the WWE Network as a cyclical phenomenon currently in the middle of its fourth stage. Yes, that is how much I love this wrestling show.

This is the first of a four-part series that will be released weekly between now and NXT Takeover: Brooklyn IV. In it, I provide an introduction to NXT (and my personal fandom), a brief history of the company (that’s the part with the title “A Brief History of NXT,” in case you were wondering) and an in-depth look at the promotion’s main event picture in 2014. As always, I’ve tried to make my wrestling content as accessible as possible to the newcomer, but I’m sorry, at a certain point you just need to accept that you don’t know who Camacho is and you can trust me when I say you don’t need to.

 

Introduction

 

Sami Zayn closes his eyes and runs a hand down over his face. In a moment, he will sprint across the ring, kick his opponent in the head, and win the NXT Championship. He knows it’s about to happen. He’s realizing that, at long last, he’s about to achieve his goal. More importantly he didn’t need to compromise his morality to do it, as so many wrestlers do. He didn’t need to cheat or take shortcuts, as so many wrestlers do. He didn’t, for example, need to use the championship belt as a weapon, even though at one point he had the chance.

Wrestling referees are made of spit and chewing gum – brush them gently and they fall unconscious until after somebody is finished cheating, at which point they miraculously awaken to count the pin – and during this particular match, this particular referee was inadvertently knocked out twice. The first time, Sami Zayn stopped wrestling and went to check on the fallen official, eliciting gasps of horror from the unabashedly pro-Zayn audience at Full Sail University. Doing things like this, being a good person, had cost Sami matches before, and it nearly did again. That’s just who Sami is. He puts himself at a disadvantage to help innocent people, he doesn’t break the rules, and most of the time (for those exact reasons) he doesn’t win. He escaped in this case, but just barely.

The second time, after Sami’s opponent, Adrian Neville, had tried to hit him with the belt, Sami found himself standing across the ring from Neville, illegal weapon in hand, the referee down. It was his opportunity to prove that he was willing to do whatever it took to win, to leave his conscience aside for a moment and do what any other wrestler would have done in the same situation. Again, the crowd was horrified, but for a different reason. They were chanting the word “no,” over and over again, at the top of their lungs. They desperately wanted Sami to win, but they didn’t want him to win like that, by abandoning what made him unique, what made him Sami Zayn. Sami heard the fans, and he listened. He threw the belt away. The crowd cheered. The match continued.

Sami Zayn closes his eyes and runs a hand down over his face, and you know he’s thinking about everything it took to get here, the fights he has lost and the odds he has overcome, the struggle it has been to prove that you can stay true to yourself and still succeed. This story has been told over the course of 18 months, but right now, Sami’s face tells it all at once.

And to think how many of us first fell in love with him back when he was wearing a mask.

NXT Takeover: R Evolution is probably my favorite wrestling event of all time. I don’t know that it’s the best, necessarily. It might not be the most important, in the historical, grand-scheme-of-things sense. But I think it’s my favorite. That has a lot to do with where I’m coming from as a wrestling fan. The show opened with the NXT debut of Kevin Owens, who, as Kevin Steen, was my favorite wrestler to come out of my favorite independent wrestling promotion, Ring of Honor. It featured the in-ring NXT debut of Hideo Itami, who, as KENTA, was my favorite wrestler to come out of the Japanese wrestling scene. I had never seen Prince Devitt perform, though I had heard of him, but the theatricality of pro wrestling was what first drew me in, and the first “demon” entrance of Finn Balor hit me in all the sweet spots. I was a huge fan of the all-woman promotion SHIMMER Women Athletes, and had long dreamed of the first SHIMMER Champion, Sara Del Rey, wreaking havoc in WWE – what I actually got was perhaps even better, as Del Rey (real name Sara Amato) became the head trainer for the NXT women, and her influence eventually brought about one of the best matches between two women I’d ever seen under the WWE brand. I had already been impressed by Charlotte, but her title defense at R Evolution instantly made me a Sasha Banks fan, and she would go on to become my favorite wrestler, period.

And of course, there was Sami Zayn, who I had known for years as El Generico. Like many people who had been watching Ring of Honor obsessively in the late 2000s, Generico captivated me through the screen just as much as he captivated every fan in attendance. I was already aware of his in-ring skills, not to mention his storytelling ability, but it wasn’t until he took off the mask and became Sami Zayn that he was fully realized, for me, as a character and as a wrestler. Watching him complete the ultimate hero’s journey at R Evolution, winning the NXT Championship and winning it the right way, was something like a religious experience. I cried. I imagine there were a lot of NXT fans – and Sami Zayn fans – in tears that evening.

And as if that wasn’t enough, Sami’s victory wasn’t even the final moment of the show. Steen vs. Generico in Ring of Honor was the best story either man had ever told, a year-long blood feud born out of a rift between former tag team champions, performed by real-life best friends. Owens vs. Zayn in WWE was a long-held but completely unrealistic fantasy, and even when Owens signed with NXT, it seemed unlikely that the two would fight each other. Owens had just come in, and Zayn, now the biggest fish in the NXT pond, was presumably on his way out. It was simply too much to ask for NXT’s latest debut to immediately turn heel and begin a feud with its champion. It would never happen.

Zayn’s victory celebration was drawn out as long as possible, and then, at the last second, just when you thought it was too late for any possibility that the trigger would be pulled, it was. Owens slammed Zayn to the ramp and powerbombed him onto the ring apron, R Evolution came full circle from beginning to end, and everything was just…right.

R Evolution was the first of the truly great Takeover shows (though not the last) and it features one of the greatest Takeover main events in NXT history. I realize that’s a strange thing to say, considering there have been more than 20 Takeovers (including NXT’s first WWE Network event, Arrival) and R Evolution was only the fourth. But that’s one of the interesting things about the Takeover Era – it comprises cycles. The first year, 2014, was defined by the story of Sami Zayn, with the other contenders for the NXT Championship as his supporting cast, and by NXT’s initial ascension from maligned developmental territory to legitimate wrestling show. But not long after his momentous title victory, Zayn, Owens, and the main event picture in general ceased to be the most important part of NXT, giving way to the rise of the women’s division – an occurrence that coincided with NXT’s skyrocketing popularity and critical acclaim. By 2016, NXT had become, first and foremost, a showcase for the best tag team wrestling in the world, while international superstars from other companies used it as a brief stepping stone to WWE network television. And over the course of the last 12 months, the pendulum has swung back to the men’s singles division – except that now, NXT is WWE’s thriving third brand, overflowing with talent and known worldwide for putting on some of the greatest wrestling matches in history. As NXT has evolved, it has played host to a near-annual revolution, with different kinds of wrestlers and different kinds of matches serving as the show’s centerpiece. The story of the Takeover Era is, in fact, the story of four different eras, characterized initially by four specific wrestlers and later by eight. This is why, as the NXT Universe prepares for the next major Takeover event, NXT Brooklyn IV, I’d like to take four weeks to tell four stories about what has been my favorite wrestling show for the last four years.

And also because if I don’t do it now, the whole “four” thing gets thrown off forever and I can never do it again. But that’s no fun. Stick to kayfabe.

 

A Brief History of NXT

 

Beyond the logo and the branding, the original NXT television program bears almost no resemblance to the product as it exists today. NXT began in 2010 as a 15-episode reality show on the SyFy Network in which eight aspiring wrestlers competed for a chance to earn a job with WWE. On paper, at least. Which is to say, according to the script. This is pro wrestling, remember; nothing is real, and certainly nothing explicitly branded as “reality.” NXT was less of a real competition than it was an introductory platform for a group of new characters WWE was planning to introduce, portrayed by wrestlers who were already under contract as developmental talent, which is why, despite the fact that one of them “won” and the other seven were “eliminated,” all eight men became recurring characters on WWE TV, anyway. At which point NXT kicked off Season 2, featuring a new class of “rookies.“ The show actually got to Season 4 before the end of its first year, though by that time it had left SyFy and was simply a weekly feature on WWE.com.

In 2011, NXT began its fifth season, this time branded as NXT Redemption. It featured six contestants who had been eliminated in previous seasons, mentored by the dregs of WWE’s talent roster, serving mostly as set dressing for lengthy recaps of the most recent episode of Monday Night Raw. But while the first four seasons of NXT lasted 51 episodes combined, NXT Redemption ran for 67 on its own. Not because it was good. It wasn’t. Nor did it make the company any money. The most plausible reason I’ve heard for Redemption’s lengthy run is that somebody in corporate simply forgot it existed. Eliminations occurred between weeks 11 and 17, as they might have in a regular season. Then they just…stopped. The reality show element of the program was abandoned without protest or comment. For nearly a year, NXT Redemption was a regular wrestling show that nobody was watching, where the lowest members of the WWE totem pole got to hang out, have fun, and do basically whatever they wanted. It was under the radar and often thoroughly bizarre, and it wasn’t really a developmental system anymore, but for whatever reason, it refused to die.

In 2012, Paul Levesque, who had performed for decades as Triple H and had recently entrenched himself in the business and production side of the product, received permission from Vince McMahon to merge NXT with the company’s official developmental territory, Florida Championship Wrestling. Abruptly (by which I mean, between one episode and the next) even the pretense of the reality show model of NXT ended, and was replaced by a standard wrestling program featuring developmental talent. Like FCW and Ohio Valley Wrestling before it, NXT was now just another developmental territory, existing for a specific purpose and by no means worth watching.

As it turned out, though, something was different this time. First of all, Levesque was committed to completely changing the way WWE’s talent development worked, and NXT, along with the construction of the state-of-the-art WWE Performance Center, was the initial catalyst. Second, WWE developmental had recently seen an influx of high-level talent from the independent wrestling world, and it didn’t take long for Levesque’s improved training system to bring out the best in them. Third, WWE was about to unveil something that would fundamentally change how its product was consumed, and give NXT the space it needed to flourish.

 

2014: Sami Zayn and the Leftovers

 

When NXT Arrival first aired in February of 2014, both NXT and WWE as a whole were in the middle of a strangely transitional moment. NXT still didn’t have much of an audience, but at least its audience was online, available to stream via YouTube and Hulu, and it was starting to get some notice for the quality of its matches, specifically a contest between Sami Zayn and Antonio Cesaro that was receiving rave reviews and a great deal of internet buzz. However, almost immediately after its rebirth, NXT was already being harvested for “main roster” talent. That first year of NXT-as-developmental-territory featured wrestlers who have gone on to have extremely successful WWE careers – Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Bray Wyatt, and Big E Langston, to name a few. By the beginning of 2014, all of those names had already been called up to Smackdown and Raw. Bo Dallas, the reigning NXT Champion, had made his main roster debut and was on his way out, as well. The man scheduled to defeat him for the title at Arrival, Adrian Neville, was a singles wrestler almost out of sheer frustration, as he had won NXT Tag Team title gold with two different partners, both of whom suffered severe injuries. In 2012, the NXT roster was a hotbed of exciting new characters. By 2014, it was a wasteland.

Meanwhile, the larger institution of WWE had its own problems. Not only had the first four years of NXT failed to yield much in the way of transcendent superstars for the network shows, but the company’s year began with an unprecedented level of damage control as it tried to deal with fallout from the 2014 Royal Rumble. The show had featured a championship match between John Cena and Randy Orton that was mercilessly rejected by the audience, a Rumble match that turned out to be the final appearance of CM Punk, who walked out of the company the next day, and a Rumble winner who was booed out of the building despite being a returning babyface, Batista. The demand for independent wrestling legend Daniel Bryan (by far the most successful wrestler to graduate from NXT) to main event Wrestlemania was at a fever pitch, and WWE had been forced to give in. It was clear by the end of February’s Elimination Chamber event that the decision to elevate Bryan in place of Punk – and higher still – had been made. This surreal combination of an all-out fan revolt and a main event superstar walking out of the business created an environment by which Bryan was somehow able to rise to the top of the mountain, defeating three established megastars in one night (Orton, Batista, and Triple H himself) and winning the WWE Championship in the main event of Wrestlemania. It was also the perfect environment for a rowdy group of wrestling die-hards like the ones who attended NXT shows at Full Sail University to help make a new, underground wrestling promotion into a phenomenon.

And then, of course, there was the WWE Network, the underground wrestling promotion’s perfect outlet. Those die-hard fans were the exact people who were always going to buy a Network subscription, just for the sheer amount of wrestling content it provided. As such, NXT becoming the Network’s first original content meant it got to start out with a built-in audience. It also immediately tapped into an audience who had made a transition of their own – from cable television to online streaming services. These were the people who couldn’t watch Raw, but would gladly shell out for the wrestling equivalent of Netflix. And the Network didn’t just alter the way NXT was distributed, it altered the structure and format of the NXT product. No developmental program had ever had a pay-per-view cycle before, but with the introduction of live quarterly specials, NXT was able to start telling stories in the language that wrestling fans best understood. The Network made NXT into a full-fledged wrestling product, one in which the most knowledgeable and vocal fans felt empowered, in which they could watch the new crop of NXT wrestlers rise up in place of the old one, a show they could think of as fundamentally their own.

This was the swirling nexus of creation and evolution that Sami Zayn made his kingdom over the course of 2014. There were several reasons why Zayn was the definitive pro wrestler of the first year of the Takeover Era. He was involved in the best match on each of 2014’s live specials. He played his character to perfection. The comparisons to Daniel Bryan were obvious, but while Bryan was instantly recognizable to fans of companies like Dragon Gate or Ring of Honor, Zayn had remade himself completely for NXT, and the fans were able to take ownership of him while still recognizing his accomplished past.

But more than anything else, 2014 belonged to Sami Zayn because he was the most important character in the main event picture, and in that first year, the main event picture was everything. The show revolved around Zayn and Neville, the independent stars; Tyson Kidd, the unappreciated veteran; and Tyler Breeze, the repackaged newcomer whose character caught fire. There wasn’t much of an undercard for male singles wrestlers. In fact, one of the things that stands out about those first four Takeover shows is the number of people who only made a single appearance on the live specials. Cesaro, who wrestled Zayn on the Arrival card, and future trombonist Xavier Woods, who wrestled Breeze, were both main roster talents slumming it for a few weeks in NXT. Rusev had participated in the Royal Rumble and won his first Raw match in April (on Rusev Day, presumably). Adam Rose, formerly Leo Kruger, debuted his new gimmick in March and was wrestling on Raw by May, while his sole Takeover opponent, Camacho, was released from his contract in June. To the extent that there was a singles undercard, it consisted primarily of CJ Parker (aka the Evil Hippie) and Mojo Rawley (aka the Jock), with big men Baron Corbin and Bull Dempsey making Takeover cards later in the year. Other wrestlers served as bit players in the occasional storyline, but would never wrestle a Takeover show.

Meanwhile, the women of NXT were having some consistency issues of their own. Paige, the NXT Women’s Champion, debuted on Raw a month after Arrival by winning the WWE Divas Championship, joining the main roster and vacating the NXT women’s title. Her rival, Emma, had debuted on the main roster days before Arrival, and the other standout of the women’s division, Summer Rae, was long gone. Into their places, of course, stepped the Four Horsewomen, with Charlotte winning the vacant championship at the first Takeover. The women’s division spent 2014 on the rise, but it wasn’t until the following year that it would truly thrive.

As for the tag team division during that first year…well, the less said the better. With the injuries to his ex-partners Oliver Grey and Corey Graves forcing Neville into single stardom and the main roster departure of Bray Wyatt’s cronies, the Wyatt Family, there just weren’t very many teams left. The latest incarnation of the hyper-gothic Ascension were the popular and dominant champions, but if you want to know just how thin their competition was, the presence of two wrestlers who had peaked in the 1990s, Grandmaster Sexay and Scotty 2 Hotty, on the Arrival card should give you a clue. The dynamic Kalisto spent his first Takeover teaming up with ring announcer Ricardo Rodriguez in a mask, eventually finding a partner in fellow luchador Sin Cara. The two managed to defibrillate the division as the Lucha Dragons, but it’s a bad sign when Sin Cara is an improvement over anything. The soon-to-be-popular and later-to-be-exiled duo of Enzo and Cass began teaming up more frequently in 2014, and the Vaudevillains showed up at the end of the year to really get things going, but it would be some time before NXT truly showed a commitment to its tag teams. Even the jobber team of Jason Jordan and Tye Dillinger got split up that year.

So while the rest of the roster recovered from the damage it had taken, it was left to the four main eventers to carry the brand. Breeze, whose self-centered arrogance was backed up by his in-ring ability; Kidd, whose desperation to use NXT as a trampoline back to relevance began to degrade both his marriage and his sanity; Neville, the calculating champion who slowly got cockier and more willing to do anything to keep his title; Zayn, the passionate underdog who took his opponents to the limit in the ring, but couldn’t keep his morals from costing him victories. They took turns wrestling and feuding with each other for months, a situation that culminated in the fantastic main event of Takeover: Fatal 4-Way. At the end of the match, Zayn kicked Kidd in the face and was about to win the championship. But Neville pulled the referee out of the ring, blasted Zayn with a kick of his own, hit his signature Red Arrow off the top rope and pinned Kidd himself. It was the catalyst for one of the greatest matches in NXT history, and the beginning of the end for the status quo.

Breeze and Kidd were amazing characters, but the story was always going to be about Neville and Zayn. Zayn spent 2014 losing every big match he wrestled in, while Neville was seemingly untouchable. NXT did a good job of establishing the friendship between the two, but they were also perfect foils to one another. Neville was a physical specimen, possessing perfect body control and the ability to do whatever he wanted in the ring. There’s a reason his music and graphics had a weaponized, machine-like theme; he may have been a babyface, but he was always presented as a cold-eyed killer who knew exactly how to beat you. Neville was superhuman. Zayn was an everyman, possessing neither Neville’s godlike physique or sense of control, but a wild, flailing energy, an unbridled passion, and a heart that wouldn’t let him take the easy way out. The story wrote itself. Zayn was tired of losing, tired of being taken advantage of, tired of being told, essentially, that he was too nice to be champion. His “Road to Redemption,” in which he defeated both Breeze and Kidd, culminated at Takeover: R Evolution, in which he had every opportunity to turn away from the person he was, chose to stay true to himself, and won the title anyway.

But that was far from the only thing that happened on that show. By the end of 2014, the NXT landscape was changed forever. Neither Breeze nor Kidd wrestled at R Evolution. The Ascension did, and so did CJ Parker, but it would be their last Takeover. The Ascension’s opponents were Hideo Itami, formerly KENTA, and Finn Balor, formerly Prince Devitt. And Parker, of course, lost to the debuting Kevin Owens, who later vaulted himself into a championship feud with Zayn. They would headline the next two Takeovers, and one would have expected the main event to continue being the best and most important part of NXT.

But it wasn’t. 2014 was over. The Year of the Horsewomen had arrived.

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