The revolving doors of success in the WWE swung at a rapid pace in 2016. A lot of the faces we now see gracing our televisions or mobile devices week after week have been molded into prosperous “Superstars” thanks in part to the wonderful brand extension, NXT. Despite NXT’s humble and, at times, messy beginnings on live television, stationing the brand in Orlando, Florida was unquestionably the best move “the powers that be” ever made.
I personally have attended several NXT tapings and live network premieres. There will never be another aggressive and rambunctious crowd that can match the passionate fans in the South Philly Bingo Hall on Swanson and Ritner Streets during the mid-to-late 90’s. However, the fans that pack Full Sail Live monthly are definitely passionate about their NXT. On a good night (preferably a live WWE Network event), the crowd is foaming to see something they’ve either never seen before, or didn’t expect to happen. Most nights, NXT delivers and sends everyone home catching their breath over a night of fantastic wrestling action.
A majority of the Full Sail audience tunes into NXT’s premiere events the night before one of the “Big 4” pay per views. Moving the big events out of Full Sail Live and into the same venue for Sunday’s event or surrounding venues was another smart move by the WWE top brass.I can’t say some of the “Full Sail Live-ers” were stoked in 2015 when NXT put on “TakeOver” in Brooklyn—the first premiere event held outside of Full Sail Live. However, the bigwigs saw a sold-out Barclays Center and knew NXT was yet again evolving. I can’t help but agree with the decision to cash in on big PPV weekend, despite my living 0.2 mi. away from the Full Sail campus.
Larger venues have brought forth a brighter spotlight and huge opportunities for some individuals who may or may not have become household names in the past two years. Certainly 2016 presented NXT with a challenge: Are you the third brand? Or are you simply the WWE’s “Triple-A” affiliate? It’s safe to say that the NXT roster answered the challenge and arguably raised the stakes for both RAW and SmackDown Live.
With the above facts, here is a look back on NXT in 2016.
TAG TEAM WRESTLING IS BACK.
There is no feature of pro-wrestling that can match the performance of a fine-tuned tag team. It’s a complimentary art form. One hand washes the other. The teammates think one step ahead of one another sharing the same train of thought. If you look back through the history of professional wrestling, the hottest eras and largest crowds stormed into promotions that constantly brought in a plethora of excellent tag teams. I personally have high hopes for NXT and WWE as a whole because they’ve worked so hard to develop the company’s best tag team roster in recent years.
NXT featured two incredible tandems rolling into 2016: The Revival (Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder) and American Alpha (Chad Gable and Justin Jordan). As fans, we knew these two teams were on a collision course. When we look back on NXT in 2016, you will definitely mention one of two matches from the NXT “TakeOver” shows.
NXT TAG TEAM CHAMPIONS: THE REVIVAL VS. AMERICAN ALPHA
April 1, 2016
Most look back on Wrestlemania 32 weekend and remember TakeOver: Dallas more than anything. The crowd was amazing. Their enthusiasm was piqued by an opening match-up that told a story that could resonate within any era of modern pro-wrestling. All four athletes were (and remain) at the top of their game. It was the night Alpha finally got a chance to etch their names in WWE history, and they took full advantage of it. After a succession of pinning attempts by Dawson and Gable, Alpha finally managed to hit their double team finisher to win the titles. This match catapulted Alpha into the stratosphere which eventually led to the team being drafted to SmackDown Live. Heading into 2017, American Alpha are your SmackDown Live Tag Team Champions. It was a good year for Gable and Jordan.
So, what of the #TopGuys? After Dallas, what did the future hold in store for arguably the best tag team in the WWE? More history, that’s what.
TWO-TIME NXT TAG TEAM CHAMPIONS: THE REVIVAL VS.
JOHNNY GARGANO AND TOMMASO CIAMPA
August 20, 2016
Maybe this is not the second match you had in mind, but for my money, Revival and #DIY’s first match on a TakeOver stage outshined any other we’ve seen on NXT live television. Sure, their match in Toronto delivered, but it was at TakeOver: Brooklyn II—a night many of us thought #DIY had Revival’s number—where I saw my favorite match of 2016. The main reason I consider this to be the best of the best is because The Revival pulled an “Arn and Tully.” Just when you thought Dawson and Wilder had met their match, they capitalized on Gargano’s knee, which Revival tore up throughout the course of the bout. The finish was magnificent. It reminded me of the late 80’s Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard vs. Stan Lane and Bobby Eaton/Rock-n-Roll Express wars. Gargano was an arm and a half’s reach away from the bottom rope but Dawson’s leg lock was too much and Gargano tapped out. The crowd didn’t roar, but they surely applauded The Revival on their successful and entertaining defense. The match was the true, pro-wrestling definition of having the crowd in the palm of their hands.
#DIY would get their rematch at TakeOver: Toronto. I know a lot of people who consider that particular match as their “MOTY.” I tend to disagree. Gargano and Ciampa won the NXT tag titles and are the reigning champions riding high into 2017. However, if it weren’t for their first attempt at the titles in Brooklyn, their victory in Toronto would’ve meant less. Fans all over the world look forward to the next team #DIY faces on a TakeOver stage. #DIY’s short and sweet bout with Tajiri and Akira Tozawa from Osaka was a nice start.
There are obviously more memorable NXT matches from 2016. TakeOver: Dallas may have been the best top to bottom card of any wrestling promotion this year. Shinsuke Nakamura and Sami Zayn rocked the house that night. Nakamura has more or less rocked the house everywhere in 2016. He’s a testament to WWE shirking the old ways of business by bringing in well-known talent and giving them the reigns to lead a locker room.
Samoa Joe could be considered the company’s MVP with the remarkable effort he puts into all aspects of being a pro-wrestler. The best wrestlers in the world can step into the ring with anyone and give us a compelling story. You can’t consider Samoa Joe to be anything less than one of the elite. Joe vs. Nakamura was a dream match three years ago. If the WWE keeps making good roster decisions, we may see even more of those “dream matches” in 2017 and beyond.
Another amazing element in WWE programming is the work and trust the company puts into the women’s division. The WWE Developmental Center’s coaches prove that they can turn anyone into an entertainer. NXT currently possesses another exciting crop of female talent. Asuka’s current run as NXT Women’s Champion is arguably the most impressive for any NXT Champion. I thought her bout with the returning Mickie James was another highlight from Toronto. They’ve built up Asuka as unbeatable. Who’s going to stop her in 2017? Asuka’s call-up is imminent. The women’s NXT roster contains a few viable candidates. Liv Morgan has been a standout. She improved so much that she closed out the year working WWE Live’s Holiday Tour. Billie Kay, Peyton Royce, and Ember Moon are also a few ladies I see stepping it up to new levels in the upcoming year. The women of Raw and SmackDown Live have built momentum the WWE wants to keep. The vastly improved NXT women’s roster proves that the female movement won’t be stopped anytime soon.
WWE MOVING FORWARD…
If 2017 tells us wrestling fans anything, it’s going to involve another year of NXT action that can hang with the WWE’s other brands. This leads me to ask you wrestling fans a question. If NXT is putting on the best matches of the year (according to WWE.com), then why shouldn’t they include NXT title matches on the grandest stage of them all? I remember the first Wrestle Kingdom brought forth names from many different Puroresu promotions. WWE is re-developing new talent who deserve to display their skills at Wrestlemania. Sure, TakeOver is NXT’s show, but their elite (Nakamura, Joe, and Asuka) deserve to be on the show. If it doesn’t happen this year, it would be hard for WWE not to consider, or should I say, promote NXT as an equal brand to Raw and SmackDown Live in the near future.
I’m no fortuneteller, but with the pace WWE has set, I believe by 2020 there could possibly be five separate brands. In culinary terms, NXT is the newest ingredient added to the third layer of a delicious cake. We still need the icing. You want sprinkles AKA an all-female brand of WWE entertainment? I want “sprinkles” too. We’re living on the brink of yet another huge push for pro-wrestling. There’s so much out there! 2017 promises to be another big year. Let us eat cake, bigwigs. Let us eat cake.