NXT started off as a reality based challenge show weakly based off Tough Enough. Many thought that the first season of NXT was the best, but that could be because the best group of talent came from that season, and it was a new and interesting thing at that point. Now NXT has morphed into a showcase for up and coming talent to show the WWE that they really do have what it takes to make it to RAW and Smackdown, that they can hang with the big boys and not make fools of themselves. NXT is still creating Superstars, but in a very different, and possibly more productive way these days. In this series of articles we will be looking at the Superstars who came out of each season of NXT. I won’t be tackling this alone. Each article will be written by myself and a number of different WWENews.net writers, that way each Superstar is written by someone who either loves and appreciates that wrestler, or loathes and despises them, depending on which Superstar each writer decides is the perfect fit.
The first Season 1 of NXT brought about some great champions, a couple of solid factions, some serious tag teams, and quite possibly the strongest storyline to come out of the WWE since the first ran it between McMahon and Austin! We will be looking at them in the order in which they were ‘released’ from the show. Hope you enjoy!
Micheal Tarver is the antithesis of everyone else on this list, and not simply due to the fact that he is the only member of the original NXT crew that is no longer gainfully employed by WWE. At 33 when NXT started, he was already old enough that this opportunity should have been a do or die circumstance for him. Instead, he floundered around by both refusing to participate in the rookie challenges and by losing most of his matches during the time of the show. His ring work was poor on any level, he had no promo skills whatsoever, and his look was so generic that they had to try to differentiate him by making him look like the black fat Homicide. And while he did become part Nexus, his time there was mired by a lack of action and inadequacy, with his only notable achievement being that he beat Daniel Bryan. As the Nexus would begin to run its course, Tarver would suffer a groin injury that would sideline him for two months and write him out of the Nexus. He would wind up back in FCW for a while before making some odd appearances on WWE TV and then would be released in June 2011. But not even a month later, this sad, pathetic man would blame everything that happened with his release on one person: John Cena. Calling him reckless and a horrible person, Tarver effectively destroyed any bridges that he had with WWE. Now I may be out of line here, but you just don’t publicly bash your former employer like that! And say what you will about Cena, but talking about him is just like talking about the WWE. But after seeing everything he said, it is clear that he had a huge ego problem. And that shows in the fact that he is now unable to find work with any Indy promotion other than for Florida Underground Wrestling. While he is experiencing some minor success there, he should be ashamed of how far he has fallen.
Daniel Bryan has easily been the single biggest success that came out of the first season of NXT, although if you followed the show you would have never thought he would be. After being one of the first two eliminated along with Micheal Tarver for not believing themselves and being fired at the outset of The Nexus, Bryan looked like he was just another Indy darling that had bust on the big stage. But after being rehired, he would quickly garner new success by winning the US Title and Money in the Bank. But it wasn’t until he betrayed Big Show and turned heel that the fans would finally start to turn a corner with him, and it was all thanks to a simple word: YES! That one word would permeate the WWE Universe, even when he would lose his World Heavyweight Title in an unthinkable 18 second match. It would become an obsession as he would pair up with Kane in Hell No. And it would become a battle cry for the WWE Universe as he would battle the Shield and go after John Cena’s WWE Title. And while he was screwed out of his first reign with the WWE Title by HHH and Orton cashing in his Money in the Bank, he is now involved in the single biggest storyline in WWE. He is in a very unique position right now, as he could easily become the next face of the company. And I honestly think he can easily take that role, as his popularity is only now starting to surge to the heights it could.
That used to be the catchphrase of NXT rookie Skip Sheffield, whose current, much more intimidating, catchphrase is “Feed me more.” Yes, Big Hungry was sporting a cowboy gimmick back in 2010 and he was known as “The Corn-Fed Meathead”. His wrestling style was more simplistic back then, making him look as a brawler rather than a powerhouse. Despite his mediocre performance in Season 1 of NXT, it is safe to say he was at the right place at the right time, as he and his fellow rookies formed The Nexus and got involved in some major angles on Raw. Just months later, in August, Sheffield broke his ankle during a live event in Hawaii and took a lengthy leave of absence lasting fifteen months. The massive amount of time off TV killed all the momentum that Sheffield had garnered from The Nexus’ path of destruction and he was repackaged in the beginning of 2012 as Ryback. You know the story from then on: the undefeated streak, the rash decision to put him in the WWE Championship picture, the numerous PPV losses, the recent bully gimmick…
The million dollar question is, if Ryan Reeves had not suffered an injury two years ago, could the character of Skip Sheffield have made it big? How about bigger than Ryback?
It is hard to analyze a wrestler’s progress when his two consecutive characters are so radically different. Both rely on size and strength rather than technical abilities or wit, yet in Skip Sheffield’s case, his appearance was never promoted as threatening. One can hardly notice a difference in muscle size when comparing the performer’s 2010 physique to his current one. How then, I ask, did WWE suddenly realize that partcular worker would make a good monster?
Don’t get me wrong, by no means is Ryan Reeves a small guy. If I saw him on the street, he would probably look menacing. This, however, is the WWE, and it is difficult to buy Ryback as a credible monster in a company that also employs the likes of Mark Henry, Big Show, The Great Khali and Kane. Furthermore, Ryback was not that much bigger than, say, John Cena, and despite undoubtedly looking strong, his physique simply did not correspond to his Goldberg-like monster push. If you are going to give a guy an undefeated streak and aim to emphasize his invincibility, at least make sure you have found someone with an extraordinary appearance. Ryback’s, in my opinion, has never quite qualified.
Nevertheless, Ryback as a character is still superior to Skip Sheffield simply because it has direction. Even though both have the same physical attributes, why we should take The Corn-Fed Meathead seriously was portrayed neither in the form of victories, nor in the form of a meaningful gimmick. When it comes to utilizing a cowboy gimmick properly, JBL made good use of his body language and arrogant demeanor and turned his attire into an expression of pretentiousness, which made for great heel presence. Skip Sheffield was a guy who was raised in a farm, or at least that’s what I think they were going for. The only assumption we could make about the competitor based on that backstory was that his wrestling style would be ugly and straight-forward. Why exactly was he a force to be reckoned with? No one knew.
My views on what a dominant monster should look like aside, Ryback’s advantage to the previous gimmick was that WWE was certain about how exactly he had to come across. The higher-ups knew they wanted to make him look unstoppable, and therefore built his entire character, from his catchphrases to the muscle-emphasizing ring gear, around the intimidation factor. A wrestler without creative direction has little potential, so no matter whether it was the injury that brought about the new gimmick, Ryback was the best thing that could have happened to Ryan Reeves.
Why then has he failed to solidify his spot as a main-eventer?
Ryback has never been the best in-ring worker and he has never been the best talker. His initial success was a marketing achievement, resulting from his strong booking and small details such as the incorporation of his catchphrase into his theme song. Just when WWE had to build on the increasing momentum and make sure Ryback’s rise was a gradual progression up the ladder, he was thrown in the championship picture, where it was certain that he would lose. Why? Because in that environment, Ryback was simply not a priority and he had to take a step back for the sake of the John Cenas and the CM Punks. The Road to WrestleMania began, and since Big Hungry lacked the star power necessary for the top of the card at that time, he filled a void in the rivalry against The Shield, which WWE could not afford to book weak. At The Show of Shows itself, Mark Henry needed to be put over so that he would sign a new contract. In other words, Ryback’s spontaneous main event push from the end of 2012 meant that he had to wrestle top names from then on. Thus, he was put in a position to lose multiple times, because he was not ready.
After a heel turn and yet another repackaging, it does not seem like WWE has any certain plans for Ryback. They are trying to maintain some of his relevance by having him bully random people backstage, but as far as an actual program goes, nothing is really happening at this stage of his WWE career. Ryback may have reached heights that were once unimaginable for Skip Sheffield… but as a result of his botched push, he is nowhere near where he could have been had WWE been more patient with him.
Darren Young started out on Season 1 of NXT under the leadership of CM Punk. Young was booted from NXT after thirteen weeks in the competition, and finished with a record of 7-4. In early June, Darren Young joined the rest of the NXT rookies to take out John Cena, CM Punk, and many more at ringside. Young was taken out of Nexus after losing a match to John Cena. Darren fought several matches on WWE Superstars in December and January. Young was chosen in March 2011 to be on NXT Redemption. Young feuded with Matt Striker and Titus O’Neil until he was suspended for his first Wellness Violation. After the suspension, Titus O’Neil and Darren Young joined forces and were called up to the main roster in April 2012.
The Prime Time Players won several matches in the spring which lead to the duo becoming number one contenders at the No Way Out pay-per-view. Under the management of A.W., Young and O’Neil lost their title match to Kofi Kingston and R-Truth in July. Young and O’Neil received another shot at SummerSlam 2012, but they were unable to walk away with the gold. Both men became jobbers over the last year. Young recently made the courageous decision to come out and admit he was gay. The announcement has resulted in both Young and O’Neil turning babyface. This history-making action should only lead to success for this ‘young’ fellow.
I wasn’t overly impressed with Heath Slater when I first saw him, but he quickly grew on me, and now I think he’s one of the most underrated Superstars in the WWE. Slater comes off as much smaller than he really is, but looking at him next to Christian, I realized that he’s not that small, he was just on the smaller end of the Season 1 NXT spectrum. I think it’s because of his size, his silliness, and the fact that his character hasn’t grown one smidge from the first time we saw him that he hasn’t reached his full potential in the WWE.
We saw that Slater can both work the mic and the ring when he worked against legendary wrestlers leading up to the 1000th Episode of RAW. Slater worked wonderfully and showed his strengths against the likes of Rowdy Roddy Piper, Wendi Richter, Cyndi Lauper, Vader, Psycho Sid, Doink, DDP, and Bob Backlund and Road Warrior Animal on RAW. He even worked the newest incarnation of NXT against Scotty 2 Hotty and Rikishi. On the 1000th Episode of RAW Slater lost to Lita with help from the APA (Bradshaw’s clothesline from hell) before dropping back into relative obscurity. The WWE has tried little things with Slater, changing him from the One Man Band to the 3 Man Band by adding Mahal and McIntyre, but that quickly fizzled as well. I do think Slater has what it takes to be a strong upper mid-card wrestler and really entertain the fans, but not if his character isn’t allowed to grow and evolve. Hopefully something happens with Slater before he’s nothing but a permanent jobber, or even deemed not needed and released all together.
Justin Gabriel came into NXT and was mentored by Matt Hardy. He could not have gotten off to a better start when he became the first rookie to pin a pro when he pinned Willam Regal in a tag team match with Gabriel & Hardy against Regal & Skip Sheffield. Gabriel showed us his during NXT he was a great young high flying talent and wowed the crowds with his in ring abilities. I liken watching Gabriel to the first time I saw Kofi Kingston, and I knew he was going to be an amazing talent.
Following NXT, we know he went on to be part of the original Nexus. He remained part of the group until it’s original form demised and he went on to join The Corre. Gabriel has since become lost in the mid card of WWE. He formed a promising tag team with Tyson Kidd in August 2012 but this ground to a halt when Kidd tore his meniscus in his knee in January 2013. Gabriel has a wealth of talent that could take him a long way in WWE and I hope he is given the chance in the long term to prove how far his talent can take him. The sky is the limit for Gabriel, he just needs to continue working hard and focus on the future.
When David Otunga first debuted on NXT, he did so under the ‘A-List’ persona. Sporting a hooded top, sunglasses and a brash attitude Otunga claimed to be above everyone else because he lived the celebrity lifestyle. Dating an Oscar-winning fiancée, maintaining an aesthetically pleasing physique and holding a Harvard law degree all meant that Otunga was destined to be a heel. He soon revealed his alignment while paired with rapping wrestler R-Truth; which saw him brawl with his mentor. Competing on NXT eventually saw him become runner up to season one’s winner Wade Barrett.
The most important attribute that Otunga possesses is heel charisma. Fans pay money to watch him get humbled and beaten up. It is therefore a shame that his in-ring abilities are not on the same level, especially when compared to the likes of Daniel Bryan and Wade Barrett. When he wrestled on NXT, Otunga’s grappling skills were somewhat basic and invited questions as to how he did not remain in developmental with Florida Championship Wrestling. Over time, Otunga has improved a bit and he does deliver a mean spinebuster, although his detractors will claim that this is one of the few moves he executes well. Still, Otunga can be carried to a half-decent match if he is in the ring with an experienced hand, as shown in a Raw bout with John Cena. He also fares better as a tag team partner, where stablemates can hide his weaknesses. This means Otunga can continue to learn from his peers and accentuate the positives while minimizing his weaknesses.
In terms of Otunga’s future prospects, he is probably better off as a mid-card act, mouthpiece or supporting character in the WWE universe. Currently styling himself as WWE’s resident Harvard-educated lawyer, complete with coffee cup, he’s better off as a foil for babyfaces so that he can be open to ridicule or used to provide an in-ring stepping stone to build momentum. Unless he sharpens up on the mat, holding the tag titles and being part of the Nexus, one of the most memorable stables in recent times, is about as far as Otunga will get for now.
The original concept of NXT, while it had its flaws, wound up providing us with quite a few stars so far, which was the original intention once the show premiered. While everyone gravitated to different stars, well aside that Tarver character, he was universally hated; one man stuck out in my mind above all the others. Wade Barrett came on the scene as the tall Englishman who clearly had the look, but few of the mainstream WWE audience knew what he could do in the ring or on the mic. I have a bit of knack with “reality TV” for picking a winner early, this show was no exception. While the most talented worker was clearly Daniel Bryan, it seemed that the idea was to humble him in order to show him that being a star outside WWE meant nothing in this company. As a result, Barrett took the early lead when it came to becoming a superstar.
While Barrett still has yet to hoist the WWE or World Heavyweight Championship title yet, but he has had a successful career. The moment he solidified himself in my eyes was the night of the infamous “Winds of Change” promo. Coming from a money grubbing man who would do anything for a price in FCW, to leading the first major faction in WWE in quite some time with The Nexus, headlining pay per views with John Cena, and having multiple runs with the Intercontinental Championship, Barrett has a very bright future still ahead of him. The one problem he has battled so far is that every time he gets to the top SOMETHING happens to keep him from reaching the mountaintop. I’m a big fan of Barrett and will be until his career ends; hopefully he gets that elusive championship run in before I hit senility.
What do you think about what everyone had to say about your favorite, or most loathed member of Season 1 NXT? I have to admit that none of us wanted to write about Michael Tarver. When I asked who wanted to write about each wrestler, I finally had to threaten to assign Tarver to someone. Jesse fell on the sword this time, and considdering what went down with Tarver, I think Jesse was very kind. Stay tuned for future seasons of NXT and our close looks at those who are doing great, and those who have crashed and burned!
Jesse Sherwood, Elto Alexandrov, CJ Blaze, Jamie Welton, Daniel Arda, Chris Surrency & Queen of WNW (KB)