Grad Day: A Look at NXT's Graduating Classes

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In under five years, Paul “Triple H” Levesque has taken the laughing stock of developmental, Florida Championship Wrestling (FCW) and created arguably the hottest wrestling brand in North America today – NXT. When Triple H assumed control in 2012 and renamed FCW after the failed reality game show, he built a castle and begun to build the future of the WWE Empire. With his million dollar WWE Performance Centre, and the creation of essentially a WWE Trade School – where everyone from cameramen to future Hall of Famer Superstars could learn the business – he created the foundation to finally teach the top wrestling talent and raw recruits the WWE business, while honing the talents they already possessed. But is NXT actually working? Is it just a buzz word now that will soon be pushed to the wayside when the in-between fans, the ones who are torn by a nostalgic loyalty to the WWE but a preference for the indie style and presentation, decide it’s become too popular to still love? Let’s look at NXT’s production lines, including their Graduating Class, the ones who didn’t make the cut or left the system, and the new recruits NXT’s scouting staff, headed by William Regal, have been bringing in. Graduating stars only count if their gimmick lasted longer than a year on the Main Roster – so Windham Rotunda’s official graduation counts as Bray Wyatt, not Husky Harris, Curtis Axel over Michael McGillicutty, etc.

Grad Day: A Look at NXT’s Graduating Classes

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(Photo: WWE.com)

NXT CLASS OF 2010

Graduating Class: Wade Barrett, Daniel Bryan, Alberto Del Rio, Justin Gabriel, David Otunga, Heath Slater, Michael Tarver, Darren Young

Counted Out: Lance Hoyt, Low Ki

New Recruits: Orlando Colon (Epico), Miroslav Makarov (Rusev), Mattias Wild (Tyler Breeze), Consequences Creed (Xavier Woods)

Technically, this wasn’t really NXT. It was the first year of the awful reality show of the same name, but it featured actual stars from FCW, so technically it’s the beginning of what would become NXT. And hey, if WWE can retcon their history, so can we. The biggest signing was obviously the fast tracked Bryan Danielson (Daniel Bryan), but no one made a bigger impact of the new class than the original Nexus. The coolest Bad Guy faction since the nWo and pre-Bullet Club, this faction introduced the world to Wade Barrett. Underused Justin Gabriel and Social Outcast Heath Slater debuted alongside future Prime Time Player Darren Young (and yes, technically Ryback debuted as Skip Sheffield, but due to injury his call-up was brief and delayed till 2012). Alberto Del Rio skipped the reality show and went straight to the main roster after two years in FCW. Indie legend Low Ki seemed to be an exciting signing but he quit the company a short way into his career there as Kaval. And Vance Archer was let go, but would find bigger success in Japan as Lance Hoyt in The Killer Elite. The restocking continued, but still fit in the typical mid-card mold, but they lucked out with Rusev and Xavier Woods, but the jury is still out on Tyler Breeze, who only just got his call up now, and Epico.

 

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(Photo: WWE.com)

NXT CLASS OF 2011

Graduating Class: Camacho, Epico, Kaitlyn, AJ Lee

Counted Out: Wes Brisco, David Hart Smith (Davey Boy Smith Jr.), Michael Tarver

New Recruits: Cameron, Claudio Castagnoli (Cesaro), Erik Doom (Viktor), Chris Hero (Kassius Ohno), Thoruf Marius (Erick Rowan), Tenille Tayla (Emma)

The final year of the reality show, it introduced the WWE Universe to WWE Divas Champion Kaitlyn and arguably the first shot of the Divas Revolution, AJ Lee. Epico joined his cousin Primo (later repackaged as Los Matadores), and Meng‘s son Camacho joined Hunico (later repackaged as the second Sin Cara), both on the main roster. Gerald Brisco‘s son, Wes, was released and would find short work in TNA. The British Bulldog‘s son, David Hart Smith, left the company and would head to Japan to join Lance Hoyt. Tarver would become the first real tragedy of last year’s Nexus and get future endeavoured. The success of CM Punk and now Daniel Bryan seemed to instill a little more confidence in taking chances in the indie circuit, as they brought in legendary indie tag team The Kings of Wrestling (Claudio Castagnoli & Chris Hero) and Shimmer’s Tenille Tayla, rebranded as Cesaro & Kassius Ohno and Emma.

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(Photo: WWE.com)

NXT CLASS OF 2012

Graduating Class: Dean Ambrose, Big E, Cameron, Cesaro, Brodus Clay, Naomi,Titus O’Neill, Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Ryback, Damien Sandow,

Counted Out: Sofia Cortez (Ivelisse), Maxine (Catrina), Tyler Reks

New Recruits: Sami Callihan (Solomon Crowe), Charlotte, Baron Corbin, Brodie Lee (Luke Harper), Matt Marquee (Aiden English), KC McKnight (Dawson), Mercedes KV (Sasha Banks), PAC (Neville), Davina Rose (Bayley), Summer Rae

With a decent pool of talent to work from, Triple H took over FCW and rebranded it as NXT, it’s own brand that would work parallel with WWE, not under it. While many refer to the Ohio Valley class of 1999 as being the developmental class that shaped the early 2000’s – it featured John Cena, Randy Orton, Brock Lesnar, Batista, and Shelton Benjamin – the first year of NXT’s operation will likely be the class that defines the next era. The three members of The Shield alone – Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, and current WWE World Champion Roman Reigns – are already the Big Three of the company’s main event picture and the future is clearly theirs. Add in Cesaro, New Day’s Big E, the underrated Naomi, mid-card superhero Ryback and the cult hero Damien Sandow, and you’ve got a pretty solid graduating class of talent. While Tyler Reks release was hardly something that seems to have come back to bite them in the ass, two women they released have turned into diamonds – both Maxine and Sofia Cortez both caught on with Lucha Underground where Maxine has become the Aztec black witch Catrina and Cortez is the ass-kicking Ivellise. With such a huge class of graduates, they had to stock up again, bringing in some world class indie stars in Sami Callihan (dubbed Solomon Crowe), English high flyer PAC (renamed Adrian Neville) and the Bruiser-like Brodie Lee (renamed Luke Harper), along with women’s indie wrestlers Mercedes KV (to become Sasha Banks) and Davina Rose (now Bayley), as well as solid workers like Dawson and Aiden English. They even begun work on some homegrown characters like Charlotte, Baron Corbin and Summer Rae.

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(Photo: WWE.com)

NXT CLASS OF 2013

Graduating Class: Curtis Axel, Fandango, Luke Harper, Erick Rowan, Sin Cara, Summer Rae, Bray Wyatt, Xavier Woods

Counted Out: Trent Baretta, Derek Bateman (Ethan Carter III), Kassius Ohno (Chris Hero), Richie Steamboat,

New Recruits: Chas Betts (Chad Gable), Alexa Bliss, Dana Brooke, Carmella, Ryan Drago (Simon Gotch), El Generico (Sami Zayn), Eva Marie, Rebecca Knox (Becky Lynch), Mojo Rawley, Samurey Del Sol/Octagon Jr. (Kalisto), Matt Silva (Murphy), Braun Strowman, Cory Weston (Blake)

This year suffered in as healthy a class as the previous year, but with such an exodus of top level talent, it was only natural others had to stay longer to carry the load with the main event gone. But it was the year we were first introduced to the original Wyatt Family trio of Luke Harper, Erik Rowan and it’s cult leader Bray Wyatt. Though the internet is torn whether his promos are mad genius or lazy gobbledygook (for the record, I’m in the former), the Wyatts have captivated the audience (even if most are frustrated over his booking) – he received one of the loudest pops in ages as Reigns’ partner last week on Raw before injuring himself in Milan the next night. Hunico was repackaged as the new Sin Cara (replacing the botched experiment with Myztyzz), Mr. Perfect‘s son Curtis Axel arrived full time, and rookie Fandango shocked the world by beating Chris Jericho in his debut at Wrestlemania, winning over the UK audience with his Fandangoing, before slowly working his way down to part time star in Swerved. Chris Hero didn’t work out as well as his former tag partner Cesaro and was let go, as were prospects Trent Baretta and Derek Bateman. Baretta would find huge success in NJPW with Roppongi Vice, while Bateman would head to TNA, where he would blossom as the ultra heel Ethan Carter III. With the success of Seth Rollins, Daniel Bryan and Dean Ambrose erasing the bad taste of the indie experience with CM Punk, NXT went after some of the indie circuits Big Fish, hauling in El Generico (becoming Sami Zayn), Mexico’s Samuray del Sol (aka the real Octagon Jr., renamed Kalisto) and UK wrestler Rebecca Knox (changed to Becky Lynch). Blake & Murphy joined the NXT roster, alongside fitness models Dana Brooke and Alexa Bliss and US Olympic wrestler Chas Betts, recreated as Chad Gable.

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NXT CLASS OF 2014

Graduating Class: The Ascension (Viktor & Connor), Bo Dallas, Kalisto, Paige, Adam Rose, Rusev

Counted Out: Evan Bourne (Matt Sydall), Camacho (Tonga Loa), Brodus Clay, Shaul Guerrero, Curt Hawkins (Brian Meyers), Kaitlyn, Mason Ryan, Yoshi Tatsu

New Recruits: Prince Devitt (Finn Balor), Nia Jax, Kenta Kobashi (Hideo Itami), Hugo Knox, Logan Shulo (Elias Samson), Kevin Steen (Kevin Owens), Uhaa Nation (Apollo Crews), Steven Walters (Dash)

Another weaker class, more so due to tampering of solid NXT characters and messing with the chemistry that made them stars, most noticeably with Bo Dallas, Adam Rose (instead of his creepy Leo Kruger), and NXT tag team icons The Ascension. Kalisto joined Sin Cara in the Lucha Dragons and began his ascent to the OMG Slammy Award. The Divas Revolution got another soldier in the arrival of the brash Paige, who captured her first title out of the gate. No crippling losses in the Future Endeavours department, although Evan Bourne has flourished back as Matt Sydall, and Camacho just won IWGP Tag Team gold with his brother, Tama Tonga, under the name Tonga Loa. Brodus Clay headed to TNA where he currently babysits for Matt Hardy. For real. NXT improved their gene pool dramatically, adding four of the hottest free agents on the indie scene in Prince Devitt of Bullet Club and NJPW, the charismatic bully Kevin Steen, the acrobatic Uhaa Nation and Japanese sensation Kenta and rebuilt them as Finn Balor, Kevin Owens, Apollo Crews and Hideo Itami. An injury has slowed Hideo’s impact considerably, but the other three are making waves in the WWE Universe already.

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(Photo: WWE.com)

NXT CLASS OF 2015

Graduating Class: Sasha Banks, Tyler Breeze, Charlotte, Becky Lynch, Neville, Kevin Owens, Braun Strowman

Counted Out: Solomon Crowe (Sami Callihan), Justin Gabriel (PJ Black), Brad Maddox, CJ Parker,

New Recruits: Austin Aries, Athena (Adrienne), Bif Busick (Christopher Girard), KC Cassidy (Peyton Royce), Tomassa Ciampa, Johnny Gargano, Kana (Asuka), Jessie McKay (Billie Kay), Samoa Joe, La Sombra (Manny Andrade), Rich Swann

Another small class, but one that will be remembered for the bringing in the cavalry for the Divas Revolution. Charlotte, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks all graduated in the fall of 2015 and it immediately changed the tone of the entire Divas Division, and allowing for the rightful return to the Women’s Division. Tyler Breeze finally made the Big Show (the roster, not the wrestler), although his fizzle died quickly. Neville and Kevin Owens brought diametrically opposite styles and characters into the WWE Universe and became fan favourites for equally different reasons, and in-house golem Braun Strowman made his debut. Solomon Crowe took a creative time out and returned to the indies and Sami Callihan’s head and Justin Gabriel quit, rebranding himself “The Darewolf” PJ Black and appearing in TNA and Lucha Underground. With recent additions like Balor, Zayn, Crews and more, the indie elite began to shift eyes to NXT as a viable option, attracting veterans like Samoa Joe and Austin Aries, and a myriad of top level stars such as Johnny Gargano, La Sombra, Athena, Tomassa Ciampa, Bif Busick and the explosive Kana (repainted as Asuka).

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(Photo: WWE.com)

NXT CLASS OF 2016

Graduating Class: Baron Corbin, Apollo Crews, Emma, Enzo & Big Cass, The Vaudevillains (Simon Gotch & Adien English), Sami Zayn

Counted Out: Wade Barrett, Daniel Bryan, Bull Dempsey, Sylvester Lefort, Marcus Louis

New Recruits: Shinsuke Nakamura, Nikki Storm, The Mighty Don’t Kneel (Mickey Nicholls & Shane Haste)

This year’s class has already exploded with a huge start, seeing Sami Zayn, Baron Corbin and Apollo Crews lead the way, followed by a rejuvenated Emma, and two solid tag teams – the unorthodox throwback of The Vaudevillians and the infectious magnetism of Enzo Amore and Big Cass. The arrival of NJPW megastar Shinsuke Nakamura will turn up the attention on NXT, and the women’s division – taking a blow from losing their main event of the past few years – gets a shot of Scotch in Nikki Storm. Technically, Emma debuted in 2014, but a forgotten less-than-a-year partnership with Santino Marella doesn’t qualify as a proper full time position on the Main Roster. The year long return to NXT to reinvent herself did wonders, not only showing greater depth for her character, but helped establish Dana Brooke as a solid heel sidekick. She’s on the Main Roster to stay now. And in the true sense of the Circle of Life, two of the very First Class have made 2016 the year the end their in-ring careers in the WWE. Two opposite stories, opposite opportunities, forever united by their debut in the Nexus. Daniel Bryan, one of the industry’s most beloved yet unlikely success stories, retired from the sport this winter. And in the summer, Nexus leader Wade Barrett will be walking away from the company, in his final piece of Bad News.

Since it’s original inception, first as a reality show to segway their FCW prospects and finally as a true developmental brand under Triple H, NXT has continued to not only create future stars to lead the WWE on the Grandest Stage of Them All, they’ve done a magnificent job of bringing in the true indie elite from around the world. And if this year is any evidence, the Raw after Wrestlemania is no longer the time when they bring back old talent like Goldberg, but instead elevate the cream of their own crop. In other words, instead of asking “Who’s Next?”, we’ll be finding out “Who’s NXT” for years to come.

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