WWE‘s NXT brand has a rich history dating back to 2010. For its first two years, it was a glorified talent show closer to America’s Got Talent than Friday Night SmackDown. A host of wrestlers from all over the country and beyond would be put through a series of (often goofy) tasks in a bid to display their personality to the WWE Universe. It gave us such memorable moments as “The Genesis of McGillicutty” and a flurry of hilarious Daniel Bryan content. Perhaps most notably, it gave us The Nexus; the faction originally consisting of leader Wade Barrett and the likes of Bryan, Ryback, Heath Slater, and Darren Young, to name but a few. Of course, by mid-2012, NXT in that format had quickly declined to the point where it was time for a revamp. NXT would be converted from a second-rate talent show into something more closely resembling the NXT that exists today. That being a developmental brand for a new wave of independent wrestling stars and some holdovers from Florida Championship Wrestling (FCW).
With NXT going from talent show to the “third brand”, it became a showcase of young, future WWE superstars. It became a glimpse into the future of the WWE main roster; with some of the original NXT roster remaining on RAW and SmackDown to this day. With a newfound seriousness to the product, as well as a regained focus on the wrestling aspect (as opposed to the personality, which was the focus of the talent show) of the product, there needed to be a main championship. So was born the NXT Championship, which now has a lineage dating back almost nine years. It has become one of the most sought-after championships in wrestling, as it can often be the rocket fuel needed to become WWE or Universal Champion. However, the NXT Championship is not always so – as many former NXT Champions have gone on to fall short of the mark on the main roster. Without further ado, let us now take a look at each former NXT Champion (in chronological order) as we ask the age-old question of “Where Are They Now?”
(To make things simple, the dates of championship reigns are in-line with WWE’s. Therefore, dates match the airing of shows/events, as opposed to their filming).
Inaugural NXT Champion: Seth Rollins (August 29, 2012 – January 9, 2013)
For all the NXT Champions there have been, it speaks volumes that the first NXT Champion has gone on to have the most successful WWE tenure. Seth Rollins remains a main-stay of the WWE today. In addition to being the inaugural NXT Champion, he boasts more than a cabinet full of accolades. He is a former two-time WWE Champion, as well as a two-time WWE Universal Champion. He has won both the United States and the Intercontinental (2x) championships, as well as the RAW Tag Team Championships (6x) with partners ranging from Roman Reigns to Buddy Murphy. He has won the Money in the Bank (2014), which led to one of the all-time great WrestleMania moments in the oft-dubbed “Heist of the Century” and also won the Men’s Royal Rumble in 2019. He was a member of one of the WWE’s most dominant factions ever in The Shield (with Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose), was the star of The Authority faction, and has won nine Slammy Awards. Needless to say, Seth has done it all and will no doubt be a headline induction into the WWE Hall of Fame when he decides to call it a day.
2. Big E Langston (January 9, 2013 – June 12, 2013)
That’s right, Big E once had a surname. The man formerly known as Big E Langston has gone on to forge a successful WWE career for himself and remains a valued part of the main roster to this day. Since losing the NXT Championship, Big E has gone on to be involved in the heel team (as enforcer) of AJ Lee and Dolph Ziggler, before moving on to become a babyface Intercontinental Champion. For whatever reason, Big E became lost in the shuffle – a crime given his size, ability, and unmatched natural charisma (which admittedly wasn’t fully showcased until later on). In late 2014, Big E would become part of the New Day trio and the rest is history. The New Day holds the distinction of being one of the longest-lasting WWE factions ever. Even today, where Big E finds himself separated from Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods because of the brand split (Big E is on SmackDown, whereas the others are on RAW), they remain a faction at PPVs. Their combined chemistry, charisma, and pure entertainment factor make them unbreakable. In addition to his NXT Championship reign, E is a two-time Intercontinental Champion, two-time RAW Tag Team Champion, six-time SmackDown Tag Team Champion, and holds a single Slammy Award. Now that he is solo on SmackDown, it is time for Big E to start getting some main event gold. He deserves it.
3. Bo Dallas (June 12, 2013 – February 27, 2014)
Bo Dallas still holds the distinction of being the youngest NXT Champion in history, winning the title just two days before his 23rd birthday. He also remains one of the most polarizing NXT Champions in history. For as entertaining as Bo Dallas was as champion (how could we forget fans chanting “Bo-LEAVE! at him”), many felt as though he was not championship material. He did not boast an arsenal of flashy moves, he did not have the physique of Seth Rollins or Big E, especially. But this was his charm. He was the weasel; the heel champion who hung onto his spot for dear life. His catchphrase of encouraging the audience that “all you have to do is BO-LIEVE!” was hilarious and deservedly over. On the main roster, the character floundered; it was never given the same attention it was in NXT. Bo would find himself as part of the Social Outcasts (with Heath Slater, Curtis Axel, and Adam Rose) Miztourage (with Miz and Curtis Axel), and the B-Team (again with Axel). In short, he was never seen as anything more than a faction lackey, a shame for a formerly over, third-generation star with the charisma to make a character entertaining. He has also a former one-time RAW Tag Team Champion (with Axel) and a one-time 24/Champion. Bo was named in the 2021 “Black Wednesday” releases and is currently without a company. With an apparent real estate side business going on, perhaps Bo will leave wrestling. Stay tuned.
4. Adrian Neville (February 27, 2014 – December 11, 2014)
Arguably the most gifted in-ring of the former NXT Champions. Adrian Neville, as he was then known, was considered to be something of an “internet darling” – someone who could wow in the ring but lacked the personality and charisma to succeed in the WWE. Additionally, standing at a billed height of 5’8″, many felt he could never make it in the “land of the giants” that was the WWE. They were wrong, of course; Neville proved to the world that despite his size, he could go out there and have some of the most exciting matches. They were must-see matches, too, as NXT around this time was really starting to boom, especially in terms of match quality. Neville captured the title at the first-ever NXT TakeOver, Arrival. He was also one-half of the inaugural NXT Tag Team Champions, with Oliver Grey. This made Neville the first NXT star to win two different NXT titles. On the main roster, Neville would become a two-time Cruiserweight Champion as the self-proclaimed “King of the Cruiserweights”. He also has a sole Slammy Award (2015) for being the Breakout Star of the Year. He left the WWE officially by mutual decision at the start of 2018. Nowadays, you can catch Neville – now going by his former name of PAC – on Wednesday nights, where he competes in a more featured role on AEW Dynamite. Following his WWE departure, PAC also returned to Dragon Gate and won the Open The Dream Gate Championship
5. Sami Zayn (December 11, 2014 – February 11, 2015)
Sami Zayn was, for a long time, Mr. NXT. He was the chief babyface of the brand, perhaps partly for him being a successful and known “indie star” as El Generico prior to his signing with the black and yellow brand. Since coming to the main roster at the culmination of his NXT run in May of 2015, Zayn has been a mainstay. For much of that time, Zayn has been involved in feuds with long-time friend and foe, Kevin Owens – who as Kevin Steen acted in a similar role as friend and adversary to El Generico years before. For the past few years, Zayn has been a heel – a crime to many who recognize the pure babyface potential Sami Zayn has to offer. Whereas many use their boosted financial income for personal reasons, Sami set up SAMS – the Sami For Syria Mobile Clinic which aims to provide life-saving medical care to those affected by the ongoing war in Syria. Again, Sami is a natural babyface. In addition to his sole NXT reign, Sami has won the Intercontinental Championship two times. He also has a Slammy Award for NXT Star of the Year (2014). Sami remains an integral part of the main roster and hopefully, he manages to gain more gold soon.
6. Kevin Owens (February 11, 2015 – July 4, 2015)
With the arrival of Kevin Owens and his capture of the NXT Championship, NXT’s aforementioned “boom” was now in full swing. Though Owens did not have the title for too long, his reign remains one of the most memorable. Just like real-life friend Sami Zayn, Owens too remains one of the most integral parts of the main roster on SmackDown. He has become a reliable opponent, whether it be when he is needed to beat up celebrities (before Logan Paul there was Machine Gun Kelly) or when he is needed to act as the crowd favorite in feuds where someone is in need of heel heat (such as the recent feud with the newly-crowned “Tribal Chief”, Roman Reigns). Owens is also one of the few former NXT Champions to achieve world title success on RAW, where he became the WWE Universal Champion in 2016. He is also a two-time Intercontinental and a three-time United States Champion. Kevin Owens will likely be in the WWE for a few more years, if not for the remainder of his active wrestling career. Like Sami Zayn, it can only be hoped that Owens captures more accolades worthy of his talent. Regardless, he is a future WWE Hall of Famer.
7. Finn Bálor (July 4, 2015 – April 26, 2016; September 8, 2020 – April 8, 2021)
Step forward Finn Bálor, arguably the superstar most synonymous with NXT. Finn is in an elite Club (pun intended) of WWE superstars to have held the NXT Championship more than once (with a gap of four years between reigns). He also holds the distinction of being the inaugural WWE Universal Champion, forever etching his name in WWE folklore. Despite having a three-year run on the main roster between 2016-19, Balor’s shoulder injury – which caused him to vacate the Universal Championship – appeared to be something management was concerned with and upon his return, he struggled to rejoin the title scene. Therefore, in 2019, he returned to the brand he helped build and continued his storied NXT run. Finn is, without a doubt, a future Hall of Famer. As well as being a former two-time NXT Champion and a former Universal Champion, Finn is a two-time Intercontinental Champion and winner of the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic with Samoa Joe. Speaking of Joe…
8. Samoa Joe (April 21, 2016 – August 20, 2016; November 19, 2016 – December 3, 2016)
Samoa Joe was one of the most recognizable names outside of the WWE prior to his NXT tenure and championship reign. For a decade, he was one of the faces of TNA (later IMPACT) alongside the likes of AJ Styles, Christopher Daniels, and Abyss. As mentioned earlier, his NXT run also saw him become one-half of the 2015 Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic winners alongside Balor, who Joe would capture the NXT title from. In addition to this, Joe would become the first-ever two-time NXT Champion, signifying his importance to the brand. On the main roster, Joe would not be so successful – memorably and infamously losing to AJ Styles three times in a row at Hell in a Cell, WWE Super Show-Down, and Crown Jewel in 2017. His peak came in the run-up to Great Balls of Fire in 2017, where he was gathering serious momentum in a feud with Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman. Alas, Joe would lose the match; beginning the spiral out of the championship picture. Ultimately, repeat injuries ended any hope of Joe capturing a world championship, and throughout much of 2020 until his release on April 15, 2021, Samoa Joe would be RAW’s color commentator. He excelled in the role and it is was a shame to find his name in the list of releases. He was a two-time United States Champion. Joe is currently a free agent but is undoubtedly one of the hottest free agents around. Watch this space.
9. Shinsuke Nakamura (August 20, 2016 – November 19, 2016; December 3, 2016 – January 28, 2017)
Shinsuke Nakamura. One of the hottest names in wrestling for years prior to his signing with the WWE in early 2016. A former IWGP Heavyweight Champion in NJPW, where he is perhaps best known for his runs as IWGP Intercontinental Champion, Shinsuke was well-established as a best bout machine. He had it all. A great look, an amazing arsenal of moves, and a unique charisma that made him must-see. The “King of Strong Style” was the one talent the WWE could never do wrong. Nakamura was the second-ever two-time NXT Champion and soon moved up to SmackDown after his second reign and subsequent attempt to reclaim the title from Bobby Roode ended at NXT TakeOver: Orlando in 2017. On SmackDown, he managed to defeat John Cena before subsequent losses to Jinder Mahal hurt his momentum. Since his Men’s Royal Rumble victory in 2018 and heel turn following his defeat to AJ Styles at WrestleMania 34, Shinsuke has not been the same competitor – only briefly and in short flashes showcasing the brilliance which made him such a giant international star. Following his two NXT title reigns, Shinsuke has captured the Intercontinental (1x) and United States (2x) Championships and is a one-time SmackDown Tag Team Champion with Cesaro. He was also the winner of the 2018 Men’s Royal Rumble. Whereas he has done better than many former NXT Champions, Shinsuke has undoubtedly underachieved.
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