By Kyle Johnson for WrestlingObserver.com
NXT Champion Kevin Owens has signed a new deal that will make him a permanent fixture on the main WWE roster moving forward. Owens being elevated so quickly should come as little surprise considering how great he has been for the past six months, and especially given how absolutely comfortable he looks in the ring standing across from a bona fide superstar like John Cena, but the ease of his transition thus far has been nonetheless impressive to behold.
With Owens as its top heel and one of its biggest needle-movers, NXT has gone from a developmental territory to a white-hot indie in a little under a year’s time. It was inevitable that Owens would get his golden ticket in the hopes that the buzz surrounding him would benefit the big dance’s business, and with that buzz only getting stronger by the week, it was going to happen sooner rather than later.
There is a lingering question that the move brings to the foreground: what happens when Vince McMahon starts treating NXT the way he would any other indie wrestling group stacked with talent ripe for the picking and tailor-made for his television shows? The answer could very well determine where NXT and Kevin Owens are in a year’s time.
Triple H has made it abundantly clear that he has grand designs for NXT. He intends to make it a regular touring brand in a very short amount of time. He sees it as a product that can turn a profit on the road three nights a week and twice on weekends. He believes that he has on his hands a hot ticket that will be able to draw well in international venues. He may very well be right.
But he also understands that the ultimate goal of his pet project is to prepare talent for the main roster. This means that, at any time, Vince McMahon can select one (or more) of NXT’s top talents and whisk them away at will, just as was the case with Kevin Owens. As will surely be the case with Finn Bálor. As will surely be the case with Sami Zayn. As will surely be the case with NXT’s Four Horsewomen.
To that end, Owens will ostensibly serve as the pilot program for the overarching success of Hunter’s vision and how cohesive it is with Vince’s vision. At the moment, Owens is arguably NXT’s biggest star, and how he transitions into his role on the main roster could very well set the standard for those that follow.
Creating a Template for Future NXT Call-Ups
Owens is not the first to make the leap to the WWE from NXT by any stretch. Several former NXT talents have transitioned onto the main roster, and some—most notably Wrestlemania main-eventer Roman Reigns and current WWE World Heavyweight Champion Seth Rollins—have been quite successful in moving upstream. Guys like Bray Wyatt, Big E, and Dean Ambrose have shown a great deal of promise and been involved in high-profile matches and feuds since moving up, but they’ve felt trapped in WWE’s creative undertow more often than not. Some—like Adam Rose and The Ascension—seemed to drown almost immediately.
There is a wide berth separating the class of Rollins, Reigns, and Ambrose from the class of Zayn, Bálor, and Owens. There is an equally significant gulf between the perception of the NXT brand when Neville won the title in February 2014 and what it had evolved into when he dropped the belt to Zayn ten months later. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when NXT went from mere developmental to the hottest new thing in wrestling, but it is not unfair to say that it had a great deal to do with the hype surrounding the debut of Kevin Owens.
While Neville may be the first member of the core group involved in TakeOver: R Evolution to get a main roster spot (or a purple cape, for that matter), very few suspected he would be given the chance to truly succeed at the highest level. Whether it was his height, his appearance, his mic work, his accent, or his in-ring style, the perception always seemed to to be that any number of impediments—either real or imagined—will perpetually prevent Neville from being a main-event talent in Vince McMahon’s WWE. That he has gone from working with Rollins and Cena to feuding with Bo Dallas in such a short amount of time certainly does nothing to dispel this notion.
Many assumed a similar fate for Owens. It was easy enough to predict that Owens’ decidedly un-WWE-like build would be the barrier that hinders his ascent to the top. That assumption was laid to rest, at least temporarily, when he laid out Cena on two consecutive episodes of Raw and showed the world exactly where he belongs.
Owens was introduced on Raw as a star, he handled himself as a star, and he has been treated like a star in every aspect—from the way he’s spoken of on commentary up to being praised on television by The Authority. Treating a new talent like they belong and like they are special is incredibly important in the process of familiarizing an audience to a name they do not recognize, and it’s worked wonders thus far in establishing Owens as Raw’s hottest new commodity. There’s certainly enough concrete evidence to suggest that this pattern should be repeated to some degree when Finn, Sami, Sasha, Charlotte, Becky, et al. make their transitions from NXT to WWE.
Where NXT Goes from Here
So impressive was Owens’ debut on national television that he was almost immediately granted a new contract as a WWE main roster talent. As such, he’s scheduled to be a part of Raw every week moving forward, and he will also begin working a full WWE house show schedule. This and a number of other unrelated factors leave NXT in a state of flux for the first time since its popularity boom in late 2014.
Looking at the talent who took part in TakeOver: R Evolution—arguably the epicenter of the NXT explosion—six performers have been moved up to the main roster full-time (Neville, The Lucha Dragons, The Ascension, and now Owens), two are out recovering from shoulder surgery (Zayn and Hideo Itami), and one (CJ Parker) has left the company. This leaves Finn Bálor, Sasha Banks, and Charlotte as the lone headliners from that show still working in NXT, and it is a virtual guarantee that they will not be around for that much longer.
Expanding through TakeOver: Rival and this month’s Unstoppable show, and including other performers who have been active on weekly programming, NXT’s primary talent pool currently consists of: Bálor, Banks, Charlotte, Becky Lynch, Bayley, Tyler Breeze, Baron Corbin, Solomon Crowe, Alexa Bliss, Carmella, Emma, Dana Brooke, Blake and Murphy, and Enzo Amore and Colin Cassady.
It’s a safe bet that about a third of these names will be on the main roster by the end of the year. That leaves a decidedly thin roster to work with on regular basis at a point in time in which Triple H wants to take his show on the road. NXT already has two shows booked in California this October, and one has to wonder what current NXT talent will be left to work it.
There are a few variables at play. There is the newly-signed Samoa Joe, whose open-ended deal makes him a unique element on the roster. While his debut and four weeks of television tapings certainly suggest an endgame of Owens vs. Joe for the NXT Title, Joe’s legitimate independent contractor status and his involvement with Ring of Honor—suddenly a nationally-syndicated wrestling program—make it seem less likely that Joe would become NXT’s next champion. How much of a factor he is in NXT’s future going forward and how much time he spends as a part of the company, we will have to wait and see.
There is also the next class of signees, headed by Uhaa Nation. Uhaa has already made a couple of appearances on NXT television, and in a brief on-screen appearance at Unstoppable, it was clear that his reputation precedes him when it comes to the crowd at Full Sail. There’s just one problem: nobody seems to know what to call him yet. If you look at NXT’s roster on Wikipedia, Uhaa’s ring name is listed as “Unknown.” Fortunately, Uhaa’s prowess is not an unknown quantity—he’s an extremely capable talent who will no doubt be positioned at or near the top whenever somebody finally settles on a name for him. When that happens? Again, wait and see.
While there is plenty of already-signed talent to work with and a veritable ton of acquirable talent working on the independent scene, the looming harvest forces the issue of whether the men and women in charge of NXT will be able to grow its next crop of stars in time to accommodate for the loss of its current yield.
If Vince McMahon sees an NXT talent as capable of making money on the main roster, that’s precisely where they will wind up—even if it is to the detriment of the emerging NXT brand. Kevin Owens is just the first stalk to get cut, and the team in Winter Park must understand that the scythe is coming hard and fast if it wants to sustain that vision of NXT as a marque brand. They have proven themselves capable of getting new talent over, but they may need to work even faster at sewing its seeds and making them grow.
Where Kevin Owens Goes From Here
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A lot of what happens next with NXT is riding on the handling of Kevin Owens. Owens is in the unique position of now being a main roster star—currently involved in a huge feud, no less—and the champion of the developmental brand. It’s assumed that Owens’ transition out of NXT will be gradual; after all, he’s already appearing in the next three weeks of pre-taped television, culminating in a no contest bout with Joe that ends in a pull-apart, so there are plenty of loose ends to tie off.
Owens could very well vacate the NXT title, setting up a tournament to determine a new champion. He could simply lose it to Bálor or Joe, but the circumstances surrounding those two men and their futures may land the NXT Title in similar straits in relatively short order, and having Owens lose at a point where his star as a monster heel is rising seems like a mistep. Owens could instead hold onto the title and work both WWE and NXT programming, which could greatly benefit NXT’s brand cachet—but only if Owens is booked properly.
For Owens to have been called up and immediately placed into a program with John Cena suggests that Vince McMahon has confidence in his abilities and in Triple H’s eye for talent. Certainly, Owens made his own case in handling himself with a veteran’s calm on a much larger stage, but it’s hard to imagine that McMahon has suddenly seen the light and changed his beliefs about the business and what qualities make up a WWE Superstar.
How Owens fares at Elimination Chamber will foreshadow his future as a main roster fixture. To be certain, there can be only two outcomes if Vince McMahon takes him seriously as a potential top superstar: Owens must come within a hair of beating Cena, or he must beat him convincingly. While the latter outcome might seem far-fetched, not having Cena’s US Title on the line certainly gives the impression that it is at least a possibility.
The actual finish of the match is almost ancillary to the conclusion of the segment. Owens going over via pinfall would provide him that legitimate big win to catapult him to the moon, but a DQ finish followed by Owens annihilating Cena with post-match powerbombs—while not the most desirable outcome—could extend the feud into June or beyond. Sustaining the feud long enough to give Owens the opportunity to work with Cena more on television and get a signature win should put Owens in a strong position heading into Summerslam.
The long-term question becomes what they choose to do with Kevin Owens after his feud with Cena concludes. Again, there are really only two options: he can work with other established stars like Randy Orton and present himself as a viable contender in the WWE Championship picture, or he can move down the card and mix it up with the likes of Dolph Ziggler, Sheamus, King Barrett, and Ryback. Even if his role is decimating the entire mid-card with pop-up powerbombs, the drop from John Cena to Dolph Ziggler is long and dark. Just ask Rusev.
If Owens is to remain a part of NXT—either as its champion or as a participant in house shows—he must be booked on WWE television in a manner consistent with his character on NXT. At this stage, Owens is the ambassador for the NXT brand, so there can be no half-measures. Looking weaker against WWE talent—ala Hideo Itami in the Andre the Giant Battle Royal—entrenches the inferiority of NXT’s talent in the minds of the casual audience. If Owens is the best that NXT has to offer, he must be able to hang with—and beat—the best that WWE has to offer.
Regardless of where things wind up after Sunday, the meteoric rise of Kevin Owens—coupled with the solidification of Wednesdays as a battleground for wrestling’s rising stars, many of whom could eventually become marquee stars for a touring NXT brand—is reason enough for wrestling fans to be excited about the future. Let’s just hope that the outlook is this rosy in a year’s time.
All images courtesy of WWE.com