There is a lengthy list of things that WWE is currently doing wrong, but its stewardship of developmental promotion NXT is not on it. The flagship is still bobbing around aimlessly, but the promotion WWE created as a sort of minor league currently stands as just about the most perfect iteration of big budget professional wrestling in the world. The last two TakeOver live specials, which are essentially NXT’s pay-per-views, have featured two of the best matches in company history, both of them between Adam Cole and Johnny Gargano for the NXT Championship. In fact, if you believe Wrestling Observer editor Dave Meltzer’s ratings (and many people do), those two matches were bar none the best ever in a WWE promotion—5.5 stars out of 5 (it’s complicated) for the two-out-of-three falls match in New York over WrestleMania weekend, and 5.25 for the rematch at TakeOver 25.
Even with great wrestlers wrestling in even better matches, NXT has always had the potential to be more than just The Good Matches Show. No match on the TakeOver 25 card makes this blue-sky possibility as clear as the one in which Velveteen Dream, the Prince-aping god of purple, defended his North American Championship against one of NXT’s most beloved characters ever, “Prince Pretty” Tyler Breeze, he of the selfie stick and singer of his own appropriately ridiculous theme song.
Breeze was part of the first real NXT boom, which dates roughly from the middle of 2013 until...well, let’s call it TakeOver: Dallas in April of 2016. That period is essentially The Sami Zayn Administration, and it was good; NXT was in a period of puberty, figuring out how to properly mix its great in-ring performers with more unique and bizarre character actors. Breeze’s male model gimmick quickly won over the more receptive NXT audience, a different and far friendlier animal than the crowds in the WWE. Breeze wasn’t an imported indie superstar like Zayn, or Kevin Owens, or Finn Bálor, but as a homegrown talent with a fun persona and serious in-ring chops, the crowd readily embraced him as their own.
Breeze’s defining moment was likely this explosion of offense at the first amazing main event in the TakeOver series, at TakeOver: Fatal Four-Way in September of 2014. Look at this shit:
Breeze didn’t win that match, or (Adrian) Neville’s NXT Championship belt, but it was already clear that Breeze would be a big part of what made NXT special. The promotion gave him the honor of wrestling Japanese junior heavyweight legend Jushin Thunder Liger at TakeOver: Brooklyn in 2015, which suggested that they knew what they had in him even then. (I was in the audience for that show, and the pop for his runway entrance was delightful.) The question was how long NXT would get to keep him—the whole point of NXT, at least at that time, was to get Breeze up to the main roster, where he would sink or swim. As it turned out, he sank. Fans failed to connect with his persona, booking treated him like a joke, and one of the most entertaining wrestlers in the company quickly came to feel like an afterthought.
It was only when Breeze teamed up with another underutilized talent in Fandango that he took off in WWE proper. Their tag team, a movie-parodying duo called Fashion Police, didn’t wrestle in many great matches, but their vignettes operated at Community levels of homage and parody, and the pair quickly revealed themselves as two of WWE’s more naturally funny dudes. My personal favorite is this Law and Order spoof; just look at the title to properly understand the ridiculousness of the segments.
Injuries soon broke up the party, Fashion Police was shelved, and Breeze was left adrift once again. When he went back down to NXT last month, it marked the first real high-profile “return” to the promotion since the brand became A Whole Thing. Despite that lack of precedent, it worked. Breeze showed up to challenge Velveteen Dream for the North American title at TakeOver 25. The battle for the second most prestigious men’s title on the brand (out of two total, unless you count the NXT UK belt) felt less like a competition—Dream was always going to win it—and more like a referendum on whether Tyler Breeze was really as good as everyone remembered, or was more a product of his era.
The answer lies somewhere in the middle, and it’s hard to find in the match itself, which was unspectacular and probably the worst on the card on that night. And yet it was still a blast—Breeze and Dream are both in complete control of their characters, and the proceedings are all appropriately batshit; where else will you get Swole Prince fighting a male model for possession of a garish crimson belt? Breeze doesn’t have the work rate of a Cole or Gargano or rising superstar Matt Riddle, but he also didn’t look out of place back in the black-and-yellow ring. On the tapings after that special—NXT tapes blocks of shows at a time and then plays them over the next few weeks or, in this case, two months—Fandango saved Breeze from a beatdown by the terrible Forgotten Sons. This seemed to set the stage both for ’Dango himself to return to NXT and for the Fashion Police to potentially reunite.
Fandango wasn’t the only NXT graduate to show up back in the promotion, either. Apollo Crews, who was built up as a huge deal on NXT despite not being there for too long, also returned on this recent set of tapings. (He faced off against new Japanese signing KUSHIDA, who rules a whole lot.)
Breeze’s successful return to NXT is an authentically heartwarming story, which is not the type of story that the vulgar and bureaucratic WWE excels at telling. I would have bet that Breeze would ask for his release before the promotion would acquiesce to sending him back down to get some shine, but for once WWE made a decision that put a marginal wrestler in a position to succeed. In front of fans that understand and adore him, Breeze elevated his game and delivered his best match since that aforementioned fatal four-way—which happened nearly five years ago.
With Fandango and Crews also heading down to NXT—and possibly for a prolonged stay, though that’s not a sure thing yet—it seems as if WWE has finally realized that this talent pipeline can go in more than one direction. There is a lot of talent in NXT that simply isn’t ready to carry a title feud or a big program, but that’s the point of using the promotion as a developmental circuit, even if it’s really a third full brand at this point. By moving down veterans that head booker and lead decision-maker Triple H can trust to put on good matches and entertaining segments, NXT is protecting itself from having to fill TakeOver cards and (more importantly) weekly television with wrestlers that are not quite ready for the spotlight. It’s also taking seriously its obligations as an actual wrestling promotion, as opposed to just a farm team for WWE.
It’s easy to think of several promising wrestlers on WWE’s main roster who might be eager to return to NXT and get some ring time. Lio Rush was in NXT for a hot minute before being moved up to serve as Bobby Lashley’s manager. Rush is great in that role, but Lashley himself has been dead weight since his WWE return last year, and Rush is also a fantastic wrestler in his own right. Vince McMahon will never push him as a serious wrestler on the main roster because of his size—he’s only 5-foot-6 and about 160 pounds—but NXT is less concerned about that sort of thing, and Rush is a work-rate king.
A move to NXT could also bust Rusev out of his shackles. Rusev is just too good to be stuck doing bullshit tag team matches with a palpably checked-out Shinsuke Nakamura, and since he and real-life wife Lana don’t seem too interested in leaving the WWE nest, a move down to NXT might remind fans that Rusev is a tank in the ring, and better at making the crowd believe the punishment he’s taking is real than just about anyone in the company. Rusev is one of the few wrestlers who also sells on offense, adjusting his signature moves to account for any bodily harm he’s experienced in the match. A Rusev-Gargano match could be a blockbuster; Gargano is excellent as an underdog, and Rusev is a bulky roadblock who can keep up with a faster-paced match.
Even some wrestlers that aren’t particularly good workers could benefit from going back to NXT. Mojo Rawley was never anyone’s cup of tea in WWE, but he’s a smart guy with good comedic timing and his weird Man In The Mirror gimmick, which is currently getting over with absolutely no one in WWE, might fare better with looser NXT crowds. He could also stand to do some more developing—as a fast, strong guy with a football background, it’s easy to project him as an old-school brawler. I’m not really crying out for Mojo Rawley matches, to be clear, but he’s surely better than, say, Jaxson Ryker, who had a huge and exceedingly dull spot in a tag team ladder match clusterfuck at TakeOver 25.
The talent that WWE’s currently wasting on its main roster is ostensibly there to give wrestlers rest and cover for injuries; more realistically, they’re under contract to keep them out of the indies. But if WWE wanted to give its bench players a chance to show out in NXT, there’d be no shortage of candidates. Remember Chad Gable (who, thankfully, is getting some shine on 205 Live, WWE’s semi-irrelevant cruiserweight show)? Or the AT THE TIME NXT TAG CHAMPIONS War Raiders, who were called up, saddled with the ridiculous Viking Experience name for a week, and then shunted off to irrelevance? Any or all of these could go the Breeze route, even if for just one big program, and remind fans why they were worth caring about.
One of the first excellent NXT matches was a two-out-of-three falls match between Zayn and Cesaro, who was on the main roster at that time. It was a perfect pairing, and perfectly timed. Zayn was then an indie darling under the name of El Generico; Cesaro is probably the best WWE wrestler never to get a world title push. The two tore the house down across a series of matches, but the two-out-of-three falls match was the one that really put NXT on the map. It showed not just that NXT was worth watching as more than a minor league, but was its own type of promotion.If you haven’t watched it, it’s worth your time.
I’m not expecting a repeat of that with Breeze, or Fandango, or any other main roster cast-offs. But what worked then could work again. Just pair an exciting talent (Dream, Riddle, Pete Dunne) with a veteran performer and let them go for it in a way that WWE doesn’t often let happen on the main roster. The most NXT-style match on the big stage was a Seth Rollins open challenge for the world title, answered by Neville; it was so good that I believed in one of the greatest near-fall finish fake-outs of all time. That’s a high standard, but there’s surely an audience for that type of bout.
And what’s the risk? Even if the returning wrestlers fail, it’s not like any of these talents are doing anything useful on the main roster anyway. The ceiling is high, but the stakes are low enough that NXT can afford to get weird. WWE might just discover a new way to develop talent beyond having them take up a spot on the main roster and watch the big stars up close. Tyler Breeze was the most deserving of this opportunity, but I hope he’s not the last to given a chance to re-connect in NXT.