The NXT Nine: WWE’s Fellowship of the Ring

In the early days of the WWE Brand Split, the Smackdown show—overseen by Paul Heyman—established itself as the “wrestling” brand, while Raw—overseen by some guy you’ve never heard of because he’s not Paul Heyman—was built to be the “sports entertainment” brand. But as we’ve noticed before, a good sports entertainment show is a good wrestling show, and vice-versa. It’s not as if Raw was incapable of having good matches (Shawn Michaels was a weekly contributor), and Smackdown certainly had great storylines (Eddie Guerrero’s quest to win the WWE title, for example). But it was clear that Smackdown had a very specific focus, while Raw was in more of the traditional variety show format that is still being used today. Heyman’s show was never allowed to get a true leg up on Raw, however; it was taped , it was on the lesser night, it was the less-historically important show, and it had Paul Heyman running it: It was never going to be allowed to be more important than Raw.

But it was better than Raw.

You’ll be hard pressed to find ten wrestling fans who preferred Raw over Smackdown in those days. The Raw main event scene was tired, as Triple H was either defending the World Title or feuding with the guy who beat him, en route to his regaining his World Title. Look at the first almost-three years of the World Heavyweight Championship’s existence: Triple H loses it to HBK, who loses it back to Triple H, who loses it to Goldberg, who loses it back to Triple H, who loses it to Chris Benoit, who loses it back to Triple H (by way of a one month Randy Orton transition), who finally loses it to Batista. At that point the title was never on the same show as Triple H and his reign of terror was ended, but for those first thirty-three months, Triple H and the World Heavyweight Title were inseparable. And Raw was horrible because of it. Not (necessarily) because of Triple H, but just the way he was booked. In addition, Raw had an undeveloped, largely ignored midcard, a joke of a Divas division, and a tag title scene that was thin and wasted.

Meanwhile Smackdown had exciting main event action, with more variety, better stories, plus a midcard that was deep and nurtured, a tag division that never failed to produce incredible matches with interesting teams, and a cruiserweight division that, while thin, never disappointed (at least in those early days). But the big edge that Smackdown had over Raw was a core group of guys who carried the brand. The show wasn’t necessarily built around them, but they provided a skeleton the rest of the show could be built on top of. They were Paul Heyman’s security blanked. They were his trampoline. They were his “Smackdown Six.”

Now sometimes fans will argue about just who is really included in this famed grouping. Like the way people argue about who the mythical “fourth Beatle” should be (obviously it’s George Martin), there’s a lot of conjecture about who makes up the Smackdown Six. Should Brock Lesnar be included? What about Undertaker? People are sick of Big Show today but back then he was an integral part of Smackdown’s early success as a brand. So was Hollywood Hogan. And Mr. America too.

But, just going by the man himself, here are the half-dozen guys that Paul Heyman considered the “Smackdown Six:”

Chris Benoit, Kurt Angle, Eddie Guerrero, Chavo Guerrero Edge and Rey Mysterio.

smackdown-6

If you weren’t watching back then, it may seem out of place to include Chavo Guerrero in such an illustrious group, but look closely at those six names. They are three pairings; three tag teams that set the brand on fire starting in mid-2002. They competed in a triple threat tag match for the tag titles at No Mercy and in a rematch at Survivor Series, tearing down the house each time. Each of them brought some interesting dynamic, both as a singles guy and as a partner in his team. Angle and Benoit were legit wrestlers when working alone, but together they brought the entertainment factor as bickering children trying to one-up each other. Edge and Rey were the flashy young kids working solo, but together they were the “clashing styles” team that fans always love. The Guerreros were the sneaky cheaters that fans loved to hate, with Eddie’s charisma being undeniable when he worked alone, and Chavo…well Chavo did some crusierweight stuff too…

Anyway, the point is Smackdown worked because it had a nucleus of guys that were either great in the ring, had great characters, or both. All of them (save poor Chavo) ended up as main eventers on the show (Benoit’s main event run was mostly on Raw but it started on Smackdown), but in the pivotal infancy of the Smackdown brand they were the workhorses in the middle of the card, keeping viewers engaged and keeping the brand above water.

Which brings us to NXT.

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WWE’s yellow brand is not quite in the same boat as 2002-era Smackdown. It has a few things working against it and a few in its favor that Heyman’s show did not. It’s not a major cable channel so its exposure is limited. It’s roster is mostly indie guys with limited name-recognition and a few WWE-trainees who have yet to get their big break. On the other hand, it has much more support from management than Smackdown did. Its being so isolated from the rest of the WWE universe has allowed it to carve out its own identity in a way Smackdown never could.

But the biggest change is in the way its core roster is used. Whereas Heyman relied on a troupe of talented midcarders to carry the load of his show, NXT’s bread and butter is the show. These guys—the NXT Nine—are the main attraction. One of them has already been called up, another is about to be, one just arrived and a few are injured, but in years to come they will be looked back on as the foundation that made NXT the best wrestling show out there.

SAMI ZAYN

Without question, the heart and soul of NXT. Lovingly dubbed “happy beard guy” the former El Generico (so rumors say) took off his mask, bulked up just enough to avoid looking “small” and managed to become one of the realest characters in WWE programming. Some guys are clearly playing characters, even those who don’t have a crazy gimmick: When Randy Orton cuts a promo it feels like a guy who knows how to read his lines  well enough to get through a 20 minute monologue; when Sami Zayn grabs a mic you believe every word he says. In the ring he’s a natural. He’s fluid and versatile, with just the right amount of flash and pizazz to compliment real grappling skills. That he’s been in NXT for so long without being called up is not an indictment against his readiness or his value; it’s proof-positive that he is the MVP of the show. He’s the “John Cena” of NXT and until someone comes along who can achieve the same rapport and true affection for the audience, he will likely stay in NXT. Right now he’s out with an injury but he’ll be back in a few months ready to resume his spot as the face that runs the place.

ADRIAN NEVILLE

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Neville’s already gone, but his role in building NXT should never be forgotten. On WWE programming he’s a one-dimensional, silent acrobat. He’s fun to watch but lacks depth. On NXT, he was the scrappy underdog that won the big one, let it get to his head and almost cost him a true friendship. There never was a true heel turn while he held the NXT title, but he very very subtly shifted from true blue babyface to tweener. There was no “attack the Rock” moment like CM Punk had in his long reign, that moved him from the nice guy column to the bad guy column. He just overcame big guys like Brodus Clay and started a feud with Sami Zayn. It began with them both as babyfaces the fans loved, but little by little Neville started getting cocky, and slowly turned the fans against him. He did it in just such a way that they never fully booed him, just the way he carried himself against the beloved Zayn. And he did all this subtle work through promos! Imagine that: The one thing WWE is keeping him from doing turned him from a guy most assumed to be transitional champion to the longest reigning, and one of the most important title-holders in NXT history.

TYLER BREEZE

Of all the men in this list, Breeze is the most WWE-ready. That is both a blessing and a potential curse. It is a blessing that he has no indie reputation that would sour him with some of the old codgers still hanging around WWE headquarters. It’s a blessing that he is—more than any other major male superstar—almost purely a Performance Center success story. So there’s political reasons to push him, as a way of saying “This is what the Performance Center can do.” It’s a blessing that his character is over the top and he plays it with 100% sincerity (two things Vince loves) and it’s a blessing that (as a result of his WWE training) he works the infamous “WWE style” as his first language. On the other hand, his character is very fragile. One idiotic remark from JBL on commentary and he dies on his first night on the main roster. So easily his “supermodel with grit” character could become a one-note “effeminate supermodel” Fandango knockoff; the kind that Vince loves to laugh at and not with. Whatever becomes of him on the main roster, his contribution to NXT is vital. He lacks the street cred that guys like Owens or Balor or Joe had when they came in, so he’s sort of in a holding pattern. He’s one notch below the very top of the roster but every time he is about to break through another darling from the indies waltzes in and cuts in line. That sucks for him but it’s allowed him to work with those guys and their variety of styles. Back in the old days, guys like Jericho and Benoit traveled the world wrestling and learning different styles. The WWE Performance Center doesn’t really allow that, as they prefer you to be unmolded clay when you arrive. Breeze is lucky; he didn’t need to travel the world: The variety of styles came to him. Feuds with Zayn, Itami and Balor have given him plenty of experience that he otherwise would have missed out on. Not only that, but it’s clear Triple H and others who run NXT see him as talented enough to work with the new guys. In the end those sorts of guys always get their own chance to carry the ball. I just hope he gets his chance at the spotlight soon, before he gets called up.

SASHA BANKS

Without hesitation I say: Sasha Banks is the best sports entertainer in WWE, and among the best in all of wrestling. Start with her character: She has it mastered. So many performers play the part when they have a mic in their hands or when they’re being interviewed backstage, but when they get to the ring and start working a match, they are bland and lose all their personality. Not Banks: She owns her “boss” character. Her mannerisms and facial work never stop, whether she’s tormenting an outmatched opponent, or scurrying away from a stronger challenger. More than Balor, more than Owens, even more than Zayn, the one performer on NXT that I selfishly wish could stay there forever is Sasha Banks. I’ll never be convinced that Vince (and stooge, Kevin Dunn) will change the way women wrestlers are portrayed in WWE. I just know if Sasha debuted tomorrow she’d be ruined within six months. They’d strip away every bit of depth to her character and make her another in a long line of “petty, jealous, catty” divas that WWE peddles. She is the anchor of the NXT women’s division and, even more than AJ or Paige or Charlotte, will be remembered for being the face of the better-alternative to WWE women’s wrestling.

BAYLEY

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And then there’s Bayley. She’s the other anchor to the NXT women’s division. She’s the yang to Sasha’s yin. Where Banks is insecure and thus lashes out, Bayley is perfectly content, happy to be there, and ready to give hugs to all. She’s female Sami Zayn. She’s everything John Cena’s character needs to be but isn’t because he’s too often written like a jerk. She’s happy, principled, fierce in the ring without being cheap, and gets a top three reaction every time her music plays. Not only that, but she is an excellent role model for young ladies everywhere. There is a huge and untapped marketplace for WWE to reach: it’s the young ladies who see more to being a woman than jealousy and fighting over boyfriends. It’s the ones who want to see women do what the men do, because they can do what the men do. Her job is to connect to the crowds, be the spokesman and inspire the kids. And she does. In many ways she’s more important to the future of women’s wrestling than Sasha. Sasha is the better of the two, but she’s a heel. The young ladies are supposed to boo her, not be inspired by her. Bayley on the other hand, is the babyface. With every headband and slapwrist Bayley hands out to impressionable little girls in the crowd (whose parents will buy the shirts, the tickets, the toys and the network subscriptions so their little girl can see her favorite), she plants a seed that will one day blossom, and WWE will find itself drowing in the cries for legitimate wrestling. Those demands will come from the parents of young ladies and from the young ladies themselves who want to see more women like Bayley: women wrestlers who are real characters and real role models.

HIDEO ITAMI

The Asian sensation came to NXT with a lot of hype and plenty of fan support. It took him a while to transition, however. He wasn’t a Sin Cara like flop, but he wasn’t an instant mega star who “got it” the way Finn Balor has become. He works a very “Japanese” style, that is not typically seen by the average WWE-viewer. It calls for a lot of selling (more than usual for a WWE babyface) with sudden bursts of energy that allow him to hit a big move before collapsing. HBK used to do a variant of this style, but not to the extreme Itami employes it. Fans took a while to get used to the otherness of it, but they seem to be coming around…at least they were before his recent freak injury. It’s unknown how much of a setback this will be for him, but it could actually be a blessing in disguise. His biggest weakness was his English and now he will have plenty of time to work on it while rehabbing. He has the talent in the ring, and the moveset fans love (he basically is the originator of everything we love about Daniel Bryan and CM Punk’s movesets), he just needs a little more time before everything clicks. It seemed like he was set to win the number one contendership before his injury, and now that has an air of mystery to it, so hopefully he will return with a big push befitting the great potential he has and the amount of promotion he’s been given.

ALEX RILEY

Ha ha just kidding

FINN BALOR

Arriving shortly after Hideo, Finn sort of stole the spotlight from Itami. Of course the Full Sail audience loves Itami and really is rooting for him to reach the level they know he can, but Balor arrived ready to main event WWE PPVs on day one. Sure he lacks a little bit in the promo department, but really that should be a part of his character. He’s the mild mannered, meek Irish guy with great skills in the ring….and he harbors a demon monster inside him that he summons whenever he needs a little extra pep in his step. A lot of fan fiction has been written about Balor and I wish WWE/NXT would give his character a little more of a backstory. Like, why doesn’t he just use the demon all the time and win all the matches? Fan surmising is that the demon is an evil spirit (hence the name) that grows a little stronger with every summoning, and Balor would be taken if he summoned it too much or too often. Notice the progression of his body paint:

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Every time he summons the demon it takes over a little bit more. The scratches on his body show a monster inside that is so amped about escaping that is bursts forth with unhinged ferocity whenever it has the opportunity.  It’s only subdued after the big match, when Balor is exhausted and satisfied in his victory. Makes you wonder what will happen when (if) he finally loses while possessed by the demon?  …but that’s just wild fanboy fanfiction. It shows, however, just how incredible this character is (and can be). His entrances are among the most awe-inspiring in wrestling, his moveset is fun to watch, and those familiar with his indie run know–as great as he is as a good guy–his work as a heel will melt your brain. Zayn is the face of NXT, Breeze is its workhorse and Owens is the Big Bad, but Finn Balor is the superstar. Zayn is Austin, Breeze is Jericho, Owens is Triple H, and Balor is Rock. He’s going to make gobs of money on the main roster but we will always look back on his beginnings in NXT, as the guy who helped bring it to the next level.

KEVIN OWENS

Speaking of the Big Bad. What can be said about Kevin Owens? One look at him and you’d think he was a fan who jumped the rail. Listen to him talk and you’re convinced he’s a total sociopath. Watch him wrestle and you walk away convinced that he would not stop till his opponent was dead, were it not for the fact that killing would lead to a DQ loss. He’s a true enigma in wrestling: Mick Foley’s body, CM Punk’s voice, Brock Lesnar’s ferocity, and a wrestling style all his own. Watching him do his thing on NXT has been a real pleasure. He’s unlike any heel WWE has had before; totally insecure, manipulative, cowardly all the time except when it’s actually time to fight. Too often heels in WWE play the coward non stop; they run before the match, during the match and after the match. It gets tiring. Owens runs before the match (while getting in just enough barbs on the mic to infuriate you), he runs in the beginning of the match and then GOES INTO MURDER DEATH KILL MODE before running away after the match. He’s not long for NXT despite how huge an impression he’s left there in such a short time. Already he’s been called up to work Raw going forward, but he’ll split time with NXT for a few more months before transitioning to the main roster full time. You wouldn’t think it to look at him, but spend just a little time watching him and it’s clear that he’s the future monster heel in WWE. He may have said it from a bragging-heel perspective, but it’s totally true: NXT never really became “oh wow NXT!” until Kevin Owens walked through the curtain.

SAMOA JOE

He’s barely spoken. He barely been seen. As of this writing he’s yet to wrestle a match. But the moment he signed with NXT, Samoa Joe solidified himself as the final man in the NXT Nine. Through chance happening, he’s become the hottest commodity in wrestling: His deal with NXT is non-exclusive (and I still can’t believe it, considering the history of WWE…I guess they are really secure in their place as the permanent number one), allowing him to work indie dates and even Ring of Honor around his NXT priority. Then, all of a sudden, TNA does the most TNA thing ever and ends up a lame duck on Destination America with Ring of Honor airing an hour before it. As of right now Samoa Joe is free to work both promotions, which means it’s possible that he can be in the main event of NXT and Ring of Honor on the same night, at the same time. Nothing like that has happened since…

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Who knows what WWE has planned for Joe. He could be nothing more than a glorified Rhyno, with his contract exclusive to NXT live events, as a big name to draw crowds when the show tours. On the other hand, he could be coming in at just the right time, to replace Kevin Owens on the show as the big physical presence who can lord over the title. If Owens finds continued success on Raw…maybe Samoa Joe will follow suit. One thing’s for sure, he’s the biggest name NXT has ever signed and helps to cement the yellow brand as more than just a developmental league.

~

Triple H’s vision for NXT is not for it to be Smackdown. He wants it to be WCW on another night (and without the idiots in charge and the inmates running the asylum). He wants to present a new wrestling show that has a different look and feel to what you see on Raw. During the brandsplit, Smackdown was just “blue Raw with better wrestling.” The whole idea behind the split was as a plan-B when Vince’s original idea fell through: He bought WCW, intending to relaunch it on a different night from Raw, allowing the competition to remain, but without the fear of either one hurting the other, giving viewers a real variety of pro wrestling each week.

Smackdown couldn’t do that, but with its Smackdown Six it did make the best of a lesser idea. The NXT Nine, on the other hand, are the caretakers of that better idea finally realized. They are the ones that, in later years, fans will look back on fondly, the way we today look back on the Smackdown Six. They are the foundation on which an even better wrestling empire is being built.

Alright, I’m almost four thousand words in, and I managed to avoid saying anything about “The Fellowship of the Ring.” So here:

Zayn is Frodo

Itami is Sam

Balor is Aragorn

Neville is Merry

Sasha is Boromir 🙁

Bayley is Pippin

Kevin is Gimli

Joe is Gandalf

Breeze is Legolas

also Triple H is Elrond and Vince is Sauron, of course

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