WWE has an NXT problem. Specifically, why are NXT alumni having such a hard time taking off once they’re brought up to the main roster?
Although Kevin Owens has achieved great success, many other prospects have either fallen short of the mark or left the company. (Two recently disappointing examples being Neville & Austin Aries). For some mind-boggling reason, NXT’s most successful stars seem to run into a brick wall once they’re promoted to Raw or Smackdown.
The most glaring example of this is Shinsuke Nakamura. A former IWGP World Champion during that company’s rise to prominence, the man has a proven record of leading a wrestling brand to great heights. In NXT, Nakamura was immediately presented as a big deal, catapulted straight into high profile matches against Sami Zayn and Samoa Joe before winning the NXT Championship. His entrance was captivating, and his offense was hard hitting while still fitting in with the WWE/indie style, a la CM Punk and Daniel Bryan. His promo work wasn’t perfect (certainly due in part to the language barrier), but he was protected in NXT. With incredible talent and unlimited upside, it seemed like a no-brainer that he would find the same success on Smackdown Live.
That didn’t happen.
Sure, Nakamura was brought in as a big deal at first. His debut on the Smackdown Live after WrestleMania 33 was red hot, and it truly felt like the arrival of a future megastar. Quickly thereafter, the wheels started to fall off. He wasn’t called the “King of Strong Style” or presented as a killer. Instead, he was saddled with the nickname “The Artist”, which doesn’t invoke any real fear or respect. And his first match wasn’t against The Miz, a red-hot heel, but against Dolph Ziggler, who is on no one’s hot list. The match wasn’t great, and it wasn’t a squash – it was just mediocre. Nakamura’s in-ring style was completely morphed & sanitized, too. Perhaps this was because of nagging injuries, but it feels more likely that it was an edict from creative to tone down the brutality, when strong style should have dominated the Smackdown Live roster.
I will give the WWE a nod of appreciation: Nakamura had two great singles victories against Randy Orton and John Cena, but then he went straight to feuding with Jinder Mahal for the WWE Championship, which did him no favors. Mahal’s grating and obnoxious promos gave no real heat to the feud, nor did their two weak world title matches (both of which had virtually identical finishes). Mahal went over due to the India push, but it still feels baffling to not at least make Nakamura look good coming out of the feud.
I hope WWE is able to salvage Nakamura (as well as the litany of other promising NXT talent), but they have really dropped the ball on his debut year thus far.