Believe it or not, the decade is coming to an end. And within that decade is the first 10 years of the yellow and black brand, NXT. It’s hard to believe the brand has only been around for 10 years and has grown into the size and popularity it is right now. It all started as a competition show where it occurred in seasons and developed into what you see today. Which to many, is the best brand in the United States and maybe even the world. Here at Last Word on Pro Wrestling, we are going to go back and look at each and every year of NXT and show the change this show has had from the Nexus men competing against each other to the dominance of NXT over the WWE main roster this year at Survivor Series. Here is Part One, ranging from 2010 all the way through 2014.
Note: This is a combined effort by WWE analyst, Scott Edwards, and NXT analyst, JW Kirkland, to look back at all 10 years of NXT. From its early days of competition to the present days of taking over.
2010: NXT – Competition To Be The Next “Breakout Star”
Long before NXT was the critically celebrated brand it is today, it’s roots were set in a reality competition show. The show would feature eight WWE Superstar or pros as they were called on the show mentoring eight “rookies” from WWE’s then development system FCW (Florida Championship Wrestling). The show promised the winner a WWE contract, a shot at the championship of the winner’s choosing, and a chance to become WWE’s next breakout star.
Some of the standout rookies from the first season included Justin Gabriel (now better known as PJ Black), Heath Slater, Skip Sheffield (the future Ryback), eventual winner Wade Barrett, and the most successful superstar to come from the reality show era of NXT, Daniel Bryan.
While fans mostly remember the ridiculous challenges the rookies had to endure, it wasn’t without some really standout moments. The most memorable to this writer was the shock elimination of the future leader of the Yes! movement, along with a very strong promo from Daniel Bryan going after his biggest critic Michael Cole.
Season’s favorite Wade Barrett would claim the crown as WWE’s next breakout star, and he would look every bit the star WWE wanted when he led The Nexus in the most unforgettable main roster debut of all time.
The second season had a lot to live up to following the impact the originals had made in their debut. Standouts of the season included Alex Riley, Titus O’Neil, Michael McGillicutty (now Curtis Axel), Husky Harris (now Bray Wyatt), and indy sensation/season winner Kaval (aka Low Ki).
This season wasn’t as memorable as the first with the most stand out moments being when the pro’s attacked the rookies to “show them their place”, Eli Cottonwood’s weird mustache promo (not good, but memorable), and of course the end of the season beat down that went nowhere.
Deciding to change the pace, WWE decided it would let the women battle it out in the third season. Though Naomi is the only woman from this season that is still signed to a WWE contract, this gave a spotlight to eventual winner Kaitlyn and crowd favorite AJ Lee.
This was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the women’s revolution in the years to come. Lee, in particular, played a huge role in women transitioning from being known as Divas into Superstars.
2011: Sputtering To Keep Attention Through A Game Show Format
Season four and season five of NXT occurred during 2011 and to say it wasn’t too entertaining would be underselling the difficulty of being a viewer during this time. By the time season four came around, most were no longer interested in the FCW rookies making fools of themselves on a week to week basis with their “pros” being current day bottom feeders of the WWE. It just wasn’t working. However, both seasons do have stars that continue to hang around in the WWE today. But by no means were they making the impact that season one, two, and three did in the long run.
The season four winner would be Johnny Curtis, who many now know as Fandango. The other contestants were Brodus Clay, Derrick Bateman (aka EC3) Byron Saxton (yes, that Byron Saxton), Conor O’Brien of Ascension fame, and Jacob Novak. Again, not nearly as much success in these seasons but some staying ability. The final season of NXT before it changed into the version you love today was season five. It was considered the “Redemption” season as names from past seasons returned to compete for a spot on the WWE roster. Once again, EC3 as Derrick Bateman made his appearance. Some names with recognition who also appeared were Titus O’Neil and Darren Young, who formed the Prime Time Players shortly after.
Season five was brought into 2012, the same year that the competition side was canceled and NXT inside Full Sail was born.
2012: Change From Game Show To Full Sail Based Developmental Brand
The seemingly never-ending season finally came to a halt when it was announced NXT would officially be known as the development brand. It was established early on that Triple H was in charge of this new brand, and that it would be completely different from any other WWE program.
While it was no longer the silly competition show, it was still far from the NXT we know today. It had the independent show feel many would grow to love, but it wasn’t exclusively development talent.
The early episodes featured many lower card stars such as Jinder Mahal, Michael McGillicutty, Drew McIntyre, and Justin Gabriel. While they were present they did not dominate, as the spotlight was on promising stars such as Richie Steamboat Jr., Corey Graves, Big E Langston, and Seth Rollins.
It was Rollins who would have the honor of being the first NXT Champion, originally reigning as a babyface before The Shield debuted on the main roster and he returned as a heel to rule with his brothers Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose.
Rollins’s time on top would be put to a halt by “The King of the Five Count” Big E Langston.
2013: The Establishment of NXT’s Landscape
NXT was getting off the ground, but their only home to be watched at the time was Hulu. The WWE Network was still a whole year away but was not was the ability to create an entertaining television show. But for NXT in 2013, it was a chance for Triple H and the company to build the landscape of the black and yellow brand. Seth Rollins started the year off as the NXT Champion, as well as the sole champion of the brand. By year-end, he was without the championship and NXT had two more sets of titles. In the second episode of NXT in 2013, a new NXT Champion was crowned as Big E. Langston became the second-ever champion by pinning Seth Rollins in a No DQ match. Big E held the championship for almost the first half of the year before losing it to Bo Dallas.
Dallas went on to hold the championship into 2013 and became one of the best heels NXT had seen in its time. He was perfect at being that heel and is still the third-longest reigning champion in the history of the title. The mishandling of Bo continues to be something that many fans reflect back to as possibly the first major mishandling of NXT talent.
What NXT also saw on their TV was the crowning of the first NXT Women’s Champion and NXT Tag Team Champions as well. Both were decided in a tournament, with the tag team titles being decided early in 2013. British Ambition, the team consisting of Adrian Neville (PAC) and Oliver Grey, became the inaugural champions by defeating The Wyatt Family’s Erick Rowan and Luke Harper. Throughout the rest of the year, The Wyatt Family, Adrian Neville, and Corey Graves, and The Ascension were crowned as tag team champions. This Ascension championship run is still the longest in the history of the NXT Tag Team Championships.
The NXT Women’s Championship was also decided, and as most know, the first champion was Paige. It was said that this women’s division during this time was literally built for Paige, so it was only right for her to be the first champion. She defeated Emma in the finals. Paige went on to continuously dominate, ending the year as champion. Her reign sits as the third-longest in NXT history, behind Asuka‘s record dominance and Shayna Baszler‘s most current reign as champion.
These were the days that main roster stars would also make guest appearances on Full Sail once in a while to surprise the live crowd. The best turned out to be Cesaro. This is where the WWE Match of the Year occurred, as Sami Zayn and Cesaro had a best 2 out of 3 falls bout on NXT TV that helped put the brand right back on the map. NXT’s goal in 2013 was to create a landscape and that is exactly what they did as they went into their biggest year yet. Arriving on the WWE Network.
2014: NXT’s ArRival To The World
This would prove to be a landmark year for NXT as they would not only begin airing on the WWE Network, they would air their first special NXT ArRival. The card featured many highlights including the opening classic between Sami Zayn and Cesaro, the match that truly started the women’s revolution Paige vs Emma for the NXT Women’s Championship, and finally, the main event which saw Adrian Neville dethrone longtime Champion Bo Dallas in NXT’s first ladder match.
This year could have an article on its own just based on the multiple significant events. There were so many moving parts you had the rejuvenation of Tyson Kidd‘s career as he had an incredible feud with Neville that headlined many of their early events. This also saw the rise of Charlotte Flair, as she dominated the women’s title picture and truly established herself as a future pillar of the division.
This was also the year that Japanese sensations KENTA and Prince Devitt made their debuts as Hideo Itami and Finn Balor respectively. Both men made an early impact, but Balor was the one to establish himself as a future pillar for NXT.
None of this comes close though to the story of Sami Zayn. Zayn was the heart and soul of the black and gold brand, but his story was one of a man who always came up just short of his goal. He had fought so hard and just when you thought he would reach the top, he would be knocked down again.
That all changed in one of the most emotionally charged matches I have seen when Sami Zayn faced Adrian Neville in a one on one match at NXT Takeover: R Evolution. Neville had perfectly adapted to the heel role for this match, and this still stands as one of the best bouts in the brand’s history. Sami Zayn would finally reach the top of the NXT mountain, he would celebrate with the locker room, he celebrated with his best friend Kevin Owens, who had just debuted, and he was stabbed in the back by the same man that same night. This sent the brand into a fever pitch heading into 2015.
Stay tuned to the Last Word on Pro Wrestling for more on this and other stories from around the world of wrestling, as they develop. You can always count on LWOPW to be on top of the major news in the wrestling world, as well as to provide you with analysis, previews, videos, interviews, and editorials on the wrestling world. Be sure to catch all of the NXT action via the WWE Network.