Newsflash, WWE fans, NXT is having its moment.
After an extremely successful Pre-WrestleMania event, WWE’s developmental company has become a household name. Previously unknown names such as Kevin Owens, Finn Balor, Sami Zayn, Charlotte, and Sasha Banks have become stars, with fans foaming at the mouth for them to make their main roster debuts.
In order to introduce a few of these young talents to the larger WWE audience, the company came up with the perfect idea: the John Cena Open Challenge for the U.S. Championship. Every week, someone would throw their hat in the ring for a chance at Cena’s title. While many of the main roster wrestlers took their shots, Neville was the first former NXT star to get this opportunity, but only after he had debuted on the main roster. Sami Zayn, on the other hand, was the first to actually debut in one of these matches. And in case there was any doubt at how valuable WWE considered Zayn, the WWE had Hall of Famer Bret Hart introduce the NXT product to his home crowd in Montreal.
That debut would ultimately be overshadowed by Zayn’s former friend and foe Kevin Owens. His “debut heard around the world” was highly impactful, as he Pop-Up Powerbombed John Cena and stepped on his title in true heel fashion. The act symbolically underlined the greater fiction between NXT and the mid-card main roster: While NXT has established itself as some of the best wrestling WWE has to offer, the contingent as a whole still gets overlooked.
That being said, Kevin Owens impact on the main roster since making his debut on Raw has officially caused a tilt in the scale. The current NXT Champion has already built a convincing feud with Cena, culminating in an exciting debut match victory at Elimination Chamber. It’s already being reported that Owens is slated to be a main roster staple as a heel, which is no surprise due to his quick rise and popularity among fans (his T-shirt sales have been through the roof dating back to his NXT days). On top of that, Rusev, a staple on the main roster as a heel, has left a major gap on the roster due to an untimely injury. WWE would need to look no further than NXT to have Owens to fill this void.
But what many people don’t realize is that Zayn, not Owens, was the original focal point of WWE’s plan. Wrestling Observer Live! reported a few weeks ago that WWE had slated Zayn for a main roster transition well before Owens. But due to a shoulder injury, one further aggravated during his main roster debut against Cena, the WWE was forced to change those plans. The 2014 NXT Superstar of the Year is expected to be out until at least October, opening the door for his friend Owens.
Owens and Zayn have a rich history, as the pair met in 2002 in the independent wrestling circuit and became friends while quickly moving up the wrestling ranks together. In an interview with WWE.com, Zayn highlighted that the duo “were very likeminded in our goals and wants, our passion for this. It was all about ending up here in WWE.”
And make it to WWE they did. In January 2013, Zayn signed with their developmental brand NXT while Owens followed in August 2014. The WWE built on their original feud as El Generico (Zayn’s former wrestling persona) and Kevin Steen from their former home Ring of Honor, something you rarely see when indie wrestlers make the transition into the WWE. Though Zayn didn’t technically get Owens hired, he admits to pulling for his friend to succeed. Looking back now, Zayn’s push for “his guy” to get a chance with WWE may have negatively affected his career and ultimately, his future.
We shouldn’t discredit Owens’ resume: the 31-year-old has been wrestling for more than 15 years, which is longer than an older Cena. But he has not been the top guy in a multi-million dollar wrestling company in his career. Owens had to build his own name and character by performing countless times in front of relatively smaller crowds. Still, the stars have lined up just right for him to “Fight, Owens, Fight” on the biggest WWE stage.
A stage that was supposed to be Zayn’s.
Like life, moving up to the main roster in WWE is all about timing. If Zayn hadn’t have suffered a bad shoulder injury, Owens may never had his impactful debut. Instead of fans talking about his brute strength and subsequent disrespect to Cena’s title, we could be still discussing how awesome it was when Zayn was introduced by fellow Canadian and legend Bret Hart in his hometown of Montreal.
But it’s not like Zayn has completely missed his chance to be a main roster staple. We only got to see him in one match, so we didn’t get a clear picture on how WWE was going to use him. With the popularity of NXT, there are many opportunities for Zayn when he comes back. They could build on the wildly successful feud between him and Owens in NXT, and once Zayn is healthy and the Cena/Owens feud has run its course, he could get his chance at revenge. After all, Owens stole his title, and ultimately his moment.
And from there, the stage could be set for a full NXT blitz. NXT stars like the high-flying Neville have already become a huge hit with fans. And it’s just a matter of time before NXT favorites like Finn Balor make their way to the big show. The recent success of these NXT rookies bodes well for Zayn, who has always found a way to make it regardless of what odds are stacked against him.
WWE will have to find a way to reintroduce Zayn and creative will be forced to be, well, creative. They’ll have to figure out a way for Zayn to one-up his first debut to the main roster. But the larger issue for creative will be introducing other new NXT stars as it will be tough for the WWE to continue to produce highly impactful debuts similar to the those of Neville, Zayn, and Owens to the main audience. The women’s division is a whole other story in itself, with Paige as the only model of a successful main roster move. Ultimately, only time and more debuts will tell whether WWE truly knows what its doing with these young stars.