The WWE NXT brand is the company’s third brand (after Raw and Smackdown) as well as a developmental territory featuring a mix of talent with all different levels of experience. When you watch the WWE NXT show on WWE Network on Wednesday nights and their Takeover specials around major WWE PPV events, you might see a wrestler with nearly 20 years of experience (like Kassius Ohno) competing against somebody that never wrestled before they were signed by WWE after an impressive tryout. It’s a diverse group full of talent. Give Triple H and the other members of the NXT staff a lot of credit for turning NXT into such a successful third brand in the last few years.
I’ve always liked and supported NXT because it’s a chance to see different stars in action on a show that is booked more for the hardcore fan. Yes, the promos are scripted moreso than on the main roster, but there’s more of an authentic feel when you watch NXT.
In October 2015, I even flew down to Orlando (I live near Toronto) just to witness “NXT Takeover Respect” in person, as well as a taping the next night, which was actually Asuka’s debut. That Takeover event saw Bayley wrestle Sasha Banks in the main event, a 30 minute ironman match where we were standing up for about 20 minutes of the match because of how exciting it was. Here’s a pic of me at the show with my head turned because wrestlers were on the stage while Bayley was getting the flowers from Triple H. Go Blue Jays.
I think the prime years for NXT were 2015 and 2016. In 2014 they were still developing the brand, in 2017 it was a bit of hit or miss at times, but now they are rolling again after incredible Takeover events in Philadelphia and New Orleans in April. I think the April Takeover event was a 10 out of 10 show – the best Takeover ever and one of the best WWE shows I’ve ever seen in 30+ years of watching this company.
What makes NXT fun to watch? The booking is great, but it’s up to the talent to deliver in the ring and that’s what they do all the time. Most Takeover events have only five matches and they run 2 hours, 30 minutes on average while the New Orleans event went about three hours. When you have that much time, it allows the talent to pace themselves in the ring, tell an entertaining story and that leads to better matches. It’s not rocket science, really. It’s just a matter of giving talent time to tell a story.
Here’s my look at ten current WWE NXT talents that will make the biggest splash on the main roster whenever they get that chance.
Note: There are more than ten names because I included a stable.
10. Lars Sullivan
Sullivan has the look that Vince McMahon and WWE executives love. He’s a muscular man that looks like he could beat up anybody that stood in front of him. They bill him at 6’3” and 303 pounds, but they always lie about those stats in WWE. If he was really 6’3”, they would say he’s a few inches taller. I’m not saying he’s short either. He’s not a giant by any means, but he has the physique to make him stand out from the pack.
What he’s lacking are promo skills, a well-defined character and the ability to have consistently good matches. I’m not saying it will never happen for him, but it’s just that right now, there are a lot of people further along than him. If he does put it all together, he could be a huge star for sure.
I don’t want to give away spoilers on here, but WWE has big expectations for Sullivan and he’s going to be in a huge match at the next Takeover. It’s up to him to prove how good he can be.
9. Shayna Baszler
The current NXT Champion has a well-defined role as a badass submission specialist that has a legitimate background in mixed martial arts that has transitioned really well into professional wrestling. Baszler moved on from MMA in 2015, trained to be a wrestler, and became NXT Women’s Champion at the NXT Takeover New Orleans event in April. At 37 years of age, she’s one of the oldest women in the entire company, but that shouldn’t slow her down.
Baszler’s strengths are her ability to work over a body part in a believable way and then finish off her opponent with a variety of different submissions. One of the things I loved about her matches with Ember Moon is how she would violently kick the arm of Moon and work on it for several minutes to try to make her tap. That viciousness gives her a lot of credibility.
Baszler is also one of the women in Ronda Rousey’s “Four Horsemen” group of friends that bonded together over their love of pro wrestling while they were all focused on MMA. Now, all four women are in WWE with Rousey on the main roster, Baszler as the NXT Champion, and both Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir recently signed to developmental deals. It would make a lot of sense to feature Baszler heavily when she’s on the main roster due to her connection with Rousey. They could be a great team or perhaps, even better as opponents.
I also think Nikki Cross and Kairi Sane have a lot of potential on the main roster, but Baszler is ahead of them both for now.
8. Kyle O’Reilly, Roderick Strong, and Bobby Fish
The Undisputed Era duo of Kyle O’Reilly and Roderick Strong are the NXT Tag Team Champions. Bobby Fish was the former champion with O’Reilly, but he tore his ACL and is out of action for most of the year. They are joined by Adam Cole in the group. Strong recently turned heel to join his buddies that are all experienced wrestlers that have a long history in Ring of Honor, so they have incredible chemistry together.
I really hope that these guys remain a stable when they get up to the main roster in the next year or two. They just work so well together. I also believe it is beneficial to all of them since they are just average sized wrestlers that may have a tough time in making a big impact on the main roster as singles. Keep them together for the long haul, please.
As for the leader of The Undisputed Era group, Adam Cole, I’ll mention him later.
7. Velveteen Dream
If you watched WWE’s Tough Enough show in 2015 on USA Network, then you probably remember Velveteen Dream as a teenager that was a contestant on the show. Even though he was young, he was clearly the best guy on there that had already been trained to wrestle, so he should have won. Instead, he failed to win and ended up signing a contract with WWE anyway. Clark became Dream in May of 2017 and this is likely the gimmick he’ll use for most of his career.
There’s a lot to like about Dream because he continues to impress in terms of his portrayal of this unique character that acts the musician Prince in the way he moves and walks. The improvement needs to come in terms of his matches, but he is clearly getting better in that regard thanks to memorable matches with Aleister Black and he did very well in the Six-Man Ladder Match in New Orleans. Black is normally booked as a heel, but it’s tough for the fans to boo him sometimes because of how creative he is as a performer. Long term, he may be better off as a face.
The only reason he’s not higher on the list is that he’s only 22 years old. The other guys ahead of him have a lot more experience than him, so he might stay in NXT a bit longer to work on the little things. I think Dream is going to main event a lot of shows on the main roster in the 2020s decade and beyond. He has an extremely bright future.
6. Adam Cole
Cole is a 28-year old veteran with ten years of experience under his belt and a very successful run in NXT in his past. When I wrote this list out, I had a tough time deciding where to put Cole. There are probably people reading this that think he might be number one. I don’t want you to think I’m slighting him by putting him here. He’s only in this spot because of how deep the current NXT roster is.
I think Cole is one of the better all-around talents in NXT due to his ability to cut a meaningful promo, he’s secure in his role as a heel and the match quality is always going to be good. The issue with Cole when he gets to the main roster will be that he’s not a big guy because he’s around 6’0” and 200 pounds, so he would be like the guys in the cruiserweight division. As we all know, it’s a lot harder for those types of wrestlers to move up the ranks on the main roster.
As the current NXT North American Champion, he’s positioned as one of the top guys in the NXT brand. I think it’s very possible he becomes NXT Champion later in the year before going up to the main roster next year. Like I mentioned earlier, I hope that Cole and his Undisputed Era group will be on the main roster together because it would benefit all of them.
5. Aleister Black
The current NXT Champion is from the Netherlands and he just turned 33-years old this past week. Black has one of the coolest entrances in WWE while his stoic nature makes him stand out. He’s the silent assassin that doesn’t want to talk a lot. He wants to let his actions in the ring do the talking for him, so that’s what he does when the bell rings.
Black is one of the best strikers in all of WWE. That’s saying a lot because so many of the current superstars have strike based offense with punches and kicks. His kicks just look better than most people. The Black Mass spin kick that he uses as a finisher isn’t that much different than most kicks, but he has an extra aura when he does it. Whenever he hits the Black Mass, fans react to it as a credible finisher. When you have that in your arsenal, it goes a long way to making him come across as a big deal.
It’s very possible that Black gets promoted to the main roster later in the year. Nobody ever holds the NXT Title for that long, so it may happen in August or November after a Takeover show. If it does, Black will be ready because he’s experienced and knows what he’s doing out there. What may hurt is that he’s not American, but that really shouldn’t be a big deal.
4. Tommaso Ciampa
I’m not exactly sure when I became the greatest sports entertainer in the game…but I am 100% certain it happened. pic.twitter.com/MLJ1VGRlKk
— BLACKHEART (@ProjectCiampa) April 26, 2018
The man once known as the “Psycho Killer” is one of the best heels in the business. His current feud with Johnny Gargano is likely going to be the feud of the year on WWE programming because of how well Ciampa performs as a heel, how great Gargano is as a face, and also the quality matches they have all the time. I loved their match at NXT Takeover New Orleans that Gargano won to get his job back. The feud isn’t over yet, though. That’s a wonderful thing.
The crowds hate Ciampa because of his cheap attack on Johnny Gargano one year ago after they lost as a team at Takeover in Chicago. Ciampa missed about eight months of action after surgery for a torn ACL, came back as a surprise, and had that five-star match with Gargano in his first major match since the surgery. That’s so hard to do and so impressive.
Ciampa’s the complete wrestler that can deliver good promos, he has the look with a badass part, and obviously delivers in the ring. I also think he’s one of the best wrestlers to follow on Twitter. What may hold him back on the main roster? Size. He’s another guy that’s under six-feet tall and around 200 pounds. As much as we may think that WWE is going to push him on the main roster, it may not happen. I hope so, though. He’s another guy that deserves it.
The NXT newcomer is one of the best fliers I’ve ever seen in the wrestling ring. I remember watching Rey Mysterio matches in 1996 when he was in WCW and my mouth was wide open in awe of what he could do. Since then, a lot of great fliers have come and gone. Then Ricochet came along – he really changed the game. Some of the stuff this guy can do is going to win over the most negative of wrestling fans. How can you not like seeing a guy do a dive over the top with such ease? Everything he does looks easy.
There is a perception out there that Ricochet (thankfully, WWE didn’t change his name to Rick O’Shea) is merely a high flier that can’t do the other stuff needed in the ring to have a good match. I don’t believe it because I’ve seen him wrestle dozens of times in other promotions. There’s plenty of video of him out there as Ricochet or as Prince Puma, which is what he was known in Lucha Underground.
Ricochet is about 5’9” 190 pounds, so that’s going to hurt him on the main roster. However, I think his ability to do the stuff he does in the air is going to allow him to advance further up the roster than most people expect. Rey Mysterio was able to do it. He’s the Mysterio of this era, so here’s hoping this guy gets the fair chance to compete at the highest level of all.
2. Johnny Gargano
I think “Johnny Wrestling,” as he’s affectionately known, is one of the best babyfaces in all of WWE. He might be the best babyface right now because of the connection he has developed with the NXT fans. It’s similar to Daniel Bryan in a lot of ways.
Gargano was loved as a tag team wrestler with Ciampa (known as #DIY) and when they won the NXT Tag Team Titles, it led to a huge celebration. When they failed to get the titles back, Ciampa turned on him, which made Gargano the most sympathetic figure in NXT. Gargano came up short in his NXT Title match against Andrade Almas in January in what was an incredible match. Ciampa came back, attacked Gargano, and that set up the Gargano win over Ciampa in New Orleans in April. The feud is still going on with no end in sight, which is perfectly fine with me because of how special it is.
I think Gargano is going to end up winning the NXT Title in the long term. That has to happen, right? If not, it’s probably because they want him on the main roster. Like so many others on this list, Gargano is undersized at about 5’9” and 180 pounds. Daniel Bryan was able to become a top guy at a similar size, but it’s not like that was a quick push or something WWE’s creative team forced upon us. That happened because the fans demanded it. Gargano might be able to get the same fan support as Bryan although it’s going to take a while for that to happen.
When I watch Gargano, I’m reminded of how good professional wrestling can be. He’s such a talented performer and I hope that when he gets to the main roster that he can be a huge success. I don’t want him to be a part of the 205 Live brand. He needs to be a star on the main shows. Whether it happens or not, I’m not sure. I certainly have my doubts that he’ll be given a fair shot.
1. EC3 (Ethan Carter III)
The former Derrick Bateman in WWE was released by the company in May 2013, then he went to TNA/Impact Wrestling and was given the gimmick of EC3, which is Ethan Carter III. They said he was the nephew of TNA’s former owner Dixie Carter, so he was a spoiled rich kid that bragged about it and was easy to hate. When he was in TNA, he improved in all areas by becoming a better promo guy (he was pretty good in his WWE days too) and I was most impressed by the better matches he was able to have with guys like Kurt Angle, Bobby Lashley, and Austin Aries.
I’m glad that he is using the EC3 moniker because it fits him perfectly. While I thought he was tremendously underused as Bateman, it’s clear that EC3 was the best gimmick he used in his career and it was refreshing him to see him as EC3 when he joined NXT.
What separates EC3 from most of the others on this list is that he’s got a lot of experience as a 35-year-old that has been a pro wrestler for over 15 years. EC3 also has the skills in the ring, the promos he does are very believable for his character and he’s got the kind of look that WWE loves. EC3 is a big guy that looks like he can legitimately kick somebody’s ass. That’s what pro wrestling is at its core. We want to see guys that look like they can really fight. I think when he gets the call to the main roster he’s going to absolutely kill it.
I’m rooting for him as hard as anybody because of the journey he’s been on from being cut from WWE, re-inventing himself in another promotion and coming back to WWE better than ever.
Let me end it with this. When EC3 did a recent interview with WWE.com, he said he wants to beat John Cena at WrestleMania. Apparently, Cena was made aware of it and posted this on Instagram.
WrestleMania is over ten months away, but if that match were to happen that would be incredible and the biggest match in EC3’s career. I’m all for it.
This list was full of guys in their early 30s with a decade or more of experience. It’s not necessarily a young group (aside from Velveteen Dream), but they are all full of potential. I’m going to enjoy them in NXT while they are there. It’s just hard to not to forecast what might happen when they get to the main roster.
The next NXT Takeover event takes place on Saturday, June 16 in Chicago, one night before Money in the Bank. If you’re a fan of NXT, then you know it will be a great night of wrestling. If you’re not a NXT fan, then you really should be.