The path from NXT to the WWE main roster is littered with success stories. In the last two Wrestlemanias, including the preshows, 16 out of 21 matches have featured NXT graduates. The obvious highlights are of course the men who have been able to call themselves world – or universal – champion: Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose, Finn Balor and Kevin Owens. But, it is not always an easy road to the top of the WWE, and some have fallen by the wayside along the way. Sometimes they just weren’t ready to get the call up, sometimes the fans didn’t take to them, sometimes creative didn’t have the right plans in place for them. Some superstars thrive on the slow burn that NXT allows them to have, improving and connecting with the crowd slowly but surely, to the point someone can be on fire at the right time, with the right opponent – but they don’t get that chance on Raw or Smackdown. It’s a different set of rules, more demanding than ever before, more challenging, and of course they have to win over Vince McMahon working from the very bottom again. Here I take a look at ten NXT graduates who haven’t quite hit it off on the main roster.
10. Apollo Crews
Yes there is a chance that having Crews on a list like this is premature, but that’s why he’s low down. He was positioned near the top of the card in NXT, being just one step away from a title match, with his mix of athleticism and power making him a fan favourite. So it was with a lot of excitement that the WWE Universe welcomed him to Raw the night after Wrestlemania 32, but it’s been mostly downhill for Apollo since then. There were brief bright spots after being drafted to SmackDown in July when he won a spot in the six-pack challenge to decide the number one contender to Dean Ambrose’s WWE Championship, and he did get an Intercontinental Championship match against The Miz at Summerslam – which he lost in under six minutes. But in his time on the main roster, he has struggled to connect with the crowd, even being given the potentially career-killing gimmick of spelling his name, and has never been given the time to show what made him a big name on the indies and in NXT. He hasn’t really been on our screens much since his feud with The Miz, and he’s only 29, so there’s still plenty of time for him to turn it around. But so far, it’s impossible to think he would have been worse off in NXT these last seven months.
In the rise of the women’s division in NXT, Emma was quickly one of the standouts. She had the quirky character that the Full Sail crowd took to their hearts, but importantly on top of that she is a really good wrestler. She made it to the final of the tournament to crown the first ever NXT Women’s Champion, where she lost to Paige. But she was clearly the top contender, and received another title shot at the first live broadcast on the WWE Network – NXT Arrival. Unfortunately for her, the main roster writers took her quirkiness and made her a comedy character, pairing her with Santino Marella. Their “relationship” would last only a few months before everyone’s favourite Canadian-Italian retired, leaving Emma in limbo. She repackaged herself with a new attitude, a new look, and a new partner in Dana Brooke. They garnered a bit of momentum, including a win for Emma in a fatal-4-way match including Brooke, as well as future main roster women’s champions Charlotte and Becky Lynch. The team was just about to make a statement on the main roster when Emma got injured in May, with their alliance ending as a result. She is currently being repackaged as “Emmalina”, so similarly to Crews may be able to work her way out of the doldrums she has so far found herself in on the main roster.
8. Sin Cara (Hunico)
So the Sin Cara character debuted on WWE TV, before moving back down to NXT to form a team with Kalisto, and recently joined the Cruiserweight division on Raw. But the man behind the mask worked his way up through NXT as Hunico before taking on the faceless character. He was in a tag team for the entirety of his NXT career, and challenged for the NXT Tag Team Championships on several occasions – even ending the title reign of the dominant Ascension. The Lucha Dragons caught the eye and were at one point the top tag team on NXT, but that has never translated to any main roster success (for either Sin Cara or Hunico). In fact, Sin Cara could be seen as a failed experiment for WWE in general, but considering he did have some success in NXT I think that only emphasises the extent of his failure on Raw. He has recently been involved in several backstage spats, so it may just be a matter of time before WWE cuts their losses with the masked superstar.
7. Adam Rose
Formerly known as Leo Kruger (which I still have faith in as a character to this day) in developmental and the yellow brand, Adam Rose became a cult favourite at Full Sail. He competed for the NXT Championship under his former gimmick, and when he first boarded the Exotic Express WWE clearly thought they’d found a winning persona. He debuted on Raw just one month after the character first appeared on NXT TV, but the novelty soon wore off, and fans became more interested in his sidekick: the bunny. And here was his issue, Adam Rose will most likely be memorable to WWE fans because he had a rivalry with a man dressed in a bunny costume. He then moved onto the Social Outcasts, which was a jobber group in 2016 that you may remember. Or may not. Nobody would blame you. Regardless, Adam Rose never hit the highs of NXT again, which considering the limited time he spent there tells you all you need to know.
6. Summer Rae
Summer Rae was actually at one point near the top of the women’s division in NXT. Yes, really. More than that, she led group that contained Sasha Banks and Charlotte. No, really. I think that was also the last time she wrestled. She got called up to the main roster to play the part of Fandango’s dance partner, and has since played the valet/love interest of The Miz, Rusev and Tyler Breeze. She was also part of a short lived alliance with Layla, who I thought had retired a full year before she was apparently teaming with Summer. Her most significant achievement on the main roster has to be that she co-starred with The Miz in The Marine 4. Since Wrestlemania Summer Rae has been out with an injury, but considering what she was up to when she was healthy and the influx of new talent to the division even since she’s been out, her glory years in the ring may already be behind her.
5. The Vaudevillains
This vintage tag team became crowd favourites because of how different their gimmick was, despite spending most of their time in Florida as heels. They rose through the ranks and eventually won the NXT Tag Team Championships from Blake and Murphy at the first Takeover: Brooklyn. They ended up losing the titles to the most decorated team in NXT history, which doesn’t make it seem so bad. They were then one of the post-Wrestlemania call-ups this year, and got a decent push out of the gate, earning a tag title shot against The New Day. However, they have been in the doghouse since, in no small part due to Simon Gotch’s backstage altercation with Sin Cara, and since being drafted to the SmackDown brand they have been missing in action, only appearing occasionally to get squashed.
4. The Ascension
At one stage, people were excited to think about The Ascension rising all the way to WWE’s main roster tag division. They had dominated NXT, beating almost every team there was to face on their way to holding the belts for a full year – almost four months longer than any other team in NXT. Konnor and Viktor made their main roster debuts on the final Raw of 2014, but by just a matter of weeks later they had lost all credibility, having been attacked by the NWO, the New Age Outlaws and the APA. Three credible if not legendary teams in their time, but not ones who should be laying out the new dominant team at that stage in their careers. Ever since The Ascension have been jobbers, even when they were put with Stardust to form the Cosmic Wasteland. It may not be a completely unsalvageable situation for The Ascension, but it will take a mighty effort on their parts and WWE’s to make people forget that they have been perennial losers for the last 23 months.
3. Tyler Breeze
This is a man whose work ethic and sheer graft earned him a standing ovation from his NXT colleagues when they were told he was being called up to the main roster. He was on the brink of being released from developmental, until he finally found the Tyler Breeze character, wore fur and pouted into a camera on his way to the ring. Sounds simple enough, right? He was hateable enough that he seemed to be forever around the NXT Championship picture without ever having the trigger pulled on his push. He even took on the legendary Jushin “Thunder” Liger in the Japanese legend’s first match under the WWE umbrella. But since he debuted on the main roster, he has only won a handful of matches. He even went on a run of over 20 matches without winning from the start of this year, and it definitely felt like the curtain was pulled from under him before he could even get a foot on the runway. His current team with Fandango has potential, as they are both good workers, but the way they were booked to be a comedy team leads me to have no faith that better things are in store for Breeze any time soon.
2. Bo Dallas
Bo Dallas had an unconventional rise to the top of NXT. He started out as the happy-go-lucky – aka boring and one-dimensional – go getter, which brought him a spot in the Royal Rumble in 2013 where he eliminated then-Intercontinental Champion Wade Barrett. It wasn’t long before the crowd saw through his one track character and started turning on him though, not unlike what we’ve seen at the very top of the company with Roman Reigns, and not unlike what we saw twenty years ago with The Rock. The NXT crowd even took to literally turning their backs on him. But that made him, inadvertently, into NXT’s number one heel, and at the time became the longest running NXT Champion. He returned to the main roster with a 17-match undefeated streak, but once that was over he was almost immediately relegated to jobber status. It came to the point he was rolled out as Sting and Brock Lesnar’s whipping boy when WWE wanted them to get their heat back. He then joined the doomed Social Outcasts, before breaking out on his own again after the draft. He may still Bo-lieve, but it will take a lot for that to translate to the fans.
Neville was the man who defeated Bo Dallas for the NXT Championship, and also the man who took the crown of the longest reigning champion from him. With athleticism to burn, and a strength that defies his small stature, it’s easy to see why Neville became a fan favourite. He led the yellow brand through it’s ascending months, headlining and winning the title at NXT Arrival, and by the time he relinquished the belt the landscape had changed dramatically – with Charlotte and Sasha Banks in the Women’s Title picture, and Kevin Owens making an impact. Since making the jump to the main roster the night after Wrestlemania 31, Neville has consistently put in impressive performances without ever really being given anything of substance to work with. The closest he got was teaming with Stephen Amell at Summerslam, and we all know the attention was on the Green Arrow instead of the Red Arrow. It has gotten to the point where even when touring in Neville’s homeland of the UK, he is relegated to a Superstars match against Titus O’Neil instead of being a lynchpin of an ailing Cruiserweight Division. The crowd are still backing him whenever he pops up on TV, as evidenced by his reactions in Glasgow a few weeks ago. But with the talent he has, and his potential connection with the crowd, WWE are missing a golden trick by not utilising him in any way effectively.