The NXT Championship belt is one of the most exclusive championships in the WWE, a belt that only a handful of wrestlers have held during its four year existence. Although it doesn't carry the same prestige as the WWE World or Universal Championships, the NXT belt is the top prize a male wrestler can receive as they make their way through the WWE's developmental center. It's a vote of confidence, a sign as to who Triple H (who books NXT) and the WWE coaches believe is ready to be featured on both the NXT tour and TV show.
Every single NXT champion has moved onto the WWE roster shortly after dropping the belt to their successor. However, once reaching the big stage of the main roster, some former NXT champs have languished or fallen into obscurity. Let's take a look at the relative success of each former NXT Champion:
The inaugural NXT Champion, Seth Rollins represents just how far an NXT champ can go in the WWE. Rollins won the NXT Champion in an 8 man tournament and held the belt for six months during the early days of the Shield. Along with Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose, Rollins debuted on the main roster at Survivor Series in 2012 as mercenaries under the employ of CM Punk to help extend his WWE Championship reign.
The Shield became one of the most dominant factions in WWE history, running roughshod over the tag team division and becoming fan favorites in the process. Eventually, Rollins broke up the Shield by siding with the Authority and betraying Reigns and Ambrose, won the Money in the Bank briefcase, and cashed it in at Wrestlemania 31 to steal the WWE Championship off Brock Lesnar and Reigns. Rollins had a lengthy title run in 2015, which ended only after he blew out his knee at a house show. When Rollins returned earlier this year, he immediately slotted into the WWE's title picture, and main evented in a title feud against Kevin Owens. As of late, Rollins is slowly pushing towards a Wrestlemania match against Triple H, who abandoned him in favor of Owens.
While the WWE might see Roman Reigns as the future face of the company, they clearly see Rollins as the company's next big "villain". As the first member of the Shield to win the WWE Championship, Rollins clearly has Vince McMahon's trust and should be a major player in the WWE for years to come.
Shortly after debuting on the main roster, Seth Rollins dropped the NXT Championship to Big E Langston, who was portrayed as a monster wrestler that demanded refs count to 5 when pinning opponents. By the time Big E had won the NXT Championship, he had already debuted as the third member of a faction consisting of AJ Lee and Dolph Ziggler. Big E largely played second fiddle to Ziggler and Lee at first, the largely mute muscle for a group of heels.
After splitting away from Ziggler and Lee, Big E spent time on the midcard, unsuccessfully challenging Dean Ambrose for the United States Championship and briefly holding the Intercontinental Championship in 2014. It seemed like Big E was destined for the midcard, until he teamed up with Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods to form the New Day in late 2014. The New Day were a flop at first, boring overly positive babyfaces that only received boos and a mocking "New Day Sucks" chant from the crowd. However, the WWE quickly turned the New Day into cheating heels and gave them the Tag Team titles. As heels, the New Day won fans over with a series of goofy Internet friendly antics. They won the Tag Team titles a second time in 2015 and held the belt for a record 483 days.
Big E has the look of a singles champion and, thanks to his time with the New Day, he now has the fan support to go with it. The WWE liked Big E enough to put him in their record books, but time will tell if he has a future outside of the New Day.
Bo Dallas defeated Big E to become NXT's third champion in 2013. Dallas beat Big E (who had gone undefeated in NXT up to that point) by throwing Big E into an exposed turnbuckle and getting a surprise win over the champ. Dallas's reign was controversial at NXT. He held the title for 280 days (a record at that point) but was immensely disliked by fans. Dallas took on the persona of a delusional heel character who thought he was a good guy and feuded with Sami Zayn before eventually being forced out of NXT after losing the title.
Dallas was probably the most underwhelming NXT Champion and he largely was a flop on the main roster. Taking on a "motivational speaker" gimmick, Dallas debuted on the main roster with a long winning streak over low card wrestlers, but was never given a title shot or run with even a less prestigious belts. Dallas briefly earned a regular spot on TV as one of the Social Outcasts (a New Era version of the "Job Squad"), but that fizzled out when the group split up during last summer's brand split.
If Rollins represents the "highs" of an NXT Champion, Dallas definitely represents the lows. Dallas will probably never have a run with a title, although it's possible he'll always get recruited into the Wyatt Family, as he's Bray Wyatt's real life brother.
One of NXT's early stars, Neville was the first (and only) wrestler to win both the NXT Tag Team titles and NXT Championship. After ending Bo Dallas's reign of terror on NXT by defeating him in NXT's first ever ladder match, Neville held the title for 287 days, defending it against the likes of Tyler Breeze, Sami Zayn, Brodus Clay, and Tyson Kidd.
Neville's run on the main WWE roster has been mixed at best. Neville debuted on the RAW after Wrestlemania 31, but has never risen above the midcard. However, he has had a few featured matches, including a highly publicized teamup with Arrow star Stephen Amell against Stardust and Wade Barrett at Summerslam. Neville also has the Red Arrow, one of the most explosive and well-protected finishers in the WWE. Neville's Red Arrow has only failed one time, when Seth Rollins got a foot on the bottom rope in a WWE Championship match.
Neville's career had a setback earlier this year when he broke his ankle in a freak accident, but he made a big splash earlier this month when he turned heel and declared his intent to challenge for the WWE's Cruiserweight division. Neville's a natural fit for the Cruiserweights (and he looks like a monster compared to the other Cruiserweights), so hopefully this new direction will finally push Neville to the next level.
The perennial underdog and the soul of NXT, Sami Zayn beat Neville in a dramatic "Career vs. Title" match in 2015. Zayn had only a short run as NXT Champion and was set to make his main roster debut against John Cena in front of his hometown of Montreal. Sadly, Zayn injured his shoulder during the match and had to undergo major reconstructive surgery.
Zayn made his "official" main roster debut in this year's Royal Rumble, where he made a surprise appearance and eliminated his longtime friend turned enemy Kevin Owens (more on him later). Zayn's feud with Owens carried through Wrestlemania and ended with Zayn beating Owens at Payback, which was one of the best WWE matches of the year. Since beating Owens, Sami hasn't really done much on the RAW roster, which has led fans to repeatedly call for him to get traded to Smackdown. Recently, Zayn started feuding with Braun Strowman and pulled an upset "victory" at Roadblock last week.
Zayn is in the same weird spot as Neville, as it's clear that the WWE thinks of him highly, but doesn't have a really defined "spot" in the pecking order. Zayn is probably the purest babyface on the main roster, but the WWE has yet to give fans a reason to care about him outside of his longtime relationship with Kevin Owens. It's too soon to call Zayn a bust, but he's too great of a talent to just sit on the roster without anything to do.
Owens made a statement at NXT on the night of his debut, powerbombing his longtime friend and newly crowned NXT Champion Sami Zayn to announce his intent to become NXT's next champion. Owens crushed Zayn in their eventual title match, powerbombing Zayn multiple times and forcing the referee to stop the match. Owens was portrayed as a monster at NXT, "injuring" multiple wrestlers in his quest to keep the championship.
Outside of Seth Rollins, there probably isn't an NXT Champion who has achieved as much as Owens. In just over a year, Owens has won the Intercontinental and WWE Universal Championships and is arguably the WWE's top heel. When Finn Balor went down to injury after what was supposed to be his ascendency to the top of the roster, the WWE quickly turned to Owens to be their new Universal Champion instead of returning to an established star like Roman Reigns or Seth Rollins.
Although he doesn't look like a traditional WWE champion, Owens is one of the WWE's best talkers and is a surprisingly versatile wrestler. He can play the chicken heel, he can do crazy spots, and he can play an unstoppable monster when necessary. Owens will never be the top guy for the WWE, but he'll definitely be in the main event picture for years to come.
Finn Balor was the face of NXT as it transformed from a purely developmental brand to a touring show with a distinct fanbase and atmosphere. After defeating Owens in Tokyo for the title, Balor successfully defended his championship for almost a full calendar year.
When Balor made his long overdue debut on the main roster over this summer, the WWE pulled out all the stops to make him an instant star. He was one of RAW's top picks during the brand split and beat Roman Reigns on his first night to qualify for a shot at the new WWE Universal Championship. Balor beat Seth Rollins for the Universal Championship, but hurt his shoulder in the process and had to relinquish the belt the following night before undergoing major surgery.
Supposedly, the WWE had big plans for Balor, but we'll have to see if the company remains high on him after he returns. At 35 years old, Balor is in his prime and could still be the WWE's next star...if they push him when he comes back from injury.
So far, NXT has produced two champions, one dud, and a few wrestlers who could still become major players within the WWE. Becoming NXT Champion isn't a guaranteed ticket to stardom, and former champs have quickly discovered that getting over on the main roster is much harder than becoming top dog in the minor leagues.
One issue is that many former NXT champions aren't given a longterm direction or angle. Neither Bo Dallas or Neville were given a direction when they first debuted, and Sami Zayn quickly sputtered after his initial feud with Owens ended. It's not that these wrestlers don't have the skill, it's that the WWE doesn't want to put in the time into acquainting fans who don't watch NXT as to just how special these champs are.
The next former NXT champion that will probably join the WWE's main roster is Samoa Joe, who defeated Finn Balor for the championship before losing to Shinsuke Nakamura twice. Although Samoa Joe is hardly a rookie wrestler (he's been a pro wrestler for 16 years), he could make an instant impact on the roster like Balor or AJ Styles. Samoa Joe could even appear at next month's Royal Rumble, which is a prime opportunity to turn him into the WWE's next big thing.
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