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    Tuesday, December 29, 2020

    The Year That Was: NXT

    Kyle O'Reilly on WWE NXT

    As the worst year in recent memory winds down in the next few days, we've decided to do something different here on Smark Henry: instead of listing down 31 days of wrestling in 2020, we chose to take a quick look back at the promotions that have kept us sane through the pandemic. We present The Year That Was, what we hope to be our new annual year-end series.

    In the last quarter of 2017, programs involving Adam Cole, Johnny Gargano, and Tommaso Ciampa were beginning to headline NXT shows and TakeOver specials. Like every "era" in NXT that came before theirs, it meant that they were the top guys—the franchise cornerstones that the brand was to be built around.

    That was the case from the dawn of the TakeOver specials during the Adrian Neville era, to that brief moment in time where the Internet Wrestling Community (IWC) was abuzz over the NXT Five (Neville, Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Finn Bálor, and Hideo Itami KENTA), to the Bálor as NXT Champion run, to the Samoa Joe/Shinsuke Nakamura rivalry, to that quick cup of coffee Drew McIntyre had at Full Sail, to NXT TakeOver: WarGames in November 2017. 

    That show kicked off an impressive run of twelve TakeOver events in which at least one of Adam Cole, Tommaso Ciampa, or Johnny Gargano wrestled in the main event. Keeping in mind that TakeOver specials happened only every few months, that streak actually lasted well into 2020. The Cole/Gargano/Ciampa era in NXT was an actual period in the brand's history and for over two years, the top stories on the brand revolved around at least one of those three Superstars, if not some combination of them.

    Earlier this year, the long-running feud between Gargano and Ciampa had entered a sequel that we didn't really even ask for anymore, with Gargano having turned heel and Ciampa being the defiant babyface, while Adam Cole's year-long run with the NXT title had begun to feel stale—especially following the end of the Undisputed Gold storyline.

    The freshest year of NXT

    And then, as if Triple H was actually listening, the tide began to turn. Right in the middle of the weirdest year ever, we bore witness to the rise of Keith Lee, to his crowning moment as NXT's first double champion, to Karrion Kross's unfortunately quick reign of terror, to the return of The Prince, and the ascension of many new faces.

    While it seemed like NXT had unofficially branded itself as The Adam Cole Show or The Gargano/Ciampa drama vehicle for the last three years, these three franchise players also served to establish a sense of normalcy in the Black and Gold Brand. Through its earliest years, NXT was always supposed to be the developmental brand for the main roster—in many ways, it still is—but it also fought for legitimacy as the WWE's third brand. In a way, it couldn't do so because there were no franchise players as the show was also a revolving door of talent who were getting signed, getting reps, and then getting called up.

    Having Cole (and The Undisputed ERA), Gargano, and Ciampa star in prominent, long-term storylines achieved the vision of consistency and normalcy for NXT as a show, and once they'd gotten that, it was time to start the transition period to build up new stars. Don't get me wrong; it's not like NXT never built anyone up during that almost three-year span. It just always felt like The Undisputed ERA, Johnny TakeOver, and Tommy Entertainment were on a different stratosphere.

    That's why 2020 feels like the freshest NXT year we've had in a long time. We got moments like Keith Lee's huge victory at The Great American Bash—which, whether they meant to or not, looked a lot like a lowkey nod to the Black Lives Matter movement, as well—Karrion Kross's subsequent thrashing of the Limitless One, Io Shirai finally winning the NXT Women's Championship (at around the same time her evil fiancé held the top two championships in Japan), the rebirth of Kyle O'Reilly, singles star, Leon Ruff's surprise North American title win, and the emergence of stars-in-the-making like Damian Priest, Cameron Grimes, Dexter Lumis, Shotzi Blackheart, and Smark Henry favorite Raquel González.

    Cole, Gargano, and Ciampa slowly transitioned into upper midcard roles, shepherding those that were meant to be groomed to succeed them in the stories they themselves were involved in. Pat McAfee's bodacious arrival on this stage would not have happened without that killer match with Adam Cole at TakeOver XXX. Gargano's role as the slimy, chickenshit heel North American Champion has helped make sympathetic babyfaces out of everyone he and his new stable, The Way, have faced. While Ciampa's short-lived feud with Jake Atlas hasn't given the latter that ever-elusive rub just yet, programs with Karrion Kross and Timothy Thatcher are the hard-hitting type of action that makes for sleeper Picks of the Week on The Wrestling-Wrestling Podcast.

    The deepest show WWE's got

    Zooming out, what NXT has done particularly well this year is maximize its deep roster, while not making its two-hour runtime seem like a chore. Every match or segment feels like it gets just the right amount of time. Superstars shuffle in and out of the spotlight so that nobody's really oversaturated, while you get just enough of certain wrestlers to want to see what happens next in their program. They even managed to get us to care about main roster fixtures who were running in place by tweaking the packaging of Bálor and Ember Moon, as well as legitimizing Breezango by giving them their three-week title run. 

    Hell, they even managed to squeeze two huge stories out of the pandemic and Black Wednesday: Drake Maverick's redemption arc and the formation of Legado Del Fantasma. And we haven't even mentioned the way NXT's tag team division has been restocked thanks to champions Oney Lorcan and Danny Burch, Drake & Killian Dain, Ever-Rise, Legado Del Fantasma, the US-based half of Imperium, and Grizzled Young Veterans.

    In fact, it feels weird saying that 2020 has been a transition year for NXT, but looking at its roster today, the evidence is clear. Yes, a lot of familiar faces are still here or have returned while the likes of Lee, Bianca Belair, the Street Profits, and Angel Garza moved on to the main roster. But your biggest indicators of change is the changing of the guard. 

    Adam Cole and Tommaso Ciampa are now the brand's gatekeepers. Kyle O'Reilly is now the UE's standard-bearer in the NXT Championship conversation. Johnny Gargano and Candice LeRae are now elevating younger talent like Austin Theory and Indi Hartwell. Raquel González gives the Smark Henry offices visions of a young Dave Bautista. There is an impending showdown between linear Cruiserweight Champion Jordan Devlin (who, for some reason, is still in the UK) and interim champion Santos Escobar. Those are just some of the names and storylines to watch out for as this god-forsaken year mercifully comes to an end.

    2020 has been the shits for so many of us. But just as we've been left with little-to-no choice but to put on our big boy/girl pants and make do with the poo-poo platter we've gotten, NXT has found a way to thrive amidst the chaos and retool as it gears up for the next phase of this very weird and dark period in pro wrestling.

    And they did it all while building a new (literal) home for themselves amid a global pandemic. Not bad for a transition year.

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    Item Reviewed: The Year That Was: NXT Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Stan Sy
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