Pro wrestling is a weird bastard art, and if you’re unfamiliar with its intricacies, the hordes of people in your social media circles obsessively pontificating about it every Monday night must be a truly confounding experience. Let our very own Dominic Griffin, lifelong wrestling enthusiast, teach you a little something right here, In This Very Ring…
I know I promised some of you an installment of ITVR solely devoted to the depressing and curious failure of Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, but the research necessary to undo the mental scaffolding I’d built up to numb myself from the worst TNA has offered its audiences was just not something I wanted to do. I love you all, but I just am not ready to revisit any iteration of Slammiversary. I just fucking cannot right now with a company like TNA. Maybe soon, but not now. Rather than pick apart the bones of the soon-to-be past, I wanted to explore some of professional wrestling’s future.
Specifically, the next class of WWE NXT. I’ve written about NXT a little in the past here, but for the uninitiated, the concept is simple, but the history is a little more complicated. In the good old days, before Vince McMahon, there used to be territories. There wasn’t just one giant wrestling company monopolizing the industry. You had a variety of promotions that differed in style and scope all across the country, each doing their own thing in their region. The big benefit of the territories is that you could travel all over and pick up skills from a vast network of performers and bookers. When Vince systematically put many of the old stalwarts out of business, he basically put an end to a system that had worked pretty well for half a decade.
Imagine being a stand-up comedian, but there are only two places you can perform. How do you improve? How do you hone your craft? Indies still exist, obviously, but for recruitment purposes, the indies probably used to look like a fucking joke to the WWE. Many performers whose style and persona perfectly fits a smaller audience have trouble transitioning to the massive stage of Sports Entertainment. For some time, the WWE employed their own developmental territories, in one southern company of another, the most successful being Ohio Valley Wrestling, a promotion run by Jim Cornette that helped them birth John Cena, Randy Orton, Batista, and Brock Fucking Lesnar. That was the last big success they had with a new class of rookies until most recently, with the NXT system and the WWE Performance Center.
Basically, down in Florida, WWE has set up a Cool High School for wrestlers to bridge the gap between their previous experience (on the indies, overseas, or, you know, football, in some cases) with what the WWE expects of their performers. On the one hand, having a state of the art facility devoted solely to training the next generation of superstars is really fucking cool, especially since a bunch of legendary wrestlers all work there as instructors and trainers. On paper, it’s the best idea ever. The only downside is so many guys are coming up in a system where they’re exclusively learning from one school of thought. Some of the best world-traveled wrestlers got to learn all over the place, in different countries, in different styles, with different mentors. I’m sure the WWE does a solid job replicating the Study Abroad aspects of paying your dues internationally, but I imagine it’s just not the same.
So far, the best new recruits have come from the indie scene, and this summer, a trio of hot new signees have had diehard fans salivating pretty much 24/7 at the thought of these beloved internet darlings making waves on the main roster. To better help our reading audience understand why everyone is going bugfuck bananas over these new recruits, I’ve spotlighted the three of them, as well as an older signee yet to make his mark, and an unofficial new recruit we all expect to be made official in the coming weeks.
Who: Kevin Steen
Where You May Know Him From: Ring of Honor, PWG, literally every indie promotion ever
Style: Steen has primarily become a smashmouth brawler in recent years, as his size has increased, but his roots are in technical wrestling and some innovative, high-flying offense, old skills he still utilizes to this day. Fun if you’ve ever wanted to see a fat dude do a senton atomico.
Likely Path: His size and appearance are a little unconventional in the WWE landscape, but in a post-Bray Wyatt world, fat boys get to hang, too. Outside of being tough as nails and excelling at violent, hardcore matches, Steen’s biggest gift is his mouth. He has a likability and a mic proficiency on par with the best talkers in the world right now, and with an iconoclast like CM Punk missing (possibly forever), look for Steen to get over with his uncanny ability to connect with a crowd and cut hilarious, moving promos. Also, begin praying to the deity of your choosing that he crosses paths with ex-tag partner Sami Zayn, the one time El Generico. (See: an old ITVR on their relationship.)
Where To Begin: Why not start with one of the better battles between Steen and perennial frenemy El Generico, from ROH’s Final Battle 2012. (The final spot is a doozy.)
Who: Prince Devitt
Where You May Know Him From: New Japan Pro Wrestling, where he was the original leader of The Bullet Club.
Style: Devitt is one of wrestling’s most accomplished junior heavyweights, known for mixing adroit, UK based mat wrestling with high flying moves. Explosive and elegant.
Likely Path: This one is a little tougher to call. Devitt only recently came into his own as a rogueish heel character, but before that he was a pretty tepid personality who could really go in the ring. There’s a danger of him becoming the next Tyson Kidd, aka, an amazing wrestler who largely fails to connect with the crowd. I think it’s likely Devitt will develop a new persona not too far removed from his heel work in NJPW. The cocky, aggressive pretty boy thing has a history of working out rather well.
Where To Begin: A good place to start would be his excellent triple threat match from Wrestle Kingdom 7 against Low Ki and Kota Ibushi. Fun to see Ki dressed up as Agent 47 from Hitman given Devitt’s later propensity to cosplay to the ring as various comic book characters.
Where You May Know Him From: Pro Wrestling NOAH, where KENTA began as a top junior before moving his way up the ranks to being their heavyweight ace. Also, CM Punk and Daniel Bryan (a former opponent of his) have both stolen his finishers at one point or another.
Style: Kicking. Lots of fucking kicking. I am sure KENTA can do a lot of things in the ring, but it’s the kicking that stands out the most.
Likely Path: If I really delved into his likely path, it would most likely be a depressing endpoint of him getting a racially insensitive gimmick, like, say, as a misunderstood rice farmer or some shit, and being wasted in comedy matches against Hornswoggle, but, really, I want to believe KENTA will be debuted as an international superstar making his mark here in the US. He doesn’t need a complicated persona. His in-ring ability speaks for itself. He should just be a no-nonsense badass who kicks people in the face. You can never have enough of those in wrestling.
Where To Begin: Any of his matches with Daniel Bryan are great, but I personally prefer his long standing feud with contemporary Naomichi Marufuji. Here’s one of my favorites.
Who: Solomon Crowe (formerly Sami Callihan)
Where You May Know Him From: Sami made his name in Combat Zone Wrestling and the death match circuit, but traveled all over, most notably making a big dent in PWG before getting signed.
Style: Callihan has grown to become a pretty versatile performer, most known for a hardcore brutality, but adept at submission wrestling as well. He was signed last year and given the hacker gimmick of Solomon Crowe, but outside of working several dark matches, has yet to debut on NXT proper, so who knows how his in ring style has evolved since working at the Performance Center.
Likely Path: A rather fervent faction of fans on Tumblr is hoping he’ll reform the Switchblade Conspiracy with former partner Dean Ambrose, but, honestly, fat fucking chance, at least for awhile. Crowe shares Ambrose’s off kilter sensibility, disdain for his own personal well being, and dangerous quality, but he seems to be better at adapting and growing. When I first heard of him, I hated his character and matches, but he won me over with time. His heel work has never been my cup of tea, but as a scrappy, underdog babyface who never quits? I think that might be how he makes his mark. You know, if they ever finally put him on fucking television.
Where To Begin: His PWG farewell match was a sixty-minute Iron Man match with long time rival Adam Cole. Here’s some of the highlights. (Sorry for the music. Wrestling fans, by and large, seem to have the shittiest music taste in the world.)
The Dark Horse
Who: Willie Mack
Where You May Know Him From: PWG, probably, but also Championship Wrestling From Hollywood
Style: Willie is maybe the most indie wrestler to be signed by WWE in quite some time. His in-ring style is unquestionably the product of a self professed pro graps nerd who grew up on ROH tapes, so his entire repertoire is full of cool MOVEZ and absurd innovations that you only think up when you’re wrestling in high school gyms. For a dude his size, he can fucking GO, though.
Likely Path: Mack hasn’t officially signed yet, but if the rumors are true, he may stand to benefit from NXT training more than anyone else on this list. Mack has shown serious potential for the last few years, but has been missing the spark to bring it all together. Being a big, likable black dude that can do flips and shit is cool, but putting together a match and telling a good story on a consistent basis are the next step. (His dream match with idol Samoa Joe showed he is fully capable of performing on a higher level than we sometimes see from him.) Personally, I’d love to see Willie become a modern day Dusty Rhodes, a likable, relatable everyman who fights for all of us. Hopefully McMahon and company don’t pull anything too minstrelsy with him.
Where To Begin: None of his best matches are available on YouTube, but this tribute video shows a range of why he’s so much fun to behold