This is the latest in a series of articles looking at the NXT wrestlers who have been ‘promoted’ from NXT to either WWE Raw or Smackdown, and whether those moves were actually a positive thing for the individual or team in question.
For the introduction to this series please go to chopskicksandnearfalls.com/from-nxt-to-the-wwe-main-roster-when-is-a-promotion-not-a-promotion and please see the end of this article for links to previous entries.
NXT – Sami Zayn was a hotly anticipated acquisition by NXT when he joined, apparently due to some unfounded links to someone called El Generico. But in his first year or so in NXT, when it was still operating as a genuine developmental brand, he actually spent a large amount of time losing.
His feud with Cesaro is recognised as one of the first great contests in NXT history, but Sami did ultimately lose the two out of three falls rubber match and this went alongside various failures to become number 1 contender against the likes of Leo Kruger (the soon to be Adam Rose), Adrian Kruger and Tyson Kidd. Zayn also lost on the first ever TakeOver event, being defeated by Tyler Breeze in yet another failed attempt to become number 1 contender.
From here though, Zayn embarked on a period in which NXT came to be known as the place to go in American wrestling if you actually wanted to see some…you know…wrestling. His Fatal Four Way match with now NXT champion Neville, Tyson Kidd and Tyler Breeze was absolutely electric and began a feud with the future PAC after the latter turned heel. Zayn earned another opportunity at Neville, but lost when checking on the apparently injured, but really just conniving, champion.
All of this though was simply building to one of the great babyface moments in NXT history, followed by one of the great heel turns. Zayn, given one final chance to win the big one, again challenged Neville, this time saying that if he lost he would quit NXT. In an absolutely superb match, Zayn conquered his insecurities and his demons and won the title to a jubilant reaction from the crowd, his fellow wrestlers, and his best friend Kevin Owens. Of course Sami’s elation was not to last long, with Owens turning on his compadre and powerbombing him brutally into the ring apron.
Owens attacked Zayn again one week later, and then in their title match at TakeOver: Rival, Owens destroyed Zayn causing a referee stoppage and a premature end to Sami’s title reign. In their rematch at TakeOver: Unstoppable, Zayn befell a similar fate when another Owens powerbomb caused the match to be stopped, albeit this time Sami was injured for real, and had to take seven months off.
When Sami finally returned to NXT, defeating Tye Dillinger, it initially looked like he was in for a big push to regain the title, but a defeat to Samoa Joe seemed to instead spell the end for Zayn in the promotion. Not before, however, leaving his adoring fans with one final reminder of how good he was with his match against Shinsuke Nakamura at TakeOver Dallas. It was a fitting finale for Zayn who signed off with another defeat, but another magnificent performance.
Main Roster – Zayn had been flirting with the main roster even whilst on NXT, most notably in his match against John Cena for the US Title (unfortunately the match where Zayn suffered the injury that would put him out for seven months) and in the 2016 Royal Rumble.
His ‘proper’ debut came in March 2016 when he attacked Owens, continuing their feud on the main roster, but as with his time in NXT, Zayn’s record in his first year wasn’t great. He failed to claim the Intercontinental Title at both Wrestlemania 32 (in a ladder match won by Zack Ryder) and in a fatal four way match at Extreme Rules (won by the Miz) as well as unsuccessfully competing in the Money in the Bank match. He also lost yet again to Owens at Payback that year, although he did finally get his PPV win over Owens at Battleground 2016.
The rest of Zayn’s 2016 was largely spent in a bizarre feud with Braun Strowman which saw WWE attempting to cast Zayn as the David to Strowman’s Goliath, but with Strowman ultimately winning the feud. The start of 2017 was equally uneventful for Zayn with a series of mid-card feuds and matches perhaps best summed up by the fact he ended up battling Mike Kanellis at Battleground 2017. He was still a crowd favourite, but certainly wasn’t being promoted as anything other than fodder for the big boys.
For once WWE used the frustration around the use of Zayn to positive effect, turning him heel when he joined forces with Kevin Owens against Shane McMahon, apparently because Shane had not given him the chances he deserved. Whilst this sounded good on paper, in practice it was a deeply underwhelming story, largely built to allow for Daniel Bryan’s return to the ring at Wrestlemania 34, where he and McMahon beat Zayn and Owens.
Whilst Zayn and Owens were always great value when given mic-time during this period, they didn’t make a huge amount of impact at the actual top of the card, and Sami’s 2018 will mostly be remembered for his woeful feud with Bobby Lashley….yes the one that included Lashley’s ‘sisters’. The year also saw Zayn require surgery again, which kept him out until April 2019.
That return came to a huge pop at the Raw after Wrestlemania, but Zayn quickly turned on the crowd and developed a great ‘irritating bug’ persona who basically spent his time whinging and losing. Indeed in 2019, he lost 17 of 19 televised matches but stayed relevant mainly through his promo work rather than anything that happened in the ring.
All of this was to lead to the formation of the Artist Collective, which probably saw Sami doing his finest work on the main roster. First becoming the manager of then IC title holder Shinsuke Nakamura, Zayn also took control of Cesaro and it looked for a long while as if Zayn’s in-ring career in WWE was over. But in March 2020, in a strange 3 on 1 handicap match with Braun Strowman, Zayn captured the IC title himself, to finally give him some main roster gold.
A seemingly dream feud with Daniel Bryan followed, but this was hamstrung by the onset of the lockdown era, and worse was to come for Sami when he was stripped of the title whilst deciding not to risk competing during a global pandemic (which of course is entirely unacceptable to Vince). Having returned to action, he currently finds himself in a three way tussle for ‘his’ IC belt with Jeff Hardy and AJ Styles which should lead to something great, but in all likelihood will not go anywhere positive for Sami.
Conclusion – Other than maybe Bayley, Sami Zayn has been the greatest babyface in NXT’s history. And he managed to do that whilst also being a huge part of the emergence of NXT as the home of superb matches. On the main roster, for a variety of reasons the main one probably being that he’s ‘too small’, WWE have not been able to capitalise on Zayn’s popularity, and have also not permitted him to show his in-ring prowess. It’s not all been bad for Sami on the main roster by any means, and his heel work on the mic has been particularly impressive. But you can’t help but feel that WWE have slightly missed the boat on getting the best out of Sami Zayn, and he really should have been on the list of main title holders with the likes of Finn Balor and Seth Rollins. There is still time for Sami on the main roster, but it now seems extremely unlikely that he’ll ever make it to the top of the card, and for a man with such natural skill and charisma, that seems like a massive missed opportunity.
NXT – Few could have envisioned the divisive character Baron Corbin would come to be when he started out in NXT. Having served as an enhancement talent in his opening spell, he returned at TakeOver: Fatal Four Way to squash the easily squashable CJ Parker. What followed was a 12 match winning streak in which none of the matches went above 2 minutes. Corbin even squashed the then undefeated Bull Dempsey on this startling run and was something of a crowd favourite as the fans counted along with his squashes.
Sadly Corbin lost his first match in NXT to Adrian Neville during a No.1 Contenders tournament and from there, his mystique was somewhat dulled. Corbin would continue to squash jobbers week-in, week-out, and also picked up back to back TakeOver wins against Bull Dempsey and Rhyno, but his momentum was again derailed when he lost to Samoa Joe at TakeOver Brooklyn.
By this stage Corbin had turned heel, and looked a bit of an anomaly in an NXT which at the time relied heavily on strong in-ring work. His ‘odd-couple’ tag team with Rhyno looked like it might give him some joy but they lost in the final of the Dusty Classic to the team of Finn Balor and Samoa Joe.
Corbin’s most significant impact in his final few months on the black and gold brand was to seemingly be used to derail Apollo Crews’ push when he beat him at TakeOver London, a decision that looked even more bizarre once Corbin was made to look a fool in a no.1 contenders match in which he was submitted by Samoa Joe and Sami Zayn at the same time.
A few more victories followed, including a win over Johnny Gargano, but at TakeOver Dallas, Corbin lost to Austin Aries and this effectively ended his NXT run. A run which initially looked like it would take him to the top of the card, but which probably has to be looked on as something of a disappointment now.
Main Roster – Corbin’s start to life on the main roster was fairly impressive, as he debuted at Wrestlemania 32 and won the Andre the Giant Battle Royal. WWE, being WWE, decided to follow up on this momentum by having Corbin spend the next month and a half going 50/50 with Dolph Ziggler, although Baron did technically ‘win’ that feud.
Continuing his very ‘meh’ main roster feuds, Corbin entered into battle with Kalisto, resulting in a chairs match at TLC 2016 which the big man unsurprisingly won. More surprisingly this briefly elevated Corbin into the Smackdown title picture, but this ended quickly when he was defeated by AJ Styles in a triple-threat match that also included perennial title pest Dolph Ziggler.
Failure in the Elimination Chamber match followed, but this did lead to a further title opportunity for Corbin, as he attacked Dean Ambrose, thus challenging him for the latter’s Intercontinental Title. Again though, and this time on the grandest stage of them all at Wrestlemania 33, Corbin came up short.
Soon it appeared as if Corbin would be fully elevated to the top tier in WWE as he won the 2017 Money in the Bank match at a time when the WWE champion was Jinder Mahal. Piece of cake right? Well no. Corbin was repeatedly embarrassed by Shinsuke Nakamura, and then in August 2017 made his attempt to cash-in on Mahal. Unfortunately Corbin was distracted by John Cena, and thus became only the third man to fail to cash in the briefcase. To rub salt in the wound, Cena defeated Corbin at Summerslam that year.
Fortunately Corbin wouldn’t have to wait for too long to win main roster gold, as he picked up the US Title at Hell in a Cell 2017, defeating both AJ Styles and Tye Dillinger. Unfortunately the reign was only to last 70 days as Corbin gave up the title to good old Dolph Ziggler at Clash of Champions 2017, in a match that also included Bobby Roode.
I know what you’re thinking….”When do we get to Constable Corbin?!” Well that role was bestowed on the now Raw superstar in June 2018, and he was made the Raw General Manager in August after replacing Kurt Angle. None of this helped Corbin however as he lost PPV matches to Finn Balor at both Extreme Rules and Summerslam, as well as losing a self-booked Universal Title match against Roman Reigns.
The biggest issue at this time however was that Raw’s booking was almost universally hated, and Corbin seemed to have become the focal point for that rage. When he was eventually stripped of his role by the McMahon family, who took control themselves, they encouraged the fans to blame Corbin for the problems on Raw, not entirely understanding the difference between kayfabe and non-kayfabe fan reactions. Either way though, Corbin had become public enemy number one.
In amongst all of this Constable Corbin shenanigans, Corbin had been feuding on and off with Braun Strowman which was finally brought to an end when Corbin was smashed through a table on Raw. For some reason Kurt Angle then chose Corbin as his opponent for his Wrestlemania 35 retirement match, and Corbin continued his efforts to become the most unpopular man in the WWE by winning that match (spoiler alert…it was very poor).
Corbin then became embroiled in a Universal Title feud with Seth Rollins which managed to both drag on far too long and make people think considerably less of both Rollins and Becky Lynch, who also got dragged into the issue via Lacey Evans. WWE managed to drag this soul-crushing feud out over three PPVs, none of which did anything for any of the wrestlers involved.
Seemingly determined to keep Corbin at the top of the card, despite his apparent lack of popularity, he was booked to win the 2019 King of the Ring, including a victory over Chad Gable in a feud that was largely based on Gable not being 6ft tall (no seriously). Credit where it’s due though, for the first time Corbin actually felt like an unpopular heel rather than just an unpopular wrestler, and has probably done his best main roster work as King Corbin.
He feuded, at length, with Roman Reigns, sort of ending in a fun Falls Count Anywhere match at the 2020 Royal Rumble before being inexplicably revisited in Saudi Arabia. Corbin of course lost both of these matches.
In recent months he has thrown Elias off a pedestal, and thrown both Aleister Black and Rey Mysterio off a roof in an effort to make the Lockdown Era that bit more entertaining, but sadly seems to now be mired in a very dull feud with Matt Riddle, which is quite an effort considering how charismatic Riddle can be.
Conclusion – Whilst the above description of Corbin’s roaming on the main roster may sound largely negative, there is absolutely no doubt that he’s benefitted from the promotion to Raw and Smackdown. Yes he was very unfairly positioned as the public face of the terrible real-life booking in WWE and yes a lot of his heat has been ‘go-away’ rather than based on his heel character. But he retired Kurt Angle at Wrestlemania. He won King of the Ring. He was Raw General Manager. All of these are significant roles in the biggest wrestling company in the world and whether we like it or not, most wrestlers would kill to be in the positions Corbin has been in. I don’t think he’ll ever win a major title in WWE. I don’t think he’ll ever be popular or add any particular in-ring prowess to his gimmick. But I also think he doesn’t care about that and will be quite happy with his role within the company. So who’s to say anything other than that the move has gone very well for him?
Want some more?
For the latest article on The War Raiders and The IIconics have a gander at https://chopskicksandnearfalls.com/development-to-destiny-from-nxt-to-the-wwe-main-roster-the-authors-of-pain-and-the-iiconics
For Finn Balor and The War Raiders see https://chopskicksandnearfalls.com/development-to-destiny-from-nxt-to-the-wwe-main-roster-war-raiders-and-finn-balor
For Shinsuke Nakamura, Carmella and Tyler Breeze seek out https://chopskicksandnearfalls.com/development-to-destiny-from-nxt-to-the-wwe-main-roster-shinsuke-nakamura-carmella-tyler-breeze
For Elias, The Revival and Ember Moon head to https://chopskicksandnearfalls.com/development-to-destiny-from-nxt-to-the-wwe-main-roster-elias-the-revival-ember-moon
For Aleister Black, Emma and Lacey Evans pop over to https://chopskicksandnearfalls.com/from-nxt-to-the-wwe-main-roster-when-is-a-promotion-not-a-promotion-aleister-black-emma-lacey-evans