By Darren Gutteridge and Zack Zimmerman
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Welcome to the 4th annual NXT awards! Yes, that does mean these awards are older than the actual, official NXT awards that will be announced by the company next week. Ipso facto, these awards are way more prestigious.
2015 saw unprecedented expansion and growth for NXT. The brand held its first regular tours outside of Florida, its first large arena shows, and closed the year with its first-ever international tour and live special. It is now very much the established 3rd brand of WWE, and the most critically acclaimed product that the company offers. My how our little off-the-radar hour of wrestling has grown. With that, let’s award those who contributed most impactfully to this growth over 2015.
NXT Superstar of the Year
Zim – Finn Bálor – From my “One to Watch” Award last year to “Superstar of the Year,” Finn Bálor’s flag-bearing 2015 was realized potential and ultimately not surprising. We don’t always need surprises though. In this case, the brand needed a cornerstone babyface to stabilize the brand through the exodus, influx, and evolution of NXT talent that 2015 saw. Through injuries, call-ups, hirings, and firings, Finn Bálor was the much-needed constant at the helm of NXT. His work does not feel destined for the history books in terms of breaking new ground or character depth, but he has delivered in the ring on every occasion and more than carries his own as the counterpart to antagonists like Kevin Owens and Samoa Joe. In what felt like a revolutionary year for NXT, Finn Bálor was the only candidate for this award that I could legitimately argue in favor of without hesitation or flaw. He remained injury free and delivered what he needed for the role he was in, and for that, he is undoubtedly my pick for top male performer in NXT of 2015.
Gutteridge – Finn Bálor – Everyone had two men penciled in to replace Sami Zayn and Neville as the 2015 top of the card pairing in NXT- Kevin Owens and Bálor. And though the NXT Title resided with one or the other for 11 of the past 12 months, Owens excelled so much that he was called up to the main roster over the summer. That left Bálor to bare the weight alone, and he has been more than up to the challenge. Though his mic game still has a ways to go, Bálor has delivered majorly in the ring, either as the leather jacket wearing stud, or the Demon. He was the most dynamic performer on NXT. Or at least, the most dynamic with a Y chromosome. . .
Honorable Mentions: Kevin Owens, for adapting so quickly to the WWE style that NXT couldn’t contain him; Samoa Joe, for delivering as a top performer when he was needed the most, re-legitimizing himself while boosting the brand as a whole, and washing off that TNA stink in near record time; Baron Corbin, for his journey from a seemingly over-pushed green guy to a developing, credible NXT main eventer.
NXT Diva of the Year
G – Bayley – The NXT Women’s champion not only takes home this award, but would get my overall pick for the best performer in NXT this year, regardless of gender. She is likely also the best babyface in wrestling right now (at least in the wrestling I am exposed to). I’m not oblivious to the holes in her game, such as her sometimes patchy mic work, but you’d have to be crazy to pick anyone else as NXT’s top dog right now.
Z – Bayley – Like there could be any doubt. Bayley is not only the top female performer in NXT, but the MVP of the entire NXT brand this year. She is not only the top female performer in NXT, but in all of WWE. Bayley offers the complete package to a demographic that WWE historically does not reach and has the potential to usher in a new generation of fans while also resonating strongly with current and long-time fans. She has been a compelling character that everyone can root for without hesitation. The journey that her character took and the performances she delivered this year can probably go down as the best run the NXT ladies division has ever seen. I truly fear what may await her on the main roster in the current environment, but this young lady’s potential is remarkable and 2015 was the first glimpse into what could be.
HM: Sasha Banks, for bringing the NXT women’s division to yet another level during her title run and being the epic ying to Bayley’s yang during their historic Takeover series; Asuka, for bringing spectacular presence and unparallelled legitimacy to a relatively depleted ladies roster.
NXT Tag Team of the Year
Z – Chad Gable and Jason Jordan – I’m usually the one who disqualifies contenders for not being a presence throughout enough of the year to take a year-end award, but the injection of passion that Gable and Jordan have shot into this tag division is undeniable to me. The Vaudevillains, as well as Blake and Murphy, were constants throughout the year and delivered well, helping to bring the tag division back from the dead. However once the division began to progress and left the pits, the ascension (never has a pun been less intended) stalled somewhat. Dash and Dawson brought their own flavor of solid but unspectacular work, and an impressive final month for Enzo and Cass helped the division as well. All of that said, the emergence of Gable and Jordan has ignited the division in a way that no other team has. Jordan takes the best hot tag in wrestling right now and would be a perfectly viable candidate for a comeback or most improved award in his own right. Gable has burst onto the scene in a remarkable way, with his craft honed in record time and a flare that Jordan has caught. You don’t need 20/20 vision to see that these two year are on track for a big year in 2016.
G – The VaudeVillains – Blake and Murphy got the shock tag title win early in the year. Gable and Jordan tore up the mat in the latter half of the year. Dash and Dawson look set to become big heel champions in 2016. But for me, the VV were the constant this year. Nudging Enzo and Cass out for having better matches and actually taking home championships, English and Gotch went from novelty sideshow fueled purely by quirk, to legit champions capable of putting on good matches with anyone. The main roster jump may be daunting, but at least the VV have now found their most functional niche on NXT.
NXT Most Improved/Comeback of the Year
G – Jason Jordan – When the team of Jordan and Tye Dillinger was brought up, the line was almost always “Dillinger could mean so much more!”. Jordan was often portrayed as a blue chip athlete, perhaps doomed to be nothing more than “generic amateur wrestler No. 1138”. But with his new tag partner Chad Gable, Jordan has found a new lease on life. Gable is rightly getting a lot of praise, but Jordan isn’t winning this award through association – he has taken the opportunity to impress with both hands, with hellacious hot tags that have been just as key to his teams successes as Gable’s technical skills have been. Way to escape the chopping board, man!
Z – Baron Corbin – I’ve been watching Corbin since before his TV debut, and every time I saw him I had the same reaction: “huh, big guy with a cool look, but damn is he green.” I had that reaction even up and into 2015. However at some point, after his feud with Rhyno and before Samoa Joe, Corbin began to turn a corner. He began to actually find his legs as a character, and also as an in-ring performer. Big picture, his in-ring game is still a work in progress, but he’s improved to the point where he’s a credible performer to go out and deliver (preferably not more than 10 minutes) in the ring with a decent opponent. Breaking Ground has also served well as a supplement to the limited character exposure Corbin is given on NXT. From what I’ve come to see from him on that show, as well as his marked improvements on NXT over the course of this year, Corbin earns the nod for my comeback/most improved performer of the year.
HM: Enzo Amore and Colin Cassady, for coming on strong in the final months of the year with a more aggressive edge; Emma, for completely reinventing herself and breathing new life into her career as a viable heel.
NXT Disappointment of the Year
Z – Hideo Itami – Shockingly, this is the second year in a row Itami has wound up in this undesirable position. As I did last year, I want to exhonerate myself from the hate by acknowledging that I’m fully aware of how talented and capable the guy is, but this award is based on 2015 alone and based on my expectations, I’m disappointed. He looked to be turning a corner in the early months of 2015. His in-ring work was improving as he acclimated to the WWE style, he was getting some fun character pieces despite his shaky English, and he was picking up steam with wins. The fallout moment is abundantly clear though. Winning the tournament at WrestleMania Axxess earned Itami a spot on the WrestleMania card in the ‘Dre Battle Royal, where he was eliminated promptly and shown to be just another geek. All of the inspirational video packages in the world couldn’t spin the loss into an actual dream-come-true moment, though they did try. Then follow that up with an injury that would go on to sideline him for the remainder of the year, and you have the recipe for a second straight Disappointment of the Year award. Here’s hoping 2016 puts Itami in the running for Comeback of the year or even Superstar of the year when that time comes back around.
G – Solomon Crowe – Sad is the tale of Solomon Crowe. For the past two NXT Awards, I lamented his lack of in-ring action. Now, one year on, he picks up yet another unwanted “award”. He did finally get to debut, but it was with more of a fizzle than a bang, unceremoniously thrown out in-front of the Full Sail crowd. He wasn’t the “hacker” glimpsed in leaked promo classes, a character I had doubts over but wanted to see get a chance. Nope, instead he was just Sami Callihan, defined only by crazy hair and a bad singlet. And that was that. No high profile matches, and exactly 0 feuds. The final nail in the coffin came in November as he asked for his release. I sincerely hope Callihan finds his mojo again on the Indie scene, because surely it can’t get any worse than the last few years.
HM: Bull Dempsey, for undergoing a silly gimmick change that ended up actually regressing him; Tye Dillinger, because last year he took a “Give that Guy a Match” award, he rebranded himself, and then he lost nearly every match he was given.
This award was previously titled the “I Walk Among You” award, given to those main roster guys who journeyed down to Florida to either help out the developing stars (Cesaro, Natalya), or rejuvenate stuttering careers (Tyson Kidd). The problem this year is that the only main roster guy who came down for any significant amount of time was Zack Ryder, and his turn in the Hype Bros was anything but award worthy. Instead, it is now the “Outsider” award, given to those who don’t fit into the traditional mould of a developmental talent for whatever reason.
G – Samoa Joe – For reasons that should be obvious, Joe easily takes this award home this year. Arriving as the big surprise at the end of Takeover: Unstoppable, Joe was booked like the visiting megastar, a billing he rightly deserves. Never out of the upper card, Joe worked hard to elevate everyone he was with. He gave Baron Corbin his best match yet at TO: Brooklyn, and then closed the year with a barn burner main event at TO: London with Bálor. Lets hope all established indie stars are used this well in NXT.
Z – Samoa Joe – There’s just no question about it. Sure, some other guys and gals showed up for something neat here or there, but Samoa Joe was an absolutely critical component of NXT in the second half of this year. His work in the Dusty Rhodes Classic was on-point, but he stepped back in time and completely legitimized himself and the brand as a whole with his heel turn and year-ending feud with Finn Balor. Joe brought several missing pieces to a brand that needed someone badly, and over-delivered every chance he was given.
HM: Rhyno, for his appearances and assting in the push of Baron Corbin; James Storm, for dropping that TNA stink; Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano, for being great hands that always delivered when called upon.
NXT Match of the Year
Z – Bayley vs. Sasha Banks at Takeover Brooklyn – This match was remarkable. From an in-ring and emotional aspect, this was far-and-away my favorite match of 2015 as evident by the fact that I’ve gone back and watched it no fewer than 5 times. Their match at Takeover Respect was exceptional as well, but that was the main event and expectations were set exceedingly high. The match at Brooklyn had high expectations, but the match itself shattered all of those expectations in the best way possible and left viewers in complete awe. There are one or two other matches that were in the running for this award, but almost as a formality because in my mind it never got any better than Sasha and Bayley in Brooklyn.
G – Bayley vs. Sasha Banks at Takeover: Brooklyn – I’ll start with the superlatives again (as is often the case with the NXT Women’s Division) – this was not only the best match NXT put forward this year, but also the best match I saw in 2015 period. The ring work was off the charts good, but the really selling point was the emotion. What other match encompassed not only the individual stories of both participants, but the story of an entire division as well? This wasn’t just Bayley vs. Sasha – this was the trials, tribulations, and successes of the NXT Women’s division put into physical form. Simply untouchable.
HM: Bayley vs. Sasha @ Respect; Owens vs. Bálor @ Brooklyn; Owens vs. Bálor @ Beast in the East; Owens vs. Zayn @ Rival; Bálor vs. Neville @ Rival; Asuka vs. Emma @ London; Joe vs. Bálor @ London;
NXT Moment of the Year
G – Triple H opens Takeover: Brooklyn – One of the few things in wrestling to actually draw a rise out of me this year, Triple H showcasing the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and really showing off how far his little pet project had come, astounded me. The arena looked great, and it set the ball rolling for one of the best WWE shows of the year. And who knew I’d be in the crowd a few months later when Trips opened up TO: London in similar fashion!
Z – Bayley wins the NXT Women’s Championship – Call me a sucker for a long-term babyface story culminating in an emotional triumphant win. Sami Zayn won it last year with his win over Adrian Neville for the NXT Championship, and in many ways Bayley mirrored that journey. Both are completely lovable underdogs who always give 100% and seem to come up short every big chance they get, only to finally succeed in the biggest way on the biggest stage. That’s what wrestling is about to me. Those emotional journeys. Not every journey can have such heavy investment or spectacular payoff, but when things come together properly with the story, character, and performers all hitting their peaks, we get moments of sheer adulation that fuel the fandom more strongly than anything else, and that is what Bayley’s title win offered.
HM: Samoa Joe debuts at TO: Unstoppable; NXT Champion Kevin Owens dominating John Cena; Finn Balor’s entrance at Beast in the East; Finn Balor’s NXT Championship win at Beast in the East; The Vaudevillains capture the NXT Tag Team Championships in Brooklyn; Bayley brings Izzy into the ring following her title win; Sami Zayn returns in front of a sold-out SSE Arena in London England.
Watch Out 2016
Z – Chad Gable and Jason Jordan – I don’t see the momentum of these two slowing down anytime soon. I said a lot of what I had to say for these two in the Tag Team of the Year category, so look there. I’d be shocked if these two don’t have tag team gold around their waists by the time WrestleMania passes and I’d be shocked if these two are still in NXT by this time next year. Like I wrote earlier, these two have big things on their horizion.
G – Apollo Crews – Already well into the swing of things, I fully expect Crews to carry through the momentum of his debut months into the new year. The only reason I could for see for him not becoming NXT Champion before years end is either through injury or being hot shotted to the main roster, as he is simply too good to miss out otherwise. Unlike last year, there is no obvious opponent for him to be put on a collision course in the vein of Bálor/Owens and Zayn/Neville. It could be Corbin, a returning Itami, or even Bálor is there is truth to him wanting to stay in NXT for a good long while. But whoever the dance partner, count on Crews to shine.
HM: Chad Gable, who is already over beyond his means despite having less than 10 TV matches in his young wrestling career; Tye Dillinger, finally given a gimmick that is getting over despite a complete lack of wins, mic time, or character development.
“Give that guy a match!” 2016
G – Biff Busick – Like many indie stars before him, I am familiar with the hype around Busick more so than the man himself. Consider previous people with this distinct include Daniel Bryan, Sami Zayn, Finn Bálor and Seth Rollins, I’d say it bodes well. The little I have seen of him excites me, and he has the potential to be the next indie sensation turned NXT world beater.
Z – Biff Busick – This one was really a toss-up. I want to see Athena break out in the ladies division, I want to see Sombra transition to the US style without his mask, and I want to see if Rich Swann can survive despite a severe lack of size. That said, I’ve seen more of Biff Busick than anyone else in NXT as a frequent attendee of Biff’s former home promotion Beyond Wrestling. There, Biff was the standard-bearer. He was the man. In NXT, I don’t envision him as the same ultra-competitive white meat babyface, but rather I think he could come in as a very effective bully heel and make a big impact on a roster that needs top level heels. Biff is a throwback and brings a really engaging level of intensity with him in his work. I’m really looking forward to this guy showing up on my TV.
HM: Athena Reece, an accomplished and acclaimed former independent wrestler; Manny Andrade, the former La Sombra who has the talent and looks to go a long way in the business; Hugo Knox, as their are currently no English wrestlers in NXT, and he looked to have a fun gimmick going with Nia Jax on the house shows; Rich Swann, another accomplished and world-traveled former independent wrestler.