McGuire’s Mondays: The curious case of threading the needle in NXT


By Colin McGuire, Staffer

It feels like decades ago, but in reality, we’re talking about 18 months. That’s how long it’s been since reports surfaced that a new edict was going to apply in NXT: If WWE doesn’t see any forward movement from you in six months, you’re gone.

Speculation on who might be on their way out the door began. Critical eyes became even more focused when they tuned into the product. “Is he getting better each week?” some viewers might have asked themselves. “I really hope (insert wrestler’s name here) starts to step up, because I like (said wrestler) and those NXT leashes are shorter than ever these days,” others perhaps worried.

That was in June of 2022. Here we are in December of 2023. How often has that decree been instituted? I ask because I truly don’t know. If memory serves, we haven’t had an abundance of list-stories indicating who got let go from WWE on a whim – and that’s a good thing, mind you. Nobody wants to see anybody lose their jobs, and for a minute, it felt like WWE had mass talent layoffs every third week. In no way am I trying to suggest that NXT should do a better job of sticking to their six month improvement directive. Sometimes, people need more time to develop. A hard and fast rule like that – I thought then and I think now – seems counterproductive.

Still, the spirit behind NXT being a short-term home for wrestlers was something on my mind as I considered Saturday’s Deadline event. When NXT was the coolest thing in all of American mainstream wrestling – back in the days before AEW existed and when the black and gold colors felt like the best two shades in WWE – the brand felt like a viable home for so many of the great wrestlers who spent time in WWE’s supposed developmental wing. Would you want hundreds of fans chanting “Johnny Wrestling” each time you step through the curtain? Or would you prefer thousands of onlookers sitting on their hands as you stare into the rafters upon appearing in front of a gigantic video screen?

NXT became a super-indie, and fans loved it. In fact, you could even argue that it served more than one master with the identity it carved out for itself. Maybe you didn’t watch Ring Of Honor or New Japan Pro Wrestling, but you were a die-hard WWE devotee. “Who is this Adam Cole character?” you maybe asked yourself at a certain time. Within a handful of months, perhaps you became a lifelong fan of the guy. In a lot of ways, NXT bridged the gap between being a casual wrestling fan and standing in line outside an American Legion for three hours, waiting to see Amazing Red go HAM in front of 200 people. It wasn’t WWE Developmental any more than it was WrestleMania for one-time tape traders.

And yet even then, the question was asked: How do you thread the needle when it comes to someone who’s probably ready to move on from NXT?

It’s a question today because it was announced over the weekend that Carmelo Hayes will actually be the guy drafted from NXT to compete in the United States Title tournament Smackdown is holding each week to crown Logan Paul’s next opponent. Hayes, it turns out, will be squaring up against Grayson Waller. It’s not a match nobody has seen before – look no further than April 25 of this very year to see those two wrestle for the NXT Title at Spring Breakin – but it is one that may just turn some heads, if only because it puts the conversation about when to move someone from NXT to Smackdown or Raw in full focus.

It wasn’t long after Waller lost to Hayes on NXT TV that Waller popped up on Smackdown with The Grayson Waller Effect, interviewing AJ Styles. From there, in July, Waller had his first match on Smackdown in a losing effort to Edge. These days, he’s carved out a space for himself on the weekly TV show alongside Austin Theory as The Two Most Annoying Due-Bros In WWE (which, to be fair, is quite the accomplishment). It worked. Waller isn’t going to main event WrestleMania this year, but he’s also not Cameron Grimes, who gets three minutes of TV a month and almost never comes out on the winning end of a match.

Hayes, meanwhile, is perhaps the most intriguing curious case of NXT. He’s won the brand’s most coveted championship once – and this was after winning the NXT Breakout Tournament in 2021 and holding the North American title twice. He’s become the face of the brand, always in the top sphere of the card and has amassed a hell of a following of fans that appreciate him even if they don’t watch NXT every week. But …

… Well, he beat Lexis King on Saturday in what might have been the most forgettable match on the card.

I understand trying to make King into Somebody, and therefore throwing him into the ring with the brand’s biggest name on a PLE is probably the best way to go about it, but what’s good for King isn’t necessarily good for Hayes. And, while this might not be something a lot of people agree with, I’m not so sure that the same logic doesn’t apply to what Hayes has going on with Trick Williams. Trick has done a fantastic job getting better in the ring and winning the hearts and minds of NXT fans as a solo act. Being embroiled in a “Whodunnit?” isn’t setting Hayes’s world on fire and it’s not even adding much of anything significant to Trick’s rise.

So, what gives? Waller didn’t hold a lick of gold in NXT, but he’s in the beginning stages of building a career under a bigger spotlight in the same company and slowly but surely, he’s coming along. Hayes has been The Guy in the world of NXT for a while now and he’s caught in soap opera purgatory on Tuesday nights. Again. What gives?

It’s an age-old question when it comes to NXT, but it’s one that has taken a different shape in the past two years. As I looked over the Deadline card, at least a few names jumped out at me. Bron Breakker and Tiffany Stratton were two that immediately stuck out. Both have held NXT gold and both seem beyond ready for a bigger stage – even if that means neither performer has been doing it for as long as some think they should be doing it before getting that big call. But then again … um … Solo Sikoa? It’s not like that guy was running up and down the independents for a decade before winding up in WWE. And yet, one day, he shows up on NXT, while the next, he’s helping Roman Reigns stay on top in front of a trillion fans at Clash At The Castle.

How about Roxanne Perez? She had her first match the same year Sikoa did (2018), got to NXT, was one half of the NXT Women’s Tag Team Champions, won the Breakout Tournament, won an Iron Survivor Challenge – and even won the NXT Women’s Championship … only to lose it quickly and then … rarely win another match? She, along with her former tag partner Cora Jade seemed instantly destined for something bigger than Tuesday nights, but things haven’t quite worked out like that thus far. And, not to sound too cynical, but it also makes you wonder if it ever will. Or, for that matter, if it does, and any of these people get their shots on Mondays or Fridays soon, will they be able to capitalize on them in ways so many of us fans think they could?

There’s precedent for this, of course. Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa had the hottest thing on the Gold and Black days of NXT. These days, they have middling 15-minute two-out-of-three falls matches on Raw. Shayna Baszler was a complete badass in NXT and these days … well, she’s not that. And let’s not even try to start the Karrion Kross banter again. We all know that being a star in NXT does not promise you star power on Raw or Smackdown. That much has been discussed ever since NXT sent wrestlers to the main roster, all color schemes be damned. Nobody really knows what happens or why it happens. Some acts click. Others don’t. Because of the heightened subjectivity in who exactly gets to be seen on pro wrestling television, it’s a wonder how anyone becomes a star in the first place.

But these days, those distinctions seem a tiny bit different than they used to be. How so? Consider the constant swapping. Baron Corbin just wound up in Deadline’s main event, but unless I missed it, we didn’t get a formal announcement of his arrival in NXT. In fact, when main roster people show up on Tuesdays, we’re never quite sure about how long they plan to stay. It’s not just Corbin. Becky Lynch stuck around longer than anyone anticipated. Apollo Crews is still … somewhere … doing something. Corbin might be gone after losing to Ilja Dragunov on Saturday, but you see, that’s just the thing: We don’t know. Nobody tells us. Corbin could show up on Friday night with a can of dog food for Roman Reigns or he could segue into a program with Chase U on Tuesday. Because of its fluidity, it’s impossible to fully invest in the ways these main roster people are used on NXT.

The same goes for the call-ups. Or, well, half-call-ups. Or, well, I don’t even know what you’d call them. Alba Fyre and Isla Dawn showed up for a few weeks to formally unify the WWE Women’s Tag Team Championship, but that was all the way back in June. We’ve seen a vignette or two from them every so often on Smackdown since, but in terms of in-ring moments? They’ve been long gone. Axiom had a hell of a match with Dragon Lee on Smackdown a few weeks ago, but on Saturday, he was relegated to the Deadline pre-show. Speaking of Lee, lest we not forget that he was part of an NXT North American Championship match against Dominik Mysterio on Saturday … while both he and Dirty Dom are supposed full-time main roster members.

I understand occasionally bringing some people in to some places to light a fire under the product (“John Cena on NXT” was actually a thing this year), but muddying the waters like this only makes things tougher for those currently in NXT working their asses off to someday be established as a major player on the main roster. Think about that year when NXT dominated Survivor Series. It was 2019. Baszler beat Becky Lynch and Bayley. Roddy Strong beat AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura. The women’s NXT team beat both the Smackdown and Raw teams. Lio Rush, while representing NXT, beat Akira Tozawa and Kalisto. Seeing those NXT talents appear on the big stage and get wins that year felt important. The discipline in keeping NXT separate from Raw and Smackdown allowed NXT wrestlers to build their star power to its peak and then potentially hit the ground running on the main roster.

It’s simply not how it is anymore. When Hayes appears on Friday’s Smackdown, he won’t be treated with the same reverence Adam Cole was treated with when NXT talent had to step in on a random Smackdown a few years ago. Maybe Hayes will get the win; maybe he won’t. Either way, his arrival on that show is unlikely to be met with the pomp and circumstance it deserves. Which, again, leads me back to that cynical question: Has the most beneficial time for him to appear on a main roster show come and gone already and is Hayes meant to hold down the NXT fort for the rest of time?

I hope not. Just one look at him and you know he has the charisma to carve out a spot for himself among the biggest names WWE offers. Will he get an honest opportunity to pursue that spot to begin with is an entirely other issue – and it’s one that NXT isn’t doing a good job at confronting, not only with Hayes, but also with wrestlers like Stratton, Perez, Breakker and more.

Having too much talent under a company’s umbrella doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Knowing how to use it, develop it, cultivate it and support it, however, is a lot trickier. Can WWE thread the needle on some of these wrestlers they have roaming around NXT after already proving themselves as potential superstars? Hopefully.

Because if six months is all anybody needs to know exactly how high of a ceiling a developing wrestler has in front of him or her, there should be some people behind the scenes that know for some in NXT, it’s about time to start reaching for it.


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