Last week, we honored the NFL Draft by discussing some of the biggest busts in recent WWE history. It was fun, but I can’t help but think we can be more positive this week.
Indeed, not every draft pick or talent signing pans out. Some fail miserably. However, some end up exceeding our greatest expectations & paying off more than imagined.
These are the Top 5 NXT/Performance Center surprising success stories.
5. Corey Graves
I was familiar with Graves before he came to WWE, and I can’t say I was ever all that impressed. He struck me as a second-rate CM Punk, from the tattoos to the hair & ring attire. He had the look down, and he wasn’t terrible in the ring or on the stick, but he wasn’t on Punk’s level in any regard. I didn’t expect much to come of his going to WWE.
It seemed like I was right for awhile. Graves was solid but unspectacular during his run as an NXT in-ring performer. Concussion issues led to his retirement & it seemed like Corey Graves was destined to be a footnote in wrestling history. He didn’t quit though. He found another aspect of the business to give a try, and ended up becoming one of WWE’s best announcers of this century. He’ll have a job as long as he wants one, or as long as he doesn’t piss off Saudi Arabia with his social media.
According to Enzo Amore, Carmella was hot as hell, and you couldn’t teach that. She wasn’t known for much else before her call-up. We all wondered why she was on a different brand than Enzo & Big Cass. It probably worked out better for her that way. She won the first Women’s Money in the Bank briefcase thanks to James Ellsworth. Well, she won the first one thanks to him, then they had another match that she won without him. I’m still not sure what that was all about.
She had a pretty typical MITB briefcase holder push. Don’t do much for awhile, threaten to cash in occasionally, then cash in. I’m not a big fan, but enough people are that WWE keeps doing it. Carmella is the current SmackDown Women’s Champion. I’m not convinced it lasts long, but at least they let her cash in.
To say that The Drifter wasn’t among the most popular NXT Superstars would be an understatement. Elias Samson got some heat from the Full Sail University crowd, but it wasn’t the “Boo, you’re an asshole” heat. It was the “Get the hell out of the ring” kind of heat. Nobody had anything good to say about Elias in any NXT coverage I saw, whether it was on message boards, social media or whatever.
Then he arrived on Raw and was a great heel. I know his YouTube numbers aren’t great, but he’s quite over with live audiences and his merchandise does pretty well. They like putting him with top acts like John Cena & Braun Strowman, & Undertaker was training with him prior to the Greatest Royal Rumble event. Undertaker is a pretty good person to have on your side. I fully expect Elias to have a long, prosperous career in WWE as a heat magnet getting his ass kicked by people that need to be asskickers.
2. Alexa Bliss
I remember people being mad that Alexa got drafted by the SmackDown brand over Bayley. How dare they draft a woman that got over as a manager in NXT! Alexa was not one of the Four Horsewomen that paved the road for future NXT ladies to follow. In spite of that, she’s been one of the most successful women to make their way through the Performance Center.
She dominated the SmackDown women’s division. Then she went to Raw & did the same thing. She’s the best female heel on the roster without a doubt. I thought her year on SmackDown was better than her year on Raw, but you can’t deny her status as one of the best in the game. Nobody would have expected that after her tenure in NXT where she was best known as the manager of Blake & Murphy.
Honorable Mention: CJ Parker/Juice Robinson
CJ Parker was not exactly a favorite of NXT viewers. I’m not sure if it was his wrestling ability, his pro Paris Agreement stance or what, but there weren’t many tears shed when he was released. He didn’t shed any tears either, or if he did he didn’t let it last long. North American New Japan fans were a bit skeptical when Juice Robinson showed up on the scene, but he quickly established himself as a solid player.
Isn’t it amazing how guys can suddenly re-establish themselves when they go to Japan? I remember a time where readers would make fun of me for suggesting such a thing. But now it’s exactly what happens, and everybody is silent. Juice had to wait a little while, but he eventually found his success.
1. Braun Strowman
Braun did not have an NXT run. He appeared on a house show. He spent plenty of time at the Performance Center, but most of the world didn’t see him until he popped up as a member of the Wyatt Family. The first impressions weren’t great. I thought he was a big stiff that couldn’t do anything & got his spot because he was the prototypical WWE big man. His Wyatt Family run wasn’t exactly anything to write home about. He was big, but he had a goofy beard, some weird tattoos & unspectacular wrestling attire. We weren’t even sure he passed the “look” test.
Then he started getting a singles push. He didn’t have five-star matches. He wasn’t a workrate marvel. In spite of that, he won most Internet wrestling fans over with his sheer physicality. He had this odd charisma about him. Once he started attacking Roman Reigns, everybody was won over. “I’M NOT FINISHED WITH YOU!” & “Get These Hands” became catchphrases. He became a babyface while being pushed as a monster heel.
WWE went with it. That usually ends up being bad, especially when they start doing comedic stuff. Braun sang a song to Elias. Braun formed #TeamLittleBig with Alexa Bliss, who he thought was kinda cute. Brain Strowman came out as his “brother”. Braun won the Raw Tag Team Championships with a kid, then forfeited them because the kid had school. These things should sink performers like Braun Strowman. They haven’t. Braun takes anything that WWE Creative gives him and makes it work. We all accept it somehow. It’s Braun Strowman. He can be involved in some complete bullshit, but we know that he can destroy anybody in his path.
There is no greater vote of confidence than the one that Braun received last Friday. Daniel Bryan was in the Greatest Royal Rumble Match for over seventy minutes. We all know how angry people get when Bryan doesn’t win the Rumble, or isn’t even in the Rumble. Bryan is beloved by his audience like few wrestlers I’ve seen. Bryan got dumped out by Big Cass, then Braun got rid of Cass. Everybody was good with that. We all accepted that Bryan lasted the longest in a Royal Rumble Match, and Braun won it. Had anybody else won it we may have complained. But it was Braun, so it was ok.
WWE has spent years trying to make Roman Reigns “the guy”. Some accept it, some don’t. If Braun Strowman takes the Universal Championship from Brock Lesnar, they will get one of the best fan celebrations in the history of modern wrestling. I really can’t explain it, but I know it to be true. I also know that I will be celebrating with them.
He’s the guy, brother.