We just kissed (or kicked) 2020 goodbye, and we are left with a unique environment in the black and gold brand of NXT. The titles are held by and challenged for by brand mainstays. Finn Bálor is NXT Champion, Io Shirai is NXT Women's Champion, Johnny Gargano holds the NXT North American Championship, and the tag titles are held by Oney Lorcan and Danny Burch. Proven commodities Damian Priest, Ember Moon, Breezango, Karrion Kross, Adam Cole, Fish and O'Reilly, Roderick Strong, Rhea Ripley, and Imperium (Aichner and Bartell) have been in the position recently as well. As we turn over the calendar, this article looks at some of the talent who are waiting in gorilla position for the spotlight and who could take over the brand.
My criterion for these lists was pretty specific. I didn't want to include anyone who already has had a title reign (no Kross, Priest or Leon Ruff) in NXT (note that NXT UK is not included). I also did not include anyone who had serious time on Smackdown or Raw (Breezango) but, time in NXT UK or 205 Live is acceptable. These are wrestlers who are building into the prime of their careers and poised to carry themselves into a bright future. We will start with the men of NXT and, next week I will cover the women.
Independent standout, the formerly dubbed, Jonah Rock, has created a buzz in his early NXT career. Reed created an incredible resume while in his native Australia. He earned 12 separate reigns with 10 different titles in 7 promotions over the first 11 years of his career as a professional. His success was noticed outside of the South Pacific, and he wrestled for Pro Wrestling NOAH (Japan), Revolution Pro Wrestling and PROGRESS (United Kingdom), Westside Xtreme Wrestling (Germany) and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (United States). All of this led to Reed signing with NXT in January of 2019. After a good showing in the NXT Breakout Tournament of 2019 (def. Dexter Lumis, lost to Cameron Grimes), Reed had solid matches with Shane Thorne and Roderick Strong. In July of 2020, Reed defeated both Johnny Gargano and Roderick Strong to qualify for the NXT North American Championship ladder match at NXT Takeover XXX. Reed paid homage to fellow big man, Bam Bam Bigelow in his attire and several exchanges through the match, despite coming up short in the end.
Reed has a great look and size, billed at 5'11, and 330 pounds. Despite the size, his agility is surprising. His moveset is full of power displays and agility showcases.
Don't underestimate his technical prowess though, as he is sound there too. He has a solid charisma in the ring and he exudes a quiet confidence. We haven't heard much from Bronson on the mic, but the little that we have has led me to believe he can hold his own. One downside for Reed was being on the same brand as Keith Lee. Being of similar size and skills created a shadow that Bronson was somewhat lost in. Moving into 2021, Reed has a lot going for him on the black and yellow brand. He definitely could take a spot as a top face and there's no doubt that he could fit right in with the North American Championship picture and with a little bit of the right build, the NXT Championship picture as well. At 32 years old, Bronson has a bright future ahead with solid years of quality wrestling on deck.
The real life Trevor Lee (also his former ring moniker) built and incredible early career after being trained by Matt and Jeff Hardy. Grimes competed OMEGA Championship Wrestling, CWF Mid-Atlantic, All American Wrestling, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and TNA/Impact Wrestling before signing with NXT.
His opponent list is staggering, including Cedric Alexander, Kevin (Owens) Steen, Michael Elgin, Johnny Gargano, Adam Cole, Chris (Kassius Ohno) Hero, Roderick Strong, The Young Bucks, Tommaso Ciampa, Trent?, Will Ospreay, Matt Sydal, Cody Rhodes, Lio Rush, Keith Lee, Chuck Taylor, Ricochet, Donovan Dijak, (Flash) Morgan Webster, Marko Stunt, Brody King, Jeff Cobb and Darby Allin.
Grimes teamed with Brian (Curt Hawkins) Meyers in TNA/Impact Wrestling as Team GFW (Global Force Wrestling) and held the TNA World Tag Team Championship for a short reign. He later topped the TNA X Division with two reigns with his new manager, Gregory Shane Helms. He later had another X Division reign as the leader of “The Cult of Lee.” Shortly after, he signed with NXT and made his name in the NXT Breakout Tournament. He defeated Isaiah “Swerve” Scott and Bronson Reed to move on to the final round but lost to Jordan Myles. Grimes would later feud with Kushida and challenged Keith Lee for the NXT North American Championship, coming up short. Grimes locked into a feud with Damian Priest after a short run against Finn Bálor. He defeated both Velveteen Dream and Kushida to qualify for the NXT North American Championship ladder match at NXT Takeover XXX in which Grimes was unsuccessful. He moved into a feud with Dexter Lumis that saw a Haunted House of Terror match at NXT Halloween Havoc, a blindfold match on NXT TV and ultimately a strap match at NXT Takeover WarGames.
Cameron Grimes may not possess the size some say comes with being a top star, measuring in at 6'0 and 220 pounds, but there's way more to him as a wrestler. He is incredibly fundamentally sound (his record of high quality opponents is proof of this) and has a confident but occasionally flashy moveset. He has total committal to his gimmick and it seems to play right into his wheelhouse as a character. He portrays the chicken heel very well, making every opportunistic moment seem like the one where he finally cashes in. Every chance he has had at championship gold was filled with moments where the no good heel was about to steal a victory and the belt. His mic skills are great and he uses his heritage and accent to further his character work handily. In my opinion, the one thing that has held Grimes back from the limelight in NXT has been other people. Not in any negative way, but only because of the wealth of talent involved. NXT has had quality top heels ahead of Grimes like Adam Cole, Damian Priest, Karrion Kross and Johnny Gargano. While Grimes may be at the bottom of the list compared to those right now, I look forward to the 27 year old to break through soon and take NXT under his wing.
Austin Theory is 23 years old. I am just going to let that sit there. Now, read the rest about him, then re-read that first sentence.
Austin, after being trained by AR Fox, has competed for World Wrestling Network, Full Impact Pro and Evolve. He shared the ring with names like Keith Lee, Mark Haskins, Mark Andrews, Jinny, Will Ospreay, Kay Lee Ray, Darby Allin, Ethan Page, Lio Rush, Trent Beretta, Zack Sabre Jr., Joey Janela, Fabian Aichner, Roderick Strong, Willie Mack, Caristico and Rush. He had a WWE tryout in 2018 and was signed the following year to NXT. He made his debut against an old foe, answering the NXT North American Championship open challenge against Roderick strong. He came up short but made quite the impact on fans and WWE personnel alike. He was quickly appearing on Raw, a new member of Zelina Vega and Angel Garza(this was also a period where Andrade was not on air). Garza and Theory challenged The Street Profits for the Raw Tag Team titles at Wrestlemania 36 (Theory was 22 years old). Andrade returned shortly after and Theory was kicked out of the group after accidentally costing Andrade and Garza a tag team match. That same night, he joined Buddy Murphy as “disciples” of Seth Rollins but only for about a month when allegations were levied against Austin during the Speaking Out Movement. The allegations were later proven to be false. Since then, he returned to NXT and has established himself as part of The Way with Johnny Gargano, Candice LeRae and Indi Hartwell.
Austin has a bodybuilding background, so there's no complaints about his physique at 6'1 and 220 pounds. He is a bit green still, although his athleticism allows him to mask that very well. What he does in the ring fits his body and style well, not much seems out of place or even out of reach. He's the kind of talent that could pull off a military press on an opponent and then hit a moonsault to follow it up and it wouldn't be overly surprising. He has a confidence that easily borders on cockiness and that works with his persona and character. One thing that we haven't seen a lot of yet is his mic work. Being aligned with Johnny Gargano (and Candice LeRae), he has not had to do much talking. It will be interesting to see where that skill level stands. Being in NXT and working under the tremendous direction that the Performance Center offers, I am sure it will come along just fine. If anything is holding Theory back at this point, it is inexperience. No doubt, at 23, this will change rapidly and we could see a star to take over not only NXT, but even WWE and wrestling altogether.
Swerve began his career in professional wrestling while still being enlisted in the United States Army. He began in the York, Pennsylvania area and was booked the Maryland and Pennsylvania areas due to his military commitments. He quickly built his name and started competing elsewhere, including for Evolve, CZW, wXw, MLW, AAA, PCW and Lucha Underground (under a mask as Killshot). His friendship with Ricochet (Prince Puma on LU), led him to a tryout and eventually being signed. He was involved through 4 seasons, leaving after relinquishing his mask after losing to Son of Havoc.
During his time on the independent scene, he racked up numerous title reigns, including the CZW World Heavyweight Championship, the Evolve Championship, LU Trios Championship, MLW World Heavyweight Championship, PCW Ultra Heavyweight Championship, and WrestleCircus Ringmaster Championship among various others. This led to him signing with NXT in April of 2019. He also competed in the NXT Breakout Tournament, losing in the first round to Cameron Grimes. Shortly after, he debuted on 205 Live wrestling then Cruiserweight Champion, Drew Gulak in a losing effort. Swerve competed at Worlds Collide for the Cruiserweight Championship and the 2020 Interim Cruiserweight Title tournament, coming up short in both. He began feuding with Santos Escobar (CW champion and formerly known as El Hijo del Fantasma) over the title. The feud seemingly ended at NXT Takeover 31 when Escobar defeated Swerve after a highly contested match.
Swerve has a slender build at 6'1 and 200 pounds, but he competes above that size. His moveset is technical but strike focused. This plays into his strengths as his long frame creates the visage of a true striker. He isn't focused on high flying maneuvers but can take to the air when necessary and deliver jaw dropping moments. He is solid on the microphone, and even has his own podcast which has been featured on the WWE Network.
To say that he has confidence and charisma is an insult. The moniker “Swerve” is his own description of the swagger he possesses.
From his entrance, complete with iconic moment on turnbuckle, to his vests and glasses, to the smoothness in the ring, Swerve exudes an incredible certainty in himself that is matched by few. Swerve, at 30 years old, is in an incredible position to really take the brand over. He is a solid fan favorite, and his build and style create a great underdog challenger who can surprise aura. He is undoubtedly destined to hold the CW title, and he easily could go further in the company with some minor build and exposure.
Jake is native to California and trained locally at Santino Bros. Wrestling Academy, debuting in 2016. He quickly gained notoriety in the area based on his in ring prowess, much of which he has attributed to his gymnastics background. He appeared for Empire Wrestling Federation, All Pro Wrestling, Gold Rush Pro Wrestling, Championship Wrestling from Hollywood among many others in the early years of his young career. He became associated with WWE in 2018 and appeared with Stephanie McMahon on Celebrity Undercover Boss. He was hired as an ambassador for the company and worked with WWE an their “Be A Star” program on the east coast. He officially signed with WWE in late 2019 and debuted in NXT in April of 2020. Atlas competed in the Interim NXT Cruiserweight Championship tournament. He was involved in a triple threat match to determine a finalist but came up short in controversial fashion. He also has appeared on 205 Live since joining the company.
Jake has incredible upside and athleticism that makes him look seamless in the ring.
He is still learning, and at only 26 years old, he has a long future ahead of him. He isn't the most imposing physique, but is no slouch. While his career is still in its infancy, it is promising. He looks polished in the ring, albeit somewhat basic. As he begins to develop his moveset, he will no doubt incorporate more of his athleticism. His mic work is solid, at least what has been seen. Jake has made some appearances in WWE's media online, and has been very adamant about being active socially about various issues. His in character mic work is yet to be seen extensively but if his in ring acumen is any indication, that will come along nicely. Jake is a star in the making and WWE/NXT would be smart to give him all the development and spotlight that they can.
BONUS PICK - Kona Reeves
I know, now you're thinking I've lost my mind and maybe even my credibility. Hear me out on this one though. Even if I can't persuade you, I'll keep it short-ish. Kona Reeves is 29 years old, 6'4 and 250 pounds. Young and good size, which bodes well for him. Now, I know that he hasn't had the most auspicious of times in NXT, but let's not be fooled by that. One thing Kona has shown in his few and far between appearances on NXT television is progress. When he debuted as “The Finest,” it was clear he (and maybe even NXT brass) did not have a full grasp on that character or how to portray it. Since then, in showings at various times, he seems to really have embraced the role and add to it. He is just fine in the ring, nothing major to knock him down the totem pole. While his physique is somewhat strong, it also is similar to other semi-big guys that just did not come across as imposing figures (Wade Barrett, etc.). He could use some more muscle if possible. He needs time to continue progressing. I'm not saying he is ready to lead a locker room or headline, I just think he is in a position that could see him excel in the near future. Ok, I'm done. Feel free to laugh at me for this one, I stand by it.
There we go, my picks for breakout stars in 2021 and beyond for NXT. Keep your eye on these guys, they have a bright future and it is coming sooner than we might believe. WWE has a great opportunity to really build a third brand that competes on the same level as the other two with talent like this. We will see you all again soon for more names and discussion!
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