The 10 biggest signings of NXT’s TakeOver era
Nothing indicates NXT’s readiness to compete with Raw and SmackDown LIVE more than the brand’s ability to land sports-entertainment’s top free agents.
Whether it’s a former champion’s surprise appearance in the crowd at NXT TakeOver, or a full-on press conference heralding the arrival of an international competitor, the excitement that surrounds new Superstar signings has become a hallmark of WWE’s hottest organization.
As NXT continues to bolster its stock, look back at 10 of the brand’s most notable signings since the dawn of TakeOver in 2014.
Hideo Itami didn’t just open the door for international signings to NXT; he kicked it down. The Japanese Superstar arrived amid a fury of fanfare as NXT’s first highly acclaimed international competitor.
NXT rolled out the red carpet for Itami, performing an in-ring contract signing in his home country of Japan. The renowned wrestler’s debut was no different as General Manager William Regal welcomed him with open arms at NXT TakeOver: Fatal 4-Way.
Although Itami’s tenure has been slightly marred by injuries, his signing continues to be a landmark event in the history of NXT.
An NXT pioneer, Kassius Ohno dates back to the brand’s earliest days as it transitioned away from the Florida Championship Wrestling banner. The popular knockout artist even holds the rare distinction of battling William Regal in an NXT ring. So, to say his departure from NXT in 2013 was not universally understood would be an understatement.
That’s why Ohno’s surprise return to Full Sail University, a January 2017 confrontation with Shinsuke Nakamura, caused many NXT fans to rejoice. Anybody who remembers Ohno’s trailblazing ways inside the yellow ropes, never mind his legendary matches on the independent circuit, would be hard-pressed to object.
Sitting ringside at TakeOver: Orlando, plainly aware of what that act often portends for free agents, Drew McIntyre flashed a knowing grin for the camera. Within minutes, an ESPN headline confirmed everyone’s suspicion that NXT had just landed its newest franchise signee.
Such buzz was well deserved. The former Intercontinental Champion, shouldering impossibly high expectations since signing with WWE at age 21, was returning home after a soul-searching, opponent-decimating three-year trek away from WWE. Not only that, but with Raw and SmackDown LIVE likely both in play for him, McIntyre chose NXT, proving the “third brand” can level the playing field.
Having competed around the world for 15 years against the likes of Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins and AJ Styles, Austin Aries already carved out a praiseworthy body of work before General Manager William Regal introduced him as NXT’s newest Superstar in January 2016. A-Double’s stint in NXT came to an abrupt end when he suffered an orbital bone injury that October, but his tenure still produced some classics in the ring, not to mention a Discus Fivearm on Angelo Dawkins that neither NXT fans — nor Dawkins — will soon forget.
NXT is all about evolution — pushing the envelope in terms of in-ring competition and more. But what happens when someone wants to change NXT itself? The NXT Universe was forced to make that consideration when Bobby Roode arrived on the scene in summer 2016. The Glorious One declared that he wanted to clear out the fans and replace them with heads of state, CEOs and the like. Roode has been inching closer to his dream ever since, dethroning Shinsuke Nakamura to win the NXT Championship at TakeOver: San Antonio last January. He has also shown that he is, perhaps, NXT’s highest-profile signing though how much The Glorious One will use his high profile to invoke change has yet to be seen.
Without NXT, Samoa Joe-in-WWE would still be popular “What if?” fodder today. Thankfully, The Samoan Submission Specialist, with an endorsement from Triple H, found his way to NXT in May 2015. The epitome of the type of world-traveled young veteran that NXT management likes to go after, Joe brought 15 years’ experience to a roster replete with up-and-comers. The signing of Samoa Joe didn’t just yield a future two-time NXT Champion; it also gave blue chippers from the WWE Performance Center a brutally tough example of what it’s like to step in the ring with an elite warrior.
No Superstar made as big an impact on NXT in such a short amount of time as Kevin Owens. The Prizefighter arrived in December 2014 at TakeOver: R Evolution, demolishing CJ Parker in mere minutes. Just under two hours later, Owens capped off his debut in shocking fashion, turning against his best friend, Sami Zayn, moments after Zayn had captured the NXT Championship. Exactly two months later, Owens brutalized Zayn to claim the title for himself. Though many questioned his methods in proving so, KO left no doubts that he would be a major player in NXT and beyond.
Widely considered one of the world’s greatest wrestlers, male or female, the arrival of Asuka was a momentous occasion for the growing NXT.
Speculation of The Empress of Tomorrow’s debut ran rampant after she was seen in the crowd at TakeOver: Brooklyn in August 2015. Not long after, it was announced that NXT had added to its growing list of international Superstars with its first notable female signing. Asuka has since gone on to not only become the longest-reigning NXT Women’s Champion ever, but also produce a Goldberg-esque undefeated streak.
The signing of one ripped Irishman in 2014 registered on some social media feeds, but even those familiar with Finn Bálor’s success in Japan and the United Kingdom probably didn’t realize he was fated to become the longest-reigning NXT Champion in history.
Yet, it was under The Demon King’s 293-day reign that NXT blossomed into a worldwide sensation. Bálor’s coronation took place after a triumph against Kevin Owens in Tokyo, the first time the NXT Title changed hands outside its home state of Florida. And, as his immediate success on Raw proves (not to mention becoming WWE’s first-ever Universal Champion), Bálor’s signing wasn’t just a boon for NXT.
When rumors began swirling in January 2016 that a quartet of international standouts was likely WWE-bound, much attention, understandably, went to AJ Styles. But it was the captivating fellow in red leather pants that perhaps generated the most genuine curiosity.
Since then, Shinsuke Nakamura’s bona fides have become clear to all. A two-time NXT Champion, The King of Strong Style entranced the NXT Universe from day one, and his in-ring debut — an incredible victory against NXT ace Sami Zayn at TakeOver: Dallas — only began to reveal what an undeniable force NXT had on its hands.