Alex Riley wrestled on television for the first time in almost two years last night, and showed what happens when you take a time-tested formula and use it to perfection: you get a star.
For those who don't remember, Alex Riley debuted on TV during the second season of the original NXT. He was paired with the Miz and the two quickly built a rapport. Soon, Riley would get promoted to Raw, playing the role of Miz's lackey, and after a decent run – which included Miz becoming WWE champion – Riley became fed up with how he was being treated and turned on Miz to a huge response (this angle should sound familiar to anyone currently watching Raw). After getting great pops in the summer of 2011, he started to flounder, unable to pick up much traction in any storyline until they decided to move him back down to NXT. From there, he shifted from the ring to the broadcast table, where he's been ever since.
Yet, the reaction he received when he got back in the ring on Wednesday night made it feel like it was 2011 all over again. Between the prolonged pops he received from the crowd to his look, which hasn't fallen off since leaving the ring, Riley truly looked like the star that he seemed to be back when he first hit television. So what happened over the past few weeks?
It's a simple formula that NXT executed expertly: They set him up against a fantastic foil in Kevin Owens. Two weeks ago, the NXT champion showed up at the broadcast booth and attacked Riley after a perceived slight. Then last week, as Riley was deciding whether to give up his broadcast position to get back in the ring, Owens again showed up, poured water on Riley's head and all but forced his hand. The cockiness of these actions made fans want Riley to get his revenge on Owens. The fact that he was held back from retaliating just fed into that desire. The second part of that formula was the inclusion of commissioner William Regal, who presented Riley with a choice – he could have his revenge, but it would cost him his commentary job. The act of choosing to wrestle, and having to give up a broadcast position to do so, made Riley that much more sympathetic in the eyes of the fans.
The final ingredient was simply Alex Riley's passion for wrestling. On Wednesday's episode, NXT aired a great video that recapped his career, then gave him the mic, and Riley responded by cutting a fantastic promo. He talked about the creative staff not having any ideas for him on the main roster, and how it killed him to see others getting to wrestle. While it's easy to write this off as a simple scripted bit, you could tell how much truth there was to it. It's always been said that the best gimmicks in wrestling are just extensions of the real wrestler. Riley took that simple logic and applied it to his character, and it showed this week. And while the cynical may have written off the prematch promo as part of an angle, the tears in his eyes after the match – and in the online interview after the show – were something that could not be faked.
It's yet another testament to NXT's savvy that it took them all of three weeks to get Alex Riley over. It also begs the question, if it's so easy, then why should it be so difficult to get him (or anyone else) over on the main roster?
- While it was Riley and Owens that really got the angle over, CJ Parker's role shouldn't be ignored either. He's such a fantastic heel that it's almost a shame he's being used this way, as the guy to beat on your way up. Now, the flipside to that is that he does a good job of being run over. Fans want to see him get destroyed, so he's a great guy for people to debut against. However, eventually that will wear thin, so hopefully they start allowing him to mix in some wins, just to keep the fans on their toes a bit.
- The Realest Guys in the Room became the Number One contenders to the Tag Team titles by beating the Lucha Dragons. It's somewhat amazing that it's taken them this long to get their shot. They joined forces in the summer of 2013 and, despite being obnoxious heels, they got over, largely due to Enzo Amore's mic skills. Then Enzo was sidelined with an injury, and it's taken them nine months to get a title shot. This is something the crowd has been waiting for, so it will be interesting to see how quickly they pull the trigger on a title run. I also think that this was the best Big Cass has ever looked.
- Remember how I was concerned about Tyler Breeze being lost in the shuffle a few weeks back? Well, forget about that. He's looked extremely strong the past two weeks, and capped that off by beating Hideo Itami last night. Their feud, at this point, still is rather random, as we don't really know why Breeze doesn't like Itami (besides the fact that Itami beat Breeze at NXT Takeover: Rival) but it has been effective. I assume that we'll be getting a blowoff match between these two, since they're now tied at one win apiece.
- Alexa Bliss looked good in her return match against Carmella. She debuted a new finisher, a splash with a half-twist from the top rope. Bliss has a very unique move set that is based around her gymnastics background. This is going to help differentiate her from the rest of the divas, which can only be a good thing. While she's still raw, she'll be a welcome addition to the NXT women's division, which has seen just about every combination of Charlotte/Bayley/Sasha Banks at this point.