After a breakout 2014, NXT was touted as a bright and shining example of what WWE could be. Following a staggering 2015, it surpassed its potential – by becoming the best thing in WWE, period.
Simply put, NXT arrived this year. The phrase we heard uttered by wrestlers and executives alike was that NXT was becoming its own brand, and looking back, it's difficult to argue otherwise. Outgrowing its home in Full Sail, NXT hit the road for the first time in 2015, initially on a test run to Ohio, then around the country and eventually overseas, capping 2015 with a sold-out tour in the U.K.
The developmental label was shed in 2015. Experienced wrestlers showed up to ply their trade, and were immediately pushed into the main-event scene. Former WWE veterans like Rhyno and Brian Kendrick came in for runs, Samoa Joe shocked the indie world by walking down the NXT ramp and women's wrestling was pushed to the forefront, with tag teams following soon after. No wonder wrestlers spoke openly about staying in NXT instead of moving up to the main roster.
NXT's TakeOvers continued to set the bar high – one could argue all five were among the best shows WWE put on this year. From Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn's history fueled battle at TakeOver: Rival (a show that also featured a fantastic Fatal 4-Way for the Women's Championship) to Sasha Banks and Bayley's back-to-back showstoppers at Brooklyn and Respect (the latter of which saw the arrival of Jason Jordan and Chad Gable in a terrific tag-team semifinal match against Baron Corbin and Rhyno), there were no shortage of highlights…and we haven't even mentioned the in-ring work of NXT Champion Finn Bálor, Tag Team champs Dash and Dawson, Apollo Crews or Asuka. Or the behind-the-scenes brilliance of the entire Eva Marie angle.
In 2015, NXT figured out what it could be, and became a must-watch for every wrestling fan. Here's my look back at some of the year's biggest matches, moments and wrestlers. Plus, a look ahead at what 2016 may hold.
The Matches of 2015
In 2014, so many of the memorable matches in NXT revolved around the NXT title. In 2015, almost all of the matches we'll be remembering years from now involved the NXT women, and specifically the NXT Women's Championship. In my mind, the best match of the year was Sasha Banks vs. Bayley at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn. But if you wanted to argue their Ironman encounter at NXT TakeOver: Respect was better, I wouldn't say you're wrong – it was historic, pure and simple.
But I think their match in Brooklyn was more emotional and told a better story. The Bayley arc was so important to NXT in 2015, and their match at Brooklyn was its pinnacle. They told a near-perfect story: Even a casual fan could watch and know the stakes involved and the spirit that powered both women. Sasha's aggression – manifested in moments like her stomping Bayley's injured hand when she desperately tried to free herself from the Bank Statement – abutted against Bayley's desire, and culminated in a finish that had the Barclays Center crowd on their feet (to say nothing of the scene that followed, when NXT's Four Horsewomen embraced in the ring, closing a chapter in the promotion's history). But whichever match you prefer, chances are, you loved it because of the story. These matches represented the best character development seen in a WWE-affiliated product in some time, and the matches shone because of it.
While both of the Sasha/Bayley battles were phenomenal, one of the best technical matches of the year was Sasha Banks vs. Becky Lynch at NXT TakeOver: Unstoppable. It's not every day that you see a legitimate submission-style match between two women, but that's exactly what we got here. This really was the coming-out party for Lynch in NXT, and also was the moment, if people didn't believe before, that Sasha Banks became The Boss. The hype for this one wasn't exactly huge, but it ended up being truly special.
Other matches worth noting: Finn Bálor vs. Samoa Joe at NXT TakeOver: London, Adrian Neville vs. Finn Bálor at NXT TakeOver: Rival, Asuka vs. Emma at NXT TakeOver: London
The Moments of 2015
While 2014 was defined by many of the matches, in my mind, NXT's 2015 was defined by the moments – and none was bigger than the sight of Samoa Joe Arriving at Full Sail. It's not an exaggeration to say that this was something fans had been waiting on for a decade. After putting on five-star matches with the likes of AJ Styles, Christopher Daniels, Bryan Danielson and CM Punk, Joe was at the top of the list of folks who hadn't set foot in a WWE ring. As the years went on, and Joe continued to toil in TNA, the moment that people craved seemed to get further and further away. So when it finally happened at NXT TakeOver: Unstoppable, not even the terrible music could take away from the moment. It certainly didn't hurt that Kevin Owens was standing in the ring when the Samoan Submission Machine came out in front of the Full Sail crowd. While it did take a few months for Samoa Joe to reach his potential, it does seem like he's found another gear as of late, and his debut may be remembered as the start of something huge.
Other moments worth noting: Bayley's title win and the Four Horsewomen curtain call, Finn Bálor winning the NXT Title in Japan, Kevin Owens winning the NXT title by TKO, Jushin "Thunder" Liger competing for the first time for WWE.
The Rise of New Stars
In large part, NXT relied on mainstays like Sami Zayn, Adrian Neville, Tyson Kidd and Tyler Breeze in 2014. But 2015 felt like a changing of the guard. Stars that had made their names elsewhere who debuted at the end of 2014, like Kevin Owens, Finn Bálor and Hideo Itami, found their way into the spotlight quickly in 2015. Throw in the debuts of Samoa Joe, Apollo Crews and Asuka, and you could make a compelling case that 2015 was all about the rise of the indie stars in NXT. However, it wasn't all about them. Fans weren't totally sure what to make of Baron Corbin at the beginning of 2015, but by the end, he earned the grudging respect of the crowd, and will likely find himself at the top of the card for much of 2016. Throw in the likes of Jason Jordan and Chad Gable, Alexa Bliss and Dana Brooke, and we could be looking at the next great wave of talent – and it's all home-grown.
The Wrestlers of 2015
If this year proved one thing, it's that NXT really is an ensemble cast – so singling out one star as "Wrestler of the Year" is an exercise in futility. So how about three? Sasha Banks was involved in what may have been the three best matches of 2015, and did great work against everyone she faced, from the Horsewomen to Alexa Bliss and Blue Pants. Bayley was the only one of the Horsewomen to stay in NXT till the end of the year, and while she had the fantastic matches against Banks, her last contest – against Nia Jax in London – shouldn't be ignored either. She was a constant presence, and even when she was injured she was around to carry on storylines. But more than that, she was a figurehead, one of just three wrestlers to compete on every TakeOver, along with Baron Corbin and Finn Bálor. The NXT champ is my third choice here. He had fantastic matches all year long, and almost all of them – from his Number One contender bouts with Adrian Neville and Tyler Breeze, to his feud with Kevin Owens over the title and his defenses against Apollo Crews and Samoa Joe – mattered.
What's to Come In 2016?
That's the big question. How big can NXT get? They've already announced another TakeOver during WrestleMania weekend, and it's quickly become the hottest ticket in Dallas. They will be touring more, including the Midwest, with more overseas dates rumored as well. Will they make the leap from the WWE Network to TV? Will their weekly show expand to two hours? Will they add another singles title?
We've seen the rise of the indie star and the women's division in NXT over the past two years. I could see 2016 being the year of the tag team. If the Realest Guys in the Room don't get called up to feud with the New Day, they could finally reach the top of the division – and what crowd wouldn't pop for that? Jason Jordan and Chad Gable will also certainly play a prominent role. Throw in champs Dash and Dawson, former strapholders Blake and Murphy and the Vaudevillains, and you've got a ridiculously deep tag division – one that puts WWE's to shame.
And what happens with the belt? Finn Bálor has already held the title for six months. It seems like we're moving closer to a change. Could it be to Samoa Joe, to solidify his move to WWE? Could it be to Sami Zayn now that he's returned? The wild card is Baron Corbin...do not be surprised if he gets his first taste of gold in the new year.
My big prediction for 2016? A new belt is added to NXT. It's not necessary by any stretch. However, it would make sure that nobody gets left behind. One of the issues that we saw in 2015 was that, as new stars were brought in and pushed to the main event, some of the home-grown talent got overlooked. A secondary title could rectify that.
One thing is for sure. The good times are going to continue for NXT. The question isn't if 2016 is going to be a big year, but rather, how big?