Throughout the years, there’s been a long list of “internet darlings”; wrestlers who have had a vocal following online, but have, for whatever reason, have struggled to make that breakthrough and have that popularity reflect into the mainstream (or at least, get the chance to do so).
Whilst the late 90s “darlings” of Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero eventually got their break (before fate and other events sullied that memory), we’ve seen a variety of names gain a fanbase and ultimately not quite make it. Shelton Benjamin, Zack Ryder, Dolph Ziggler, Tyson Kidd and Cesaro are a few that spring to mind, with Daniel Bryan somehow managing to straddle the gap between “internet darling” and “being taken seriously”. Perhaps if Bryan hadn’t missed such a large chunk of the last 2 years out of action with injury, we’d have a true answer rather than a best guess.
The introduction of NXT as a developmental brand, though, has well and truly shone the light on fans’ fears on life after NXT. Since the inception of the WWE Network, which has given fans greater access to the developmental scene, WWE hasn’t exactly had a stellar record with call-ups. Adam Rose – whose Exotic Express gimmick was a cult hit in NXT – quickly saw his routine phased down after his WWE debut. Bo Dallas – a former NXT champion – brought along his faux-motivational gimmick but has done nothing but spin his wheels and is just “there”. Big E – another former NXT champion – lost his last name and floundered for a while before becoming a part of the New Day in late 2014. It’s too early to say where Tyler Breeze is going to end up, but the initial diagnosis is far from encouraging.
Kalisto spent most of his time in NXT in a tag team with Sin Cara; a duo which has continued following his call-up, with Kalisto falling into something resembling the old Evan Bourne role of “spectacular flyer… when given the chance”. Konnor and Viktor, better known as the Ascension, have gone from a tag team portrayed as a killer in NXT, to a third-rate Demolition rip-off on the main roster, with the credibility to match. Neville, yet another former NXT champion, made his WWE debut after WrestleMania, but has struggled to find his place on the card, and has found himself bouncing around from partnering with a celebrity in a feud with Stardust, to what is usually career death – a feud with the Miz.
Granted, WWE have had their successes. Kevin Owens’ call-up started out well before faltering, but not as much as to take Owens’ out of the top tier of heels. Rusev followed the Big E path to WWE, instead losing his first name before having a lengthy unbeaten streak which genuinely got him across as an unstoppable heel… only for a feud with John Cena at the start of 2015 to derail him, with his personal life not helping things at the end of the year. The former Shield trio of Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins are probably the poster children of NXT, in spite of them never having worked as a trio in developmental, and by far have been the most successful call-ups from the black-and-yellow brand. Then of course, we have the women. Summer Rae moved away from NXT to be Fandango’s dancer, and then flounder, whilst with the three-way call-up of Charlotte, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks in the summer of 2015 provided mixed results, as Charlotte has only managed to get any traction seemingly due to her surname being Flair.
As we prepare to enter 2016, and the current NXT women’s champion, Bayley, is being touted as a future call-up to the main roster; and herein lies the main problem. In the history of NXT call-ups, we’ve seen that WWE’s creative team tends to have a very short attention span, unless you are “the chosen one” (not Jeff Jarrett). In spite of the supposed long-term plan of only debuting new talent following a proper build up, the last few call-ups from NXT have been surprise debuts. Tyler Breeze appeared as Summer Rae’s new boyfriend with no advanced warning or vignettes. The trio of Sasha, Becky and Charlotte all came onto Raw at the behest of Stephanie McMahon. Even Neville made his debut out of the blue.
Bayley is perhaps the closest thing that wrestling fans have to a female version of Daniel Bryan – a performer whose every step on the main roster will be analysed to the Nth degree – and herein lies the problem. The Bayley character on NXT is the result of 18 months of evolution, with the character of a starstruck fan-girl (lets forget what the incredibly offensive, original plan could have been) who struggled to break the mould of “being nice” eventually giving way to what we see on our screens every week – someone who looks like they are a fan (in a good way), but remains relatable and uniquely popular amongst a wide section of fans. How do you exactly take that character and drop it onto the main roster?
Well, you can’t exactly press reset on the Bayley character and have her relive the star-struck era and “grow again”. Nor, however, can you give her a completely different character. If WWE were to retain the existing character, it would work, but the second she interacts with the Bellas and/or Stephanie McMahon in their traditional ways, the shine will quickly disappear, with fans almost certainly ready to lose faith at the first mis-step from creative. It’s almost as if you can sense that Bayley is the last chance that fans are willing to give WWE creative, given that she is the closest thing to a self-made, can’t-miss prospect since Brock Lesnar back in 2002.
WWE has two dilemmas on their hands in the next six months; and although the bragging rights for selling out AT&T Stadium for WrestleMania will be nice to have in their record books, WWE has an undoubted gem in the palm of their hands. Handle it right, and Bayley could be their female John Cena in being a perennial fan favourite, charity-loving representative for the company (as well as someone whose range of t-shirts isn’t anywhere near as annoying!).
I’m sure I speak for a lot of the “internet wrestling community” and fans in general when I say, “WWE Creative… don’t mess this up!”