On Friday, WWE released five talents from their NXT roster, including someone who was something of a comedy figure, and a former tag team that had really been forgotten about. These releases were a reminder of just how hard it is to make it, particularly in the current NXT climate.
When NXT was rebranded as developmental, the expectations were there – the system should have been in place for WWE to sign guys, “perfect them” and have them ready for the main show. In the past, the company had virtually outsourced that role to promotions such as Ohio Valley Wrestling (OVW), Memphis Power Pro Wrestling and the USWA, with varying degrees of success. OVW have bragged about having over a hundred guys who’ve passed through their doors who have gone on to WWE… and whilst they’ll be quick to point to the likes of John Cena, Brock Lesnar and Randy Orton, they’re perhaps not so quick to take responsibility for giving us Snitsky, Shaniqua or the Gymini. Of course, these systems are only ever as good as the talent they have to work with – you can’t always be expected to make silk purses out of sow’s ears!
In the past few years, WWE has increased the number of high profile independent signings to the NXT brand, with the former El Generico, Kevin Steen and Sami Callihan among a glut of big names who have had varying degrees of success in what is supposedly developmental. Whilst having these big names does help draw eyeballs to the product, it is detrimental to the long-term goal of NXT – creating their own stars and not having to pay big money to attract stars from elsewhere in the world.
For those of you who are into football (or “soccer” if you will), it’s a bit like how the youth team structures in the English Premier League have failed. In theory, the clubs with the money, such as your Manchester Uniteds, your Liverpools, your Chelseas, should be able to pump money into developing young talents, thereby removing the need to spend huge amounts of money signing world class players. Unfortunately, NXT has become more like Manchester City, signing big stars and sometimes bringing up a few self-made names.
The departures of Bull Dempsey, Marcus Louis, Sylvester LeFort, Oscar Vasquez and Pete Howard highlight this even more.
Bull Dempsey arrived in NXT in 2013, debuting with a loss to Aiden English in September 2013, on the pre-WWE Network era of the show. The following year, Dempsey received something of a Goldberg-style push, where he amassed a lengthy winning streak en route to a feud with Baron Corbin. Unfortunately for the old-fashioned bruiser, Bull’s run came to a shuddering halt against Corbin, and the monster heel act was sharply replaced with something of a harsh comedy act, as Dempsey would be shown on TV being the opposite of what a wrestler should be; instead of warming up doing press-ups or jumping jacks, Dempsey would be shown snacking on potato chips and chocolate.
Although Dempsey would return at the NXT tapings in Brooklyn in August, following several weeks of comedic montages where he would get back in shape, the writing was already on the wall. Dempsey had had his run in the midcard, and to borrow an old phrase, creative had nothing for him, especially with dozens of other names and faces to work with. Ironically, where Dempsey’s return under his “Bull Fit” gimmick came with a win against Elias Sampson, one of his final appearances would be against the same guy, as Dempsey would lose in the NXT tapings in London, with the debuting Sampson getting the win. With his television appearances becoming sporadic and more likely to end in defeat, Dempsey requested his notice and was allowed to leave NXT for pastures new.
Whilst Dempsey had been making appearances on TV, the same could not be said for the former Legionnaires. The Bordeaux-born Marcus Louis made his televised NXT debut in 2014, teaming with Jason Jordan in a losing effort against Erick Rowan and Luke Harper of the Wyatt Family. Louis would quickly form a tag-team with another French native, Sylvester LeFort (more on him later) and form the Legionnaires, however, their luck took a while to change. The Frenchmen’s debut on TV saw them lose to the makeshift pairing of Kalisto and El Local (the former Ricardo Rodriguez), and their pairing would be restricted more to live events than TV. Louis’ highlight of his time in NXT (if you can call it that) would be going bald on the NXT TakeOver – Fatal 4-Way event in September 2014, as he was made to face the consequences for his partner LeFort losing a hair vs. hair match against Enzo Amore.
After the Legionnaires’ team split, Louis disappeared from TV for nearly nine months, and resurfaced as a surprise tag team partner for Jason Jordan during Jordan’s storyline where he was looking for a partner. In spite of the time away, Louis was still bald, and looked like a younger version of Kane from when Kane was “mentally scarred”. Louis would make two further appearances on TV, losing to Solomon Crowe and Finn Balor last summer. The fact that Louis was restricted to live event appearances pretty much signalled the end of his time in the company, as it did for his former partner.
Sylvester LeFort had a rather different introduction to wrestling. Whereas Marcus Louis’ training had come in the British Isles and on the Irish wrestling scene, LeFort’s training garnered a little more publicity. Under his given name of Tom LaRuffa, he trained with Lance Storm at the world famous Storm Wrestling Academy in the mid-2000s, and was chosen to appear on a 2011 reality TV show called “World Of Hurt”, where former Storm Wrestling Academy students, including current NXT star Emma, were invited back for further training. The show would air internationally, and by the end of the year, LaRuffa would appear as enhancement talent on an episode of SmackDown from the UK, where he would be crushed by the Big Show in a handicap match.
The following summer, he signed to NXT and was rechristened as Sylvester LeFort, where he would debut as a tag team partner of Rusev, beating Enzo Amore and Colin Cassady, before LeFort would be squashed the following week by his former partner. LeFort would end up on the losing side for quite a lot of his in-ring career, which, combined with a knee injury, would prompt him to act as a manager on-and-off, with his most recent run seeing him act as manager for newcomer Billie Kay on NXT live events. Seeing how this was never replicated on TV, and that LeFort hadn’t appeared on TV since losing to Marcus Louis in the aftermath of LeFort’s hair vs. hair match, his release was ultimately a matter of time.
Whilst Messrs Dempsey, LeFort and Louis had experienced limited television exposure, Oscar Vasquez never had that luxury. Signed in January 2015, Vasquez arrived in WWE after having spent the past decade on the independent scene as the masked luchador Magno, with short runs in TNA perhaps being his biggest claim to fame, appearing as a part of Team Mexico in TNA’s World X Cup tournament in 2006, before returning seven years later in a losing effort as part of TNA’s ill-fated Gut Check program, losing to Adam Pearce. In spite of his experience on the independent scene, the former Magno only had four matches in NXT, all of them coming on house shows, with his only win coming in what would be his final match, a six-man tag in Largo, FL at the end of January.
Those four matches in front of a live crowd were a world away from what Exeter-born Peter Howard experienced. Again, signed by WWE last year, the former Bath University rugby player never even received a “WWE name”, let alone made it anywhere near a paying crowd, which brings us back to the original point.
While I am not saying that everyone who is signed to NXT should get a run on the TV show, there is no doubt that the group is always going to remain under the proverbial microscope, particularly whilst they continue to bring in the bigger names from the indies. For every time a Finn Balor, a Samoa Joe or an Austin Aries, questions will continue to be raised, and although developmental is only as good as the talent going into it, the proverbial stink of NXT being “Paul’s vanity promotion in Florida” will remain until home-grown talent regularly start to graduate onto the main roster.