5. Andrade “Cien” Almas
LA SOMBRA! Did anybody see this coming? I sure didn’t. Cien got his head kicked off by Aleister Black, found Zelina Vega, and became NXT Champion. That’s how Cien’s 2017 ended. He went from a stagnant, run of the mill NXT Superstar to Champion. After the loss to Black at Takeover: Orlando and his teaming with Zelina Vega (best snap-rana in the game), Almas has been on an absolute tear. He put on a legitimate match of the year contender with Johnny Gargano at Takeover: Brooklyn III and then went on to defeat Drew McIntyre at Takeover: War Games to win his first NXT Championship in another stellar match, which was also accompanied by one of the best Championship win celebrations in recent memory. What’s next for Cien is yet to be seen due to McIntyre’s injury and the need to find a new #1 Contender. However, I doubt the top brass will have back-to-back NXT Champions who have only one defense of the title. Therefore, Cien should hang on to the title for at least the next two Takeovers. Given what we’ve seen from him lately, the matches will be excellently worked and extremely compelling. I’m 100% all aboard the Cien bandwagon.
4. The Velveteen Dream
Talk about a game changer. The Velveteen Dream, in one night, went from this flamboyant character with a decent promo to one of NXT’s fastest rising stars. At Takeover: War Games, Dream collided with Aleister Black and stole the show. Dream showed great in-ring skill and the ability to tell a compelling story in a way that modern wrestling fans love to see. Just like that, it’s like Stone Cold Steve Austin after WrestleMania 13 all over again (Note: I’m not saying he IS Stone Cold, just that it’s a similar dynamic. Yes, I’m talking to you, internet trolls *hiss*). One great performance and the guy is being taken seriously and given all the respect he deserves. Whether the Velveteen Dream can capitalize on this momentum is yet to be seen, as he was pulled from the running for the aforementioned #1 Contendership for the NXT Championship “due to injuries sustained from the match with Aleister Black.” However, one more good feud with an upper-echelon talent (Lars Sullivan? Kassius Ohno?) and Velveteen Dream will be right in the thick of the Championship hunt. He’s such a unique character and has all the tools to succeed. It would be a real disappointment if WWE doesn’t capitalize on his momentum after the match with Black. I’m very excited to find out what happens.
Addendum: I will never stop saying how much I loved Dream’s gear at Takeover: War Games with the Rick Rude throwbacks. #StraightFire
3. British Strong Style
Here I go cheating on my rules again! Not only am I mentioning a stable of guys, but they’re not even a stable yet! *Ted Dibiase laugh* At least…they’re not one in WWE. For you non-marks who are cool and in the know like I am, you already know that British Strong Style is a stable on the indies comprised of the first ever WWE UK Champion, Tyler Bate, the current WWE UK Champion, Pete Dunne, and the King of Mustache Mountain, Trent Seven. Remember what I said before about bias playing a role in the list? Welp, here you go. I became a big fan of all three of these guys after watching the UK Championship Tournament. The absolute barn-burner of a match between Bate and Dunne at Takeover: Chicago just fueled that fire. And I will never get tired of Trent Seven’s entrance/mustache. A few months back there was rumblings of a feud coming between the Undisputed Era and British Strong Style, which was hard to fathom given Seven and Bate are faces and Dunne is the ruthless, loner, heel champion. A few well-placed run-ins by the Undisputed Era and it’s getting to look like Dunne will eventually team with his countrymen against the Ring of Honor stable. If this doesn’t happen, there is still the UK Show coming soon to the WWE Network a la’ 205 Live and NXT. Whichever is the case, these three have featured more and more on NXT TV and have the in-ring ability to sustain a big time push. In the case of Bate and Dunne, they’re only young men in their early 20’s. A marquee program in NXT will jumpstart their WWE careers onto the deserved path to main eventing WrestleMania in 5 years’ time. Put money on it.
2. Johnny Gargano
Johnny Wrestling. What a raw deal he got. The only reason I say this is that he was all set to begin what would have undoubtedly been the feud of the year with his former partner, Tommaso Ciampa. Unfortunately, after the shocking breakup of the team at Takeover: Chicago, Ciampa was injured and the feud had to be put on hold. Kudos to Gargano, though, for keeping himself both relevant and in the underdog babyface role while his foil was out with injuries. In that time, he’s had a great Takeover match with Andrade Almas, a great match recently with Kassius Ohno to get into the #1 Contender’s Fatal Four Way, and a couple of matches with Tino Sabbatelli and Riddick Moss which showed off his expertise in the sympathetic babyface role and in-ring skill. Tommaso Ciampa will come back in 2018 and if their match in the Cruiserweight Classic was any indication, these two will put on excellent matches together, built off a great story, with the winner of the feud (my money’s on Gargano) probably headed for the NXT Championship next. And if the Champ just happens to be Cien, then Gargano’s 2017 will come full circle, culminating in a title win in 2018.
1. The Undisputed Era
The last entry and the last rule break brings me to the hottest stable in WWE right now. Kyle O’Reilly, Bobby Fish, and Adam Cole (baybay). Three indy veterans finally getting their shot in the big leagues and they have NOT disappointed. Adam Cole was immediately over when he debuted at Takeover: Brooklyn III, attacking Drew McIntyre after his NXT Championship win. Add reDragon to the mix and BOOM! You’ve got a top stable on your hands. Their collective performance at Takeover: War Games was excellent, specifically in the case of Adam Cole (baybay). He put in excellent character work and showed in-ring skill explaining why indy marks call him the “next Shawn Michaels.” While I think that’s a bit of a stretch (I probably wouldn’t even call a younger clone of Shawn Michaels “the next Shawn Michaels,” that’s how big of a compliment that is…and I don’t do big compliments #Villain), I see the talent and I see the appeal. These three should rule NXT for the foreseeable future. With call-ups from NXT happening after every Big 4 PPV these days, NXT will need workhorses to maintain the status quo while stars depart for the main roster. reDragon has already captured the NXT Tag Team Championships (shhhh it’s a secret until December 20 when the taping actually airs) and I won’t be surprised if by the Takeover during WrestleMania weekend Adam Cole (baybay) is NXT Champion. Book it.
And there you have it. 10 Breakout NXT Stars for 2018. Disagree? Deal with it…but let me know. Who do you think will have the best year for the yellow brand? Sound off in the comments.