One of the cool things about NXT is that it doesn’t obliterate wrestlers’ prior histories when they show up. It would be a tough thing to do in WWE’s developmental territory, given that it’s slowly morphed from its Florida beginnings of muscle guys and changed names into a hip, wink-and-a-nudge homage to the best of the indies. The reason it’s successful is that people know a set of indie wrestlers, those wrestlers go to NXT, and the crowds follow. Same darkened, intimate setting, much higher production values.
You get cool moments which are a mark of how confident WWE feels, like Matt Riddle showing up for the first time without a dumb name like Ace Paxson III, or the way Roderick Strong is still pretty much the same Roderick Strong he was before he arrived. Even as wrestlers evolve into their WWE roles, there are little callbacks and references to the fact that, yes, these men and women did actually exist before New York came calling.
One of those callbacks occurred last Friday, at an untelevised NXT show. Kassius Ohno lay at the mercy of The Undisputed Era after a match with Adam Cole. WWE main roster wrestler and personal favorite Cesaro came out for the save, and the two of them did a few tag team moves to Cole to close out the show.
It was the reunion of The Kings of Wrestling, one of indie wrestling’s legendary tag teams. Last decade, Ohno and Cesaro (when they were Chris Hero and Claudio Castagnoli, respectively) dominated the tag team scenes in three promotions simultaneously, holding the CHIKARA, CZW, and Ring of Honor tag team titles simultaneously. Then they went to WWE, and their careers have been very different ever since.
In a mark that maybe there is something in a name, it’s tough to refrain from calling Kassius Ohno Chris Hero. Chris Hero sounds like, well, a hero, maybe one with a little too much regard for himself. It’s a perfect name for the big, too athletic for his body type guy who made himself a legend working everything from blood matches to highly technical affairs alongside CM Punk and Daniel Bryan.
He went to WWE, of course, because everyone goes there eventually, but he never took off. He languished in NXT’s midcard, was cut in 2013 due to not being the sort of gymrat Triple H loves, before returning after four years to pretty much the role he was in before. What was wild was that he went back to the indies during that four year break from NXT and he was awesome. He breathed again, having great matches and toying with opening a wrestling school. He was the Chris Hero of old.
Cesaro followed the same initial path, but made it to the main roster and stayed there, moving from a bland, snooty European gimmick (he’s Swiss, and it eventually ended with him doing a yodelling thing which had the fingerprints of Vince McMahon all over it) to being one of the Real Americans tag team with Jack Swagger, a send up of the Tea Party movement which the McMahons were rumored to blame for Linda McMahon’s failed Senate runs. That got over in an ironic but not-to-everyone way, and Cesaro had arguably found a tag team specialist niche which eventually culminated in a long-running and successful pairing with Sheamus.
Mostly, though, Cesaro has always been really good. He’s quite possibly the strongest guy on the roster now that Mark Henry is retired and he’s without a doubt one of the two or three most athletic. He famously jumped so high and far on a slingshot that he overshot the turnbuckle pads, slamming his face on the corner post and knocking his two front teeth up into his skull by a couple inches.
There’s been a periodic clamor for Cesaro to have a big singles push, and it’s easy enough to see why. He’s a cool, strong guy who does cool, strong things, plus he seems like a legitimately likeable guy who paid his dues. But it’s perhaps not so odd that he’s become a tag team powerhouse, given that his salad days were spent with Ohno in that great tag team.
And they were great. It wasn’t the stories or promos, though those were fine. They were simply so good in the ring, in ways that outstripped almost everyone around them, that you couldn’t help but be enthralled. They clicked, with the sort of chemistry only the great tag teams have.
They also had an undeniable cool factor which came from it. They were so smooth in the ring, so sympatico with one another that you would slightly zone out sometimes. There was something almost languid about them, as if they were expending half the effort anyone else was. Then they’d do a combo spinebuster-elbow to the head—the same thing they closed out poor Adam Cole with on Friday—and it would be over, hands raised, music blaring.
That’s all done now, aside from the obvious few minutes this past Friday and a one-off reunion match against Seth Rollins and CM Punk back in 2012. Cesaro seems quite content and Ohno seems happy-ish. They are, inasmuch as any pro wrestlers can be, safe, with decent money for living the dream, even if it’s not quite the same dream they maybe had when they were on top of the world as twentysomething legends.
But why not do more? Why limit it to the brief callbacks and sporadic chants? It points to the fact that some things which simply won’t be imported by WWE, no matter how much cozier and relaxed NXT has become. It’s still a WWE product, with the McMahons looming large, WWE Network numbers looming over proceedings, and a pipeline which feeds into the beast with a dozen hours of programming some weeks. NXT is, still, the best way of seeing the promise and limits of WWE. It shatters the illusion a bit, but Jimmy Jacobs wasn’t going to be the Zombie Princess or write all the stories, Chuck Taylor’s not walking through the door, and The Kings of Wrestling aren’t reuniting for a real run.