It’s only been two weeks since NXT Take Over: Rival, but Sami Zayn’s absence is starting to take on tangible significance - the episodes feel less important, less emotionally driven without him.

This wouldn’t be anything approaching a problem if the in-ring action was consistent, the theatrics populated with interesting characters. But the past few weeks have felt almost experimental - trying out new stars and featuring untested talents in prominent places on the card at a time when the brand was eliciting consistent praise for the proven roster that got it so much attention in the first place.

Every week can’t and doesn’t need to be earth-shatteringly amazing, but it’s clear the tag division is struggling, it’s clear the show needs an emotionally gripping top babyface like Sami Zayn, and it’s becoming increasingly unclear what NXT actually is.

Major league players get sent back down to the minors often, but it’s not regarded as a positive. The arrival of wrestlers like Rhyno and The Brian Kendick in NXT feels disconnected from the purpose of the show, and serves to distract from developing talents that have debuted at the exact same time.

The refrain of commentary is, “It’s not just a place to develop talent, it’s a place to revitalize your career”. While that adequately explains the presence of wrestlers like Rhyno and Kendrick within the fiction, how effective is it in selling those two pro-wrestlers and  how effective is it in selling NXT? It dilutes the meaning of the brand.

NXT is best when it’s springing forth from a fountain of youth and positivity.

If Rhyno came down for a couple physical matches to put guys like Bull Dempsey or Baron Corbin over, that could be interesting - but based on his promo it seems as though he’s a legitimate member of the roster now and one of the many hoping to claim the NXT Championship.

As for The Brian Kendrick, I’ll simply share my reaction to his arrival to give you an idea of the effectiveness (or lack thereof) in his appearance/return.

 The Brian Kendrick.

The Brian Kendrick.

I only vaguely remember Kendrick. He was around during the nadir of my fandom, because the product was mostly unwatchable between 2003 and 2011.

But I went into this episode knowing he was going to premier and genuinely hoping that it would go well. I was optimistic about the idea of NXT being a place to “revitalize” a career.

A promotional video played early on in the night introducing people to Kendrick. Everyone from commentary to Finn Balor was trying to get Kendrick over in your mind as someone you should care about. Even after Kendrick lost to Balor, commentary said, “You can’t take anything away from Kendrick”. While it’s great that NXT seems to try to preserve talents in your mind (where RAW seems to try to tear all talents down to neutered nubs save a very select few) there’s occasionally a disconnect between the very obvious reality of what’s on the screen and the fantasy the company is trying to sell.

When I saw Kendrick in that video and when I saw him perform in the ring, I saw gimmick that hadn't mature or developed in any capacity, a bland gimmick born out of one of the blandest eras in the WWE. And then, after a messy match, he lost to the brand’s chosen star (and clearly superior gimmick) Finn Balor. So what am I to really think of Kendrick? He comes off as a “poor man’s Tyler Breeze” in this episode.

 A "fan" runs out of the crowd and mauls "The Gorgeous One", Tyler Breeze.

A "fan" runs out of the crowd and mauls "The Gorgeous One", Tyler Breeze.

This is simply the experience one has when they’re not predisposed to love Brian Kendrick because of their experience with him in the past. If you don’t know who Brian Kendrick is, NXT did absolutely nothing but make you think he shouldn’t be main-eventing any other matches any time soon.

And that’s a shame for Kendrick, but it’s also a shame for the brand that’s currently in a state of flux. This state of flux leaves room for anxiety.

This anxiety would be fine if it was resultant from the dominance of Kevin Owens. Because NXT has been so consistently positive and upbeat, it would be interesting to watch the brand transform under the tyrannical reign of Kevin Owens, to see the hope fade into a grim, oppressive landscape where heroes go to die.

But the anxiety stems less from anything thematic, and more from booking woes, and an increasingly crowded roster.

For example, the second match of the night was a tag bout between the floundering Lucha Dragons and the unproven, generic-football-player-wrestlers Tye Dillinger and Jason Jordon. Jordon abandoned Tye, ending their tag team partnership.

These two also never got over as a tag team. So people won't be invested in their break up. 

 Tye Dillinger and Jason Jordon.

Tye Dillinger and Jason Jordon.

So not only does the division have one less tag team, the singles division now has two more wrestlers after already adding Brian Kendrick, Rhyno, and Solomon Crowe. 

And, it’s important to remember, Kevin Owens is still relatively new.

Even Finn Balor and Hideo Itami feel new.

It’s hard not to fear for the narratives and the talents given a potentially log-jammed environment, a wide assortment of characters all with the exact same motivation.

While it’s good that these athletes are driven by a realistic motivation to be the absolute best, does it help anyone watching to hear Solomon Crowe, one of the newest additions to the roster, say he won’t stop until he’s NXT Champion...right out the gate?

That’s what Kevin Owens did and he actually succeeded, but it made sense for him to succeed given his relationship with Sami Zayn and his undeniable, proven talent.

 Kevin Owens. NXT Champion.

Kevin Owens. NXT Champion.

But anyone else who arrives in the company and claims to be pursuing the championship when it’s very obvious they won’t have a shot at the championship for a very long time (if ever) just looks foolish. It's a path that sets up certain gimmicks to fail right from the start that, if possessing a more suitable focus, could eventually get over enough to find themselves in the title hunt.

A character like Solomon naturally seems like he’s interested in something other than championship gold - it seems like he’s driven by a worldview, spreading his unique message. He’s not presented as an athlete - he’s a character who’s presented as an offbeat personality who has hacked into the WWE Network so as to broadcast his message. That could be interesting, but he gets lost in the fold and seems somewhat silly when guys like Hideo Itami and Finn Balor and Kevin Owens share his motivation for championship gold, but seem to occupy an alternate universe where it actually makes sense for them to want that.

 Finn Balor vs Brian Kendrick.

Finn Balor vs Brian Kendrick.

At a time when a wide assortment of talents need to be developed to keep the brand strong when Adrian, Sami, and others make the jump to the main stage, it would make sense to allow guys like Solomon to start with a smaller motivation more in line with their place on the card and then work their way up.

Other talents who’ve been around for a little while now also need to start having more physical matches.

For Baron Corbin to return to being a big dude who puts away jobbers in fifteen seconds is like a demotion, and it will start to negatively affect him. Now that we’ve seen him in actual matches, fans will want to see him in better, longer matches with better opponents.

 Baron Corbin delivers End of Days to Tye Dillinger.

Baron Corbin delivers End of Days to Tye Dillinger.

The best match of the night was definitely had by Becky Lynch and Bayley.

The two went back and forth in a physical contest when an "injury" to Bayley's arm allowed Becky to pull away with a tap-out victory. These are the kinds of grim wins and emotionally challenging moments that could help contribute to the idea of a darker, heel-run NXT. If such a theme were to thrive and influence almost every segment, then it would make the return of Sami Zayn (scheduled to address the fans next week) and the triumph of The Good, like Bayley, that much more satisfying.

 Bayley is forced to tap out to Becky Lynch.

Bayley is forced to tap out to Becky Lynch.

And there is no talent who exemplifies the darkside quite like Kevin Owens. One of the highlights of the evening was Owens’ presence on commentary. He is one of the only wrestlers in the entire company who speaks from a place of effortless authenticity. He’s definitely giving a performance, but the character he’s portraying is consistent, real, and imposing. Irritated by comments made by Alex Riley about showing "no remorse" to Sami Zayn, Kevin got up and left commentary. 

After the messy main event match was finished, Kevin returned and tossed Alex Riley over the announcers’ desk.

This was the best moment of the night because it felt real. People in the audience grow quiet and concerned when Kevin Owens arrives. He’s a frightening presence because he represents the uncertainty of the real world, the darkness and the anger of unchecked life come to wildly destroy others in the pursuit of satisfying a misguided, emotional whim.

 Kevin Owens throws Alex Riley over the announcer's table at the end of the show.

Kevin Owens throws Alex Riley over the announcer's table at the end of the show.

He is slowly transforming into an idea, a dark thought in the back of people’s brains as they watch the show - and that is exactly the kind of storytelling we need in 2015.

In Kevin Owens the WWE has discovered the future of the art of the heel.

In Kevin Owens we have found our villain.

And soon, one day, our hero will return.

All photos via

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