NXT new wave of pro wrestling

WWE PHOTO Sami Zayn (left) and Shinsuke Nakamura battle at recent NXT supershow in Dallas.

“If NXT is the future of WWE, then WWE’s future is extremely bright.”

I wrote that line about NXT more than a year ago. Nothing since has made me feel differently. If anything, I feel stronger than ever about NXT’s potential impact on the future of the biggest wrestling company in the world.

The fact is that NXT has evolved into the hottest brand in pro wrestling. Its shows are often hailed as superior to those staged by WWE. Its talent is well trained and hungry to earn main-roster spots, willing to go the extra mile to please its receptive audience.

Two nights before WWE held its 32nd Wrestlemania extravaganza before a reported 101,000 fans at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, NXT ran a weekend-stealing supershow of its own in front of about 9,000 fans at the Dallas Convention Center. The NXT show proved that WWE’s business should thrive for a long time if it continues to cultivate the amazing talent coming out of its developmental system.

NXT ran its first local show a week later at the Charleston Area Convention Center, and a packed house roared its approval throughout the evening. Many left the venue that night enthusing that it was the best show they had witnessed live in recent memory. They gushed about the energy, the excitement and the overall quality of the show. It’s a reaction NXT has been getting everywhere it has appeared.

Once confined to its headquarters in central Florida, NXT has become a touring brand over the past year, and WWE is all the better for it. It has given fans a glimpse of what WWE could look like — and should like — in the near future. That is, if WWE creative can learn from past mistakes and book these stars of the future like the proven commodities they have become.

A rabid segment of the WWE Universe has emerged, one that is vocal and growing in numbers. A tremendous asset to the WWE Network, NXT represents the new wave of professional wrestling.

Shinsuke Nakamura and Finn Balor, with 30 years of worldwide experience between them, are rock stars with two of the most impressive entrances in all of professional wrestling. The American Alpha team of Chad Gable and Jason Jordan, former standout collegiate wrestlers, are the second coming of the Steiner Brothers. The Revival (Dash Wilder and Scott Dawson) could fit nicely into the WWE tag-team mix. NXT products Sami Zayn, Baron Corbin and Apollo Crews have already come through the NXT pipeline and are poised to make a big splash in WWE. Former TNA champs Samoa Joe and Austin Aries are potential WWE main-eventers just waiting for the shot.

NXT’s standout duo of Enzo Amore and Colin Cassady debuted on the April 4 edition of Raw, while The Vaudevillians debuted two nights later on Smackdown.

They’re all top-tier WWE players barring a creative staff collapse. Good things are happening at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, and that’s in no small part due to Paul “Triple H” Levesque, who has been the guiding force behind the company’s developmental brand and putting in place the building blocks of the future.

“In some way, I feel like a dad with that thing,” Levesque told CBS Sports. “Seeing talent come in and knock it out of the park and get that opportunity on that platform with that crowd base, to just do what they do at that level, is just awesome.”

Many of the NXT alumni already are at the head of the WWE main roster, including current WWE world champ Roman Reigns and former champ Seth Rollins, Intercontinental champion Kevin Owens, fan favorite Dean Ambrose and maniacal heel Bray Wyatt.

Nowhere has that next generation’s impact been more evident than the ascension of the WWE women’s division. Eight months after the arrival of Charlotte, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch from NXT, the once-stagnant divas division has blossomed into a women’s division that rivals the men. The three-way match with Charlotte, Banks and Lynch was a highlight of Wrestlemania 32, and portends an even brighter future and bigger things to come.

As Banks aptly put it, “We’re changing the game.” And it’s only the beginning, with current NXT women’s champ Asuka and ex-champ Bayley likely on their way to the main roster soon.

WWE may have set a new attendance record with a reported 101,000 fans (legit number believed to be around 94,000) at Wrestlemania, but many of those fans vociferously booed the company’s new champion, who has become a lightning rod for debate and controversy. It wasn’t exactly an unexpected reaction, as a sizable portion of the WWE Universe had railed against Roman Reigns for months leading up to the event. He was even booed for a split second during a video game promo.

The naysayers don’t bother the new champ. In fact, he says, the negative reaction makes him stronger.

“Typically if you hear the boos, it generally is grown men my age and I’m not really in this business for the grown men,” the Pensacola, Fla., native recently told The Orlando Sentinel. “I’m in this business for the families. That’s what we are. We’re a PG product. We’re a family-based product. We’re here to entertain families and give them enjoyment. If you’re a 30-year-old man and you want to flip me off at a kids show, then, hey, like I said, you paid your money, but just be careful because you could get kicked out.”

Once viewed as John Cena’s successor as face of the company, Reigns has modified his mantra in recent weeks, trying to adjust to the typical hostile crowds. So far he has refused to embrace the hate.

“I’m not a bad guy, I’m not a good guy. I’m the guy,” he says coolly these days as fans pelt him with boos.

Outside the ring, though, the polarizing champion seems to deflect the cynicism and even rancor from the general public.

“The only real pressure I feel is just being a father … being able to make enough time at home, and when I am home, being able to put all my energy into being there and being in the moment and being a dad and a husband,” he recently told The Examiner.

Reigns, 30, whose real name is Joe Anoa’i, was an All-ACC defensive tackle and team captain at Georgia Tech and had brief stops with the Minnesota Vikings and the Jacksonville Jaguars. He is the son of WWE Hall of Famer Sika The Wild Samoan (Leaiti Anoa’i). Two older brothers, Rosey and Matt, also wrestled along with another uncle, Eki Fatu. Reigns’ most star-studded relative, of course, is cousin Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

“For the love of mankind, Shane just exploded through our table!”

Those were the frantic words screamed by announcer Michael Cole after the 46-year-old Shane McMahon dove off the top of a steel cage and plummeted nearly 20 feet through an empty announcer’s table in his Hell in a Cell match with The Undertaker at Wrestlemania.

The jaw-dropping spot was perhaps the most visually spectacular since Mankind (Mick Foley) was thrown off the top of a cage — also in a match with The Undertaker 17 years earlier — and is destined to end up on countless Wrestlemania highlight reels for years to come.

And, just for good measure, Shane took a tombstone piledriver later in the match.

McMahon, well known for his willingness to put his body on the line, was placed on a backboard and carted out after Taker’s victory. But he was limping just fine the following night on Raw, and is now running Raw while The Authority takes a much-needed break.

On the flip side (and there’s always a flip side): The Mania match went too long and wasn’t particularly good (not that anyone was expecting Flair-Steamboat since there were 97 years in the ring including a non-wrestler) until Shane took the death-defying leap that, despite its highlight-reel value, was an undue risk that wouldn’t be expected of WWE’s full-time performers. There also was a stipulation that didn’t last 24 hours, which only further diminished the value of having stipulation matches in the first place, making the so-called epic confrontation seem almost pointless.

Jonathan Rechner, known better in pro wrestling circles as chair-swinging wildman Balls Mahoney, died of undisclosed causes Tuesday at the age of 44. He had celebrated his birthday one day earlier.

The Spring Lake Heights, N.J., native was a hardcore favorite in the old ECW where he used a steel chair to wreak havoc on his opponents and feuded with the likes of The Dudley Boys and Axl Rotten. He also was a frequent tag-team partner of Rotten (Brian Knighton), who died of an accidental drug overdose on Feb. 4, also at the age of 44.

Mahoney had an infamous short run in WWE in 1995 as Xanta Klaus — Santa’s evil brother — and took part in WWE’s ECW revival in the mid-2000s, but was cut by WWE in 2008. His last major stint was portraying the unlikely love interest of former WWE diva Kelly Kelly.

Mahoney grew up a close friend of the late Chris Candido, and the two broke into the wrestling business together, setting up rings at local shows and training together at Larry Sharpe’s Monster Factory. He debuted at the age of 15 in New Jersey as Abudah Singh. He later played a character named Boo Bradley, a old friend of Candido’s, in Jim Cornette’s Smoky Mountain Wrestling.

Mahoney’s 8-year-old son Christopher is named for Candido, who passed away in 2005.

It was in Paul Heyman’s ECW, though, where Mahoney gained a cult following as one of the rebels and misfits who put their bodies on the line at Philadelphia’s world-famous bingo hall. In addition to violent chair shots, Mahoney also incorporated barbed wire and thumbtacks into many of his matches.

While his ECW stint may have given Mahoney short-term notoriety, the physical consequences of abusing his body inside and outside the ring were irreversible.

“I worked with John in SMW where he was Boo Bradley and the foil for his real-life childhood buddy Chris Candido,” posted trainer and former mat star Les Thatcher. “An over-the-top character who was friendly with an overgrown child quality and a smile for everyone. Once again Boo and Chris can hang out. Go with God.”

Reach Mike Mooneyham at bymikemooneyham@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.