NXT has evolved over the past few years from full fledged developmental system to an individual brand whilst remaining focused on developing stars for the traditional WWE programming, RAW and SmackDown. Throughout this evolutionary process, performers have regularly been ‘called up’ from NXT often leaving, what feels at the time at least, irreparable caps in the NXT roster. When Sasha Banks, Charlotte Flair, Bayley and Becky Lynch were called up between July 2015 and July 2016 fans were concerned as to the future of the great division and how it would survive without its biggest stars. Yet despite the uphill battle it faced, NXT continued to run a top-level women’s division with superstars like Asuka, Ember Moon, Nikki Cross, The IIconics and Ruby Riott stepping up to fill in the slots left by the Horsewomen. This is a cycle we have seen twice more since the departure of ‘The Four Horsewomen of NXT’ with Shayna Baszler leading a new wave alongside Kairi Sane and most recently NXT entering the era of Ripley and Shirai.
The purpose of this column is to look at the current crop of talent in the NXT women’s division and discuss where each performer will be in around eight to twelve months, will they be the face of the division or are they likely to be plying their trade under the lights of RAW or SmackDown.
Of course, it is very possible given the operating nature of NXT that we could see a seismic shift in the roster with NXT picking up a global star from the likes of IMPACT or Stardoms stacked talent pool. However, to avoid over speculation on this matter, this piece will only cover the talent currently on NXT TV or signed to the performance centre.
The current benchmark for women’s wrestling Io Shirai never fails to deliver a match of the night candidate regardless of if it’s a weekly episode of NXT or a major event like NXT TakeOver. Shirai exhibits the ability to elevate everyone she shares a ring with to the highest level, an ability that has not been seen as consistently since AJ Styles between 2005 and 2016.
In her current NXT tenure, Shirai has had show-stealing performances against the current number one contender Candice LeRae (TakeOver: Toronto), Shotzi Blackheart (NXT TV#418) and Sasha Banks (Great American Bash) to name just a few.
Although Shirai has been champion for over 100 days now, she has only defended the title twice against Kai and Nox respectively. There are plenty fresh and exciting title storylines for the champion to partake in, particularly a long-term story with Shotzi Blackheart who recently took Shirai to her limit on NXT TV.
Shirai is set to defend her NXT Women’s Championship against long time rival Candice LeRae this coming weekend at the 31st TakeOver event, and although a win for LeRae would make sense in many regards and add a new layer to their complex and intertwining past, it does simply feel too soon for the Joshi Judas to drop the belt.
The immediate future for Shirai should see her hold the belt at least until after Survivor Series (only partly to ensure we get Asuka vs Shirai in some capacity) battling the likes of a regressed aggressive Ripley, the new monster on the block Raquel Gonzales as well as the aforementioned rematch with Blackheart.
As for who should take the belt of Io down the line, outside of a quick bait and switch title loss to LeRae, Blackheart feels the appropriate option although Dakota Kai would fit the mould very well especially with Raquel by her side.
2020 has been a strange year for ‘The Nightmare’, from dominating the NXT women’s division and dethroning the seemingly unstoppable Shayna Baszler to facing off against Charlotte Flair at Wrestlemania and unsuccessfully defending her championship. Ripley now finds herself at the beginning of a rebuild in NXT, currently feuding with former ‘RnR’ partner Raquel Gonzalez, Ripley appears to be re channelling her edgier side that made her so popular originally with fans of both NXT and NXT UK.
Out of all the names on this list, Ripley feels the closest to departing NXT, she has already featured prominently on RAW and SmackDown as well as her previously discussed Wrestlemania appearance. This alongside her seemingly wrapping up some business in NXT including putting over the new powerhouse of the division Gonzalez would suggest to many that she is likely to be drafted in the upcoming draft on October 9th.
The sky truly is the limit for the Adelaide superstar, however, with the Rumble winner seemingly destined to be Sasha Banks leading to a Wrestlemania programme with long-time rival Bayley, the best case possible for Ripley would be to challenge Asuka for the RAW Women’s Championship at Wrestlemania in a dream match for NXT fans past and present.
Nobody in professional wrestling screams locker room leader more than ‘The Poison Pixie’ Candice LeRae. When you combine an encyclopaedic knowledge of wrestling with a pure and caring personality you end up with a performer capable and determined to make everyone around them improve and grow, both in-ring and out.
LeRae has held down a very unique and interesting role in NXT over the past two years as almost a gatekeeper to rising talent. Dakota Kai, Tiegan Nox, Shotzi Blackheart, Io Shirai and Rhea Ripley to name a few have all worked with LeRae just before receiving huge opportunities within the black-and-gold brand.
At the time of writing Le Rae is less than a week away from an NXT Women’s Championship opportunity at NXT TakeOver against long-time rival Io Shirai. This match is arguably one of Io’s toughest challenges yet and one with a heavily debatable outcome. Shirai as previously discussed is at her peak as an NXT performer however a victory for LeRae would enhance the story and rivalry that has followed these two performers since NXT in mid-2019.
A short title reign for LeRae would not only legitimise the principles of the ‘Gargano Way’ but also herself as a performer, furthermore, NXT’s women’s division has a long history of dominant champions and a short sporadic and character-filled title reign could help diversify the lineage of the title.
Add in the possibility of a Gargano North American Title win at NXT TakeOver and the potential insurability of the two characters is hard to say no to, ‘Dinner with the Gargano’s’ has been a highlight of NXT each week and giving the two performers, even more, to play with can only lead to greater content each week.
Aliyah (with Robert Stone)
There has been many a shock throughout 2020, but arguably none more surprising than the rise of Aliyah from underutilised enhancement talent to highlight of NXT each week. Aliyah, alongside manager Robert Stone, has injected a much-needed dose of comedy to the otherwise very serious weekly NXT programming. In the last few months alone, the duo has engaged in a rivalry of the year feud with Shotzi Blackheart’s tank, attempted to recruit Rhea Ripley (and been rewarded a dumpster bath for their troubles) and most recently recruited now RETRIBUTION member Mercedes Martinez.
Aliyah’s current role in NXT is very different to anyone else on this list, she is not on the show to wrestle a five star WON classic, however, Aliyah is on the show to put a smile on everyone’s face and leave wanting more, this is arguably much more valuable given the current talent pool within NXT.
The previous statements are not designed to discredit Aliyah’s in-ring capabilities as a performer, quite the opposite, added TV time has allowed Aliyah the opportunity to wrestle some of the best performers in the NXT system, matches against the likes of Rhea Ripley, Shotzi Blackheart, Candice LeRae and Io Shirai. Aliyah has responded to these additional opportunities by improving every week and getting herself to the level in which she does not look out of place with the next generation of NXT talent in the women’s division.
Martinez’s called up to RAW saddens me for many reasons, but none more prevalent than the massive missed opportunity that Martinez in the Robert Stone Brand presented. There was a loud and clear positive response to the pairing across social media and the potential for comedic team building segments and teasing internal discourse before the two worked their way up to #1 contenders for the WWE Women’s Tag Titles earning a title shot at an NXT Takeover event was limitless.
Moving forward Aliyah must keep working with Robert Stone in the same role she is at current, however adding in a few clean wins against other prominently feathered performers will help to legitimise her threat. A new toy vs old toy style feud with a returning Chelsea Green could help shift Aliyah to a much better-suited face role and would give the performer something more to sink her teeth into.
One of the most noticeable changes to the NXT women’s division in recent months is the emergence of Indie Hartwell as a regular performer. The 24-year-old Australian native signed for the WWE in late 2019 and made her television debut in January of 2020. Since then she has shared the ring with the likes of Shayna Baszler, Mercedes Martinez and Teigan Nox even picking up a win over Shotzi Blackheart.
It is still very early days for Hartwell however in the television time she has had, she has looked on par with the top tier talent she has been working with and most importantly for fans unaware of her plethora of independent work over in Australia, she has been booked strongly including a final 4 appearance on last weeks #1 contender battle royal.
NXT needs to keep affording Hartwell opportunities and through in some character development segments and the future is bright for the impressive Indie Hartwell.
Dakota Kai (with Raquel Gonzalez)
Not many performers feel naturally suited to both the roles of protagonist and antagonist, however, Dakota Kai not only achieves this but achieves it whilst being on of the most consistent performers in all of professional wrestling. On November 23rd, 2019 at NXT TakeOver: WarGames, Kai turned her back on long term friend and former tag partner Tiegan Nox Pilmanising her surgically repaired knee.
What followed was months of excellent character work and storytelling as Kai, acting as the justified villain, attempted to paint Nox as the wrongdoer and made the Welshwoman question her morals and the legitimacy of their friendship.
Dakota Kai continued the evolution of her new personality recruiting Raquel Gonzalez as her bodyguard to help defeat both Nox and anyone else who stood between her and her ultimate goal: The NXT Women’s Championship.
Gonzalez was off NXT TV for several weeks, and this led to concern amongst fans that the pairing had been scrapped however returning during Kai’s fight with Blackheart, Gonzalez remerged looking more intimidating than ever and helping Kai pick up the win.
I feel Kai and Gonzalez should continue this Michaels and Diesel style partnership for the foreseeable future, ideally capturing the WWE Women’s Tag Titles during this time. Gonzalez will continue to develop working alongside one of the best performers in NXT and the additional layer of villainy does wonders for Kai’s character.
Kacy Catanzaro is money. It is that simple, incredibly marketable with a background in gymnastics and an in-ring style unique to anyone else in WWE. Often with NXT and the WWE, it is easy to get caught up looking at it from the perspective of a fan our age, but it is so important to remember that wrestling fans span all ages and all genders. WWE is always looking for the next big star to appeal to the younger market and I see no evidence to suggest that star cannot be Kacy Catanzaro. Children are usually drawn to the most unique and over the top protagonist in wrestling, and with a flashy move set and over the top likeable personality to match Kacy personifies this.
This ascension won’t happen overnight of course and for Kacy to reach the heights she is capable of NXT must start affording her opportunities to develop her personality and character. Kacy does an excellent job with what she is given (most recently shown in the Battle Royal in which she took on the Kofi Kingston role and made it her own) but for her personality to shine time on the microphone and backstage segments are needed.
No way!! I’m honored to have some of my stuff compared to your incredible moments!! Such an inspiration! 🙌🏼 https://t.co/idDSEXCu4Q
— Kacy Catanzaro (@KacyCatanzaro) September 24, 2020
Shotzi Blackheart has all the tools to be a multiple-time NXT and WWE Women’s Champion. Unique style and look appealing to an often-underappreciated section of society, check. All the charisma and personality of a bona fide superstar, check. In-ring talent levels up there with the best of the best in professional wrestling, check. Oh, and also she has a tank.
By all accounts Shotzi Blackheart is the clear next leader of the NXT women’s division, since her debut in December of 2019, no single competitor (aside from fellow former IMPACT star Karrion Kross) has made as big a splash in NXT as the Leader of the Blackheart Battalion.
In a short period, Blackheart has managed to demonstrate not only her excellent in-ring work (see her recent match against Io Shirai for reference) but also her excellent personality work. Blackhearts tank driving promo is possibly the greatest introduction to a new performer that NXT has ever produced, it was funny, memorable and suited her over the top personality to a tee.
Outside of a swerve win for Candice LeRae at TakeOver, Shotzi Blackheart should be the one to defeat Io Shirai and lead the division into the new era. The potential for Blackheart is limitless with the capabilities of playing the antagonist or protagonist without changing too much about her character.
And also, lastly, Shotzi Blackheart riding a full-scale tank into WrestleMania… that is money.
Overall, it is evident that regardless of which of the many possible routes NXT takes as it continues to evolve week-to-week that it is in safe hands with the current crop of outstanding performers and a young and hungry set of next-generation talent. There are not many western women’s divisions that can hold their own in comparison with NXT’s, IMPACT also has an outstanding women’s division with performers such as Jordynne Grace, Deonna Purrazzo and Su Yung (to name but just a few) however AEW and ROH famously struggling in this department.
The future is bright for NXT and I for one cannot wait to see how these performers evolve.
Full coverage and results of NXT TakeOver are available on ITRWrestling.com