Big Fishes at the PC: WWE Midcarders Living Their Best Life on NXT

This year’s WrestleMania weekend offered one of WWE’s strongest lineup of matches and sheer spectacle in years. As the kickoff show before WrestleMania, NXT’s don’t-call-it-a-TakeOver Stand & Deliver event started WWE’s in-ring offerings off on a high note with a series of fast-paced and chaotic matches. For all the grousing among wrestling fans that NXT sacrificed its tradition of staging indie kickout marathons for becoming WWE’s most horny & gimmicky show — as if those were bad things —  NXT 2.0 has proven that it can still put on great matches (even when the stakes are “who’s the sexiest cowboy?”).

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Aside from putting on some serious nail-biters in the ring, Stand & Deliver shared another common thread with its parent event: it was defined in large part by the presence of part-timers. While some of WrestleMania 38’s biggest moments belonged to celebrities and a returning Stone Cold Steve Austin, Stand & Deliver’s two biggest title matches had main event stars Dolph Ziggler and Mandy Rose defending against a mix of rising NXT stars like Bron Breaker and Cora Jade, as well as more seasoned vets Io Shirai and Kay Lee Ray. Both Rose and Ziggler (along with his wingman Robert Roode) are career midcarders on the red and blue brands, but turned into big fish champions when they got called down to the small pond of the WWE Performance Center. The downward trajectory has been good for them.

The Call-Down

Much has been made about the call-up curse. For every Riddle, Bianca Belair, and Austin Theory that quickly finds a groove on the main stage, there have been those superstars who either quickly fade into the background like Shotzi, or suffer much worse treatment. Who could forget once-indomitable Karrion Kross immediately losing his valet and the spooky theater kid entrance that were his only memorable qualities and showing up on RAW as a bondage gladiator? Or the humiliating saga of Keith Lee being turning into a grunting near-mute named Bearcat because he ‘talks too good.’ And then there’s the baffling Challenger-esque outcome of Hit Row getting rocketed up to SmackDown only to be unceremoniously dropped en masse weeks later. Considering WWE’s history of fucking up sure things for no good reason, it’s no wonder that NXT vets like Gargano and Ciampa held out for so long on getting that blue or red promotion.

The weird thing, though, is that a “demotion” to NXT has the opposite effect.

Take the case of Finn Bálor’s return to NXT in 2019. Bálor had been treading water for years on the main stage—aside from the occasional Demon match, he had nothing to distinguish himself from the rest of the midcard beyond his ridiculously sculpted abs (and if Tony Nese’s career has taught us anything it’s that “abs” are not a substitute for a personality). The Finn who re-emerged in Black & Gold NXT was actually allowed to talk and show a hunger and ferocity that got smothered by the big brands. In his time back he got to play both heel and face, champion and chaser, and showed sides of himself as a performer that had been gathering dust for years.

Mandy Rose WWE NXT Womens Champion Stand and Deliver

The call-down has given both Ziggler and Rose similar opportunities to stretch themselves. As the Dirty Dawgs — the WWE tag team most likely to be caught Eiffel Towering a divorcee in an Applebee’s parking lot after last call — Dolph and Bobby have been competent heels, always an inconvenience but never a real threat on the tag scene. Coming down to NXT gave them both powerful “Ben Affleck in Dazed & Confused” vibes—two dirtbags getting held back to torment WWE’s freshmen class. Ziggler, easily one of the most punchable people in wrestling (in a good way), shines as a condescending prick lording his status as a slumming superstar over his NXT competition. It also helps that his talent for selling everything like he’s being brutally murdered makes all his rivals — especially Bron — look like a million bucks.

Out of everyone who’s done the reverse call-up, Mandy has benefitted the most. Aside from her time with Sonya Deville in Fire & Desire and the Otis romance, Rose hasn’t had a chance to really distinguish herself in a main event scene stacked to the rafters with talented women. While NXT still has a murderers’ row of great women wrestlers, Rose doesn’t have to compete with any Horsewomen. The transfer has given her a chance to grow as a singles competitor, becoming a believable, opportunistic champ in charge of her own stable. While she can still be a little stiff on the mic at times, this version of Mandy Rose actually has a compelling personality—which is more than one can say for her previous character of “Is Blonde” back in the big leagues.

The only main event star whose brief detour to NXT didn’t give him any additional shine was AJ Styles, but that’s mostly because Styles — aside from getting his nuts repeatedly speedbagged by Shinsuke Nakamura — hasn’t really been booked like a geek. He’s always been booked as strong and important, even when he’s not chasing the big belts, so he doesn’t need a smaller sandbox to enlarge himself like the others do.

What Comes Down

While both Rose and Ziggler retained at Stand & Deliver, it looks like only one of them is staying in NXT 2.0 for now. Ziggler lost the title in a rematch to Bron on the RAW after Mania and wasn’t seen on NXT the next day since; presumably, his and Bobby’s paid vacation on the Developmental Island of Relevancy is over. But Mandy still retained her belt, and her Toxic Attraction underlings Jacy Jayne and Gigi Dolan quickly won their tag belts back in a championship rematch on TV. For now, Toxic Attraction is still all-gold-everything, so it looks like this fallen angel iteration of Mandy will remain as NXT Women’s Champion/main event gatekeeper for a while longer (perhaps until Candice LaRae returns to take up the wily old veteran spot).

The big question: will this new shine dull when they move back up? It remains to be seen if the Dirty Dawgs’ pedigree will improve, but Finn Bálor has set a sobering precedent. Aside from a brief program with Roman Reigns that ended with the unstoppable Demon being nerfed by snapping ropes/divine intervention(?!), Bálor has returned to his status as Guy Who Is There. Despite being the current United States Champion, Bálor didn’t even get a Mania match and was unceremoniously eliminated by Madcap Moss during the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal before having the distinct (dis)honor of eating a pin from Austin Theory on the RAW after Mania.

If that’s what the future holds for “call-downs,” let us hope for Mandy Rose’s sake that her reign of terror in the junior division lasts for a very long time.