Ilja Dragunov and Carmelo Hayes will clash tonight (Oct. 31) at NXT’s Halloween Havoc, the third encounter in their ongoing rivalry for the NXT Championship. And if their contest is even remotely as electrifying as their previous face-offs at The Great American Bash and No Mercy, viewers tuning in to the USA Network should brace themselves for an unforgettable showdown.
But regardless of how spectacular their battle may be, it won’t compare to what Hayes or Dragunov could achieve in the next decade.
One of the privileges of watching pro wrestling as long as I have is the unique perspective I’ve gained in witnessing future stars evolve into legendary figures. And there’s a common refrain among all the greats: no matter how good they are now, somehow, they’ll be better in the future.
When Brock Lesnar debuted on Raw following WrestleMania X8 in 2002, he quickly tore through the ranks while displaying all the technical skills of a seasoned performer. Physically, there was nothing he couldn’t do except a shooting star press at WrestleMania XIX, where he was already headlining WWE’s biggest show of the year.
But as an entertainer, something was missing.
In 2004, Lesnar left WWE and the wrestling industry, though he briefly made a few appearances in Japan. He attempted to join the NFL that year but just missed making the cut. He then transitioned to Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and the UFC, where he rapidly climbed to the top of the heavyweight division before returning to WWE in 2012 as a more formidable presence.
After ending the Undertaker’s undefeated WrestleMania streak at WrestleMania XXX, Lesnar adopted the very real persona of a conqueror. He epitomized what gamers call “the final boss.” It seemed that the man known as The Beast had reached his final form.
But after a 16-month sabbatical during the pandemic, Lesnar returned in 2021 sporting a rugged beard and a top-knot ponytail that made him look like a modern Viking. He wore cut-off flannel shirts and a cowboy hat he often tipped to the fans in a show of respect. For the first time, Lesnar regularly wore a childlike grin that made him more relatable than he had ever been.
He even embraced elements of his personal life and incorporated them into his gimmick, such as the time he rode a tractor to the ring at SummerSlam in 2021.
And without Paul Heyman by his side, Lesnar began cutting his promos for the first time with surprise ease. Suddenly, Lesnar transformed from a silent and intimidating wallflower into a confident speaker. He would smile, crack jokes, and engage with the audience while threatening to deliver beatdowns to his opponents.
In the process, Lesnar and the fans enjoyed what may have been his most entertaining run in WWE, as he finally became a complete performer, a testament to his comfort and maturity as an entertainer after years of in-ring and life experience.
As I prepare to watch Carmelo Hayes, Ilja Dragunov, Tiffany Stratton, Bron Breakker, and others this evening, I can’t help but think about the challenges these young stars face. I picture them meeting with agents, producers, and various WWE staff, receiving guidance on their actions, movements, and personas. They must strive to meet WWE’s intense expectations while delivering exceptional performances as athletes and entertainers.
Occasionally, I can see the wheels turning in their heads as they recite their monologues, indicating they still need improvement. As a viewer, that sometimes takes me out of their performance. But then I think of all the thoughts that might be racing through their heads, and I grow more impressed with their ability to perform at such a high level so early into their careers.
In these moments, I appreciate the incredible talent of the NXT stars. They are already remarkable, but their potential for future growth is awe-inspiring, especially as they gain personal and professional experience that will make the instruction they’re receiving second nature.
So, as good as these stars are now, wait. The best is yet to come.