Back at the height of its popularity, WWE’s NXT was seen by many in the wrestling industry as a viable third brand for the company, on par with both Monday Night Raw and Friday Night SmackDown. It wasn’t that long ago that the Black and Gold cemented that status with a dominating showcase at Survivor Series 2019.
In the years since the start of the pandemic, the philosophy with NXT has been getting back to formula. Train, teach, develop and give valuable on-screen experience to the main roster stars of tomorrow. Even staples of the old NXT guard like Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa have moved on to make room for new, younger talent.
WWE Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels, who runs the creative team for WWE’s Tuesday night show, has said it often - and I’m paraphrasing here - the goal for every NXT Superstar on his roster is to eventually get assigned to Raw or SmackDown and have an opportunity to showcase their talent on the grandest stage.
During his NXT Battleground press call with the media on Thursday, Michaels touted the success of the program by mentioning that a majority of the top stars in the company today came through WWE’s developmental system.
Look no further than the collection of title holders at the moment. Roman Reigns, Bianca Belair, Rhea Ripley, Austin Theory, GUNTHER, Sami Zayn & Kevin Owens are all NXT alums. Take it a bit further. Seth Rollins, Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair, Bayley, Finn Balor and the list goes on.
Some of the talent mentioned had experience coming into the company, others are completely homegrown. But they all honed and polished their craft in NXT before being sent out to navigate the treacherous waters of the main roster.
The unfortunate reality is that not every talent is going to flourish. Some are going to get lost and not find their way back to the success that got them there in the first place. More often than not, for reasons outside of their control.
The perfect case study for that situation may just be Dijak.
“Quite honestly, I’m never in that much of a disagreement with you the fan base and even the talent. Sometimes they don’t feel like they were given the best opportunity,” Shawn Michaels said alluding to Dijak’s main roster run. “And a lot of times, look, it’s a great opportunity at the moment, but if it isn’t done correctly or something... one thing can miss and it’s hard, it’s very tough to dig yourself out of that hole sometimes.”
Dijak, who is once again wrestling under his surname, began his NXT career in 2017 after a successful run in ROH as Donovan Dijak. He worked a number of house show matches under his legal first name of Christopher before he was repackaged in the summer of 2018 and started making his rise on NXT television as Dominik Dijakovic.
While his career on the Black and Gold brand may not have been as decorated as an Adam Cole, Keith Lee or Karrion Kross, over the course of the 18 months that succeeded his debut, Dijakovic proved himself to be a very talented and valuable piece of the roster. With certainly all the potential for main roster superstardom.
“I don’t think anybody would doubt his ability, because he’s an unbelievably talented dude,” Michaels said of Dijak during his media call Thursday. “I always hate to say especially for his size, but it’s hard not to say that. It’s just amazing some of the stuff he can do, at his size.”
Dijakovic would get his opportunity to showcase his talents on the main roster in the summer of 2020. Then Head of Creative for WWE Vince McMahon decided to shake up his pandemic-era shows by injecting them with a little chaos. A group of disgruntled masked henchmen began to appear on RAW and SmackDown with the goal of destroying the company that allegedly spurned them from the inside out.
The ill-fated RETRIBUTION was born.
How much more can @KingRicochet take?#WWERaw #RETRIBUTION @AliWWE @TBARRetribution @ReckoningRTRBTN @RETRIBUTIONMACE @SlapJackRTRBTN pic.twitter.com/BS84sWgLep— WWE (@WWE) December 22, 2020
Honestly, what was a good concept on paper, quickly fizzled on television as week after week these wrestlers seemed more concerned with destroying public property than anything else. They would set fires to generators and smash windows with all the glee of Foot Clan ninjas that had finally managed to knock one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles off their feet.
It’s also important to highlight that the group’s debut came on the heels of a historically contentious summer in America. Civil unrest was erupting in cities across the country, fueled by demonstrations over deadly use of force by police officers. And the criticism for RETRIBUTION came in hot and heavy from the only true gauge the company had at the time - social media.
The vibe of the group shifted when they were finally unmasked, so to speak, and not in a good way. Dijakovic was unveiled as one of the five core members but everything about his persona that he had spent months crafting was stripped away. His look, his personality and his name - all taken from him.
He was now T-Bar. Somehow, one of the better names of the repackaged NXT faithful that included Dio Madden (now Ma.çé), Mia Yim, Mercedes Martinez, and Shane Thorn. Each of them equipped with head gear that sadly matched the quality of their new in-ring names.
RETRIBUTION, as Dutch Mantell likes to say, was dead on arrival. Not even the infusion of Mustafi Ali and the popular mysterious hacker storyline was enough to save them and the company’s booking of the group did them no favors either. The losses piled up quickly and RETRIBUTION was disbanded just a few months later.
WWE kept Dijak under contract after the group floundered, but it was clear they never had any major plans to push T-Bar. More often than not he found himself on Main Event or not on television at all.
Finally the move was made to send him back to NXT, which gave him the opportunity to start from scratch that he desperately needed.
If the ultimate goal is to graduate every Superstar in the developmental system to the main roster, what are the plans when a talent returns to NXT? When we asked about Dijak and other returning talents during his NXT Battleground press call, Michaels said the goal remains the same.
“When we get them, obviously we try to find what is the best way to help them get back,” Michaels said making mention that they really listen to the talent’s input upon their return. “What is it that [the talent] might be interested in? Everything that happens down here, the talent, nine times out of 10 really has a say in it. Especially with someone like Dijak, he’s got a lot of experience. He understands what he wants to do.”
HBK noted that Dijak was a criminal justice major and leaned into his area of study during his college days to help mold and craft the character the audience sees now.
DIJAK's brand of justice is ready to be served on #WWENXT! pic.twitter.com/aYuWnd3eJw— WWE (@WWE) November 30, 2022
Michaels has been a big fan of what Dijak has brought to the table so far and believes he’s thrived in his return to Tuesday night television.
This Sunday night at NXT Battleground, Dijak will go one-on-one with Ilja Dragunov in a Last Man Standing Match and Michaels expects him to seize another moment and fully display his talents for everyone watching.
“He and Wes Lee was just a fantastic match at Stand & Deliver,” Michaels said. “Now in a totally different element, a totally different kind of opponent, he’s gonna go out there with Ilja Dragunov. And again, I think he has every opportunity to show anyone, and that would be main roster eyes included, that you can put him with anybody and he’s gonna be a guy that can deliver.”
Fans have seen main roster Superstars return to NXT more frequently as of late. Some are there just to say hello. Others to work a program with a younger talent. Some to retool or refocus and find something they may have lost after years on the road with RAW and SmackDown.
For Dijak, it’s a been a journey of rediscovery. Figuring out and pinpointing what went wrong, which unfortunately, was everything. Kudos to the new regime for not just labeling him damaged goods and moving on to the next prospect in waiting, especially considering everything that happened to him on the main roster was nowhere near his fault.
“We’re always sympathetic of that. And look, it’s a chance to go back and try to rebuild and give them another shot. And I’m pretty proud of some of the, you know, some of the results that we’ve had here in NXT. Whether it’s Finn Balor. Whether it’s Apollo. And of course I don’t think it’s gonna be long before Dijak is back as well.”
Michaels closed out his comments by predicting a very tense match-up between Dijak and Ilja Dragunov this Sunday night. In so many words, labeling it as one to keep your eye on for match of the weekend. Which would definitely be saying something this particular Memorial Day holiday.
HOW WE GOT HERE— WWE NXT (@WWENXT) May 25, 2023
The story of @UNBESIEGBAR_ZAR vs. @DijakWWE and their LAST MAN STANDING Match at #NXTBattleground.
(A Thread) pic.twitter.com/ubyN2w0Ggf
NXT Battleground gets underway Sunday night at 8pm EST, streaming exclusively on Peacock.
Watch Shawn Michaels full answer to our question from the NXT Battleground press call in the video above. You can follow Rick Ucchino on Twitter and subscribe to the Bleav in Pro Wrestling Podcast Channel for more of his work.