Earlier today (Aug. 21), Sami Zayn got a conversation started with this:
At this risk of sounding dramatic or arrogant, this one match changed the industry. This was the day NXT became ‘a thing.’— Sami Zayn (@SamiZayn) August 21, 2023
Hard to explain the significance/context/landscape at that time, but suffice to say it’s one of my proudest matches, with one of my all-time best opponents. https://t.co/URDVQfg3zQ
The air date of Zayn’s two-out-of-three falls match with Cesaro, who was then Antonio Cesaro and is now once again Claudio Castagnoli, isn’t an anniversary WWE will ever celebrate. I’d bet it’s not written on a lot of fans’ calendars, either. So for some, Sami referring to it as industry-changing probably does seem dramatic or arrogant.
But he’s not being either, nor is he wrong.
NXT was one of my first beats when I started blogging for Cageside as a side gig in the early 2010s. I covered the show along with Main Event, which should give you some indication of how hot a product it was when it re-launched as WWE’s developmental brand.
Most people only knew those initials from when they were attached to the worked reality competition concept from a few years earlier. Not everyone knew about FCW, the developmental promotion it essentially took over for, or Redemption, the multi-year online “season” that featured William Regal as an authority figure and would inform much of NXT’s personality.
People who’d grown frustrated with a stale WWE product and sought out promotions like Ring of Honor or Dragon Gate USA did recognize some of the wrestlers who were being signed for NXT when they showed up (first on Hulu, then on the brand new WWE Network), though. And when they were treated to matches like the Aug. 21, 2013 one between Zayn & Cesaro, they told their friends and/or shared their enthusiasm for it online.
Word continued to spread, and before long NXT was holding events that were essentially PPVs. In the years that followed Arrival and the first TakeOver, NXT became the hot, cool promotion. It was an in-house alternative to main roster products that could still be pretty stale. Its popularity led to different types of wrestlers working different styles on Raw and SmackDown.
Wider acceptance of those performers and matches drove more people to check out the international and independent companies where the Sami Zayns and Cesaros and Kevin Owens-es came from. There were a lot of factors involved, of course, but that interest at least played a part in the ongoing success of The Young Bucks, and Kenny Omega. Those indies were where Cody Rhodes knew he needed to head to reinvent himself after securing his WWE release. Maybe you can’t draw a straight line from Claudio & Sami’s two-out-of-three falls match to the first All In and the launch of AEW... but you can connect the dots between them.
If early NXT isn’t a success, Paige, Summer Rae, Emma and the Four Horsewomen wouldn’t have had an opportunity to show its growing audience that women’s wrestling could be more than lingerie pillow fights. I’ve written before about the ways those ladies changed the industry, and we just got another reminder of their influence at New Japan & Impact’s show last night...
Thought this spot looked familiar!!! Awesome tribute. pic.twitter.com/dl2OXgNZbY— Danny (@dajosc11) August 21, 2023
Point is, Sami’s not wrong. And if he is, it’s just because there were quite a few matches from 2013-2014 NXT his statement could apply to. But even then, he was involved in most of them (off the top of my head*, I thought of his rematch with Cesaro at Arrival, Zayn vs. Tyler Breeze, Zayn vs. Breeze vs. Neville vs. Tyson Kidd, his title win over Neville — and Kevin Owens’ debut turn of course, the follow-up Owens match, and though it was technically a little later, Sami welcoming Shinsuke Nakamura to WWE).
Anyway, enough out of me. Here’s the match that changed the industy...
... happy anniversary to it.
* My own personal, “oh snap, wrestling will never be the same” moment with early NXT was probably Cesaro vs. Regal. But that’s another story for another day.