June 14’s episode of NXT debuted a cinematic vignette featuring Apollo Crews, who recently returned to the brand. The preceding week, Crews challenged current NXT champion Bron Breakker. Returning to the brand that introduced him to World Wrestling Entertainment audiences is the second chance that Crews needs. Other WWE Superstars in the past have also transitioned from the main roster to a run in NXT, and found their second act.
2020-2022: Crews Transforms
2020 proved to be a pivotal year for Apollo Crews. His feud with Andrade (Now Andrade El Idolo in All Elite Wrestling) led to Crews winning his first title on the WWE main roster, the United States Championship. This propelled him into a feud with Bobby Lashley at the height of the dominance of the Hurt Business. Crews found allies in fellow high-flying babyfaces Mustafa Ali and Ricochet, as they stood against Lashley’s Shelton Benjamin’s, Cedric Alexander’s, and MVP’s aggression. The three cut a heroic contrast to the Hurt Business. However, the babyface collective drifted apart when Crews lost the United States title to Lashley at the 2020 installment of the Payback ppv.
Upon being drafted to Friday Night SmackDown, Crews was cast as a good friend of Big E’s, who helped him win the Intercontinental Championship from Sami Zayn. However, Crews began to resent Big E’s success, and turned heel. Crews began interfering in Big E’s matches, and eventually challenged him for the IC championship. He took on a grandiose persona, claiming to be Nigerian royalty and gaining a militaristic henchman, Commander Azeez. Crews won the Intercontinental Championship from Big E at WrestleMania 37. His new royal persona continued throughout 2021, but after losing the IC title to Shinsuke Nakamura, Crews began to be seen on WWE television less and less.
A New Beginning
So far, Crews seems to be positioned as a fiery, ready and eager to take on the popular Breakker who is a quickly rising star on NXT. His cinematic vignette painted Crews as a likable hero who stands up against bullies, as he defended a waitress in a diner who was being harassed by an unruly patron.
An NXT run will hopefully revitalize Crews, and he is hardly alone amongst WWE Superstars who found that some time on NXT helped them rebrand.
A shoulder injury cost the former NXT women’s champion her momentum on the main roster. Upon returning to NXT in 2020, Moon established herself once again as a fierce competitor. She teamed up with Shotzi, then known as Shotzi Blackheart, and gained the NXT women’s tag team championships. Their daredevil styles complimented each other, and they had electrifying feuds with The Way and Dakota Kai. Although Moon was eventually released, signing in 2022 with AEW, her second round in NXT produced memorable matches that left no doubts about what she had to offer the world of pro wrestling
WWE’s inaugural Universal Champion left behind WWE’s main roster to return to NXT, as well. He reinvented himself, leaving behind his supernatural trappings and taking on a new character called “The Prince”, a reference to his days as Prince Devitt in NJPW. While not a clear cut return to his “rocknrolla” Bullet Club boss of NJPW, he did portray a heel who was instrumental in breaking up the Undisputed Era. Balor also feuded with Karrion Kross, helping Kross establish his own dominant run as NXT champion.
There isn’t much that Ziggler hasn’t achieved in WWE. He was the first to point this out when he stormed NXT in Spring 2022 declaring his intentions towards the one prize that he had not earned: the NXT championship. Ziggler remedied that at the ppv NXT Roadblock, defeating champion Ciampa and Bron Breakker in a triple threat. Ziggler’s NXT championship run was a surprising storyline that reminded audiences just how charismatic on the mic and technically gifted Ziggler is in the ring.
Getting back to Crews’s heroic roots will strike a stark contrast to the gritty Breakker. This noble, but ambitious version of Crews will most likely return to his superhero-like high flying moves. Like Moon, Balor, and Ziggler, a spell on NXT could be just the ticket to remind audiences of what Crews can do.
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