On June 7th, 2010, the world of sports entertainment changed forever. Or so we all thought.
That year, WWE introduced a new television program titled NXT, replacing ECW on the Syfy network. The part-wrestling, part-reality show competition showcased eight youngsters, who at the time were honing their skills in WWE’s developmental territories, competing against each other in not only wrestling matches, but other challenges as well in the pursuit of winning a WWE contract. These eight promising rookies were each accompanied by a WWE veteran to help “guide” them through their journey to become part of the WWE main roster. Challenges included obstacle courses, feats of strength, and verbally showing off their personality in front of a live audience. As the weeks went by, a contestant was voted off until one remained. Who were these young whippersnappers? Let’s take a look at the eight upstarts:
Skip Sheffield (paired with William Regal)
Ryan Reeves has been a part of WWE in some form for the better part of the past 10 years. The Las Vegas native has a menacing stature of almost 300 pounds of solid muscle so he was a natural in his first taste of WWE glory, as a participant on the fourth season of WWE reality show, Tough Enough. Even though he lost the competition, Reeves was still able to secure a development contract with the company and reported to DSW and OVW, WWE’s farm systems. He competed under the name of Ryback, a Terminator-like, half-man, half-machine wrecking ball. After plying his craft for years, he finally was called up for NXT. He was then rechristened as Skip Sheffield, a wholesome farmboy with a real jockey attitude. While he showcased decent charisma and wrestling ability, Sheffield was the first man voted off the show. He competes in WWE today under his Ryback moniker.
Michael Tarver (paired with Carlito)
Michael Tarver’s father was a sparring partner of Mike Tyson so unsurprisingly, he was saddled with a boxing gimmick after he decided to pursue professional wrestling. While not great shakes in the ring, Tarver had great intensity and was a pretty solid talker. These talents weren’t displayed though, until the Nexus takeover of WWE. Tarver often sounded nervous on the microphone and would even flub his lines sometimes. While not officially voted off, he was the very first person to exit the show as WWE management removed him. He was considered the weak link on the program but he did improve once he debuted in WWE before an injury cost him his career.
Darren Young (paired with C.M. Punk)
Darren Young is a grappler raised in Miami who bore a striking resemblance to WWE megastar,John Cena. He was often dubbed “The Black John Cena” and was the subject or all sorts of internet memes. His wacky hairstyle and partying nature made him stand out in the contest. He also had C.M. Punk as a mentor who was one of the best professional wrestlers and probably the single at conducting promos. He also had a pretty sweet finishing maneuver where he’d lift you up in a full nelson then flip your body the opposite way and drive your face into the mat. All these elements made it seem as if Darren would go far on the show but he was the fourth one voted off. He still wrestles for WWE today and made headlines in 2013 by becoming the first openly gay active professional wrestler.
David Otunga (paired with R-Truth)
Believe it or not, Otunga was actually already a star before entering the squared circle. The Harvard Law graduate participated in the second season of the VH1 reality show I Love New York where several eligible bachelors try to win the heart of Tiffany “New York” Pollard, a contestant on a previous reality program, Flavor of Love. This coupled with his high-profile engagement with singer, Jennifer Hudson, helped Otunga gain recognition before his WWE career. Otunga was an early favorite to win the first season of NXT because even though he was awful in the ring, he played his cocky heel character well trying to use his fame to gain more heat from fans. One week he even won an opportunity to host an episode of Monday Night Raw after beating his fellow rookies in an over the top rope challenge. He still shows up periodically to compete in the ring today but mostly performs promotional work for WWE.
Justin Gabriel (paired with Matt Hardy)
Gabriel was the only second-generation wrestler on NXT season 1. Hailing from Capetown, South Africa, the high-flyer grew up in the ring alongside his father, Paul Lloyd Sr. He was trained to compete at the age of 16 and was wrestling professionally before he even finished high school. After excelling in WWE’s development territories due to his good looks and daredevil ability, Gabriel was brought up to participate on NXT. His years in the ring proved successful as he made it to the final three of the program. It’s a shame Gabriel isn’t better utilized in the brand these days. I think he has one hell of a 450 splash and a natural charisma to him.
Heath Slater (paired with Christian)
The Southern redhead from West Virginia was dubbed the One Man Rock Band right out of the gate. Heath’s cheese eating grin and paleness made him instantly hateable but that didn’t stop WWE from pushing him as a face initially. He even got a rare win over Chris Jericho on the show which raised his profile among WWE fans. While Heath is regarded as a good worker, he has been reduced as nothing more than an enhancement talent in recent years making every single person he steps into the ring with look like a million bucks. Where he really excels is his selling, making even the simplest maneuvers from opponents look devastating. Slater was also one of the only wrestlers management trusted to be in the ring with Bret Hart during his comeback in 2010. Bret had suffered a career ending concussion and a stroke years before so his health was extremely fragile.
Wade Barrett (paired with Chris Jericho)
The eventual winner of NXT, this British superstar competed as a bare-knuckle boxer in his home country before dedicating his life to professional wrestling. His brash attitude and smug English accent made him perfect as heel and a born leader. This was proven as he led to the rookies into numerous battles with WWE superstars and would deliver scathing interviews. He’s still at large as a bad guy in WWE and now makes a career out of delivering bad news to wrestlers and audiences alike.
Daniel Bryan (paired with The Miz)
The most popular and successful wrestler among the eight superstars was indeed Daniel Bryan. Although Bryan was a rookie in WWE, he was far from one in professional wrestling. Bryan was trained by Hall of Famer, Shawn Michaels, in the late 90’s before competing all over the globe solidifying his status as the best wrestler in the entire world. His most memorable work before hitting the big time was his stint in independent promotion, Ring of Honor, competing under his real name, Bryan Danielson. He held the ROH world title for over a year from 2005-06 and had classic matches with the likes of A.J. Styles, Homicide, Samoa Joe, Paul London, Nigel McGuinness, and Takeshi Morishima just to name a few. Bryan was already an established name once he arrived which caught the ire of his mentor, The Miz, and a feud between the two started shortly after. At first glance, Bryan doesn’t exhibit the larger than life looks as past WWE legends but after fans watched him wrestle, they bought him as the real deal. On the very first episode of NXT, Bryan had an amazing match with Chris Jericho which got rave reviews from fellow wrestlers and fans alike. Bryan was booked to lose matches constantly and be berated by Miz, while being mocked on commentary by Michael Cole. While this was used to build sympathy for Bryan who would eventually get his revenge, it did nothing but bury the poor guy. Bryan was able to overcome everything and gain the respect of the fans not only with his incredible wrestling talent but he was establish a connection with the audience with his trademark YES! chant. Today, Bryan is one of the most popular wrestlers in the company.
After the conclusion of the competition, the eight rookies, who would rechristen themselves as Nexus, reunited to crash the main event of Monday Night Raw. On that fateful night of June 7th, 2010, the young fighters disrupted the match between John Cena and C.M. Punk and started brutally attacking both men. It didn’t stop with wrestlers though as the referee, ring announcer, ringside commentators, and nearby spectators were also attacked. The men targeted John Cena, WWE’s posterboy. They physically tore up the ring and put a full beatdown on Cena for a good 10 minutes. They were taking over. Sound familiar? 14 years prior, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, and Hulk Hogan tried to do the exact same thing with WCW when they formed the nWo. It was a breath of fresh air and fans were left speechless. Internet fans exploded on how different everything felt and wondered where the company would go from here. Eight nobodies took over the biggest cable wrestling program. How could an angle that got the whole wrestling world talking be killed in such a short amount of time?
Well, the angle had setbacks from the beginning. Daniel Bryan, the most promising member of the group, was actually fired the day after the initial strike. During the assault, he choked ring announcer, Justin Roberts, with his own tie. At the time, WWE just closed an important, lucrative deal with Mattel for a new toy line for kids. The sight of Bryan strangling Roberts was seen as harmful to the sponsorship and thus, Bryan was released from the company. The Nexus covered this up by saying Bryan was kicked out for showing mercy.
At the Summerslam pay-per-view in 2010, the remaining seven members of Nexus fought a team of WWE confidants consisting of John Cena, Bret Hart, R-Truth, John Morrison, Chris Jericho, Edge, and Daniel Bryan, who was rehired and turned as a face. After dominating and being on the offense for most of the match, Cena overcame the odds and won. The fans, who have always been lukewarm to Cena, and were heavily invested in this story, were left with a bad taste in their mouth. Nexus also lost a lot of credibility in the fans’ eyes and would never get it back. On an episode of Chris Jericho’s podcast, Talk is Jericho, Jericho and Edge talk about how Cena insisted that he go over in the match while both men suggested that Nexus win to establish themselves as a threat. The bookers backed Cena’s plan but Cena soon regretted his decision, admitting that the rebels should have won. Yeah, no kidding.
How bad was the damage done to the group’s image? Well consider that a few weeks later on Raw, a rematch of sorts took place between Nexus and WWE where the heels dominated. Slater pinned Sheamus, who at the time was WWE champ, Gabriel pinned Cena, and Barrett upset Randy Orton. The crowd reaction to Nexus’ victory was almost non-existent. The result the fans wanted had come a few weeks too late.
One by one, the group quickly starting losing members. Darren Young was kicked out the night after Summerslam. Skip Sheffield who was starting to really get over as a powerful monster, was injured during a house show in Hawaii, ending his time with the group. He would not be seen in a WWE ring again for over a year. Nexus didn’t have anyone to replace him with so the faction was left without the burly muscle that made them look dominant. Michael Tarver was also injured so an angle where Nexus jumped him during an episode of Raw and kicked him out was staged to write him out of the storyline. Tarver would be released from the company less than a year later.
After the dead weight in the group was cut, new members were inducted such as third-generation wrestler Husky Harris (who now competes as Bray Wyatt) and fellow third-generation athlete, Michael McGillicutty (now wrestling as Curtis Axel). McGillity in real life is Joe Hennig, grandson of Larry “The Ax” Hennig and son of WWE Hall of Famer, “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig. The connection being that both men competed on the second season of NXT.
After the Summerslam debacle, Barrett targeted Cena and actually got a win over him at the 2010 Hell in a Cell pay-per-view where the stipulations stated that if Barrett was victorious, Cena would have to join Nexus. With the company’s biggest star in tow, Barrett then targeted Randy Orton and the WWE championship. After winning a title match against Orton by disqualification after Orton slaughtered him with a steel chair, Barrett was granted another title shot at that year’s Survivor Series. Signs of salvation pointed to the Nexus but it was shattered once again after Survivor Series.
Cena, who was still with the anarchists, was the special referee and if Barrett didn’t leave the event as champ, Cena would be released from the company. With the odds clearly in his favor, Barrett was double-crossed by the Cenation leader which caused his exit. Barrett looked like a chump for coming up short once again. Cena wouldn’t leave though…he would consistently show up to WWE programming and constantly got the upper hand on the group. No one was booked to look strong against him making them look weaker and weaker. Finally, Barrett challenged Cena to one last match at the Tables, Ladders, and Chairs event but it was a one-sided onslaught against Barrett and his group putting the entire storyline out of its misery in just six short months.
It didn’t end there.
Barrett was overthrown as the headmaster of the group by new ringleader, C.M. Punk. Dubbed, the New Nexus, Punk seemed like the kind of person who can actually take the remains of the stable and try to resurrected it as he was a lot better than Barrett in every way possible. In the next week, a bunch of wacky segments would air where Punk would try to get New Nexus members to perform dangerous stunts in order to prove their worth to the group. Slater and Gabriel subsequently had enough and quit. Punk then recruited a very green Dave Bautista look-a-like named Mason Ryan, a Welsh wrestler who never caught up with the WWE universe.
Meanwhile, Barrett joined with his old running buddies, Slater and Gabriel, as they formed The Corre (yes it was spelled that way), with fourth member, Ezekiel Jackson.
Both factions had almost no interaction outside of a dopey showdown at the 2011 Royal Rumble which at that year had to be bumped up to 40 participants so that every member of both stables could be involved.
Both groups soon fizzled out shortly after with a handful of the surviving members still working in WWE rings today. No fan will ever forget that first invasion though and how the first promising angle in years could have put the company back into a groove. Everything good comes at a price, sadly.