Very seldom does WWE seem to pull off a good old-fashioned tournament. What is it exactly that makes a great tournament? It’s equal parts opportunity, star power, and excitement. The King of the Ring used to fill that role. But, as time passed, it became lost in the shuffle of a barrage of WWE pay-per-views. At one point, winning the King of the Ring tournament was a huge deal. It meant a superstar was on the cusp of becoming a main event talent. In its final year as a major pay-per-view, the winner of the tournament, Brock Lesnar, was awarded a WWE Championship match at Summerslam.
Now, tournaments are utilized to determine vacant championships and name number one contenders. However, there’s very little fanfare outside of that. Why? There’s nothing unique about championship tournaments. With championships up for grabs, the number of potential winners shrinks immensely. Look at last November’s WWE Championship tournament. Is anyone going to care about the Dolph Ziggler-Tyler Breeze match when both men are in the same bracket as Dean Ambrose? No. Everyone knew the tournament was going to come down to Ambrose and Roman Reigns.
So, the rest of the matches felt like a mere formality. Thankfully, NXT is here to get things right, as they’re oft doing as WWE’s developmental brand.
When the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic was born in the late summer of 2015, it seemed like little more than a way to pay tribute to “The American Dream.” But, as the tournament progressed, that gave way to a sense of, “hey – they may be on to something here.”
No championships were contested. Some of the matches were held at house shows. But, by the time the tournament was whittled down to the final four teams, NXT had captured something truly special. The tournament felt like a great call back to a bygone era. But, what makes it such an enjoyable event?
First and foremost, the product is simply great. Sure, that’s the general consensus on NXT as a whole, but it’s the case here, too. 2015’s tournament marked the coming-out party for American Alpha and The Revival. This year featured quality contests starting in the first round. Say what you will about the ability of The Authors of Pain, but no one can deny the fun match the duo had opposite TM61 in the finals. It is still technically a developmental brand.
When the matches feel lengthy and meaningful, it’s going to naturally lift the tournament as a whole. That’s the foundation of a good tournament.
Admittedly, pairing superstar talent for the tournament felt like a bit of a copout for finding good tag teams, but in year two, it felt like a major boost to the tournament. I thought 2015’s trophy should’ve gone to Enzo & Cass or The Vaudevillians, but Finn Balor & Samoa Joe made for an interesting pairing, and in hindsight, it helped kick off one of the most heated rivalries of 2016.
Fast forward to 2016, and fans witnessed teams such Tye Dillinger & Bobby Roode, No Way Jose & Rich Swann, Andrade “Cien Almas & Cedric Alexander, and Kota Ibushi & T.J. Perkins.
As a quick aside, I’ve been quoted as saying, “No Way Jose & Rich Swann should never NOT be tag team partners.” Both guys have to be in the discussion for breakout star of the year.
Sanity could’ve gone sideways in a hurry if not executed properly. But, so far, so good. The team made it to 2016’s final four, and has the presentation to be a force in the grand landscape of NXT. Using the tournament as a mechanism to break them in to the audience was a stroke of genius.
But, it wasn’t just Sanity. Teams like Tino Sabbatelli & Riddick Moss and Otis Dozovic & Tucker Knight excelled in debut performances. Plus, WWE’s first Chinese superstar, Tian Bing debuted as HoHo Lun’s partner.
And, then, there was also some guy named Roderick Strong?? Some of you may have heard of him.
What would professional wrestling be without good guy going bad? Without things going sideways for the hero? Where’s the conflict in that? Whether you saw Roode bailing on Dillinger or not, no one saw Almas’ heel turn coming. It was unexpected, but didn’t feel forced, and resonated with fans. The Roode-Dillinger split even set up a featured bout at Takeover: Toronto.
Elevates Superstars Without Championships
With no championships to compete for, it makes the field wide open. Any team can win, and the consequences are minimal. Just look at the winners. The Authors of Pain are now solidified as one of the top tag teams in NXT because they won this tournament.
Likewise, as mentioned before, Sanity was able to come in and make an immediate impact without stealing the thunder from someone else. TM61 showed what they’re capable of, too, and now have to be considered one of the top teams in NXT.
They’re coming away from this tournament with at least three new teams who can be contenders immediately. However, the critical point here is that none of this happened at the expense of NXT’s top team: The Revival.
Honoring the Dream
It does feel like quite the celebration when the brackets are announced. Seeing Goldust (and Cody Rhodes last year) out for the trophy presentation is always a touching moment. Superstars want to pay tribute to Rhodes, and the fans love to remember him. It’s the perfect tribute.
The tournament had every level of excitement you can ask for in a wrestling program. I’m already counting down to 2017.
Stoney Keeley covers the WWE for WrestlingNews.co, covers the NFL’s Tennessee Titans for Pro Football Spot, and is the Editor of The SoBros Network. You can follow him on Twitter at @StoneyKeeley and the SPOT’s Tennessee Titans Twitter feed at @spot_titans.