When WWE first got their hands on La Sombra, it seemed like a guaranteed home run.
He was talented, handsome and experienced, already a leading light of CMLL for many years despite his youth. His ringwork fit all the pretty adjectives one could want in a modern wrestler: polished, snappy, smooth. Like Steen, Devitt and Nakamura, he had the respect of the internet crowd before even setting foot in an NXT ring - especially as a founding member of Los Ingobernables, the stable about to take over New Japan. They would struggle to drop the ball with this guy.
On Monday, the man now better known as Andrade gave a candid Facebook Live interview detailing the various reasons for his exit. Central themes were a lack of opportunity and organisation backstage.
They dropped the ball.
I should specify: WWE dropped the ball, not NXT. After an admittedly rocky start, the black and yellow brand pushed Andrade appropriately. They paired him with a modern managerial great in Zelina Vega, a point from which there was no looking back. They gave him the NXT Championship, and he gave them WWE’s first five-star match rating in over six years. (Regardless of how much credence you find in Meltzer’s system, the bout speaks for itself.)
Main roster success was less forthcoming, save for an entertaining feud with Rey Mysterio and subsequent US title reign. Despite the momentum stalling, Andrade continued to prove his worth, particularly as a key member of the skeleton crew dragging WWE through that early lockdown period. But he was never the star he should have been.
It’s an obvious point, but breaking the glass ceiling is hard; a wrestler needs to truly excel in multiple areas. Yet Andrade seemed to have all the bases covered, while also appealing to the Mexican audience WWE occasionally decides to covet. The only drawback was his promo ability - but who needs perfect English when you’ve got Vega in your corner?
He had all the tools to succeed, short of being seven feet tall. Why did none of them work?
Andrade’s departure from WWE gives very mixed feelings. He’s admirably forging his own path - and is easily talented enough to make it work - but his main roster run will now be remembered as a waste of immense potential. Not everything in wrestling goes like it should.
But that doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Andrade seemed like a sure thing for WWE, but he’s far from alone. In the mid-to-late 2010s, the NXT brand was churning out ‘sure things’ at a silly rate, almost none of whom have been allowed to reach their upper limits in the years since. At the time, Andrade wasn’t even the star I was most confident in earmarking for main roster success. That was Aleister Black, but your mileage may have varied. It probably did, because the options were so numerous.
How, for example, has WWE not capitalised on a talent like Ricochet, one of the greatest high fliers in the world? How was Shayna Baszler’s dominant title run allowed to count for nothing on the main roster? Why weren’t The Revival treated with the right amount of gravitas? What on earth happened to the Authors of Pain?
I’m not suggesting that every member of Andrade’s NXT class is worse off since moving to the main roster, but it’s almost true. The ones least damaged are either back on the brand or never left in the first place.
When the NXT bubble was at its biggest, its success almost seemed funny. As they were putting on those spectacular events in Dallas, Toronto, Chicago, New Orleans, it dawned on everybody just how superior the ‘developmental’ brand was. Not only in a sense that the wrestlers were allowed to put on more ambitious, indie-style matches, but in aspects that weren’t supposed to outshine the main roster.
The storytelling was grittier and more streamlined, stripping away the superfluous elements of main roster booking. The stars felt more natural and compelling, with promos and angles designed to enhance their personalities, rather than having to bend their characters to fit the script. The crowd were having a ball, and Triple H clearly was too. He was showing himself to be a better booker than his father-in-law, and it wasn’t even a close contest. NXT was in a different galaxy.
The brand has since fallen from those great heights, although not as far as you might imagine. The quality is still very much there, and TakeOver events continue to deliver more often than not. But the biggest change isn't one of quality, it's one of tone. That feel-good factor has simply gone, and it’s made all the difference.
There are many potential reasons for this. Some blame the rise of AEW, stealing NXT’s quasi-indie spirit and using it in far more authentic fashion. After all, how rebellious can a brand feel when it’s under the WWE umbrella? Others blame the extension of weekly shows to two hours, forcing NXT to complicate its straightforward storytelling, and lending it an unwelcome main roster feel.
But even if things had carried on as they were, I think this would have happened regardless. Even during NXT’s heyday, with Andrade and co. very much at the centre, WWE was running a fundamentally broken system. In its desperate need to create new stars, the company had designed a developmental show comfortably better than the finished product - meaning that when the cream of the crop eventually graduated, the only way was down.
The wiring’s all backwards, and it looks as though this has finally caught up with WWE. The main roster doesn't seem equipped (or even consistently willing) to push former NXT standouts, and until that changes, we can expect to see this story told again and again.
Andrade is not the first home run pitch to be whiffed by Vince McMahon, and he certainly won’t be the last. But just how long will we have to wait until WWE make the most of their next potential star, and how long can we afford to?