Editor's note: The following originally appeared in this week's edition of Figure Four Weekly.
Chris Hero returned to NXT as Kassius Ohno last week after a little over three years away from WWE developmental. All that happened in between is that he became arguably the best professional wrestler in the world.
It's not that Hero didn't enter developmental in 2012 as an excellent performer. He was a genuine independent wrestling star even then, having worked for Ring of Honor, Pro Wrestling NOAH, and seemingly everywhere else across the globe. He had developed as an elite in-ring talent by utilizing a unique style that was shaped by those experiences and his knowledge of pro wrestling history.
But Hero reenters WWE better than he has ever been because of how he has further dedicated himself in the ring since being released. And he does so after having had more outstanding matches than anyone else did in 2016.
A lot of that is because of opportunity. By not getting locked down with any one company, Hero was given the opportunity to work almost anywhere he wanted against such different opponents. He worked across the United States indie scene while finding homes in its most popular promotions. He went overseas and toured Europe while being just as welcomed in their top companies.
That led to Hero working more diverse matches than anyone else did last year. He elevated every EVOLVE card that he was on while giving many of his peers their best match of the year. He was Timothy Thatcher's opponent in his best title defense of the year, along with being involved in the promotion's best tag match of 2016 as he teamed with regular partner Tommy End against frequent rival Zack Sabre Jr. and Sami Callihan.
Hero's two matches against "Hot Sauce" Tracy Williams brought out the best in Williams, and his trilogy with Matt Riddle helped cement the former UFC fighter as the clear top star in EVOLVE as it enters a new era.
Hero teamed with End against Pentagon Jr. and Fenix in Pro Wrestling Guerrilla over Battle of Los Angeles weekend, with the contrasting styles of the teams (even though Hero did show that he's adept at lucha in the match) producing one of the best tag matches of the year.
Across the pond, Hero had stellar matches in PROGRESS with Marty Scurll and Mark Andrews, along with another great match with Scurll in Revolution Pro Wrestling. Hero's involvement with RevPro led to him getting to wrestle in two dream matches at their co-promoted shows with New Japan Pro Wrestling. He faced off against Tomohiro Ishii and Katsuyori Shibata on the two shows, with the Ishii match especially showing that Hero is the best in the world at his bruising, strike-heavy style.
And that brief list doesn't even come close to doing justice to the year that Hero had. He was the top star on the indies and made every show that he was on -- regardless of size -- feel like a big deal.
Other capable indie workers will be given the chance to step up as we get deeper into 2017, but no one person will be able to fill Hero's spot. No one else has the combination of longevity, knowledge, and experience working so many different styles that Hero has.
But the indie scene's loss will be NXT's gain. And NXT has never needed Hero more than they do right now.
As NXT has strived to become a brand, it feels like it has lost an identity. The need to fill moderately sized buildings on the road and the reliance on stars who have already made their names on bigger stages elsewhere has made NXT feel less like the distinct product that it used to be.
Of course, NXT has always relied on already established talent. It's never going to be a promotion that solely features developing wrestlers. Finn Balor was a ready-made star when he stepped foot into developmental. Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn were stars in ROH, PWG, and many other promotions before coming to WWE. But those three wrestlers fit into the product that NXT was trying to produce far more seamlessly than Shinsuke Nakamura, Samoa Joe, and Bobby Roode have. They were talents obviously motivated for the opportunity ahead of them and out to prove themselves.
Established stars will always be needed in NXT. They'll help sell tickets, draw viewers to the WWE Network, and work with younger talents. But Nakamura, Joe, and Roode as the top male stars seems to have fundamentally changed what NXT is.
Nakamura has seen far bigger stages than Full Sail University. And he was a legitimate top star in NJPW in a way that Balor never was. He's 36 years old with a lifetime of pro wrestling wear and tear on his body. Even in NJPW, he got by on charisma and only gave everything he had when it mattered most. He's had a couple of standout matches since signing with WWE, but it shouldn't be surprising that he's picked his spots up to this point.
Joe and Roode are even older with just as much mileage on their bodies. And both former TNA stars have already experienced what it's like to work on television.
Some of the identity that NXT lost was inevitable. They've understandably been unable to adequately replace Sasha Banks, Bayley, Charlotte, and Becky Lynch. And with WWE now a legitimate place to watch high-end women's wrestling, NXT has lost a lot of what made it special.
SmackDown has also made NXT's place in the weekly WWE product less clear. NXT used to exist as a shorter and easier to watch alternative to Raw that had logical booking and storytelling that built to their big shows, but SmackDown has done all of that better than NXT has since the brand split.
Adding another star well into his 30s shouldn't feel like something that will rejuvenate the brand, but Chris Hero has proved in his three-plus years outside of the company that no one is more motivated than he is to consistently put on great wrestling matches. He also comes back to NXT with something to prove after previously being released.
Whether Hero ultimately has main roster success remains to be seen. There are obvious obstacles that stand in his way, with his physique always going to be a talking point. But he was released when he was near the best shape of his life and comes back to the company with officials obviously knowing what he looks like.
Hero is getting an unlikely second shot at wrestling for the biggest company and on the biggest stage possible. If he does eventually find success in WWE, it will be because of how he dedicated himself to becoming maybe the best in-ring wrestler in the world during his time away.