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All Hail: Baron Corbin’s rise to Wrestlemania glory

Baron Corbin

This past weekend marked another significant milestone in the growth of NXT as a brand. On TV & at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, NXT came across as the absolute hottest ticket in a town completely overrun by professional wrestling, thanks in no small part to a crowd that was frenzied from start to finish, on-screen appearances from Kota Ibushi and Bobby Roode, and four incredible matches featuring numerous stars who were fully and completely over.

NXT TakeOver: Dallas may not have been remotely close to outdoing Wrestlemania 32 in terms of spectacle (it didn’t feature a cameo from Shaq after all), but as far as delivering a satisfying, intelligently-put-together professional wrestling show, it was miles ahead of even a record-smashing Granddaddy of Them All.

This weekend was every bit as significant a milestone in the growth of one of NXT’s few truly home-grown talents: Baron Corbin. Corbin's growth over the past year alone has been extraordinary, and while his performance at TakeOver may have been largely overshadowed, it nonetheless notched another step in his continual transformation into a steadfast and self-assured performer.

There would be no such shadow over Corbin on Sunday as he made his Wrestlemania debut as a surprise entrant in the third annual Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, tossing out Kane to win the match and taking his place next to the trophy cast in the image of one of wrestling’s most enduring figures.

With Corbin primed for a full-time move to the main roster, the road from his in-ring debut in October 2012 to his Wrestlemania moment is not just a credit to the man’s commitment to refining and cultivating his aptitude as a professional wrestler, but also to NXT’s value not as a hot brand, but as a developmental network.

While NXT’s ever-increasing brand cachet has helped to draw in the likes of Asuka, Shinsuke Nakamura, La Sombra, and a whole host of others being included in the upcoming Global Cruiserweight Tournament, Corbin’s success to this point is the clearest evidence of NXT’s proficiency for taking those with no or little wrestling experience and developing them into the well-rounded stars of tomorrow.

Fine-tuning well-learned veterans to pick up on the intricacies of WWE’s production and presentation is one thing, but Corbin is proof positive that the system can work in creating talents from scratch.

Baron Corbin makes his entrance during the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at Wrestlemania 32

Of the five matches at TakeOver, Corbin’s match against the debuting Austin Aries received far and away the least amount of lip service. It was by no means a bad match -- it was quite good for the story it was trying to tell -- but being sandwiched between a white hot show-opener that ended with a title change and the promotional debut of Nakamura in a match that had some claiming to have seen the face of god himself, never mind the NXT Women’s Championship changing hands and Joe vs. Balor II to close the show, it was almost guaranteed to be overshadowed regardless of what either man did.

Given both the contents of the card and the simplicity of the story being told in the ring -- the much larger Corbin taking the vast majority of the match and underestimating Aries until he got flash pinned on a roll-up out of a counter to the End of Days -- the intention was likely not for either man to go out and steal the show. And neither did. Corbin’s role was to keep his much smaller man grounded, grinding him down with nerve holds and blows. On its face, there was nothing spectacular about Corbin’s methods apart from one great-looking Deep Six on the outside of the ring.

What was clear in this match, however, was just how much Corbin has grown in terms of his presence and confidence. The way he carried himself in the ring against Aries made him seem for all the world like a guy who has been wrestling for his entire life -- completely natural and right at home. Again, there was nothing groundbreaking about his heelish trash-talking or his facials, but when compared to his presence in his first three TakeOver matches against CJ Parker, Tye Dillinger, and Bull Dempsey, and even to his showing against Rhyno at TakeOver: Unstoppable in May of last year, the improvement is evident and overwhelming.

Those improvements have not gone unnoticed by NXT’s fanbase. After being repackaged and reintroduced to the audience in late 2014 following two years as an enhancement talent, Corbin found a foothold with the shtick of beating his opponents in as short a time as possible while fans counted the seconds from bell to bell. The question of whether Corbin or the counting gimmick was over with the crowd was answered when his feud with Dempsey led to matches longer than a minute and his reactions began to steadily diminish. As he sought to find traction as a heel, the boos he received seemed less that of fans properly reacting to a bad guy and more a kind of go-away heat.

Then, around the time of his feud with Samoa Joe, Corbin began to develop his current character: one who sees his credentials in the NFL and boxing as making him more worthy of championship opportunities than wrestlers who worked their way up through the indies. Harnessing this idea to perfection throughout the feud helped give Corbin an edge that he had been lacking. Having a very good 10-minute match with Joe at TakeOver: Brooklyn certainly did not hurt his case, nor did looking incredibly solid in the semifinal and finals of the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic at TakeOver: Respect.

At the most recent TakeOver special, as Corbin set out to dismantle a beloved “indie darling,” there was a moment where a chant for Aries was met by an equally vociferous chant for Corbin. For whatever negatives one may have to say about the NXT audience, they are nothing if not honest about who they like and who they do not. This moment, however brief, was as clear a way as any of voicing their acceptance of a man who they had previously rejected. Corbin may lack the wrestling credentials of Balor, Joe, or Zayn, but he has proven that his commitment to the business is as strong as any other, and that passion will go a long way with fans regardless of whether his lot is to be booed or cheered.

Baron Corbin has his hand raised after winning the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal

More significant than that single chant, however, was the response on Sunday when Corbin threw Kane out of the ring to win the Andre Battle Royal. Corbin, an unknown entity to the vast majority of the casual viewing audience, not only eliminated a 20-year veteran to secure the win, but was overwhelmingly cheered for doing so. This very well could have been a conditional response from an audience that had the wind knocked out of them by the underwhelming, anticlimactic half-hour crawl of Shane McMahon vs. The Undertaker and a few truly confounding booking decisions, but it is a response that nonetheless paints Corbin as a big deal instantaneously.

After the win and the pop, a large chant for “NXT” broke out. In that moment, the crowd chose to identify Corbin as being synonymous with the beloved brand, and it signaled that this was not merely a win for Baron, but a win for NXT as a whole.

The credit for Corbin’s transformation from bland tall guy with tattoos protected by a squash match gimmick to a poised, assertive character who has become comfortable in his own skin and already has a big win at Wrestlemania under his belt can be dispersed in a number of directions. Some is owed to the likes of Balor, Joe, and Zayn who have worked with Corbin and no doubt imparted some degree of wisdom; a great deal is owed to the man himself for not being content to simply get his shot because he is big, but rather to earn it by getting better every day; and a significant portion is owed to NXT and the Performance Center, which saw potential in a guy four years ago and used its resources to build him up to the point of being on the cusp of stardom.

Corbin kicked off his presumed full time run as a main roster talent on Raw in a match against Dolph Ziggler that was somehow most notable for the crowd being angry about a beach ball. It's not unfair to say that even after so much progress, there is still a lot for Corbin to learn. But given his proven ability to adapt, he is ready to do the bulk of that learning at the highest level.