On the back of one of the strongest crowd reactions in all of wrestling, Tye Dillinger finally has his long-coveted spot on SmackDown. As the "Perfect 10" said his goodbyes to NXT in the most appropriate of ways -- inside a steel cage -- it's worth reflecting the long and treacherous road he took to become the "Perfect 10".
Dillinger has had a fascinating career, and while he's smack dab in the middle of his most successful run, it wasn't always this way. Eleven years ago, Dillinger, then known as Shawn Spears, was beginning his WWE career at Ohio Valley Wrestling -- WWE's developmental system at the time.
After honing his skills alongside notable names such as Cody Rhodes and Damien Sandow (Idol Stevens at the time), Dillinger got his first experience in the limelight when he was called up to perform under the ECW brand, slightly adjusting his name to Gavin Spears. He was part of their "new superstar initiative," but that taste of success was short-lived; just five months after he started with ECW, he was released from his WWE contract.
From there, Dillinger had a lot of soul searching to do. While working hard to find himself, he tried out numerous different characters, and tried to find a spot in nearly every major non-WWE in the world. He and Stevens captured the World Wrestling Council Tag Team Championships in 2009 in Puerto Rico, but that was only the start of his path back.
Clawing his way back to the WWE changed something in Dillinger, and a glimmer of hope translated into progress; ultimately, in September 2013, he re-signed with the WWE and joined their newly-designed developmental system, NXT.
This run would be different, but again, success didn't come easily. Initially, he struggled to make a name for himself, and found himself on the losing end again and again. A team alongside Jason Jordan failed to get off the ground, and numerous other iterations of his character followed. Some two full years after joining NXT, he debuted his "Perfect 10" gimmick; while it didn't catch on right away, Dillinger took it to a point where it could not be overlooked, and the fans took notice.
Despite losses at both TakeOver: Brooklyn and TakeOver: The End against Apollo Crews and Andrade "Cien" Almas, respectively, the "Perfect 10" gimmick was on fire as he threw up his hands repeatedly and the crowd replied with deafening "10" chants in time.
After working a program with Bobby Roode, which elevated Dillinger a great deal against the future NXT champion, Dillinger found himself across the ring from a very familiar face in Eric Young, in what would ultimately become his final NXT rivalry. Young, a long-time friend who helped train Dillinger decades prior, brought a band of misfits known as SAnitY, and they asked him to join in. Upon his refusal, the group used the numbers game against Dillinger on a regular basis and found a way to remain victorious even as Dillinger found ways to balance the scales by recruiting No Way Jose, Roderick Strong, Kassius Ohno and Ruby Riot in matches that ultimately led up to NXT TakeOver: Orlando.
Wednesday night marked the culmination of that four month-long conflict when Dillinger matched up with Young inside a steel cage. While Dillinger often came out on the short side of his major rivalries in NXT, this time was different. Intense from the get-go, the story was wonderfully told as Dillinger was hell-bent on retribution and ultimately found it, even as the cage failed to keep the numbers game from coming into play.
There were a lot of fun spots in the match including two dives from the top of the cage. The first saw Young deliver an impressive elbow drop from the top of the cage as blood dripped from his forehead. The second saw Dillinger hit a flying cross-body onto both Young and SAnitY cohort Killian Dain who had made his way into the cage.
As SAnitY refused to allow Dillinger to escape, Ohno, Strong and Riot came out to offer their assistance and gave Dillinger the help he needed. Amidst the utter chaos, Dillinger was able to escape through the cage door when all members of SAnitY were grouped together on the other side of the cage. Dillinger locked the cage door behind him with all of the members of SAnitY in the ring (and there's a metaphor somewhere in there). Ohno and Strong then lifted the Perfect 10 onto their shoulders in celebration.
In a WWE.com exclusive, Dillinger addressed the NXT universe, summarizing his career and thanking them for their support as he walked into the sunset as a conquering hero.
- WWE (@WWE) April 20, 2017
Hideo Itami returns ... again
Roode has become the face of NXT. His "Glorious" gimmick was an instant hit, and he has carried himself with supreme confidence while telling compelling stories in and out of the ring, but he needed a new adversary as his most recent foe, Shinsuke Nakamura is now a part of the SmackDown Live roster as well.
Enter Hideo Itami.
The WWE's signing of Itami to a contract was a spectacle in 2014. It was such a big deal that Hulk Hogan himself attended the contract signing. Early on in his NXT career, Itami made small splashes including a memorable debut at TakeOver: Fatal 4-Way, and an appearance in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania 31, but the injury bug caught up to the former GHC heavyweight champion.
He was scheduled to compete in a triple-threat-number-one-contender match for the NXT Championship against Finn Balor and Tyler Breeze at the TakeOver: Unstoppable event, but suffered a significant shoulder injury preventing his inclusion. The injury required surgery and kept Itami out for over a year.
He returned in June but found himself back on the sidelines just a few months later, this time with a neck injury sustained at an NXT live event, and he was off TV for 10 more months.
That was, until Wednesday night.
Roode's classic rivalry with Nakamura, as well as Nakamura's NXT career, came to an end at TakeOver: Orlando. The King of Strong Style gave the Full Sail crowd a memorable final speech on last week's show, but Wednesday night, Roode made it clear he wasn't impressed.
Roode said that unlike the rest of the NXT roster, he wasn't present on the entrance ramp to salute Nakamura in his final appearance and took credit for Nakamura's departure, "I beat him and I embarrassed him so bad that he had no other choice than to tuck his tail between his legs and get the hell out of NXT."
Itami had heard enough and made his way to the ring to confront the champion. A blistering slap from Itami to Roode communicated his intentions more than words ever could. As Roode removed his jacket, ready to engage in battle, Itami lifted him up and delivered his patented Go to Sleep finisher as the fans chanted his name.
Roode sold the GTS perfectly in the moment and afterward as he groggily rose to his feet to exit the ring. While there's no predicting what the future may hold, and that hopefully includes no more injuries, the build to TakeOver: Chicago on May 20 has certainly begun.
Rounding out the show
-- Coming off a loss to NXT newcomer Aleister Black at TakeOver, Andrade "Cien" Almas was back in the ring looking to rebound. His opponent was U.K. Championship Tournament contestant Danny Burch (a formerly NXT superstar in his own right) who had a nice showing, but fell short as Cien nailed his hammerlock DDT finisher for the win.
-- After Liv Morgan shoved Billie Kay into an ice bath last week (with some provocation), a tag match inevitably followed this week. Morgan and Aaliyah faced off against Kay and Peyton Royce in a quick match that saw Aaliyah utilize a sunset flip pinfall on Royce for the win as Morgan dropkicked Kay off the apron.
Next week is jam-packed as Tyler Bate puts his U.K. Championship on the line against 205 Live star Jack Gallagher, Drew McIntyre squares off against Andrade "Cien" Almas, and Aleister Black is back in action.