NXT’s search for an Interim Cruiserweight Champion is now entering its home stretch. Only two matches remain in the group stage of the tournament, which was instituted to crown a champion for the title that was stripped from Jordan Devlin due to his being unable to defend the title while quarantining in the U.K.
With New Japan Pro Wrestling still on hiatus, WWE has emerged as an unlikely bastion for tournament wrestling, having also just started a tournament on SmackDown to crown a new Intercontinental Champion after Sami Zayn was stripped of his title. NXT’s tournament added a new wrinkle, the round robin format, to WWE television that’s led to some interesting stories on recent episodes of NXT.
Two superstars, one in each group, remain undefeated in the tournament to this point. Kushida is 2-0 in Group A, while Akira Tozawa (despite making regular appearances as enhancement talent on Raw) has the same record in Group B. Both men have prior experience with the round robin format in their native Japan.
Kushida won two Best of the Super Juniors tournaments in New Japan Pro Wrestling, defeating NXT’s Kyle O’Reilly in the finals in 2015 and Will Ospreay in 2017, while Tozawa won Summer Adventure Tag League tournaments in his old home promotion, Dragon Gate. From a kayfabe perspective, it makes sense that they’d both be doing so well.
A good showing in this tournament should also help to establish both men going forward. Kushida had a great track record in NJPW, but has been a little lost in the shuffle since debuting in NXT. Winning the tournament — or at least making it to the finals — will help establish him on WWE’s ever crowded third brand.
For Tozawa, a strong showing would go a long way towards mitigating all of the pins he takes on Raw, where he’s been pulling double duty since the tournament began. Tozawa’s biggest success in WWE was a six day reign as Cruiserweight Champion back in the days when AEW’s Pac was the King of the Cruiserweights. If he wins the tournament, having a championship to defend would hopefully give him a break from being one of Paul Heyman’s favorite jobbers on Monday nights.
At 2-0, Kushida and Tozawa control their own destinies in the tournament. With wins in their final matches, they’ll face off in a Japanese junior heavyweight dream match in the finals. But, there are still obstacles in their way, though.
For Kushida, a loss to Drake Maverick in his final match would create a three way tie between them and newcomer Jake Atlas, with each man holding a 2-1 record and tie breakers over each other. Atlas pinned Maverick in their first tournament match, while Kushida submitted Atlas in their second. A Maverick win would create chaos and likely necessitate a triple threat match to determine the group winner.
Maverick remains alive in the tournament despite having been part of WWE’s recent roster cuts. Since Maverick was announced for the tournament before the cuts happened, he’s wrestling what look to be his final matches with the company before his 90 day no-compete clause expires.
Maverick’s heartfelt video message after being released by WWE can’t help but make him a sentimental favorite, in spite of the fact that WWE taking advantage of his very real release to add stakes to the tournament can’t help but feel exploitative. It will be interesting to see how WWE handles Maverick’s story, if for no other reason than to see how long it drags out the seemingly inevitable ending.
The path forward in Group B is far clearer. The already eliminated “Gentleman” Jack Gallagher played spoiler and knocked Isiah “Swerve” Scott out of the tournament in their final match. Only two men remain in the running. If Tozawa wins, he’s on to the finals. If he loses, his opponent, El Hijo del Fantasma, moves on instead.
Fantasma is a luchador who competed under that name in Mexico’s AAA and CMLL. He also has American TV experience from his time as part of the El Rey Network’s cult wrestling telenovela hybrid, Lucha Underground. He competed there as lucha libre’s answer to Kraven the Hunter, King Cuerno. (Although it must be said that neither Kraven nor any other villainous hunter has ever rocked casual western wear as well as Cuerno did on Lucha.)
A feud between two of the men already eliminated from the tournament looks to be on the horizon. Nese recently took his frustrations about being shut out in the tournament out on Swerve Scott as he was making his way to the ring for his match, allowing Jack Gallagher to pick the bones and eliminate Scott from contention.
A feud between Nese and Scott could help raise both their profiles. Nese had a solid run with the Cruiserweight Championship before it became part of NXT, but has been enhancement talent lately, and Scott is still trying to establish himself in NXT. He could do so with a series of matches with “the Premier Athlete.”
The winner of the tournament will hopefully become a big part of NXT going forward. If nothing else, an eventual unification match with Devlin could make for compelling television and a TakeOver match, assuming the U.K. roster can compete any time soon. Either way, a thriving cruiserweight division would be a valuable asset for NXT in its Wednesday Night War with AEW.
With some competitors eliminated and the real contenders emerging, it's time to check in on the current status of NXT's Cruiserweight Tournament.