Success in NXT does not guarantee success on WWE’s main roster.
The bottom halves of Raw and SmackDown’s rosters are a testament to an unfortunate truth: just because a gimmick worked in a small venue at Full Sail University, does not mean it will translate to a massive arena with less intimacy and higher stakes.
The Ascension held the NXT Tag Titles for 344 days–longer than any other tag team in NXT history. Today, Viktor and Konnor are perennial enhancement talents; the last time they won a 2-on-2 tag team match was on February 8, 2016, over two years ago. Or take Bo Dallas, for instance. The third-generation Superstar held the NXT Championship for 261 days. Now, he’s a whipping boy and lackey for The Miz; he’s the ringside replacement for Maryse ever since she went on maternity leave.
If a former NXT champion has that much difficulty? Imagine how difficult it is for the average NXT midcarder–a guy who never even held an NXT title–to get over on Raw or SmackDown. Such is the struggle of Elias Samson, who got his name shortened to Elias after debuting on Raw.
WWE has never treated Elias like a main event player. In fact, he tried out for the company four times before they offered him a contract. Once he got to NXT, he served as enhancement talent for Baron Corbin. And even when he started his unique “drifter” gimmick, Elias lost the majority of his feuds–most notably to Kassius Ohno, who defeated him in a “Loser Leaves NXT” match. It would have been reasonable to assume that Elias would fight on Raw for a month or two before being released. If he couldn’t even get a title shot on NXT (let alone win an actual title), what chance did he have of succeeding on the main show?
WWE did something smart: They didn’t make a big deal over him. For the first couple of weeks he was on Raw, Elias didn’t even have any matches. The backstage camera would occasionally catch him in the background, strumming his guitar and humming to himself, but that was it. It was a master stroke of understatement; the NXT fans who knew him would cheer, and the casual WWE fans were left wondering, “Why is everyone else cheering? Who is that dude?” It created a sense of mystery and suspense for when the man would actually fight, without shoving him down people’s throats as “the next big thing.”
When he finally debuted, he lost more than he won. He put over Finn Balor. He put over Jason Jordan. He even put over Kalisto. But more importantly than winning (at least in this early stage of his Raw career), he got the fans to know who he was.
Every week, the WWE writers sat him in the center of the ring with a guitar, and they gave him approximately three minutes to do whatever he wanted. He made jokes. He played songs. He insulted the home crowd. These pre-match segments had a loose, improvised feel to them, especially compared to the rest of the tightly scripted show.
Wrestlers with guitars are either heels (like Honky Tonky Man or Jeff Jarrett) or comic relief (like Kurt Angle or The Rock). Elias manages the unenviable task of being both.
The comedy derives from Elias being the straight foil rather than from Elias being the clown. He has great reaction expressions and great timing, and that gives him narrative flexibility. If WWE ever decides to turn him face, he won’t have to change much about himself. All he has to do is sing songs insulting his opponents, or sing songs insulting Boston in front of a New York crowd, and he’ll be good to go.
Elias racked up two notable wins in recent weeks. The first came against Matt Hardy, who he defeated on January 29 to qualify for Elimination Chamber. The second came against John Cena and Braun Strowman, who he defeated in a Triple Threat match on February 5. He toppled both the top guy in the company and the future monster in a single night–no small matter, even if he had to play them against each other to secure the win. And since he will now be the last man to enter the Chamber, he will likely play a pivotal role in the match’s finish.
Elias’s slow narrative burn has finally paid dividends. Against all odds, the NXT midcarder, who never had a title shot, is fighting in Elimination Chamber’s main event to determine who faces Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania. He won’t win, of course. But considering how far he’s come in the past year, his involvement is an implicit statement from management to the fans. This guy is going places. And sooner than later (if they don’t already), millions of fans will want to walk with Elias.