When we think of superstars whose careers ended too early, two names immediately spring to mind: Edge and Daniel Bryan. After more than 10 years in the ring, numberous world championships and multiple high profile Wrestlemania matches, long term injuries caught up to both men. Their retirements were shocking and emotional for everyone, especially in an industry where guys like Flair, Sting and Hogan wrestled well into their 50s. Edge and Bryan still had star power, but they did what was best (and right) for their futures. Edge was inducted into the Hall of Fame less than a year after his shocking retirement. Daniel Bryan will join him whenever Daniel Bryan chooses to. Neither end was ideal, but we can take comfort in knowing that both men lived their dream, their future is much brighter having retiring and we got the chance to take the wild ride with them.
In a way, those were the best possible worst scenarios. Some guys don’t know when to call it quits. Some guys don’t have what it takes to make it that far. Or in the case of Corey Graves, some guys get so close, then have it all ripped away. That brings us to this week’s What If…
What If Corey Graves didn’t have to retire?
How it Happened
Graves, a Pittsburgh PA native, began wrestling in the independent scene in 2000 under the name Sterling James Keenan (a mash-up of and tribute to Green Bay Packers’ great Sterling Sharpe and the rock band Tool’s frontman Maynard James Keenan). Working initially as a tag wrestler, Sterling James soon found himself winning singles gold at indies all over the country, defeating a bevy of high profile opponents along the way. He holds victories over CM Punk, AJ Styles, Cesaro and Raven. He eventually captured the top title in his hometown promotion Far North Wrestling when he beat Samoa Joe and Rikishi.
Donning longer hair and fewer tattoos, Sterling was actually featured on WWE TV twice in 2006. Once on Velocity against Jamie Noble and Kid Kash then again losing to Val Venis on Heat in August 2006. Five years after his loss to Venis and a stellar 10 year indie career, the independent stand out Sterling James Kennan became WWE developmental talent Corey Graves. Graves went back to his tag team roots in FCW, winning the titles along side Jake Carter from The Rotundos (aka Bray Wyatt and Bo Dallas). A few months later, FCW would evolve into NXT and there seemed to be big plans for Graves in 2013 and beyond.
The first major call ups from NXT happened in November 2012 with Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins forming the Shield on the main roster. Rollins was still NXT champion at the time, so the three future stars worked arenas around the world as well as the NXT tapings at Full Sail. Corey Graves looked to make a name for himself and attacked Rollins, earning a championship opportunity. The numbers of the Shield were too great for Graves to overcome and his championship match ended in a no contest. Big E would go on to take the title from Seth the following week, but Graves was still one of the top faces in NXT’s infancy.
For the remainder of 2013, the 6′ 1″ star would float around the NXT title scene, continue his battle with the Shield and begin a new feud against the Wyatt Family. The Wyatts won the NXT tag team straps after destroying one half of the tag team champions, Olivier Grey, and capturing the titles from Neville and Grey’s replacement Bo Dallas. With common enemies, Graves began teaming with Neville and the two would eventually win the tag titles together. The partnership wasn’t meant to last however. Graves turned on Neville when they lost the titles to The Ascension. Shortly after the split, Grabes suffered a concussion. Putting him on the sideline for the remainder of the year.
At the dawn of NXT’s WWE Network era in 2014, Graves’ former partner would become NXT Champ and a returning Graves would set his sights on the popular superstar Sami Zayn. After verbally attacking him, Graves did battle with Sami, losing via an inside cradle from outta nowhere. The two would meet again in the ring a few weeks later with Graves dismantling Zayn causing a referee stoppage. Then, it was over. Graves suffered another concussion in a match during Wrestlemania weekend and was off TV. In December 2014, he announced his official retirement from the ring.
How It Could Have Happened
When we think about the past, present and future of NXT, we think of wrestlers like Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Finn Balor, Samoa Joe, Nakamura, Bayley, Sasha, Charlotte. But when NXT began airing on the Network, half of those stars weren’t with WWE and the other half had yet to really make a name for themselves. Without the career ending injury, it’s not hard to imagine Corey Graves among those names. Let’s rewind to 2014. Sami and Graves were locked in a vicious feud that would have more than likely cumulated with a match at NXT Takeover in May. Meanwhile, there were no true threats to Neville’s NXT title reign. Brodus Clay, Tyson Kidd, RVD, Curt Hawkins. Those were some of Neville’s matches as champion in 2014.
The obvious choice for Neville’s main rival would have been his former tag team partner, Corey Graves. Whether Graves would have become champ is anyone’s guess, but as evidenced by the talented but shallow rotation of Sami Zayn, Tyler Breeze and Tyson Kidd as Neville’s top NXT competition from the start of his reign through the end, Neville vs Graves seemed inevitable. Where Neville is admittedly tepid about mic work, a natural talker like Graves would have been the perfect opponent.
Had he continued his heel persona, Graves would have worked against the likes of Hideo Itami and Finn Balor. If he won the crowd over and became a face, Graves vs Baron Corbin feels oddly compelling as is Graves vs Owens. If you look at NXT call ups from 2014 through now, there is no doubt that Graves would have been among the earliest. Probably after Bo, but more than likely before Neville. Though some main roster talent hasn’t caught on, such as Bo and Neville, we are clearly in a new era. Could Graves have contended for the WWE or Universal Title? Absolutely. Whether it’s typecasting or a good observation, Graves was considered by many as the man who could fill CM Punk’s counter culture rebel role on the main roster. His unique look, decent size and killer mic skills could have landed him in the John Cena Open Challenge and opened any number of doors from there.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be.
So what now? Well, now Graves is a featured commentator on both NXT and Raw. He now has the unique opportunity and ability to elevate every single superstar, man or woman, without ever having to take another bump. This is a role that’s suited him well since his initial go at it with the NXT pre-show panels. He’s the voice of NXT in so many ways, introducing us to the stars of tomorrow. With his commitments to Raw, it’s hard to say how long he’ll pull double duty. For now, all we can do is watch, listen and appreciate because Graves is truly a master on the mic as he helps paint the landscape of the next decade of the WWE.