Ahead of the Backlash pay-per-view and his "Greatest Wrestling Match Ever" with Edge, WWE superstar Randy Orton was spending time on social media taking shots at Tommaso Ciampa and the NXT brand. Following NXT TakeOver: In Your House, Orton tweeted, "Heard #WWENXT #TakeoverInYourHouse was great! Slappin my leg for you guys. Sincerely #legslap."
Ciampa responded by saying he was using Orton matches to put his daughter, which prompted Orton to fire back. "Looks like I hurt the feelings of the self appointed lockeroom leader of a wrestling school," Orton tweeted. "Let me know what time #legslap class starts so I can take my game to the next level."
While it wasn't the first time Orton has taken shots at WWE's third brand and the more modern, independent style of wrestling, he explained that the initial comment was just him poking fun. His actual issue with the style of Ciampa and others in NXT is that the high-impact approach is unsustainable towards the goal of maintaining a lengthy career.
"So, the leg slap comment was just me having fun and it got taken a little too seriously," Orton told CBS Sports. "I've been outspoken about the leg slap because I've seen more and more and more and more and more and more leg slaps. Same with repeating moves. Same with guys using the same move. It's superkick, superkick, superkick, superkick. Or they've got that running knee. Every time any of those things happen, you get a big slap to the leg.
"That has nothing to do with the state of Tommaso's physical wellbeing, but there's that style. If you're a talent and you've made it as far as NXT, which is very close to the top of the mountain ... if you think that you have to go out there and get powerbombed on the apron after neck surgery, or if you think you have to go out there and do these dives and flips bell to bell just because the fans want to see half a dozen near-death experiences? I feel sorry for you because you're not going to reap the benefits of what this business offers.
"One of those is longevity. I don't know anything about what NXT pay is like, but it certainly ain't Raw and SmackDown pay. I don't know what you get paid for a TakeOver, but I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that, at WrestleMania, my paycheck was bigger than the TakeOver guys. Now, I hate when guys talk about 'my big bank account' or 'my big check' or this or that and 'I'm more rich than you.' That's not what I'm saying here. I'm saying that NXT shouldn't be the goal. Raw or SmackDown should be the goal."
Orton would go on to win his Backlash main-event match over Edge after hitting his former teammate with a punt -- a kick to the head delivered with the infamous leg slap for emphasis.
While speaking about Ciampa, Orton took issue with the NXT star's statements on Lilian Garcia's "Chasing Glory" podcast last December. On that episode, Ciampa admitted he would retire if moved from NXT to Raw or SmackDown because the lighter NXT schedule gave him four more stable years rather than the grind of moving to the brands with a more grueling touring schedule.
"That man has got a little baby," Orton said. "Just this morning I watched his "Black Heart" documentary on WWE Network that followed him around after his neck surgery. I'll admit, I welled up and got a little tear in my eye when he woke up from the neck surgery and his beautiful little daughter was sitting on his lap and he was touching her face and just happy to see her and his wife. That's heartwarming. I would love nothing more than to see Tommaso have a long, healthy career and retire and not need to go learn a new trade or go work at the local whatever the f--k to make ends meet and put food on the table. I want to see all these guys succeed. When you're talking about that? Making money. It's a business. It's a business. You've got to make money.
"I would think, no matter how much you love NXT, you've got to look at the bigger picture. If you don't think you're going to last on the road for Raw and SmackDown? Do something about it. Go and sign a contract that calls for you to only show up at TV. They do NXT every week and they do a TakeOver whenever. They're wrestling about as much as we're wrestling, especially right now. With the future and no one knowing how many shows we're going to be putting on, I think it's a bit of a cop out to say, 'I can get four years of NXT versus one year of Raw or SmackDown.'
"I think with the kind of hustle Tommaso has shown he has, I think he's perfectly capable. I think he's a big fish in a relatively small pond. I don't mean that as a knock, to be clear. But I want to see him try to become a big fish in a bigger pond. I would like to see him under the pressure to have something like the greatest wrestling match ever. And I would love to work with him."
Ultimately, in Orton's eyes, no matter how NXT is positioned or that it is now featured weekly on network television, it should not be the goal for anyone on the roster. Orton singled out Kevin Owens as someone who did things right while in NXT, saying once Owens won the brand's championship he moved on to the bigger goal of earning a spot on the main roster.
Between a style he believes to be unsustainable and the financial benefits of ending up on Raw or Smackdown, Orton believes the best move for talent is to tell a story, remain healthy and set their targets on the "major leagues" rather than being an NXT lifer.
"I think those guys know I respect their work," Orton said. "But I hate seeing someone as talented as Tommaso make a decision such as one to not get called up to the main roster because of his body, which is the way it is because he feels he needs to go out there and kill himself every night. I've seen him tell a story. That dude can tell a story. And his story, unlike my story, wouldn't put me to sleep, or my daughter. I enjoy his work and I would love to work with him.
"All different kind of fans love all different kinds of styles and there's definitely a popular style down in NXT. I'm not saying fans are wrong and I'm not saying the wrestlers are wrong. I'm just saying there's no longevity in it. There's no chance you're going to be able to have a 10, 15, 20-year career and be able to support your family. If you have multiple kids, especially, there's no way to do that in NXT. That's why there's the major leagues and the major leagues are Raw and SmackDown. The major leagues are main eventing WrestleMania. Main eventing a TakeOver should be a huge notch on your belt. Winning the NXT championship should be a huge notch on your belt. But, I know when Kevin Owens won the NXT championship, he couldn't wait to get called up to the main roster because that dude is a bad motherf--ker and he can go. He wanted to show the world and he was going to reach more fans being on Raw, being on SmackDown, being in marquee matches in Madison Square Garden, being in WrestleMania on the Network. By doing that, he was going to be able to show how awesome of a talent he is.
"Tommaso can be in the same boat, and I think there's a way to do it. I'm hoping that, soon, I can get in the ring with him and we can go out there and get the crowd interested with good promos and good stories and we can go somewhere with it. We can make some money. Because, guess what? It's a business. We get paid to do this, everybody. You've got to look at it like that. No matter how much you love and respect the business. Hell, I grew up in the business. My family went bankrupt because of professional wrestling when my dad wasn't working as much and was making those shitty paydays. I've seen the top and I've seen the bottom. I'm not saying NXT is the bottom. I'm just saying, you're one step away from being at the top. Don't stop there."