Editor's note: On the Aug. 26 edition of NXT TV, Karrion Kross vacated the NXT championship due to his shoulder injury.
Karrion Kross was with Impact Wrestling in August 2019. As in, he was still under contract with the promotion, but he was not being used.
Kross reportedly asked for his release from Impact in May 2019, then, after several disagreements with management, he was taken off air. Kross wanted more from the company in the form of compensation and creative control, and if he wasn't going to get it, he wanted to seek it elsewhere.
"I was very angry at that time and I was very, very, very determined to find a way to find the fulfillment that I was looking for in my life," Kross told ESPN. "Regardless of whether or not certain people agreed with my perspective or not. I say that as respectfully as possible."
Kross' final match with Impact was July 7, 2019. He was not released by the promotion until Dec. 18. In February, WWE signed Kross to an NXT contract and over the past six months, the Las Vegas resident has continued to show why he has been committed to betting on himself.
Last Saturday, Kross won the WWE NXT title by beating Keith Lee in the main event of NXT TakeOver: XXX. The victory came in just Kross' seventh WWE match. The pro-wrestling cliché is that when a promotion wants to push a talent hard, it will "strap a rocket to his or her back." This is exactly that and it's clear NXT is all-in on the Kross business.
"This is a dream come true for both him and Scarlett, they've worked an entire career to get to this moment ... " said Paul "Triple H" Levesque after Kross' win. "He's just delivered on every level to get to this point."
But for Kross, holding the gold on Saturday night was just the start.
"I definitely feel accomplished career-wise to be where I am, in the position I am right now," Kross said. "Not satisfied. Definitely not. I have a plethora of goals and accomplishments I'd still like to pursue. And I'm not sure that's ever going to end. My life is structured on the pursuit of things and working very hard to get them. I enjoy the struggle and I enjoy the process of learning about yourself. I believe you never really figure out who you are until you go through hardships."
Kross, whose real name is Kevin Kesar, said he could see this vision -- the exact spot he is in right now -- even last year when he wasn't appearing on Impact television. The question at that time was simply how he would go about taking the steps needed to execute that vision.
"I needed to show my work ethic to people," Kross said. "I needed to have conversations with people. And I needed to have an honest rapport with these people. No one in this business who is in it is going to work each other. For instance, if you're my boss and if you've been in this business for 30 to 50 years, there's no way I'm gonna walk into your office and sell you something that's not true. Because you've been doing this for a very long time and you can read people. And a lot of people that walk into your office, that doesn't occur to them. They can feel when you have a pre-loaded question or you're attempting to elicit some emotional response in them. I'm aware of that."
Part of that process was creating his own content on social media, putting out his own videos and promos. Promoting himself. Kross has built his current character -- a cerebral, sinister, almost-horror-movie "Tollman" promising doomsday -- from the ground up with influence from mediums outside pro wrestling, like films and graphic novels. He also has drawn inspiration from some of the best storytellers in history, like Jerry Lawler, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, Bobby Heenan, Jake Roberts and Brian Pillman.
"I wanted to be different," Kross said. "There are people out there -- I know that there are -- that appreciated something different in the program. I rolled the dice with it and I'm very, very happy with the way it's turned out. And more so, I'm very, very happy that people are enjoying it. Because my sole intention in my contributions is to be different and I've tried to stay that course. And it's been very difficult, but it's paid off."
So has taking a gamble on himself.
Kross has a very unique philosophy on wanting more. It doesn't have to be a pejorative, he said.
"I think in this day and age there's been a lost idea on the difference between greed and abundance," Kross said. "Those are two different things. You can categorize greed as a lot of different things. To me, greed is when you take things from other people that you don't need. I think abundance, to me, is having a lot of what you need. I don't necessarily think there's anything wrong with abundance. But you need to understand that that is a road that is paved in hard work. There are no shortcuts to that. There's no way to cheat that. That's going to take everything you have and everything you are. And you may need to become more than you are today in order to achieve abundance."
In the match against Lee, Kross separated his shoulder. He's not certain how long he will be out, but does not expect to see an extended absence. Kross said he has already started looking at medical journals to see how to best rehab the shoulder before he even sees a doctor. That's the kind of proactive mentality that has helped the New York native to get where he is now: the top of NXT.
"I'm just not a person who really gets anything out of sitting around and just throwing my hands up and saying, 'Well, that's it,'" Kross said. "I'm always looking to improve a situation, whether it's mine or somebody else's. I'm an improvement guy."
In NXT, he's now "The Guy." From toiling in uncertainty at this time last year, to NXT champion. The time for "The Tollman" has evidently arrived.