NXT returns on Saturday with their first domestic live special since August of 2016. The card, as always, is full of big names with big reputations -- but can it live up to the standards of previous TakeOvers?
With the weakest card, on paper, in some time it would take an enormous amount of quality wrestling for the show to reach the lofty heights of the other TakeOvers.
The women’s division, Asuka aside, is still trying to find its footing in the post-Bayley era, with no other established singles star (but hey, thankfully there is no Liv Morgan on the show). At the same time the men’s singles scene is equally thin, maybe as thin as it’s ever been.
With not a lot of great builds leading into the show, the stakes don’t feel as high as they normally do, but NXT has surprised in the past, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if they did it again. Let’s rundown the card and see if i can avoid just filling every match capsule with ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Roderick Strong vs. Andrade "Cien" Almas
The likely opening match, while having no substantial build of any kind, has a legitimate chance of being the match of the night. Your mileage may vary on Roddy, and that’s fine -- not everyone should like the same wrestlers! But there aren’t many dudes who can chain a series of moves together like he does.
When Roddy gets rolling, he is as smooth and effortless as anyone. But he’s just so...bland? Babyface Roddy is about as exciting as Wonder Bread and bologna with just a hint of yellow mustard. The same is true with Almas. They debuted him as a face, with no personality, and the thought process had to be like: "Yeah this guy is handsome and good he's going to be fine." That’s not really how it works.
This speaks to the larger problem WWE has, and that is their inability to create any of their own babyfaces. The last successful, true babyface was Daniel Bryan, and he was more of a product of his own transcendent ability in the ring, and his powerful connection with the fans. Short of him, the company has proven that they just simply can’t do it.
They had the opportunity when Seth Rollins came back, but for reasons they had him come back as a heel and THEN turned him, which neutered all the momentum and goodwill he had as the returning hero. The hero, ironically, that would have gone up against Roman Reigns, the hand-picked "Guy" moving forward.
People need to relate to the faces, and become invested in their successes and failures. At the core of it, they want to see just a bit of themselves in the wrestlers they root for, but for that to happen, there needs to be human characteristics. Right now there are none. This is basically two create-a-wrestlers putting on a match.
All that said, both these guys are pretty great at wrestling, so I’m going to completely contradict everything I just wrote and say this is actually the match I’m looking forward to the most.
Eric Young vs. Tye Dillinger
Speaking of the match I’m looking forward to the most? This match, this match is not it. I’m very cool with Eric Young in NXT as the leader of SAnitY, especially if it serves as a launching pad for Nikki Cross and the latest Final Fantasy mini-boss-named Killian Dain. He’s a great talker who is perfectly capable of delivering in the ring. He’s fine, what he’s doing is fine, this is all fine.
Tye Dillinger though? It’s long past time to make a decision about Tye Dillinger. Dude is 35 years old and finally has a gimmick, not necessarily a character, that got over. It’s pretty impressive, considering he got the number 10 over. Chris Jericho getting a list over is wonderful and perfect, but there’s something to be said for getting an actual number over.
The only bad thing is that it reeks of an NXT gimmick, and not one that would last on the main roster. Jericho got the list over because he’s Jericho, and he has been doing this forever. Dillinger doesn’t have the long-standing credibility, which begs the question -- what do you do with him?
If they want to toss him at the #10 spot at the Royal Rumble and see what happens, I’m here for that. It would be a lot of fun and great for him, but what happens after? Is there mileage in a story where Dillinger fully realizes this is his last chance? Possibly, but how much? It’s guys like Tye who are negatively impacted by WWE’s aggressive talent acquisition, because there is always something new, something better that comes along.
Because of that, it makes it really hard to get excited about this match as anything more than a time filler.
NXT Women's Champion Asuka vs. Nikki Cross vs. Billie Kay vs. Peyton Royce
One of the more interesting exercises is coming up with a believable way Asuka can lose a match while she’s in NXT.
No wrestler has been booked as strongly, made to look more like an unstoppable force than she is. This presents a unique problem and, at the same time, a benefit. Much like any "monster" type booking, creating a situation where you think they can believably lose is pretty much impossible. That’s why the handling of Asuka has been as close to perfect as it can be.
They brought in Mickie James to compete against her the last TakeOver, the one before that it was the NXT swan song version of Bayley. Before that it was Nia Jax, the stereotypical "monster." That is two incredibly strong wrestlers, and Nia Jax, that you could talk yourself into having a chance against her.
The best part? If they lost, who cares? Mickie James was, at the time in for a one-off, and Bayley and Nia were on the main roster fairly soon after. The losses didn’t hurt them, it just built up the credibility of Asuka, positioning her as someone who can beat any type of opponent.
This four-way match is, similarly, pitch perfect. Not only did Asuka demand this match, it's a great way to take the title off of her should they need to while giving Nikki Cross and the Aussie Mean Girls a chance to shine. Asuka can lose this match without getting pinned or even being involved in the finish, which would set up the next phase of her time in NXT should they go that way.
Cross might not be ready to be near the top of the division yet, but that time isn’t far away. Between her, Peyton Royce, Billie Kay, Ember Moon, and some of the newer signees -- it’s not a huge leap to imagine an excellent women’s division coming together rather quickly.
That said, Asuka can’t really be dropping the belt here. If they have her drop it, it should be to Ember Moon during WrestleMania weekend. It simultaneously makes a new star, putting a pure face at the top of the women’s division, and lets Asuka go run through whichever brand she feels like on the main roster.
NXT Tag Team Champions DIY (Johnny Gargano & Tommaso Ciampa) vs. The Authors of Pain (Rezar & Akam) w/ Paul Ellering
The best non-Revival tag team in NXT gets the chance to show what they can do against a tag team that is not two Top Guys. I don’t mean this as a slight to DIY, who have been incredible in just about every match they’ve had in NXT, but it’s more to raise the question as to whether or not they can carry The Authors of Pain to a good match.
Objectively, Paul Ellering’s boys don’t have the body of work that tells us what they’re capable of. They certainly look the part of a WWE tag team -- big and strong, great power moves, and B-movie villain names. Their best match was against TM61 at the last TakeOver, and that was largely based on Shane Thorne trying to become a god damn star in one night.
It’s not a stretch to say that DIY is the best representative of two "name" indie guys coming in and having their skills enhanced by the Performance Center. There aren’t many guys who do the face-in-peril better than Johnny Wrestling right now, and Ciampa fills the role of the hot tag/heavy hitter perfectly. For two guys who were thrown together for the first Dusty Classic, they certainly have become one of the better tag teams in all of wrestling.
Their success brings up an interesting point about the Performance Center as a whole. With the rate it’s expanding and the amount of people either getting signed or are rumored to get signed, it’s worth wondering if they would ever consider a second "developmental" brand. NXT isn’t that anymore. Dillinger and The Authors of Pain are the only true developmental talents on this card. Everyone else was, to some degree, an experienced performer coming into NXT.
If WWE is serious about putting down roots not just into the UK, but all over the world, there would be far, far, too much talent to thrive at NXT in its current form. The next 6-12 months should be telling for the future of NXT as a brand and how it expands moving forward.
As for this match, it still remains to be seen if AOP can have any type of long match with, well, anyone. DIY is certainly a team that can carry them to one, provided they are up to the task. Face teams don’t usually have long title runs in NXT, but with TM61 becoming TM1 after Thorne’s injury, are there really any other face teams left?
NXT Champion Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Bobby Roode
Shinsuke Nakamura is one of the best wrestlers in the world. Shinsuke Nakamura in NXT has very rarely performed up to that level. Has he been very good? Of course he has. Has he been spectacular? That is certainly up for debate.
His debut match against Sami Zayn was, in the eyes of some, the match of the year -- a distinction that would get no argument from me. It’s no secret that he raises his game to match both the size and scale of the stage and quality of his opponent. His series of matches with Samoa Joe were all good, but were any of them as good as they could have been? Did any of them match the hype and live up to the "dream match" distinction they were presented as? I would argue that they didn’t.
Short of his match with Zayn, have we really seen a Nakamura wrestling at full capacity? If we haven’t to this point, it’s hard to imagine this is the match that brings it out. Bobby Roode is really, really good, but Samoa Joe in his current fully leveled up form, was/is just flat out better -- if Nak handled him, why wouldn’t he handle Roode just as well? This match won’t be bad, that is almost a literal impossibility, but can it be great?
As "someone who writes about wrestling on the internet" I’m contractually obligated to wonder about Nakamura’s future in NXT. He has absolutely hit his ceiling there, heck he hit his ceiling the first time his music hit. I know he is there to carry the brand and be a drawing attraction, but NXT has established itself as a success no matter what. They will continue to evolve and be fine without him. But for a main roster that relies heavily on part-timers and 50 year olds, wouldn’t a veritable icon that drips charisma slide nicely into the main event picture?
With a card that isn’t as interesting as others, is this a time where HHH pulls out a surprise debut? Tommy End already "debuted" during the UK championship, which shows how highly they think of him, so maybe he shows up? The lack of fanfare surrounding this TakeOver makes you wonder if something more is planned.