It has been a long time since I got the chance to wax rhapsodic (shoutout two years of AP English) about NXT, and man does it feel good to be home. It’s nice to know that no matter how laughably bad a majority of WWE is, NXT keeps churning out quality, ever improving content.
Most of the players from TakeOver: Brooklyn appear on this card, but in dramatically different situations. NXT Champion Tommaso Ciampa has moved past Johnny Gargano (for now) and on to Velveteen Dream. Dream himself has done, well, done nothing dramatically different and is now a pure face. Gargano is a complete lunatic now, and his run in NXT is unlike anything we have ever seen. Shayna Baszler is still there and still the scariest person in NXT regardless of gender. We also get to welcome back Aleister Black and Bobby Fish between the yellow ropes. What a time to be alive!
A lot has been going in WWE lately with most of it being less than great. There’s no need to dive into something that has been talked about constantly over the past few weeks and I’m not going to rehash it. But, I do want to share some great advice I got some months back. I was meeting with a professor of mine from grad school and I was talking about how I was incredibly unhappy in my job. She listened to me complain about how awful my direct report was, how bored I was, and how I could feel the unhappiness I felt at work bleed into my personal life. When I finished, she simply said, "If you don’t like your job, get a new job."
It was a statement so small in length, but it carried so much weight. And that’s what I want to say about WWE. If you don’t like WWE, dont watch WWE. If you don’t like Raw, there’s always NXT. If you want your wrestling to be full of long-term nuanced stories, watch New Japan. If you want your wrestling to be full of insane matches and moves, watch PWG or any of the other incredible indie promotions across the world.
I’m not someone that has an emotional relationship with wrestling. Wrestling was never there for me when I was going through hard times, Daddy. That’s not to say that my fandom, or how I came into my fandom, is better or worse than anyone else’s. It’s just there; it just is. There is a lot, a lot, of crappy things happening in the world right now, and we should really embrace each other now more than ever. Just because someone likes wrestling in a different way than you doesn’t make you right and them wrong. It just is. Embrace those people and each other. Open yourselves up to accept and enjoy other ways of thinking. Yes, I know this kind of meandered off but I felt the need to get those thoughts out somewhere, and this seemed like as a good a place as any.
ANYWAY, Saturday’s card only offers us four matches, but all four would be the main event of any TakeOver. With the report that the fifth match was cut so these could get the necessary time, there is the possibility we are in for one of the best TakeOvers of all time with each match getting 20-30 minutes to really put on a show.
Now like we always do at this time, let’s run down this card match by match and see what NXT has for us on Saturday -- this time with no Liv Morgan jokes! She’s actually okay now!
NXT Women's Champion Shayna Baszler vs. Kairi Sane: 2-out-of-3 falls
Who says WWE can’t tell long term stories? This story started during the summer of 2017 and will, in theory, end a good year later. They have told the story in so many ways, which is a huge credit to the performers. Baszler has come so far in such a short time it’s incredible, and a true testament to the quality of the developmental system.
Sane deserves credit for her part in the story as well. Her gimmick is, in a vacuum, outrageous even for wrestling standards. She is a yachting enthusiast, who is also a pirate, who is also a princess, who comes to the ring with the wheel of a ship. In what world does that ever work? It’s like when you ask a 4-year-old what they want to be when they grow up and they say a pilot, a firefighter, a baseball player, and a strawberry. It doesn’t make any sense, but it makes all the sense in the world.
The reason it works is because the character fits the performer. Think of Randy Orton. Orton as a face is the dirt worst, just awful. That’s because it doesn’t fit with who he is as a person. Let’s be real, he is not the nicest dude around and it shows. So when he leans into his arrogant and cocky side, it works. It's the same thing with Kairi. She’s a bubbly, effervescent person and it totally makes sense that she would like the ocean, pirates, and princesses. And I think that’s really makes this feud so compelling: the authenticity. Both Kairi and Shayna are staying true to who they are as people. Shayna is an IRL badass who can hurt someone bad, and I’ve already gone over Kairi. They aren’t being forced into a box that is uncomfortable, bu are given the room to let their characters breathe and succeed because of it.
NXT doesn’t usually mess around with 2-out-of-3 falls matches. They are saved for special occasions, and usually blow off a feud. The rub is that the feud needs to deserve the stipulation. It isn’t just thrown around to blow off TM61 and Heavy Machinery. The matches mean something and are usually incredibly well received. People still talk about Sami Zayn and Cesaro’s match from 2013. That was five years ago and GIFs of it still regularly circle the internet wrestling hive.
All of their matches to this point have been good to very good, but this has the potential to be better. All of their history means there is so much for them to draw on and call back to. It makes all the sense in the world for Shayna to lose the belt and move on to something involving Ronda Rousey and the Horsewomen, so let’s say Kairi takes this one. The next group of NXT women seem to be heels like Lacey Evans - who might be the new Liv Morgan of this column because she just doesn't do it for me, and Bianca Belair who is a star waiting to happen. Let them come at the royal pirate and see what happens.
Johnny Gargano vs. Aleister Black
Hot take: Black was the worst NXT champion not named Bobby Roode. Follow up take: the, umm, ‘groin injury’ was best thing that ever happened to him. It’s weird that a character as objectively interesting as Black was so...boring? I think he just became what every standard WWE face is ‘supposed to be’. He made corny jokes about people’s height, mailed in a few matches, and everyone called it a title reign. He is capable of so much more, and what better opponent to bring it out of him than the 5-Star Lord himself?
Remember how I asked earlier about WWE being able to tell long term stories? So, about that, apparently this TakeOver is just all about proving that idea wrong. This Gargano rise and fall story started in 2016 in the second Dusty Rhodes Classic which started his ride in NXT. There is an argument, and it is the correct one, that he is the best performer in the history of NXT. When I say that, I mean just what he’s done in NXT, not other performers who have done big things elsewhere (Nakamura, Balor, etc).
Just look at what Johnny has done without a belt:
- NXT tag team champion
- Has the most Paramore theme song in WWE
- Gone from the most popular babyface in the company to maybe the most hated
- Got a haircut that defies physics and description
- Had 4 of the best 10 matches in the history of the company
I’d say that’s a fairly exhaustive and impressive list of accomplishments, one that no one that can touch. This seems like the start of the last chapter in his story. He went from being the beacon of light and hope to someone lost in the darkness of their own heart. It’s appropriate that his first match as a fully recognized heel is against someone whose very character alignment is chaotic neutral. It’s actually a cool and fairly layered character matchup: someone who has just embraced their inner darkness against someone who is wholly unafraid of the dark.
It feels repetitive to say ‘This match is gonna be great’ at the end of all of these write ups, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. It will be, it’s going to be, and I can’t wait. If it was up to me, I’d have Johnny lean into his newfound wicked nature and steal a victory here. I can see this being the beginning of a run that ultimately ends up with him main eventing the TakeOver before Wrestlemania and having a sendoff fitting of the best performer ever to wrestle in the yellow ropes.
WarGames: The Undisputed Era (Adam Cole, Bobby Fish, Roderick Strong & Kyle O'Reilly) vs. Pete Dunne, Ricochet & War Raiders (Hanson & Rowe)
Before I get into how much this match is going to rule, let’s talk about the War Raiders. Are they really doing it for anyone, anywhere? Even when they were with Ring of Honor, or wrestling as singles, they never really set my world on fire. The best thing I could say about them is that they were always fine. Their matches were always solid, but very rarely approached spectacular.
There is nothing wrong with that! Wrestling needs plenty of solid workers who can wrestle different styles. But with NXT essentially being an all star team of pro wrestlers, is that enough to matter? They don’t have the magnetic personalities to make up for that. I couldn’t tell you one ‘classic’ EC3 match, but that doesn’t matter. His personality is so spectacular that he can get by on less in the ring. But if you aren’t spectacular in the ring, or on the mic, or with your character, there’s a better than average chance you’ll get overlooked. And yes, I realize I just wrote like 150 words about an average tag team but whatever, it’s my column.
Four guys who emphatically do not have the problems that plague the War Raiders are the Undisputed Era. With Bobby Fish returning, the Era’s final form can truly take shape. The most unintentionally (or intentionally?) GIF-able group in wrestling heads back to WarGames looking for a repeat of last year’s result. The match fits their strengths perfectly, allowing them to run around stringing moves together and slapping their legs as hard as they possibly can. The only drawback to a WarGames match is that there are no stakes. Similar to how Survivor Series is for bragging rights, WarGames effectively means nothing but at least it’s an exciting nothing.
Last year’s WarGames match was absolutely fantastic and the competitors in this are even better. Any match is going to be massively improved when Ricochet and Pete Dunne are added to it, but still. A match like this is made for highlight packages, and really made for dudes like Ricochet. He’s going to jump off everything, onto everyone, and do a bunch of outrageous flips. It’s going to be great. There’s also like a 95% change he does some huge moonsault off the top of the cage onto the other seven dudes in the match. Let’s just say Undisputed Era wins for the second year in a row, but it really doesn’t matter as this is just fodder for spots and to set up the next tag team feud.
NXT Champion Tommaso Ciampa vs. Velveteen Dream
*Exhales slowly* Wooooo boy, is this gonna be good. I started and stopped this section at least three times and then decided to save it for last, mostly because I needed to compose myself before I just babbled for paragraphs on end.
If there was a phrase that summed up everything about this match -- the characters, the stakes, the stage -- it would be, ‘Who saw this coming’? Who saw Ciampa becoming goddamn Tommy Sports Entertainment aka The Greatest Sports Entertainer of All Time ™? His evolution from a decent worker to this supernova is beyond incredible. I’d say he has a unique type of charisma, but that description better fits his opponent in this match.
What he is, above all else, is convincing. The conviction in which he speaks, and the deliberate nature of his matches, makes you believe. He believes what he’s saying, so we believe it. He commands the ring every time he’s in it, and brings a kind of desperation to his matches. He was overlooked and underappreciated for such a long time, he doesn’t know how to feel any other way. Even at the top of his company, he carries that chip on his shoulder. He remembers that everyone thought he would never get here. He remembers that everyone said Gargano would be the Shawn Michaels of #DIY. He remembers everything and forgets nothing...plus he’s pretty good at this whole wrestling thing.
Do you remember where you were the first time you heard of Velveteen Dream? I don’t recall exactly, but I do remember my reaction. I have a running Gchat with some of my wrestling bros and vividly remember saying "How is this anything but an NXT gimmick?" It reeked of Tyler Breeze, it stank of Adam Rose. It had all the makings of something that might be popular in NXT, but would shrivel up and die on the main roster. I was wrong. I was wrong in every way. And you know what? I don’t feel bad about it.
I’m not mad that I missed this, because again, who saw this coming? Who saw a dude who had good mic skills on Tough Enough - heck who even watchedTough Enough? - and said "This guy is going to be the best thing in pro wrestling." Patrick Clark has transcended what it means to be a superstar. It has been years since there has been anyone like him and years since there has been anyone with his talent, his skillset, and his unique gimmick. But there he is and here we are. We are living in the Dream’s experience; let the purple smoke envelop you and take you away.
The build has been as standard as can be, and honestly, even a bit lackluster. Heel champ comes out to cut a promo, and the other guy comes out and challenges him. It’s been done for years and will be done for years after I’m done getting column space on the world wide web. But they put their own spin on things, they gave it their individual accents and made it into something special and into something I can’t wait to watch. It still seems too early for Ciampa to lose the belt and for Dream to ascend to his rightful place as the King of everything the light touches, so look for the belt to stay where it is...unless Johnny Wrestling gets involved and costs Tomasso the belt, setting us on a course for the last chapter in their rivalry, one that ends WrestleMania weekend.