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NXT TakeOver 31 preview: The coolest vs. the Koolest

Editor's Note: The following is an opinion-based preview and reflects that of the writer.

NXT returns to our televisions and, more importantly, our hearts Sunday for the rare non-Saturday 31st edition of TakeOver.

This is both good for my relationship and bad for my couch cushion of choice because there really isn’t much reason to get off it on Sunday. This TakeOver is a nice little treat for the fans of the third brand as every match on the card looks good. There really isn’t a match you can point to as a dud.

Well, some of the performers are duds (or worse) but none of the matches are going to be bad. I know correlation doesn't equal causation, but I can’t help but notice that there is no Bronson Reed on the card...

The biggest stories for Sunday are the two deserved title matches for both Candice LeRae and Kyle O’Reilly. Two incredible performers are getting some shine high up on the card and we really do just love to see it. Both have had success everywhere they have ve been, including NXT in some respect. That’s nice, but matches against Io Shirai and Finn Balor at a standalone TakeOver are much, much nicer. I’m so excited! Let’s run through the card match-by0match and see if we can make sense of it all.

Kushida vs. Velveteen Dream

In light of the allegations against Dream, it is, frankly, shocking and inappropriate for him to be on NXT at all, let alone a TakeOver. No amount of talent should ever excuse behavior. Instead of that, I’ll use this space to just talk about Kushida and who the returning NXT Champion might be.

Kushida has been great, is great, and will continue to be great. But, it’s wild how unimportant he has felt in NXT and it’s hard to separate that from his injury history with the brand. His talents are unquestionable and his bonafides are as good as it gets. He’s just never felt like one of the best junior heavyweights in the world of NXT which actually made me sad typing that out. The new edge he has been showing is more than welcome, and I hope that continues on Sunday. Hopefully, he gets something after this with a person who deserves to be on national television.

So, who is coming back to NXT? If it’s someone who was the actual NXT Champion,, the pickings are, well, slim. Here’s a short list of former champs who don’t have much else going on:

  • Bo Dallas
  • Samoa Joe (kind of)
  • Bobby Roode
  • Ember Moon

That’s it and that’s all. Everyone else is either too big of a name or too busy with something else. It would be great if it was Joe, but if he can return to the ring, Monday nights need him far more than Wednesday. Moon would be the dream here, but is she close to healthy? What I’m saying is that it’s Dallas, the fourth longest reigning NXT champ of all time (great stat, Mike). I was not as into NXT during his run at the top as I am now and there's a reason for that: Bo Dallas. I never got it and I don’t think I ever will. I feel the same way I do about Bob Roode. Who cares about either of them? Oh, well. Returns are usually fun, at least. 

NXT North American Champion Damian Priest vs. Johnny Gargano

The best part of the Gargano heel experience continues to be a Mike DellaCamera sized wrestling heel against these absolute monsters. Heeling it up against Keith Lee? Godspeed, pal. Planning to wear down the 6’5” Priest? Have a ball. This is where the whole suspension of disbelief thing comes in and folks, guess what? I know that. I have watched a whole bunch of wrestling for a whole bunch of years.

One of the starkest differences between NXT and the ‘Main Roster’ ™ is that there is a definitive end to NXT. You reach a point where there just isn’t anything left to do, there are no more talking points, and your character arc has essentially completed. Once that happens, it’s onward and upward, right? Well, maybe not. At least not anymore. With NXT very much it’s own thing, is it time to start really considering different paths and progressions for the wrestlers? We aren’t used to someone losing the title and shuffling down the card, but maybe it’s time we do that.

So what about this match? I’ve been very vocal about not getting Priest. He’s fine, he’s alright, and he’s a replaceable big guy pushing 40. My thoughts, however, don’t seem to mesh with the big boys who run NXT. And that’s okay as not everything is for everyone! It is fun to see wrestlers go against their very natural alignments. Gargano is much better as a heel than I ever thought he would be. I can see myself enjoying a delusional Gargano talking about how he’s the best thing going but is losing matches to Leon Ruff or whoever. Anyway, this is too early for Priest to drop the belt, so The Archer of Infamy retains.

NXT Cruiserweight Champion Santos Escobar vs. Isaiah "Swerve" Scott

This is the one match where there’s at least a whiff of a possible title change. That whiff is more about Escobar being an all-caps STAR than Scott being good (which he is!). Man, Escobar is just the goods, right? He's an A+ can’t miss star that can do it all. He can speak two languages, can work, can be good looking, probably smells incredible -- he’s got it all. He’s got so much that I can’t help but wonder if there are bigger plans for him. The Cruiserweight Title is nice, but that shouldn’t be his ceiling. His ceiling is the top of the card, one that could use an injection of fresh blood.

This program has worked because Scott has been up to the task. "Swerve" has started to find his footing in this feud. His whole gimmick is about being confident, and for the first time in his NXT run, it's really starting to feel that way. It’s kind of weird to say that because he’s legitimately the coolest dude alive, which speaks more toward how he’s been presented than anything else. The video package this week was nice and was a great TL;DR for people that haven’t quite been keeping up with NXT. "Swerve" is the only guy to pin Escobar in NXT and his losses to him haven’t exactly been clean ones. The simplest things are often the best.

I think this is the one title change on the card. Escobar can move onward and upward while a title will do wonders for Scott’s legitimacy.  

NXT Women's Champion Io Shirai vs. Candice LeRae

Depending on your tastes, this is probably the best match on the card. Of course, by taste, I mean "Do you have good taste?" because if you do, you are looking forward to this match more than anything else. It has the two people who are the closest to the very top of their profession and one of them happens to be "the best in the world at what she does." These two complete performers, either at or close to their athletic peaks, will put on an absolute banger of a title match.

There is no limit to the amount of Shirai praise that can exist. Her greatness is effortless. But, LeRae is incredible in her own right. She has been deserving of a title for a long time. Much like her husband, she is going against the complete opposite of her natural alignment. Even more so than the man she shares a last name with, she is thriving. She’s taken to her new persona so smoothly that it’s a wonder she hasn’t been doing more of this. Then you remember how good she is as a babyface. There are just no holes in her game. It’s just too bad that she’s sandwiched in between the Rhea Ripley/Shirai reign at the top of NXT, because in any other era, she’d be the top star.

The (good) problem, as always, is Io and the inevitability of another victory for her. The best thing going remains the best thing going. As good as Candice is, Shirai is a step ahead, a level above, and the ultimate final boss.

So few people can claim to be the best at something, but Shirai is truly peerless. She keeps her title.

NXT Champion Finn Bálor vs. Kyle O'Reilly

What an unexpected, delightful surprise: the koolest vs. the coolest of NXT. I have spent a fair bit of Internet pixels expounding on the perfection of O’Reilly. His reactions and eminently GIFable moments kind of take away from the fact that O’Reilly the wrestler is excellent. A multiple time NXT Tag Team champion, a former ROH World Champion and Tag Team champion and a guy who has had multiple matches at Wrestle Kingdom, demands more of our, and even my, respect.

Lately, he has been taking on a far more serious role than what he had previously. Even when he was a tag champ, he was still irreverent and not super serious outside the ring. That’s been different recently. He even got the full on babyface video package with the Explosions In the Sky adjacent music this wee. Heck, I think he turned the entire Undisputed Era babyface by association. This was some beautiful stuff for a great dude. He’s been grinding his entire career and deserves his flowers.

Unfortunately, much like the women’s title match, the outcome of this one shouldn't be in doubt. Even when Adam Cole was still the champion, Balor's gravity was too strong. Everything was starting to revolve around him. Now that he has the belt, it’s even more true. There’s going to be an egregious amount of sweat in this match, one that will end with Finn Balor’s hand raised high.