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NXT TakeOver Portland preview: Cole-Ciampa headline a loaded show

If it’s the Russian machine that never breaks, consider NXT Alex Ovechkin. NXT is the indestructible black box in airplanes, the sun in the morning, and the moon at night. It is me falling asleep on the couch at 9:30 after three Miller High Lifes. It is a beautiful constant, and one that is wonderfully consistent.

It’s actually shocking to me that they are losing the ratings "war" with AEW considering just how superior the product is. Week after week, month after month, they continue to spoil the wrestling world with spectacular content. If the TakeOver during Wrestlemania week is considered their best event of the year, then we are in for a treat Sunday because this might be the best card NXT has ever put together in terms of star power.

I’m sure I have said that before in other previews, but that doesn’t make it any less true in the here and now: none of these matches would be out of place as a main event. It’s just that loaded.

The move to a two-hour show on USA has allowed them to do the little things better than they already were. This week’s opening match was a perfect example of that. Hot Rod Strong is both mad online and IRL about Velveteen Dream putting his family on his wrestling gear and wants to fight about it. But Dream doesn’t come out, Bronson Reed does. Reed, who is for sure is not it, came out because the Undisputed Era boys roughed him up last week and he is also mad about that. How many times has someone run around backstage on Raw roughing up the lower card? Those guys never do anything about it, even though they pretend fight for a living. It’s the subversion of expectations that NXT continues to do that puts them at the top of wrestling. They win on the margins and all the time.

The Portland, Oregon, show is going to be a blast and I’m excited to see all these matches live and in living color. Now like we always do at this time, let’s preview the card match by match and try to make sense of yet another NXT TakeOver.

Dakota Kai vs. Tegan Nox street fight

Another TakeOver and another shining example of how good the women’s division of NXT is. File "two female storylines getting shine at TakeOver" under things you absolutely love to see. This is a simple, formulaic, and a by the numbers type of feud: good girl turns on her best friend, gets a new look, and weaponizes a knee brace. Very regular, very standard stuff. NXT sure loves a threatening knee brace, huh?

The cool off of Kai has been fascinating. She was the story coming out of War Games and now, room temperature water. It is legitimately puzzling. The first thing she did after War Games was...lose to Mia Yim? What in the world? Then she went away for a bit, came back to eliminate Nox from a battle royal, and then...lose to her in, like, four minutes on TV? Something seriously weird is going on with all this.

Listen to the reaction when she came out this week and listen to the reaction when Nox came after her. This should be a blood feud that riles the crowd up and not one that gets mild applause. Maybe a street fight will heat things back up but, man, this could have been so, so much more.

Usually the babyface wins these types of matches, but I’d really hate for that to be the case here. There is still plenty more story to tell, but how can that story be told if Kai loses? She’d look like a chump (hey) and nothing is worse than a chump. The captain of #teamkick will get a much needed win in this one.

Finn Bálor vs. Johnny Gargano 

Bálor has reached an incomprehensible level of cool in a way Gargano can only dream of. I can’t even imagine how exhausting it must be to be as cool and handsome as Finn. While Gargano lives his best life as an adult Disney weirdo, Finn is the hottest thing going today. One is a leather jacket wearing, Twitter riler upper rock star and the other is a leg slapping, Marvel-loving man child. Imagine a world where horny wrestling Twitter posts a picture of Johnny like they do whenever Finn debuts new, umm, ‘gear’? Never going to happen. But a funny thing happens when you pair up two polar opposites, they bring out the best in each other.

This is a feud they can both sink their teeth into. Gargano has done the best mic work of his career during this, and Finn just keeps sinking deeper and deeper into The Prince persona. My only issue, and it’s a small one, is that he feels too big for NXT. He was the one who ushered in the modern era of NXT, was the first Universal Champion, and might still be a superpowered demon. He’s well-established as a god tier level character in NXT, so the right opponent matters more with him than anyone else. As good as Ilja Dragunov is, there was no way he was ever beating Finn at Worlds Collide. But Johnny Wrestling? Johnny TakeOver? Mr. NXT? Now that’s a dude I believe can go toe-to-toe with The Prince and hold his own.

I’m really excited to see what Gargano’s performance looks like in a match that isn’t the main event and doesn’t last 30+ minutes. The winner of this match is probably positioned for a shot at the NXT championship, one that will most likely happen WrestleMania weekend. Does Finn’s return to NXT mean another run with the belt, but this time as a bad guy? Or, are we finally heading for the Gargano-Ciampa match that was always supposed to main event the Wrestlemania weekend TakeOver? I think Finn wins here, and I’m all sorts of excited to find out if I’m right.

NXT North American Champion Keith Lee vs. Dominik Dijakovic

Almost thirteen feet of combined height and pushing a combined 600 pounds, these two have done this before and they’ll do it again and again and again.

From AAW to Beyond Wrestling to Evolve to PWG and now NXT, they have torn it down. If there was ever an NXT match that would make Vince McMahon put down the protein bars and pay attention, it’s this. If he can’t manage to get up for this, he should just give the XFL his full attention (maybe he should do that anyway?). It’s cool to see NXT have some legit beefy boys mixed in with all of the 5’9: dudes with 6% body fat.

While this is probably going to lead the show in "This is awesome" chants, I can’t help but wonder if Lee is, no pun intended, too big for this. He was the star of Survivor Series and got the Roman Reigns rub. He was in the ring with Brock Lesnar during the Royal Rumble. With all apologies to Tommaso Ciampa, this is his moment. His star is starting to outshine the small, safe, solar system at Full Sail, and it’s only a matter of time before he goes supernova. Truly, NXT should not be planning long term booking around him because he won’t be around long term.

I recognize this does a bit of a disservice to Dijak, who is good in his own right and keeps on improving, but this is as clear a class disparity as there is. One could be the biggest thing in the company and the other is just a big thing. The biggest thing retains his belt here and proves that his ceiling matches his nickname, Limitless.

NXT Tag Team Champions The Undisputed Era (Bobby Fish and Kyle O'Reilly) vs. The BroserWeights (Matt Riddle and Pete Dunne) 

Asking me to pick my favorite person in this match is like asking someone to pick their favorite part of the sky. Is it the funny Canadian that always makes you laugh? Is it his partner who also might be your friend’s very attractive stepdad? Maybe it’s the angry British short king with a bear tattoo on his kneecap? Oh I know! It’s the impossibly handsome stoner who wears flippy floppies everywhere and doesn’t care about anything except cracking you in the face. There’s a million ways to get it -- choose one.

This is the third time in the five years of the Dusty Cup that it was won by an ‘unofficial’ tag team. Samoa Joe and Finn Balor started the trend, Ricochet and Aleister Black were a particularly egregious example of just putting two dudes together, and now, we get the Broserweights. Hey, at least they have a team name. I know that these are two of the best guys on the roster so of course they are going to win, but it’s a weird way to put over two guys that need no help getting there. Couldn’t a team unfamiliar to most of NXT like the Grizzled Young Veterans have used the rub a bit more? Even Imperium, really. But the real crime is that there wasn’t more of the Time Splitters. Give me more of a love that pure.

Will this match begin the end of the Undisputed Era’s time with the gold? Roderick Strong already dropped the North American Championship to Keith Lee and Adam Cole could easily lose the title to Ciampa. Will Fish and O’Reilly do the same? I think that is a future that isn’t too far off, but Portland isn’t the place for new title holders up and down the card. Besides, it’s only a matter of time before Dunne’s appetite for fingers grows to be more than he can control and turns on our precious Matthew. It would be some seriously great storytelling if Dunne turned on Riddle like Roddy did to him during the 2018 Dusty Cup, wouldn’t it? The Era boys retain...for now.

NXT Champion Rhea Ripley vs. Bianca Belair

Along with Keith Lee, these are the two performers with the most upside in the entire company. The only limits are the ones that bound the company itself. The main event of Wrestlemania is in play for both of these women, and if there was a higher peak to reach, that would be in play as well. Anything is possible for these two, and everything is even more likely.

Belair is such a sure thing and all the adjectives in my thesaurus don’t do her justice. It’s all there and I can’t help but wonder why she hasn’t achieved more already. Every time it seems like the rocket on her back is set to take off, there has been a failure to launch. Even now, she feels secondary to the Ripley/Charlotte Flair match that is a Wrestlemania inevitability. But she can overcome that. What will we remember about the segment with her, Rhea, and Charlotte from NXT two weeks ago? Will we remember the standard talking points that make up 90% of wrestling promos? No. Will we remember Charlotte getting laid out by the two NXT women? Possibly. Will we remember Bianca’s incredible presence and even better reactions to Charlotte’s words? Absolutely. Because when you are the brightest light in the sky, you are all anyone can look at.

I’d love nothing more than for Bianca to boat race Rhea and face Charlotte at Mania. Unfortunately, it’s just not her time, it’s Ripley’s. Her NXT career has been an absolute masterclass in how to turn a lump of coal into a perfect diamond. She’s been groomed for this from the start, and she’s proving that no moment is too big for her. The fact that she’s seen as a worthy opponent for Charlotte, at age freakin’ 23 no less, doesn’t feel out of place at all. She’s going over in Portland, and hopefully over at Wrestlemania, too.

NXT Champion Adam Cole vs. Tommaso Ciampa

There’s been a lot of praise for a lot of people in this column and that’s not going to stop when it comes to the main event. Do Cole and Ciampa have Wrestlemania main event ceilings like Lee, Belair, Ripley, and Balor do? Maybe not (feel free to disagree with this!) and at least not as long as Vince McMahon is still running the show. What these two are, though, are the two most well-rounded performers in NXT. When it comes to knowing their characters, selling a match, in-ring acumen and experience, mic skills, and everything else, these two have it all. I love both of them so much.

Cole was an NXT champion the second he signed with WWE. Ciampa was, at best, an afterthought. One was a replacement in the Cruiserweight Classic, the other debuted on and closed the show of a TakeOver. Cole was built for this, but Ciampa needs this. They both mean so much to NXT. Both of them wound up at the same place, but their journeys could not have been more different. I know Gargano is kind of like Ciampa’s forever rival, but really it should be Cole. It's the man who walked into NXT and succeeded against someone who was never even supposed to be here.

It’s the greatest NXT champion that ever lived vs. the man who never lost the belt. Would the so-called "greatest champ" even exist if Ciampa never got hurt? Probably, if only because Cole as champ was always an inevitability. Does the Undisputed Era’s golden dynasty start if Ciampa has a normal neck? We will never get the answers to those questions, but Sunday does give NXT a chance to reset Ciampa’s title run and do it the way they wanted to.

The story tells itself. My initial thoughts had me thinking Cole would retain the belt and move on to face Bálor. Then I watched this week’s NXT and Ciampa’s incredible promo changed my mind. TakeOver Portland ends with Ciampa regaining what he never lost, Goldie.