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NXT TakeOver Vengeance Day preview: Shotz to the Heart

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

Friends, pals, and acquaintances, I come bearing wonderful news. Yes, there is a pandemic that continues to ravage the country and the world, but nevertheless, NXT returns to our literal hearts this Sunday with the horrendously, yet perfectly, named Vengeance Day.

It is imperative that whenever you see the words "Vengeance Day," you read it in your finest Vince McMahon voice. VENGEANCE DAY is here, complete with having a useless ‘a’ that makes it impossible for me to spell correctly. It also fills me with a yearning for the remarkable and perfect WCW/NWO Revenge more today than ever before. What a game. Surpassing the sterling quality of its predecessor WCW World Tour, Revenge was a Nintendo 64 fixture in the musty basements of my shockingly abstinent teenage years. I’ll always love you intensely with a fire that burns...always.

With there finally being some light at the end of the exhaustingly bleak tunnel that was the past year, I miss wrestling more than ever. I miss going to shows and having the energy of the crowds take a match from good to memorable, memorable to great, and from great to unforgettable. They are the unlisted participant in every match. With that comes the obvious caveat that a bad crowd can just as easily ruin something good. (Picture me making exaggerated hand motions in the direction of "the night after WrestleMania crowd.")

Without that energy, everything is just kind of this weird, quiet murmur. Nothing stands out and nothing feels special. It’s just noise serving as the soundtrack to nothing. A fun game to play is to imagine the crowd reactions to big moments that have happened during the quarantine era of wrestling. Think about the crowd reaction to KENTA last week. Think about the reaction to Sting debuting in AEW. There were plenty of moments destined to be forgotten in the malaise of the past 12 months -- some that could have made us feel something.

And in the spirit of imagining, let’s run through the card for Sunday’s action. Complete with a special Valentine’s Day haiku for each match, because, yes, I do love you just that much.

Men's Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic Finals: MSK (Nash Carter and Wes Lee) vs. Grizzled Young Veterans (Zack Gibson and James Drake)

As is tradition, a last minute, seemingly nonsensical pairing made a run in the Dusty Classic. I am beyond thrilled to see that they didn’t pull the trigger on having Tom Champs and Tim Thatcher in the finals over the Veterans who are just so good and so deserving of this spot for the second year in a row. They are probably the most underappreciated tag team in all of wrestling and can absolutely hang with any of the best teams out there today. Zack Gibson is such an absolute heat machine on the stick that James Drake never actually has to talk. He can just show up and show out in the ring.

MSK is (are?) very good and very, very fun. MSK probably stands for something, but I must admit that I really don’t care. Both of these guys have all-time NXT names. Why did Jake Atlas get to keep his name but Wes Lee and Nash Carter exist? What was wrong with Dezmond Xavier and Zachary Wentz? Were those somehow too normal? They should have a sister in NXT named Kayleighn Jaymes who has a very well-defined Instagram aesthetic.

Names aside, NXT has done a great job in letting us know that yeah, these dudes are #good at this and have positioned them for success in the future. They have the music, the presentation, and most importantly, an outrageous amount of talent and energy in the ring.

I don’t think MSK debuted as part of the tournament without the plan for them to win it. NXT needs a fresh face tag team at the top of the card more than another heel team. Losing two years in a row gives Gibson something to get mad about and provides great promo fodder.

Valentines Haiku:

Wes Lee, Nash Carter
Is that the best we can do?
Perhaps, I suppose

NXT North American Champion Johnny Gargano vs. Kushida

His steed is unsteady, pulling gently against his bridle. The moon splits the field below in half. Snow lightly falls and with it comes the accompanying quiet. The type of quiet that can mute a city like the world is catching it’s breath. The rider’s exhale whispers through the air before fading into it. He pulls his cloak tight and readies his scythe. He is unceasing. He is inevitable. His non-existent lips form one haunting word: "...Gargano." The horse spurns gently forward. Death draws ever closer.

It pains me to admit this, but John G. was very entertaining this week. Even being as corny as he is, he always goes all in and, unfortunately you gotta hand it to him. Kushida wins because he’s better in every conceivable way.

Valentine's Haiku:

Johnny please leave, now
Kushida, go all the way
Back to the future

Women's Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic Finals: Dakota Kai and Raquel Gonzalez vs. Ember Moon and Shotzi Blackheart

The pairing of Moon and Blackheart in theory makes perfect sense. The character alignments are logical, it’s a great mesh of styles, and even their gear/look compliment each other well. There’s just a little something missing. It’s one of those cases where individually I am all in, but together, I’m just not. I’m fully aware that objectively they are good. My opinion is just a bit different, which, as always, is both allowed and encouraged.

How do you measure a year? A smattering of "Who are you?" chants greeted Gonzalez when she re-debuted last year at NXT TakeOver: Portland. Not from me though. I would never dream of engaging in such behavior. I am condescending enough in my real, actual life and I would rather log off (I will never log off) than participate. There was a bit of validity to the chants, though. Who was she? Was she ready? Would this work? The truth is she wasn’t ready then but so few of us are. She is now though and we sure know who she is. The growth she’s had over the past year is staggering. From "who are you" to the top female heel on NXT is a successful year by any measure.

Gonzalez did not put over Rhea Ripley to lose here. She isn’t being groomed as a Women’s title contender to lose here. The only way I can see that happening is if Kai does something that leads to their break up. There’s more story to tell with the two of them and splitting them now would rush that. Raquel and Dakota take it and hopefully take the Women’s Tag Team titles sooner than later.

Valentine's Haiku:

Tank Tank Tank Tank Tank
Tank Tank Tank Tank Tank Tank Tank
Tank Tank Tank Tank Tank

NXT Women's Champion Io Shirai vs. Mercedes Martinez vs. Toni Storm triple threat

Martinez made the business decision of the decade in getting as far away from Retribution as possible. She saw the writing on the wall immediately and dipped as soon as she could. Shout out to her for knowing what she’s worth and recognizing something that was dead in the water. Grinding the indies for as long as she did only to wind up there was unfortunate, but fortunately, she’s back in NXT where she can get to work good matches and be appreciated for what she is.

I have a hard time rooting against Storm because she is such a delightful weirdo. It’s even harder to root for her because, well, she just has absolutely everything. She’s 25 years old and has already wrestled in Stardom, won the 2018 Mae Young Classic, and is a former NXT UK champion. To accomplish so much at such a young age is annoyingly impressive. Since she came back to NXT, she is so much more comfortable in her character and owns it every second she is on screen. It’s a testament to all the incredible, young female talent in WWE that she can have her credentials, all her accolades, and be as good as she is in-ring and still be like, the fifth best young woman in the company.

As always, this all ends with Shirai who is still the ace and still the best of the best. The only person that has a reasonable case for taking the belt from Shirai is Gonzalez. Since she is not in this match, the champion keeps the title. Deductive reasoning at its absolute finest, folks.

Valentine’s Haiku:

Mercedes is good
So is Toni. But it’s all
Io, everything

NXT Champion Finn Balor vs. Pete Dunne

The phrase "inject this into my veins" is as overused as something can be. It’s pervasive and constant. Look at the reply tweets for any new Marvel content, it’s there. Look at the replies to any Star Wars content, it’s there. Heck, look at the replies to Taco Bell bringing back their crispy potatoes, it's there! With that said, find a good spot in the superior vena cava and just fill me up with this. I’ll be so full of love that I could barely speak.

Balor continues to do the best work of his career, making everyone feel important and more relevant than ever. I have been saying some variant of this for the better part of a year now, but it doesn’t make it less true. He continues to have incredible matches that are matched only by the intensity of his promos. The legitimacy he provides to the NXT title makes it actually possible that Edge might wanna dance with the Balor come April. Will that happen? Probably not. But the fact that it’s even a point of conversation speaks to the level he’s at. When the spotlight is on the Prince, it’s hard to look away.

It’s great to have young Peter back in our lives, isn’t it? His success pre-pandemic as a babyface was fairly surprising because of just how much it goes against his innate heel nature. Snapping fingers, brutal joint manipulation, and mean mugging for the camera are not behaviors of a good guy. Yet there Pete was, doing it live and doing it well. Now that he’s back towards his natural alignment, we’re getting the full Pete Dunne Experience. Gently convincing your significant other to watch two stalwarts of modern European wrestling do the damn thing for 20-30 minutes on Valentine’s Day is what love is all about.

As wonderful as it is to have Dunne back, this is not the moment for his formal coronation as the top dog of the gold brand. Not now and certainly not at the expense of Balor. Finn seems destined to, unfortunately, drop the belt in the next few months to Karrion Kross, so he closes the weekend here with his hand raised. Just watch out for some hourglasses or whatever.

Valentine’s Haiku:

Handsome Finn, sweet Prince
Pete’s looking real jacked, baby
Only one winner :(