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Can NXT recapture its buzz at TakeOver: Orlando?

The last formally "named" NXT TakeOver was, fittingly, TakeOver: The End. It marked the formal end of Finn Balor’s run in NXT, and ever since then interest and critical reception has been on a slow decline.

It really isn’t that hard to see why. Look at the names of the wrestlers who have main evented the TakeOvers past: Neville, Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Bayley, Sasha Banks, Balor, Samoa Joe. All of them, at one time, were the standard bearer of the "third brand." NXT is in transition, and as a brand it appears as though it doesn't quite know what it wants to be.

All the names above were signed from various independent backgrounds, but generally went through the developmental process. Now? Now it's sign a big name older wrestler and just debut them right away, granted Joe kind of started this trend, but still. So what does NXT want to be? A promotion that builds its own characters and stars? Or one that just signs established names and expects to get by trading on that? If NXT ever wants to be where it once was, it first needs to figure out what it is.

The way I see things, there are three fully realized acts -- accounting for both in-ring performance and realization of character -- in NXT, and two are tag teams. My true best friends and the light of my life, The Revival, DIY, and Asuka are really all NXT has in that capacity.

The current champion has a theme song far more popular than he is (or ever will be) and his challenger only shows up when he wants to, and is clearly ready for something else. Ember Moon just hasn’t connected in the way many thought she would, but I would guess that’s coming. AOP are still so young, and getting better every week, but just aren’t quite there yet.

The reason a promotion like PWG can be so successful without really caring that much about storylines is because anyone who wrestles there knows who they are as a wrestler, and a character. This iteration of NXT isn’t on that level. If the matches aren’t must-see attractions, the builds should at least be there. There is almost zero chance AJ Styles/Shane McMahon is going to be an incredible match (as hard as AJ might try to make it one), but the build to it and the characters involved are compelling enough to overcome that.

Things aren’t all bleak, though. If you look hard enough, it’s clear to see this is just a lean period for NXT. The progress in Andrade "Cien" Almas’ heel persona, the continuing evolution of Peyton Royce and Billie Kay, Nikki Cross, and the debuting Aleister Black (former indie standout Tommy End), are all indications that the "next generation" of NXT has arrived. And I think there’s a Ring of Honor talent who has his contract expiring soon, and he might just be what NXT needs, Bay-Bay.

Negativity (mostly) aside, let’s look at the matches that make up this version of TakeOver.

Tye Dillinger, Roderick Strong, No Way Jose & Ruby Riot vs. SAnitY (Eric Young, Alexander Wolfe, Killian Dain & Nikki Cross)

Bullet points on my thoughts on each individual performer in this match:

  • Eric Young -- Don’t care
  • Alexander Wolfe -- Don’t care
  • Tye Dillinger -- Don’t care
  • Roddy Strong -- Don’t care
  • No Way Jose -- Don’t care
  • Ruby Riot -- Interested
  • Killian Dain -- Interested
  • Nikki Cross -- All in

Sense a theme? I get why SAnitY is a thing, at least generally. They’re here to create chaos, fight people, whatever. It’s fine. Why is The Dillinger Escape Plan a team? It’s the NXT equivalent of "creative has nothing for you." That usually doesn’t work on the main roster, and it definitely doesn’t work in NXT.

There are no stakes to this match. The most interesting part is probably Ruby Riot’s debut, and short of Nikki Cross, there really isn’t anyone that brings your eye to the match. This match, as much as anything, is indicative of the problems with NXT as a whole.

Aleister Black vs. Andrade "Cien" Almas

Here is where I prove myself to be a bit of a hypocrite...or a Tommy End fan...or both, because I’m excited for this match.

Yeah okay, on paper it makes no sense, but like every sane and reasonable person, I get excited for something new. It will certainly be interesting to see how Black/End’s incredibly stiff, strike-based offense will carry over into WWE. What they’re doing with his character seems, from the short vignettes at least, to somewhat mirror Black’s real-life persona; he very much believes in the occult. Allowing someone to tap into something important to them, or just be himself has typically proven to be successful.

It’s also a good showcase for Almas, as he hasn’t wrestled anyone with this particular style during his time in NXT. His "new" heel persona is rounding into shape, and it's something he is clearly more comfortable doing than the typical "happy new guy" routine he was doing when he first debuted.

Both of these guys can really go, though for my money Black’s best matches pre-WWE tended to be on the shorter side. Hopefully this is a sprint that allows both guys to show what they can do on the biggest stage NXT has.

The Authors of Pain vs. DIY vs. The Revival in a triple threat elimination match for the NXT Tag Team Championship

This is probably the real main event of the show for me. Words can’t express how excited I am for this match, my god.

Not coincidentally, it is three of the most fully fleshed out acts on the show, has a ton of backstory behind it, and everyone can really go. It is absolutely crazy that the two dudes in AOP are 22 and 23. The amount of talent and potential in them is, arguably, as high as anyone in the company. Those talents will only be elevated by DIY and The Revival, who are probably the four best workers in NXT.

We’ve already seen the magic those two teams can put on individually, so it will be an absolute treat to see what can get pulled off in a match like this. Expect the Top Guys™ to get a full face reaction in Orlando in front of what will probably be the "smartest" crowd of the year.

This match should be last, it should be the main event of TakeOver, and, realistically, it should be on the WrestleMania card proper. It wouldn’t surprise me to see WWE run this back in a year or two...just on a much, much bigger stage.

Asuka vs. Ember Moon for the NXT Women's Championship

I guess this is a good spot to wonder what exactly Ember Moon is. We know what Asuka is -- the single most dominating performer in the WWE as a whole. She can swap between face/heel easily depending on the match, and has proven she can work any opponent, in any type of match.

So what is Ember Moon other than a good wrestler? It's approaching a year since her debut, which is absolutely crazy -- because we still don’t know anything about her character. There is clearly a fantastic/spiritual/possession vibe surrounding her, but it hasn’t been addressed? For someone that WWE is so obviously high on, she really hasn't been given any promo time, camera time, or really anything other than matches, or her occasionally backing up Liv Morgan (The Worst) for no reason.

The one time I vividly remember anything other than her ring work, was when she was on a pre-show panel for a TakeOver and was clearly very uncomfortable in that setting. Maybe that's it? The ring work clearly isn’t a question, so maybe it’s the character work that is lagging behind?

She is the logical successor to Asuka on the top of the women’s division, but is she ready for it? The division has clearly struggled since all of the Horsewomen left for the main roster, so wouldn’t now be a chance to see what someone young and "unproven" can do with the title? The logical thing to do is build up a series of matches between Asuka/Ember, blow it off over the summer, and let Asuka go kill everyone on the main roster, regardless of gender.

Build a story with these two, it has the potential to be great. Or don’t -- just strap a rocket to Ember’s back and see if she can carry the women of NXT through 2017 and beyond.

Bobby Roode vs. Shinsuke Nakamura for the NXT Championship

Nakamura has proven over the course of his career to be one of the best big match performers around. He takes it to another level when the stakes are raised.

When I was a teenager I worked at a golf course (cool story, bro) and my coworkers and I quickly learned that all the golf carts had a governor that controlled how fast they would go. Being terrible kids, we immediately learned how to bypass them so we could drive them as fast as we wanted. Nakamura wrestles under the same general idea. He puts a limit on himself when he’s just wrestling on a normal show.

This was true in Japan, and is true in NXT. His debut match with Sami Zayn was probably the closest we’ve seen to a fully unleashed Nak in NXT. On WrestleMania weekend, in what could be (hopefully is?) his last NXT match, we could see the fully unleashed, leveled up SHINSUKE NAKAMURA that captivated the Tokyo Dome for so many years.

That brings us to the defending NXT Champion, Bobby Roode. Roode has been fine since starting in NXT. This is the match where he needs to be much, much more than just "fine." If the working theory is that Nak is on his way out, then this really has to be the time where Roode establishes himself as someone who can carry the brand forward.

There aren’t many dynamic singles guys on the roster right now, so it will be up to him to elevate someone into that spot -- unless the next program is him and Kassius Ohno. If there was ever a time for him to show everyone he can absolutely take NXT into the future, it’s now. I just don’t see what good him losing does here. It keeps Nakamura in NXT, weakens Roode’s entire character, and sets the growth of the brand back at least until SummerSlam.

I have a feeling that this match will blow their previous encounter out of the water, and be a proper end of the Nakamura era in NXT.