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NXT TakeOver New Orleans preview: Gargano vs. Ciampa, Black vs. Almas

Coming off a show that saw Johnny Gargano and Andrade Almas put on the best match in NXT history, the third brand heads down south with what might be the best card they’ve ever put together.

Top to bottom, the card is incredible (even with a startling lack of Liv Morgan) and I’m kicking myself for going to the ROH show over this. With the Wrestlemania card looking as good as it does, and NXT continuing to put on absolute bangers at live specials, this should be a historic weekend for WWE when it comes to match quality. I’m very much looking forward to taking in all the beauty and culture of New Orleans...by spending most of my time there watching wrestling indoors. Honestly, I can’t wait. This is my first live Wrestlemania Week™ experience and just hope I make it through alive.

In a new and exciting twist, I’m going to run through the card differently than in past previews. The match I’m looking forward to least will come first and my most anticipated match will come last. That's a little thing called building suspense, and since I’m an adult with my very own wrestling column, I can do whatever the heck I want. So like we always do at this time, let’s look at this absolute beauty of a TakeOver card.

NXT Women's Champion Ember Moon vs. Shayna Baszler

So I guess they’re really trying to make ‘The She-nom’ a thing huh? I don’t think anything exemplifies Moon’s run with the NXT title more than that. She is justthisclose to being a huge thing. But for whatever reason, it’s just not all the way there. She’s missing the last 5% of whatever it is that really makes someone a star. The nickname is just the newest attempt to get her there. When she first debuted, there was an air of the fantastic about her character ("Look at her eyes!"), but it never was established and they never gave her enough of a back story to make us fully care. And that’s what it ultimately is with her: I just don’t quite care enough.

I am objectively more interested in Baszler than I am Moon, and she doesn’t have half of her wrestling ability. What she does have is exactly what Moon doesn't: the ability to make me care and to make me believe she’s important. This match will be fine, and hopefully shorter than their last match. I’d say it would make the most sense for Baszler to take the title here, but since I’m (spoiler alert!) predicting the heels to either win or retain in all the other matches, let’s say Moon takes it in a solid match and Baszler goes and does something with Ronda Rousey.

NXT Tag Team Champions The Undisputed Era (Adam Cole and Kyle O'Reilly) vs. The Authors of Pain (Akam and Rezar) vs. Roderick Strong and Pete Dunne

This is the one match that just doesn’t seem to fit for some reason which is odd because all of the individual pieces work really well together on paper. What I do like about this match is that the result sets a clear path forward after WrestleMania. Surely, AOP will be called up after this weekend and there is nothing (and hasn’t been anything) for them to do in NXT. Pop them on SmackDown on Tuesday and let them work with the Usos, New Day, and Bludgeon Bros.

What I would like to see happen is for Strong to turn on Perfect Pete during the match, allowing the Undisputed Era to retain the belts, and let Roddy slide in to take the place of the injured Bobby Fish. This keeps the group Strong (lol) and opens up way more possibilities than just ‘Undisputed Era retains’.

Going way, wayyyyyy back to my last TakeOver preview, I noted that Adam Cole has yet to have a ‘normal’ match at a TakeOver. This time, he has two non-traditional matches. I really don’t think there is anything to this, but I just can’t remember a time when a big name came in and didn’t have a one-on-one showcase. That said, he is pulling double duty at the biggest TakeOver of the year and was actually in the Royal Rumble, so clearly he’s still held in high regard. It's still weird to me though.

NXT Champion Andrade "Cien" Almas (with Zelina Vega) vs. Aleister Black

In a card full of different types of matches (ladder match, unsanctioned match, etc.) the build has been fairly by the book and wholly fantastic; the perfect story of the entitled heel vs the very game crowd favorite. It says a lot about the quality of the card that a match that should be this good is relegated to second or third billing. Almas has been incredible over the past year in NXT to the point where I think he’s overlooked even as champion. Since he ditched the suspenders and hat in favor of suits and Vega, he has been a revelation, growing more and more comfortable each day. If it were up to me, he would keep the title for a long while before finally becoming every bit the Hispanic star WWE wished Alberto Del Rio could be.

Black doesn’t need the NXT title. It might be cool if he won it, but he doesn’t need it. Look at how much mileage Bray Wyatt got out of character and a presence before it finally ran out. Black doesn’t need the title because he already has the most important thing anyone in the WWE can have: the air of importance. He feels important and everything he does is done with purpose and matters. I personally think he’s main roster ready and primed for a post-Mania call-up. Almas still has enough things to do down at NXT, so it makes sense to keep the strap on him so Black can go sit criss-cross applesauce in the ring on Monday nights.

On any other card, this would be a no doubt headliner. This will probably be the best ‘wrestling match’ on the entire show, but this whole TakeOver is a god damn spectacle. Just look at the next two matches and tell me how it can compete with a six-man ladder match and the best blood feud in all of wrestling right now? Man, I’m getting all worked up just thinking about it. Someone get the hose.

Adam Cole vs. EC3 vs. Killian Dain vs. Lars Sullivan vs. Ricochet vs. Velveteen Dream ladder match for the new NXT North American Championship

NXT has needed this mid-card title for quite some time, so the introduction of the North American Championship is long overdue. Having belts like this and the UK title make the NXT title more important, and give other wrestlers opportunities to shine.

The question now becomes is whether or not an hour a week is enough time to establish meaningful stories for four championships, five if we count the UK title. Does this mean a change to the format of NXT is coming? Two hour shows? Twice a week airings? They had to stuff a 6-person ladder match and a three team tag match into this show just to fit everyone on it. Unless large programming changes are coming, it’s going to be interesting to see how they balance all the content.

All that said, what doesn’t this match have? Two BIG LADS (s/o British Wrestling Twitter) that want to kill each other? Check. The best high flyer in the world making his TakeOver debut? Check. Three dudes with personality in spades? That’s another check. There are so many ways that this match could go, you can make a legitimate case for everyone to win, but here is how I’d rank the chances of each guy winning

6. Lars Sullivan: Just came back to TV and beat up a thumb. Seems preoccupied with wanting to kill Killian Dain. His character is still being established. I am petrified of this man.

5. Killian Dain: Seems preoccupied with wanting to kill Lars Sullivan. The logical conclusion to this match would be a program between these two, but preferably not for a title. The program would either revolve around which person can make me the most afraid, or which person is most capable of in-ring murder. I’m fine with either.

4. Adam Cole: Mostly because I think he’s going to retain the tag titles in some capacity. The alternative is to strap him up and let The Undisputed Era have all the belts. I’m a big fan of a faction of having all the belts.

3. Velveteen Dream: 22 years old. Say it out loud so you can really feel it.  22. Years. Old. God, what a star he is. He’s already a star with the possibility to be a transcendent figure in WWE. If I could pick any wrestler in WWE and start a company with just one, it might actually be him. To be so young and to be able to understand a character this difficult at that age is nothing short of astonishing.  That said, I just don’t think he has been on TV enough for him to get the belt, and his last few matches have just been good rather than great. Titles, plural, are coming for the Dream though, and sooner rather than later.

2. Ricochet: I really believe this match was made with Ricochet in mind. It was designed to get him over with the portion of the crowd that doesn’t know who he is. He will do the Jeff Hardy spots; the ones with crazy, high-flying moves. He should come out of this match looking like an absolute star, and if he doesn’t, something went wrong. Normally he would be the perfect person to win the inaugural belt if not for…

1. ECIII: Honestly, this is the perfect guy to win the belt. This is The Miz of NXT which is meant as the highest possible praise. He is capable of feuding with anyone, at anytime. The addition of ECIII to NXT just adds more star power to an already loaded roster. He feels like a star. He acts like something special. His presence is different. NXT is in a great spot where it doesn’t feel like developmental anymore. With guys like ECIII, Almas, Black, and Cole, there are multiple guys who are bonafide stars and there’s more on the way.

If ECIII wins here, it sets up so much for the ‘next chapter’ of NXT that usually kicks off after WrestleMania. You can let Ricochet chase the title for awhile and establish him as a high flying babyface. Velveteen Dream can come for the title. Cole can challenge for it. Anyone can, and thats because of the versatility ECIII can provide. Yes, his natural leaning is as a heel, but because he can work the tweener role so well and tailor his persona around who he’s facing, anyone becomes a viable option for a long running feud.

Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa (Unsanctioned Match)

Who says WWE can’t tell long-term stories? This is it. This is the money match. This is the match they’ve been building to since last May, the match they’ve been building to ever since Ciampa embraced his true nature as the Sicilian Psychopath (although the Copyright Killer is arguably better) and became the villain.

It’s rare when you can say an injury was the best part that could have happened to a wrestler, but man, did it add so much to this. Ciampa’s absence let NXT tell a full-on redemption story with Gargano: telling the story of him starting from the bottom, struggling with whether or not he was good enough to make it on his own, to his ultimate ascension as the top babyface in the entire company prior to Daniel Bryan’s return.

He proved himself as a main eventer, a wrestler that can keep a crowd in the palm of his hand and put on the match of the night. His match with Almas at TakeOver Philly was the best match I have ever seen in person, and is the match to beat when it comes to Match of the Year lists. Johnny Wrestling is not just a star, but an actual superstar that transcends WWE’s labeling of its performers.

All this is nothing to take away from what Ciampa did and continues to do. His absence spoke volumes, and said more than any promo ever could. He haunted Gargano for months, the spectre of his betrayal plaguing everything Gargano did. Heck, a DIY t-shirt cost him a match at one point. When he did come back, he performed a master class on heeling. Not selling that awesome Blackheart was just another stroke of genius from a guy that legitimately has a large part of the Internet wishing physical harm on him.

WWE really lucked into something here if they play it right. They have their own Kevin Steen/Sami Zayn rivalry, but one that was completely built in their own universe. These two can fight forever and I’d watch every time. They haven’t even had a match yet, and I can’t wait for the second and third and fourth. Hopefully, WWE sees things the same way I do, and doesn’t dump these guys on (the very good, very underrated) 205 Live. I’d love to see Ciampa actually win this, affirming his status as the most hated guy not just in NXT, but in all of WWE.

So rarely do these types of matches end with someone’s career actually ending. But if there ever was a time for it, this is it. Let Ciampa beat Johnny all over New Orleans and send him up to the main roster where he can show everyone that he’s the best babyface in the world.

Follow along with our NXT TakeOver live coverage Saturday night.