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NXT TakeOver Phoenix preview: The beginning and end of two eras?

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Welcome to NXT: PWG where every male competitor has wrestled at American Legion Hall Post 308 in beautiful Reseda, California.

It’s long been said that developmental isn’t really developmental, and it’s never been more true than it is now. The real developmental is the Florida house show loop and the portion of NXT that tours, but NXT proper is just a finishing school at this point. It’s where you go to get the last 10% of what you need to succeed on the main roster...before going up to the main roster and either being overexposed or underutilized.

This current generation of NXT is completely ready. With the exception of Bianca Belair and maybe Matt Riddle, everyone else on this show is more than ready to transition ‘up’ to the main roster. So ready, in fact, that it’s worth wondering if this isn’t the beginning of the end for Gargano, Ciampa, Black, Baszler, etc. They have done all they really can do in NXT. Maybe Gargano never wins the title and that’s his story. With or without the title, his and Ciampa’s story has ran for years, and is also the deepest and most layered story that any group within WWE has told in years.

Black has been an ancillary part of that story and has already won the top prize, plus I’m super sick of typing Aleister wrong a million times and everything is all about me anyway. Baszler is the first two-time women’s champ and could maybe fill a portion of the Ronda Rousey sized hole on the main roster that might exist after WrestleMania.

But, say all of them are done after Wrestlemania week. Look at who is still left on the roster:

  • Matt Riddle
  • Keith Lee
  • Ricochet
  • Adam Cole
  • O’Reilly/Fish/Strong
  • Bianca Belair
  • Kairi Sane
  • Io Shirai
  • Marina Shafir
  • Jessamyn Duke
  • Danny Burch/Oney Lorcan
  • Marcel Barthel/Fabian Aichner

Yeah, I think they’ll be fine. That doesn’t even mention the talents who should be starting soon like Trevor Lee, ACH, and god damn KUSHIDA. I’m looking at this as the last chapter for this generation of NXT, and it was for sure my favorite generation. There was more top-to-bottom talent than any other generation, and it will be sad to see them go. But between now and then, there is another TakeOver! So like we always do at this time, lets run through the card.

Matt Riddle vs. Kassius Ohno

This is a match that has already happened a couple times on the award winning WWE Network ™. However, for those who have only seen those versions of this match, you could be in for an absolute treat. Their trilogy of matches in EVOLVE during 2016 did a ton to establish Riddle as a bonafide star on the independent scene. Seeing how this match compares to those, both in style and performance, will be interesting.

There will be plenty of time to talk about Riddle later and, well, forever. I want to take a second to talk about Ohno. Some people are disappointed with his booking in NXT, and I can certainly see why. The former Chris Hero has a legitimate case to be considered the best independent wrestler of all time. He is a genius, a true prodigy, and someone that has achieved a tremendous amount of success all over the world. His ability to work any style of match with opponents of any size is actually incredible.

This is very much a "62 year old sportswriter" thing to say, but you have to believe that the difference he is making behind the scenes as a pseudo player-coach is tremendous. The greatest thing a genius can do is be generous with their time, their mind, and their knowledge. Acting as the gatekeeper of NXT, Ohno seems to be doing just that: getting the new talent ready and making them look good in the process.

Riddle vs. Ohno is the wrestling prodigy vs. the wrestling genius, the can’t miss kid vs. the best that never was. the future vs. the trailblazer. Those are only a few of the threads that make up the story between these two, and there are many, many more. If it’s anything like their previous matches, this will range from good to great, although how much time they get will impact things. Look for Riddle to go over here and there’s really no reason for him to lose. Expect great performances by both of these guys.

NXT North American Champion Richochet vs. Johnny Gargano

The best worker in the company vs the best flyer in the...world? A match between two athletes of this caliber does not need much in the way of previews. I know this match is going to be off the charts, you know this match is going to be off the charts, we all know this match is going to be off the charts. The only question is how much will it resonate? This match certainly doesn’t have the emotional stakes that any of the Gargano/Ciampa matches had or even the stakes of his match with Aleister Black at TakeOver: War Games. It’s going to be interesting to see how much this one hits home with the fans outside of the spectacular spots.

Ricochet’s main connection to the fans has been through his unmatched athleticism and moveset, very similar to his run on the indies where it was fair to wonder if he could make the audience care enough to reach the stratosphere reserved for those who could make the audience truly feel something. Until his body fails him, we will always be in awe of Ricochet, but will we ever be completely invested in his successes and failures? This goes back to the finishing school comparison I made during the introduction to this column. The 10% he is missing, that hopefully he can gain in NXT, is how to form that meaningful connection with the audience.

I said in my last column that Gargano is the best NXT superstar of all time. Nothing that has happened since then has made me even reconsider that statement, let alone change my mind. While he doesn’t have the jaw-dropping set of moves that Ricochet has (and really, who does), he connects to the audience tremendously. It isn’t peak levels of Daniel Bryan (again, who does), but it’s more than any current main roster superstar with the possible exception of Seth Rollins. It remains to be seen if that type of connection can carry over outside of NXT, but at this point I am not willing to bet against it.

The fascinating thing about Gargano’s heel turn is that he’s wrestling almost the exact same as he did when he was a babyface. Most of the moves are the same, but slightly tweaked and a bit more vicious. If you compare that to Bryan’s recent turn, the differences are stark. He is wrestling a completely different style, one that is full of brutal submissions and strikes. This is one of the things that makes me love wrestling so much. Watching two master storytellers create entirely different layered takes on an old trope is fantastic.

Probably time to predict the outcome, yeah? It feels way too early for Ricochet to drop the title here, especially considering this is his first title defense at a TakeOver. Johnny also feels too big for a midcard title as there are bigger things planned for him. The only belt that should matter to him is the NXT Championship, which is held by the only person who really matters to him, Tommaso Ciampa. This match is going to rule, and should end with Ricochet retaining.

NXT Tag Team Champions The Undisputed Era (Kyle O’Reilly and Roderick Strong) vs. War Raiders (Hanson and Rowe)

I’ve come to realize that no matter what, the War Raiders just aren’t for me. I suppose there is a subset of fans that enjoy the viking/warrior/big beard gimmick thing, but that’s just not me and it never will be me. Predicting success on the main roster seems to be an almost fruitless endeavor considering just how few NXT stars have had any kind of real sustained success. Their whole vibe just reeks of mid-card roster filler which isn't a bad thing. That is something that is sorely needed in the tag team division, especially on Raw. But if a gimmick doesn’t hit home, and it’s hard to see any kind of real ceiling, I’m just out.

Ray Rowe does seem like a really great dude, and everyone should watch the video WWE made of his wedding to Sarah Logan. I’m a huge sucker any time they pull back the curtain and give glimpses into the real lives of the wrestlers. Humanizing these sensational characters we see on our TV is never a bad thing, WWE. It lets us connect more with the wrestlers, and lets us get way more emotionally invested in the actual people.

Since I put on my prognostication cap in the last paragraph with the War Raiders, it’s only fair I do the same thing for my precious sweet princes of the Undisputed Era. My love for them is well documented and knows no bounds, so this next sentence is going to be really tough. My guys Kyle and Roddy probably will cap out at the same level as the War Raiders. I genuinely hope I’m wrong, but let’s look at this objectively. Both of these guys are smaller tag team wrestlers that wrestle a ‘indie’ a style of match as there is. Kyle remains the most internet friendly champion in the entire company, but that weido charm probably isn’t enough to take them to the absolute top. Could they have a few runs with the tag titles on Raw or Smackdown at some point? Sure, why not? Is a more likely scenario them being used to fill out triple threat and fatal four way matches? Most likely.

Truthfully, the build to this feud hasn’t been great. I can’t even tell you one memorable thing about it. The Undisputed Era’s whole thing is that 2019 is the year they get all the gold, something that would make me happier than I want to admit on the internet. There is NOTHING I love more than a stable having a collection of belts. If all the other champions retain like I think they will, look for War Raiders to take the gold here.

Also, the tag match from the week’s NXT absolutely slapped. I would be very much into Burch/Lorcan and/or Barthel/Aichner getting this spot.

NXT Women’s Champion Shayna Baszler vs. Bianca Belair

The Future is what Bianca Belair represents. I have been wanting to write about her for a while, and I’m so glad I can finally do it. There is no one on the NXT roster, or in WWE period, that has what she has. Her upside, with apologies to the also great Keith Lee, is seemingly limitless. There is nothing in wrestling that she is not physically capable of doing and excelling at. This is the star the company has been searching for. This is the African-American performer the company needs to hitch their wagons to and let her go. It’s all there: the looks, the athletic ability, the charisma, the confidence, all of it. It all exists in the -est of NXT.

I think we take for granted just how good Charlotte Flair is. There is an argument to be made that she will be looked back on as the gold standard for the modern WWE superstar. She is an all-time great (minus her inability to connect on a moonsault) who lives up to the incredibly weight of her last name. I bring her up because that is Belair’s ceiling. There is no other comparable superstar of any gender. She has the chance to be a transcendent star, and her career is just starting. The future of WWE is, most certainly, female.

Baszler is no slouch herself. The only two-time NXT Women’s champion deserves a rightful place when you mention the top female stars to have come through the Performance Center. She just continues to improve and add layers to her character. Often times when a heel is given stablemates, it can make them seem weak and can make them seem like they can’t do it themselves. That isn’t the case with the Queen of Spades. Have you ever once thought this shoot badass needing help to win? Sure, some help makes things easier, but she is perfectly capable of getting there on her own.

There is no doubting the talent in this match and there is no reason to doubt how well it meshes together. As good as Shayna is, and as good as Bianca will be, neither of them have been doing this all that long. Neither of them have ever really had to carry someone to a good match and have always had very capable dance partners. It remains to be seen what these two can do when tasked with leading a match from start to finish.

NXT is an interesting space because it’s both about the present and the future. Belair is a future champion multiple times over at every level of the company. But the present? It still is probably a little too soon for someone who hasn’t been wrestling all that long and is in their first serious televised program. Shayna forever, and ever.

NXT Champion Tommaso Ciampa vs. Aleister Black

Aleister is just an afterthought. Not only is that the working title for my debut novel about an angsty, goth teen, it also applies to this title match. It just feels like a placeholder. This doesn’t mean I’m not interested, it just means I know there are bigger things ahead. Black’s injury was the best non-marrying Zelina Vega thing that ever happened to him. He came back fresh, new, and exciting again. He looks incredible and seems to be performing at full speed for the first time since coming to WWE.

It’s kind of like when you take the governor off a golf cart. With the governor on, the cart will still get you from hole to hole, but it’s not operating at full capacity. With it off, you can go fast. You can have fun. That’s what Black is doing now: full tilt, full time, and looking incredible doing it. This is the Aleister Black that WWE signed and the one that has a ceiling as a future WWE champion. Who knew all it would take was an injury...umm...below the belt to get here?

I have really enjoyed Ciampa’s transition into the Great Value version of Triple H. He’s got the beard instead of long hair and has a modified version of the pedigree as his finisher. I’m very into it. He even works a similar, methodical style to NXT’s proud papa. I’m curious to see what this match brings. Ciampa’s first TakeOver title defense was against Velveteen Dream, a man for whom my love knows no bounds. But his matches are an experience, and extremely character based. This is by no means a bad thing, but is for sure something. This seems like it will be a more standard match, and brother, I am here for it.

Black’s anger against Ciampa’s puppet master tactics should be on full display. He really laid into Ciampa during the brawl that closed NXT TV this week. Imagine 15-20 minutes of that to close a TakeOver? *kisses fingers*

It’s weird to say, but the outcome of this match doesn’t matter as much as you would expect it to. Could Black win the title back? Sure! But he doesn’t feel like the type of guy to get the belt twice. A more likely outcome involves Gargano getting involved in some way, either costing Ciampa the belt or helping him keep it. Regardless of where that falls, all roads lead to Ciampa/Gargano one more time with the everything on the line. Hook that to my veins.

Check out our live coverage of NXT TakeOver tonight and an audio recap of the show on Wrestling Observer Radio.