I don’t want to go full wrestling snob, but in recent years WWE weekends haven’t gotten me excited because of the Royal Rumble or WrestleMania. They get me excited because it means it’s time for a TakeOver. If you want cards packed with quality story-driven wrestling, then NXT could lay claim to being the best destination for you. Even when the cards look a bit iffy, they deliver. When they look as sexy as this one? Well, I think it’s safe to say we’re in for a treat.
Things kicked-off with a performance from Cane Hill. While I’m not a massive fan, the fact WWE continues to push alternative bands on NXT is cool. I’d be very intrigued to know if that is down to Triple H or if he’s got someone that points him in the right direction.
Adam Cole defeated Lars Sullivan, EC3, Ricochet, Killian Dain and The Velveteen Dream in a ladder match to win the North American Title
I was a bit bemused by the line-up WWE had put together here. I didn’t see how it would come together to create an entertaining ladder match. Gosh, I was wrong.
These six men went out and did everything in their power to make sure that no-one had an easy job following them. It took Ricochet all of a minute to do a Springboard Shooting Star Press to the outside which quickly got anyone in the crowd who didn’t know his name onboard. That he would better that multiple times throughout the action should give you a hint of the insanity that followed. My personal favourite was him moonsaulting off a tipping ladder to the floor. If you were worried he’d be dumbing down his style in WWE, you need worry no more.
It wasn’t all flips, as the big boys did a damn good job too. Killian Dain is quietly becoming the workhorse of NXT. Much like in War Games, it became his show. Whether he was squashing EC3 under a ladder with a Vader Bomb or driving both Cole and Ricochet through another ladder, the big man is coming into his own. As the greenest performer in the ring, Lars Sullivan was more protected. Despite that, the man is a beast. A fact he got to show off. He drove EC3 and Dream through a ladder with a Freak Accident and took a few big bumps too. One day Vince is going to explode in excitement at getting to do stuff with that man. Wait that sounds wrong. Actually, no, it’s about right.
He wasn’t the only person protected as it’s clear WWE still sees big things in the future of The Velveteen Dream. There were some highlight reel moments for the former Patrick Clark with the obvious one being him hitting a Cartwheel DVD on a ladder bridging between a turnbuckle and another ladder. It was dangerous as hell and looked awesome. The kid is over and building up an impressive resume.
At this point, I’m just going through them man by man. However, the final two were probably our underserved participants. EC3 got a few excellent characters moments, I enjoyed him egging on Dain and Sullivan to fight before having to run away when they decided they’d prefer to beat up him, but this wasn’t the best way to introduce him. He’s a wrestler who will stand out more in protracted feuds than plunderfests.
Then there’s our winner, Adam Cole, who is perhaps only underserved through his selflessness. He took a lot of big bumps and must be feeling them all today, yet he didn’t get his chance to shine, even if the crowd do love screaming Adam Cole bay-bee! They’re presenting him as NXT’s rat, the one who takes a beating and still sneaks it to get the cheese. Perhaps that doesn’t matter, though, because, in the end, he was the one clutching the belt.
I would question the sanity of anyone who didn’t enjoy this. It was a whirlwind of frantic wrestling craziness. What a way to start a show.
Verdict: Four And A Quarter Stars
Shayna Baszler defeated Ember Moon to win the NXT Women’s Title
Lzy Hale joined Cane Hill to play Ember Moon to the ring. Again I’m not a Halestorm fan, but Hale is cool.
I didn’t love the first meeting between these two. Baszler wasn’t ready to dictate a big-time match which caused them to stutter. So, I was delighted to see that in the last few months she gained that skill.
For this time around Baszler felt like more than just MMA girl. What previously was stilted and forced was now smooth as she worked to put a story together in the ring. Showing the crowd that her vicious and straightforward move-set was more than enough to overcome the flash of Moon’s. While Ember would transition into a palm thrust with a handspring, Baszler would respond by brutally elbowing her in the chin.
We also saw Shayna being put on the back foot, having to sell her shoulder after Moon fought fire with fire by stamping on it in the style that Baszler’s been making her signature. The popping it back in by ramming herself into the turnbuckle spot didn’t work for me (and judging by the reaction, the New Orleans crowd agreed). However, the rest of the work she did was outstanding. Locking on the winning Kirifuda Clutch with one hand, grasping her hair rather than using her injured shoulder, was inspired. That’s the kind of touch that makes people stars.
As for Moon, I thought she held up her end of the bargain nicely. I struggle to click with her as a character as she feels out of place in the ring with people like Baszler. We’ve had no clue as to who she is. Is she some magical being? Or does she enjoy dressing up?
That aside, Ember is incredibly athletic, and if the camera had managed to capture the Eclipse to the outside, I’m sure it would have looked great. It is time for her transition to the main roster, and hopefully, while she’s there, she can define who she is alongside her strong in-ring work.
Verdict: Three And Three Quarter Stars
The Undisputed Era (Adam Cole and Kyle O’Reilly) defeated Pete Dunne and Roderick Strong and The Authors Of Pain (Akem and Razer) to win the Dusty Rhodes Classic and retain the NXT Tag Team Titles
Roddy you naughty boy. How dare you turn on Pete Dunne? He would never do something like that…
They did a fantastic job of stacking the odds against The Undisputed Era at the start. Adam Cole gingerly made his way to the ring, stomach strapped up and a grimace of pain on his face. Then, Authors of Pain decided to help him out. They figured he could use the kind of nap caused by being powerbombed through a table.
From there, this became a fascinating contest as Dunne and Strong went on to have a back and forth fight with The Authors of Pain. However, there was a constant buzzing bee that just wouldn’t leave them alone. Whenever he recovered, Kyle O’Reilly would come charging in, throwing everything he had at the two teams in front of him. Swapping stiff strikes with Dunne and Strong and desperately trying to overcome the brute strength of AOP.
No matter what he did, though, it appeared this mountain was too big to climb. Cole would have struggled to get up if he hadn’t been part of the opener, with those injuries still fresh, there was no chance of recovery. O’Reilly would eventually fall to a Bitter End from Dunne, and surely it was over?
Nope, it was time for naughty Roddy to strike, ripping Pete off of Kyle and hitting The End Of Heartache. He dragged O’Reilly on top for the pin and then post-match confirmed his new allegiance with The Undisputed Era by putting on their armband.
It was a fun ending. If you’d asked people to predict who was likely to get down to a bit of treachery, everyone and their dog would have picked Pete Dunne. Still, they have a lot of explaining to do before it works. Strong has had plenty of opportunities to do this before, so why choose that moment? I hope they’ve thought things through rather than shocking for the sake of shocking.
There’s also a problem with The Authors of Pain. They leave New Orleans feeling slightly irrelevant. They’re the big dominant tag team that isn’t winning wrestling matches. It can all be solved by them destroying a few people (whether in NXT or on the main roster) but, again, I hope there’s a plan in place.
Those niggles aside, I enjoyed it. There was a lot of talent in that ring who did their best to make sure we had a lovely time.
Verdict: Three And A Half Stars
Aleister Black defeated Andrade Cien Almas to win the NXT World Title
A year ago if you’d asked me to guess what Almas would be doing at WrestleMania in 2018, I reckon I would have placed him at the events surrounding WWE, rather than still being part of NXT. The last year has seen him reinvent himself with the help of Zelina Vega. He came into this not only as champ but as a damn good one.
All of which makes me sad that it had to end. Almas is the thinking man’s wrestler. He treats his main events like a chess game, constructing a plan and sticking to it. Against Black, he knew he didn’t stand a chance if Aleister was able to dictate the pace. Those strikes are vicious and having him fly at you from all over the place gives him too many opportunities to use them. So, he looked to slow him down. To cut off his runs off offence before they got going. Whether it was tipping him over the ropes or having Vega interfere, he seemed to have Black’s number and I think I would have made that the story they told.
However, WWE loves a WrestleMania success and this was Aleister Black’s chance to shine. And don’t get me wrong, shine he did. This was the most well-rounded singles performance I’ve seen from Black. Since coming into WWE, he has dominated matches with his passive features and lethal attacks. Almas and Vega knocked him out of his stride. They forced him to dig deep and survive some brutal moves. When Almas got him out on the apron and drove his head into the steel post with that double knee attack, his eyes seemed to roll into his skull. The Black Mass might have ended.
Except, the beauty of wrestling is that the good guys always win. It might take them a while, but they get there eventually. Almas and Vega went one step too far. Having controlled the match with their various shenanigans, they got frustrated at their inability to put Black away. Vega, in particular, got reckless diving from the top rope towards Aleister. Except, he wasn’t there, he’d ducked out of the way leaving Almas to catch her. As he floundered, unsure what to do with his manager a foot connected with his head. It was over.
I stand by my belief that there was more for Vega and Almas to do at the head of NXT. They are a wonderful pairing who I would have kept the belt on until a certain Johnny Wrestling came knocking (more on that in a second). That doesn’t change the fact this was great, though. Almas is having an outstanding year and Black (who was already pretty good), seems to be getting even better. On any other NXT show, they would have stolen it. Sadly, they were about to be upstaged.
Verdict: Four And Three Quarter Stars
Johnny Gargano defeated Tomasso Ciampa in an unsanctioned match
Wow, if you ever need to explain to someone why wrestling is an art form and not just people in tights pretending to fight, show them this feud. From start to finish, it has been perfection.
The same thing can be said of this night too. From the video package, through Ciampa walking out to only the boos of the crowd, to the frantic final few minutes and Gargano’s redemption, they pitched everything perfectly. Oh, I’m sure someone could nitpick and point to structural problems or something daft like that. However, they’d be wrong because emotion trumps that bullshit.
And emotion is what these men excel at. On one side of the ring, you had Tomasso Ciampa. The Betrayer. A man with a glint of crazy in his eyes and a grudge against his former best friend. He was the definition of vicious, as he went to work torturing Gargano. There was a moment where Johnny was hanging out of the ring, his head floating in the air while Ciampa’s boot repeatedly slammed into it. When Ciampa was done, he turned to the crowd, eyes wide, hands clapping and a deranged grin on his face. You wanted to strangle him and applaud him at the same time.
On the other side, was Johnny Wrestling, a man who is everything Ciampa is not. Once pure of heart, he has been battling with the demons that Tomasso introduced to his life. Gargano has never gotten over the end of DIY and until he defeated the man across from him he never would.
And yet, and yet despite everything, there was a still a moment when he hesitated. A moment where he couldn’t bring himself to drive a broken crutch into his brother’s head. It didn’t matter what Ciampa had done, for a second Gargano saw fear in Tomasso’s eyes, and with it, he remembered the moment where his friend could have done the same thing to him at the Cruiserweight Classic and didn’t. For a few seconds, DIY looked at each other and appeared close to tears. What had happened to them? As Johnny sat down beside his old friend, you wondered whether it could all be fixed.
However, a redemption story does not redeem unless one learns from their mistakes. Johnny Gargano has learnt from his mistakes. As he sat, Ciampa attempted to strike, swinging the brace he’d removed from his knee at Gargano. This time, Johnny was ready. He’d hoped that maybe his friend had changed, but he still didn’t trust him. As the brace came towards him, Johnny Wrestling dodged out of the way and locked on the Garga-No-Escape, wrenching back on it. Then, he transitioned out of it, grabbing that same brace and wrapping it around Ciampa’s face as he slid into an STF. The demon tapped and Gargano was free.
The moment when Candice LeRay ran down to the ring to celebrate with her husband was approaching wrestling purity. It’s not something you see often. That perfect blend of real life and storytelling which makes you fall in love with characters that you have been watching for years all over again. Gargano, Ciampa and everyone involved with constructing this feud did something special here. It might not have been the greatest technical match of all time. However, it was storytelling at its best.
Verdict: Five Stars
What did I say about NXT a couple of thousands word ago? Guess what, I was right. That was some fine ass wrestling. It had two MOTY contenders while nothing came close to being bad. I actually fell more in love with Gargano vs Ciampa as I wrote about it. I’ve reviewed a lot of wrestling this weekend (keep an eye on the site for the rest of it), and none of it has made me feel like this.