When Roman Reigns won the 2015 Royal Rumble and #CancelWWENetwork trended worldwide on Twitter, there seemed to be this hitch in the sentiment, a slight hesitation: There would be a new live NXT special, and it would feature Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens reprising a feud that, for many, ranks as the best in the history of the independents. More than CM Punk’s tumultuous rise and fall, and more than Daniel Bryan’s ascendence to the top of the card, the story of Sami Zayn vs. Kevin Owens is the most unexpected development in recent WWE history—that a skinnyfat (to steal a line) French Canadian who used to work under a mask and a normalfat French Canadian wrestling in basketball shorts and a tanktop would be deemed “the future of this business” by no less a scion than Triple H, and after the pair had been deemed worthless by former Ring of Honor booker Jim Cornette for being too indie for the most indie of indie feds, is truly incomprehensible. Those who were hoping for this generation’s Guerrero/Benoit WrestleMania XX moment from Punk and Bryan, some verification that the “wrestling” in World Wrestling Entertainment is of ultimate importance, were putting too much weight on what is ultimately an overblown pop-culture novelty that places more emphasis on Mania than anything else. Whatever book that gets written about Triple H’s “book that never ends” begins here, in the only environ that’s more constructed than WrestleMania, The NXT Arena at Full Sail University. If this is the future, then the WWE is in awfully good shape.
Beyond Lucha Underground, there is no televised wrestling show that is more competently, completely booked than NXT. NXT Takeover: Rival featured five matches, and all five of them, regardless of their quality, had a reason for being on that show. Hideo Itami and Tyler Breeze, who opened the show, were in something of a battle of runner-ups in the NXT Championship #1 Contender’s Tournament. Baron Corbin and Bull Dempsey have been bullying each other for awhile now in an effort to establish themselves as the baddest big man in town. The Lucha Dragons were trying to avenge an upset loss of their NXT Tag Team Championships to the upstart tandem of Team Thick. And then there were the co-main events, a fatal four way for the NXT Women’s Championship and a one-on-one contest between Zayn and Owens for the NXT Title. Both feuds have long, extensive histories behind them, equally impressive in terms of what NXT’s writers are willing to do both with extra-WWE history (Zayn and Owens) and a women’s division whose championship feuds aren’t contested largely on grounds of petty jealousy, body-shaming, or the “bitches be crazy” mode of storytelling that is, depressingly, the one button the team writing Raw and SmackDown! know how to push. On “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s podcast, Triple H said that writing that third hour of Raw is the most difficult creative task in WWE. While I hardly think that cutting that hour would fix all the problems, the NXT Takeover specials have proven to be a model for the kind of storytelling a compressed timeframe necessitates. With no time for a 30-minute speech to set up the night’s events, we’re given a dramatic recap video that’s as good as anything produced for the main event feuds on the main shows, our hellos from the announce team (Rich Brennan, Corey Graves, and Jason Albert), and head straight for the ring.
The first contest will likely be the least buzzed about in the months that follow, but Hideo Itami vs. Tyler Breeze is proof that the NXT system is working in more ways than one, both in developing “WWE guys” (Breeze) and in working out the kinks of wrestlers who are coming in from different systems (Itami). Hideo Itami was one of the most respected professional wrestlers in Japan, where he competed as KENTA, but his initial transition to the WWE and its in-ring style has been somewhat of a non-starter. His debut was the platform from which Finn Bálor launched himself, and, beyond a few flashes of brilliance, he’s yet to really have a signature match. Of the group including him, Bálor, Adrien Neville, Sami Zayn, and Kevin Owens, Itami faces the hardest transition, both in terms of style and culture. As for Breeze, he was the star of the main event of NXT Takeover: Fatal Four-Way, but saw his position on the card slip as more renowned talent from the independents and Japan made their debuts. He’s a tremendous talent who works his gimmick (“part man/all model” as the theme song goes) so well that it would actually be a shame to see him transition over to Raw, where 15,000 fans and three disinterested announcers wouldn’t give it the time of day. Here in NXT, things like a fuzzy selfie stick and a screaming ladyfan getting too grabby are worthwhile touches to an already masterful piece of characterwork. Itami tries to start out by kicking the pretty out of Breeze in retaliation for an attack backstage, but Breeze maneuvers his way behind the referee and uses that diversion to take advantage early. Avoiding Itami’s kicks is Breeze’s angle here, but he can’t hope to do so as Itami is at least as quick as Prince Pretty, if not quicker. Before long, Itami has Breeze on the mat and lights him up with a scintillating kick to the chest—either Itami is putting extra oomph into them in his first live singles match or he’s figured out how to slap his knee, as is the fashion. Whatever. Some things are still magic to me. The sound of flesh slapping on flesh, for instance. Breeze, meanwhile, does a superhuman job of selling those kicks and Itami’s momentum. His character has also undergone a very subtle change in ring, moving from a psychological need to preserve his looks to a desire to finally clinch the NXT championship. As such, his wrestling is much meaner than it used to be, the way he takes advantage more wily than in the past. Hideo Itami has more experience than Tyler Breeze, but Breeze has more experience in the WWE style, which, in NXT, is paramount. The resulting match isn’t a clash of two styles, but a story of one hugely hyped international prospect finally figuring out the learning curve against a guy who feels like he’s been looked over in favor of shiny new signings. That’s a solid foundation for a wrestling match, and what they build on top of it is really quite impressive.
The rest of the first half is not good. NXT is frequently great, but it is still an extension of WWE’s development program, an effort to get their young workers camera ready while simulating the pressure of a main roster show. Some guys, like Bull Dempsey, are competent enough but just have nothing going for them. Others, like Baron Corbin, have a long way to go before they’re camera-ready, but are there because of their size. Dempsey was formerly the bully of the roster, taking down chumps left and right in “impressive” fashion, but then Baron Corbin hit the scene with his height, his ability to brood, and a fake biker/wolfman aesthetic, and now its his job to beat people in less than a minute. That got Dempsey envious enough to cost Corbin in the #1 Contender’s Tournament after two decisive losses, setting up this no-disqualification match. Corbin is terrible, pretty much all size, so it’s on Dempsey to lead the match. He does a capable job until its Corbin’s turn to take over, blowing a spot so badly that the happy-go-lucky, mostly self-involved NXT Universe actually boo them. Corbin can barely lift Dempsey for his finishing move, The End of Days, which, in addition to being a terrible Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, is also a terrible-looking thing to do in a wrestling ring. Following that is a match for the NXT Tag Team Championships between The Lucha Dragons, who have the worst official tag team name in wrestling, and Buddy Murphy and Wesley Blake, who, having once been called “Team Thick,” have the worst unofficial tag team name in wrestling. Kalisto and Sin Cara, the Dragons, are both capable high fliers, but both men are off tonight, and Murphy and Blake—two ex-cowboys who retired their cowboy hats when they heard about this new dubstep thing everybody seems to like—aren’t able to help them. The two teams keep exchanging moves, reversals, and blown, awkward spots with one another until it’s over. I can’t tell if the two teams were working too fast or if they were trying to work to fast and just couldn’t hit the pace they were looking for, but there was very little to like about this beyond the closing sequence. If there’s one thing that’s consistent across every WWE brand, it’s the irrelevance of the tag team division. Whether or not they’re able to build something around these two teams remains to be seen.
After that, though, this NXT Takeover special is hot fire for about 90 minutes. It never stops. It never lets up. The first contest is simplicity itself, a match to determine who the next challenger for the NXT Championship will be. Finn Bálor and Adrian Neville went through an eight-man single elimination tournament to get here. They also have a history against each other in Japan and bring an extensive knowledge of each other’s game with them to the NXT arena.Kevin Owens weaseled his way into a championship match, but after him there were no clear contenders. Neville had his chance to regain the gold. Bálor, like Owens, is too new to the scene to demand that he has a shot. But the tournament has established that the two are in a different class. Better than Baron Corbin. More “ready” than Hideo Itami. The NXT Championship feels like one of the most important titles in wrestling because of simple, effective storytelling like this, an undercard that is constantly gunning to be the top man on the best wrestling show in North America. On the live specials, Bálor takes it to the next level with his entrance, putting on body paint and Predator dreads and really soaking in the adulation of the crowd. It worked really well in New Japan Pro Wrestling and will probably work really well on WWE pay-per-views, but his special entrance really makes the arena look small, and, in front of the same people who see it every few weeks or so, less special than it should be. I was more into the show Adrian Neville made of putting in his mouthguard, even if mouthguards are, like protective cups, the antithesis of professional wrestling. The two really take their time in building this match up from its entrances to its finish. At first, much is made about how both are wrestling a slower match than anticipated, as both are known for their flying finishing moves, but it’s not so much a “race to the top rope” as it is a test of will an conditioning. Bálor actually hits a double stomp to the back of Neville’s head really early, a killing blow in most matches, but not all plans are fated for success. Once Neville hits one of his big moves (a corkscrew splash from the second turnbuckle, which is unreal), he shows his frustration by taking out his mouthguard and hurling it to the canvas. But that lets Bálor get back into the match with a slingblade clothesline (to the mouth!), which is why you wear your mouthguard. Nice bit of in-match storytelling. The finishing sequence is absolutely breathtaking, with Bálor countering the Red Arrow with knees to the gut, which he transitions into a small package. Bálor follows with his dropkick into the corner, which is being built as the dropkick to end all dropkicks, and crushes Neville with a double stomp to the gut. If this match is indicative of what it means to be in line for a shot at the NXT Championship, then it follows that any match for the NXT Championship should/must be better. In a WWE ring, though, it doesn’t get much better.
The NXT Women’s Championship match was built entirely upon in-WWE history, a fairly complex weaving of characters and storylines that is unlike anything the company has ever done with any permutation of a women’s championship. On Raw and SmackDown!, feuds for the Diva’s Championship, a hideous panoply of rhinestones and butterflies and reproductive organs, feuds are normally based on looks (“Look at Mickie James—she is so fat!” or “I don’t look like a typical diva, so I’m better than all of them!”), romantic ties to men, or the “bitches be crazy” school of thinking that it’s tempting to say that the people in charge of that show, despite the strong game they talk about having strong female role models, don’t see women as individuals worthy of much attention. I remember when the women’s spot at WrestleMania 29 was cut, the argument being “Well, would you have a Bella Twins match at WrestleMania at the expense of seven or eight minutes of John Cena vs. The Rock?” Maybe not, but there’s probably always room for women’s wrestling on a card that features a mini-concert by Puff Daddy. That’s how women are treated on the WWE cards that everybody sees. In NXT, they get this rich tapestry where the Women’s Championship is about on par with the NXT Championship. Charlotte, the daughter of Ric Flair, is the dominant champion of the division. Sasha Banks has been nipping at her heels since the dissolution of their stable, gaining confidence in herself (and her character) with the passage of time. Becky Lynch joined up with Sasha Banks, feeling that she needed a change of attitude in order to be successful, but isn’t the obedient foot soldier Banks demands. Bayley, having come up short in her effort to capture the championship, has realized that success is more important than being friends with people who constantly take advantage of her, and has been more aggressive in chasing her dream without compromising who she is. She’s the dark horse in this match, talking about “having her Sami Zayn moment” where she redeems herself by finally winning the big one, and she has something of a Sami Zayn moment in this match when she slides under the turnbuckles to land a kick on Becky Lynch. Before that, though, there’s a lot of storytelling to get through. Lynch and Banks team up, dividing and conquering Bayley and Charlotte. They eliminate Charlotte from the match for awhile by throwing her into the side of the ring, where one of the dumb LED panels that have no place on a wrestling ring blinks off to signify how brutal the impact was. I’m not a fan of that kind of stuff. Wrestlers are good enough at selling pain to do it without special effects. But it’s a minor thing, because Charlotte gets back into the match without the usual big production of ringside physicians and stretchers and all that.
This is a very good match, full of impressive double and triple team moves that look brutal. Bayley, whose character has always grated on me, was particularly impressive. There was a Fatal Four Way match on an earlier NXT Takeover special where Tyler Breeze, goofy supermodel, surprised a lot of people by being the star of the match. That’s where I was here with Bayley, person who likes to hug everybody. She doesn’t wrestle mean (like Breeze did), but she wrestles like she’s determined to win, less for the fans and more for her. It’s this nice, subtle character arc that should pay off even bigger in a singles match. But the story here is Sasha Banks, who has been blowaway fantastic, and her quest to prove that she is better than Charlotte, who is probably the best product yet produced entirely by the WWE Performance Center. Charlotte is wrestling from behind after getting thrown against the ring, humanizing her somewhat, and the element of chaos added by two other competitors is too much for her. Sasha Banks is never without a plan, zeroing in on Charlotte’s ribs, making it hard for the champion to breathe. When the crossface she has Charlotte in doesn’t work and she finds the champ inching towards the ropes to break the hold, she’s got enough faith in the damage she’s done to transition her submission into a roll-up, which secures the victory. It’s this big, emotional moment for Banks, showing that the seemingly evil “Bo$$” of NXT has a heart, but she largely proved her point, beating the champion and her two top contenders in one fell swoop. She shoos away Charlotte after the former champion hugs her, less interested in a supposed passing of the torch than she is in relishing in her moment. This is the best women’s match on a WWE show since the division was largely imported talent from Japan. It’s also either the best fatal four way match or second best depending on how you feel about the other NXT go at this format, which is usually a boring, convoluted mess. There has always been the potential for a good story here. Finally, away from the bright(er) lights and big(ger) arenas of the WWE’s touring act, they’ve figured out how to tell them.
The main event, too, has a nice story to it, both in the way WWE is telling it (fourteen years of friendship for nothing) and in the reality of the situation, which is that Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn have been inextricably linked throughout their professional lives as partners and as rivals. Even without that past history in the mind, the story leading up to this match made it clear that it was going to be unlike any Sami Zayn match thus far, that all of the fun of his rise was out the window, and that his post as the defender of NXT from the likes of Curtis Axel and Titus O’Neil was all for naught, as Kevin Owens doesn’t care about fun and he doesn’t care about NXT. He’s such a weird, engaging presence as a heel on this program, as he says that he’s been working his entire life to get to this point and that winning the championship means a better life for his wife and children. It’s Sami in the promo videos who sounds like the bad guy, saying that Kevin “changed” when he got married. But in the ring, Owens is a brutalizer, a man whose only desire is to punish whoever is set in front of him, and if it’s a guy who he figures bailed on their plans to make it into WWE together, so much the better. Owens is, in an odd way, being built as the Brock Lesnar of NXT. A cold, relentless throwback to an era that would have laughed at the concept of “sports entertainment.” Here’s a dude who nearly had his nose shoved into his brain in his debut match, who still has that scar, who looks like he wouldn’t mind bleeding some more. He should be set across from Bruiser Brody or Terry Funk or Abdullah the Butcher, but he’s there with Sami Zayn, god help the poor champion, with fourteen years of history and fourteen years of being told that the WWE wouldn’t want a chubby dude in basketball shorts and a tank top.
The announce team compares this match early to the tone of John Cena and Brock Lesnar’s main event at SummerSlam, as it’s all Owens dominating Zayn. But where Lesnar took Cena apart piece by piece, suplex by suplex, there was nothing personal about it. Even with their history, Lesnar was just there to win a title and sit upon his throne of human skulls. Owens takes it to Zayn with strikes. Punches. Kicks. Chops that issue with the concussive force of a shotgun blast. Zayn is the absolute best in the world when it comes to selling, so even Owens’ most basic stuff seems deadly. When he cranks it up, man, it’s like nothing I’ve seen in the WWE in years, even in a Brock Lesnar match. With Lesnar, it’s a matter-of-fact brutality, a neanderthal man overwhelming his opponent through sheer natural ability. Kevin Owens, on the other hand, learned how to be this way, how to turn his girth and his ambition and his spite into weapons. Brock Lesnar is a hateful man. Kevin Owens has hate in his heart. And Sami Zayn isn’t John Cena, who is himself a test-tube freak. Zayn fought and bled and sweat for fourteen years, too, only his experience made him resilient. It taught him to love wrestling and the people who love it. It makes these two perfect foils, Owens as the monstrous bully and Zayn as the heartbroken babyface who refuses to die as a personal point of pride. All Zayn needs is an opening and he can catch Owens with his suplexes and kicks, which are too fast for anybody to stop. Zayn’s offense, to that point, is beautiful. There’s a Rey Mysterio Jr. over-the-referee dive to the outside, a slower, meaner Blue Thunder Bomb, big suplexes. Every time he counters one of Owens’ bombs or kicks out, it feels huge. But he is the victim of circumstance, banging his head on the entrance ramp after catching Owens with a springboard moonsault. Zayn, from that point, is (storyline) concussed. He loses his footing going for a clinching Helluva Kick, and Owens takes over. He is not shy about punching his defenseless “friend” in the head as many times as it takes, nor does he spare him any powerbombs. But Zayn keeps kicking out, won’t quit. Doctors come to the ring to check on Zayn, but it’s Owens who wants to end the match, so he keeps powerbombing Zayn until the referee calls for the bell, stopping the match on account of the champion’s inability to defend himself.
I often find myself unable to engage with NXT as much as I would like. The wrestling is great, world-beating even, and the storylines and writing are frequently so good that it’s hard to believe that the same company behind NXT does such a poor job with Raw and SmackDown! for roughly three-quarters of the calendar year, but I am, generally speaking, not for the “bubble universe” that filming shows in the same venue every single show engenders on a globally-televised product. It’s easy to tell when a crowd that has sat through four tapings of wrestling has become tired and cranky, sick of even their own inside jokes, and when an audience cheers for everything, it’s hard to get an idea of what will actually work on the main WWE stage. The live specials mitigate that somewhat, though chanting things like “HUG IT OUT” at Finn Bálor and Adrian Neville during a tense post-match showdown, or “Z-PAK” while doctors are checking Sami Zayn for a concussion makes me wonder if the people who get to see this stuff live are there for the wrestling or if they are Smart Internet Fans Who Listen to Podcasts and are there just to chant. I want NXT to tour in the worst way. I think that’s the next phase of this experiment, to test out how a guy like Sami Zayn will do in Iowa or North Dakota, where there are independent wrestling fans but not an arena full of them, all in a constant state of orgasm. When I watch NXT, I’m watching to see if these supremely talented men and women can rise above an audience trying its damnedest to turn every match into an instant classic, or if the studio audience is something of a crutch. NXT Takeover: Rival was an event where the majority of the card rose above the noise which so frequently reminds me that, in 2015, it is not possible to watch wrestling without also watching how others watch wrestling. With the exception of two very underwhelming matches, Rival was an instant classic show from the opening bell, capped by a match that rose to the challenge of meeting and exceeding not only a long, storied history of contests between its participants, but by a year that is already heavy with great professional wrestling. Those Smart Internet Fans reacted to Kevin Owens destroying Sami Zayn and the NXT Universe as if they had just seen The Undertaker lose at WrestleMania. People were crying. And Kevin Owens, once told that he didn’t fit the mould, stifled his own tears long enough to hold his newly won championship triumphantly over the corpse of a man he called a friend. Wrestling, especially at its most brutal, is beautiful.
Hideo Itami def. Tyler Breeze via pinfall. Grade: B+
No Disqualification Match: Baron Corbin def. Bull Dempsey via pinfall. Grade: C-
NXT Tag Team Championships: Wesley Blake and Buddy Murphy (champions) def. The Lucha Dragons (Sin Cara and Kalisto) via pinfall. Grade: C-
Finals of the Tournament to Decide the #1 Contender for the NXT Championship: Finn Bálor def. Adrian Neville via pinfall. GRADE: A
NXT Women’s Championship: Sasha Banks def. Charlotte (champion), Bayley, and Becky Lynch via pinfall to win the championship. GRADE: A
NXT Championship: Kevin Owens def. Sami Zayn (champion) via referee’s decision to win the championship. GRADE: A+