After the excellence that was NXT Takeover: Rival, there’s nothing wrong with a show like this, a cooldown effort that exists largely to set the next month or two of storylines up. NXT General Manager William Regal (long may he reign) sets the tone early. Anybody concerned that Sami Zayn was cheated out of the NXT Championship at Rival should know that titles can change hands due to referee stoppage. Kevin Owens is well and truly the man, and tonight is a new era. To launch it, Kevin Owens will fight against the runner up in the NXT Championship #1 Contenders Tournament, Adrian Neville. Neville, still Zayn’s friend, is not happy with the (perfectly legal) way in which Owens won the belt, and is out for revenge. That’s a good match, and one that works with Regal’s declaration of a new era. Neville was the NXT Champion for a long time, from the origin of the WWE Network until Zayn was able to finally take it away. That’s an era. And Owens, whose brutality is unlike anything seen on NXT, represents a step up. Owens says as much when he tells the NXT Universe that Sami Zayn is in the past, and that the future is Finn Bálor. After stating once again that he fights for a better future for his family (what a mean dude!), he tells Bálor that he is ready whenever the #1 contender has a date in mind.
The first representative of NXT’s new era is…Rhyno, a guy who was last seen on WWE television in 2005, on the ECW throwback pay-per-view One Night Stand. Rhyno hasn’t entirely disappeared from wrestling, as his physique shows, but between stints on TNA’s Impact Wrestling, Ring of Honor, and other independent promotions, the shock of his return, unlike the shock of a novelty return during the Royal Rumble, is real. The crowd loses their collective minds when the word RHYNO pops up on the ‘Tron, and the dude acquits himself so well that he is spared the ignominy of a “YOU’VE STILL GOT IT” chant. Beyond a few poorly chosen tattoos, Rhyno looks really good squashing Elias Samson with a belly-to-belly suplex and a Gore, an the fact that he’s going to be around for awhile is quite interesting. The announcers put over how NXT is frequently considered the future of the WWE, but that it might also serve as a proving ground for old warhorses with something left. As Finn Bálor talks about his future opportunity against Kevin Owens, he is interrupted by Rhyno, and I guess that’s a match we’re going to get out of this. I’m all for it. This is subtly a really smart use of an old veteran, as beyond the nostalgia pop he’ll get from the crowd, Rhyno was actually one of the best mid-card performers the WWE had during what may have been their in-ring peak from 2001 to 2003. NXT continues to signal that the future of the main WWE product lies within the boundaries of a wrestling ring, so having somebody who excelled at that working with the next generation can only be a benefit.
The other indicator of a “new era” was the debut of Solomon Crowe, which has been hinted at through various small scale “hackings” of NXT’s promotional videos. He came out of nowhere to attack CJ Parker, the environmentalist character who takes a good beating and is frequently upset with how he is left off of NXT shows. He threatened to hijack NXT, to take over Takeover as it were, and went about stringing caution tape from post to post. Crowe blindsided him, put some of his aggro power moves on poor Parker, then allowed us to get back to our regularly scheduled programming. It was… not the best NXT debut I’ve ever seen? Crowe’s character is that he’s a hacker, and most of the pictures I’ve seen of him since he left the indies had him in a suit, toting around an iPad with a sticker on it. I’m glad that’s not how he looked here (he wore a scuzzy leather and pyramid-stud jacket and caveman singlet), but either Crowe is doing his hacking from a tanning bed and has gone mad from exposure, or somebody else is uploading his goofy graphics for him. Who knows if it will work, is what I’m saying. In front of this crowd? Probably. Beating up CJ Parker tells us absolutely nothing, though, so we’ll have to wait and see.
Squash matches are the order of the evening, as challengers to championships need to be established, and new champions need to establish their reign. The Vaudevillains, once a formidable tag team, are easy pickings for Enzo Amore and Colin Cassady, who are something of a Jersey scumbag upgrade of the New Age Outlaws. Enzo is one of NXT’s more talented smack-talkers (in fact, he once claimed that his Jedi name was “Smacktalker Skywalker”) and Colin Cassady is able backup (though the audience does not like their lady third, Carmella, presumably because attractive women hanging around Enzo and Big Cass doesn’t fit the slashfic headcanon the straight male dudes booing her have authored), but man will it be interesting to see them in a match that’s longer than three minutes. Also, while I’m hardly a fan, it’s worth mentioning that the Vaudevillains have worked pretty hard at establishing their tag team schtick, and that it’s something of a surprise to see them get crushed so handily. Less surprising is the fate of Ol’ Blue Pants, known on the indies as Leva Bates, the surprisingly popular jobber to the stars who pops up so regularly that she has a TitanTron, a theme song (sung by Big Cass), and an entrance. Leva is hardly the most talented woman working the independents, but she’s able enough when required to take a beating, which she does. Sasha takes her out quickly with her knee drop in the corner and the Banks Statement (which is not a good name for anything), then tells the NXT Universe that everybody, especially the women she beat for her title, need to respect her. Based on video testimony from Bayley and Becky Lynch, it appears that they do.
Oh, video testimony. At NXT Takeover: Rival, Sami Zayn was knocked out and declared unable to continue the match. It was a good, surprising finish to a great match, with the speculation being that Zayn would be “suffering from a concussion” while Owens made NXT his own. But the lead WWE Physician assures us that everything was fine with Sami after the match, just that things during the match made it seem like he was unable to defend himself. He’s off on the Abu Dhabi tour and will come back fine. That… hmm. I hate to review a wrestling show as if I’m counterbooking it, but saying that Zayn got powerbombed so hard that he pretty much went on vacation is much less effective than saying that he needs time to recover from nearly being beaten to death by a man he once thought of as his best friend. When Zayn comes back and is really angry about what Owens did (which was win a match legally), the question on my mind is going to be why he didn’t skip the Abu Dhabi tour to get him some revenge.
Were it not for the fact that Adrian Neville has reason to be mad at Kevin Owens, the whole revenge angle to this week’s main event would have been shot, too. But Neville had the evil put on him by Kevin Owens two months ago in a match that ended in a draw, and a victory over the newly crowned champion would put him in line for a title shot. In one of his best interviews to date, Neville said that he felt more like a hunter this time around than the hunted, and he puts that old cliché to work as he jumps Owens before the bell. The champion is able to get on track briefly, catching Neville with an early gutbuster, but after a second attempt at the move leads to him getting spiked on his head with a DDT, it’s all Adrian Neville. Owens, try as he might, is unable to put some distance between himself and his opponent, unable to find the time to recover. Neville is on top of his game tonight, too. He’s quick with his strikes. He’s reckless with his high-flying moves to the outside, particularly with a 450 splash from the ring apron to the floor. His ability to lift Owens up and dump him on his head is quite impressive, as he not only scores a quick German suplex with the momentum of the ropes, but manages to deadlift his much heavier opponent from the canvas. Owens is able to get back into the match by throwing his weight at Neville, but for a long time here it looks like he won’t be denied. Neville counters Owens’ corner cannonball into a superkick and a reverse rana, but the ensuing two count and the time it takes to drag the champion into the corner for the Red Arrow allows Owens to roll out of the way. Neville tries to charge in after he recovers from the landing, but Owens catches him with the pop-up powerbomb, and in two weeks Kevin Owens has secured victories over two men who, more than any other, have come to define NXT.
In its pre-taped, one hour iteration, NXT is a very good wrestling show. It has a number of stories to tell and is able to do so quickly and nimbly. But, like this week’s Raw, appreciating the way the pieces move on the board is not the same thing as enjoying the show. Rhyno’s return is worth watching in full, as is the main event. But unless squash matches or the characters in them are your thing, there is a lot about regular, weekly NXT that is inessential. Not that it isn’t good, because it very frequently is. But when a show ends with Kevin Owens thrusting his title in the air over a fallen ex-champion, I find myself wanting NXT to do that more than I want it to bum around with Blue Pants.
Rhyno def. Elias Samson via pinfall. GRADE: C+
Enzo Amore & Colin Cassady (w/Carmella) def. The Vaudevillains (Simon Gotch & Aiden English) via pinfall. GRADE: C
Sasha Banks def. Ol’ Blue Pants via submission. GRADE: C
Kevin Owens def. Adrian Neville via pinfall. GRADE: B+