Watching NXT this week, I was reminded of classic World Wrestling Federation style storytelling from the late 80s and early 90s, the Saturday to Monday cycle of somewhat competitive squash matches that exist to promote live shows, both on pay-per-view and in the Civic Centers and National Guard Armories of small town America. NXT is leaving Full Sail University for a series of untaped live shows in the midwest, and these hour-long episodes do build to live specials meant to be seen by the WWE Network’s one-million subscribers. The difference between NXT’s storytelling cycle and the old WWF’s is a matter of time and talent; NXT has less of the former and more of the latter.
As a compromise (a blessed, wonderful compromise), NXT begins with the announce team welcoming us to the show and entrances for the first match. This is a great formula. The wonderful miracle of NXT, even when the matches on the show aren’t in the indie dream match format of the Takeover specials, is that so much of its character work is done in the ring. The first match, Hideo Itami vs. Bull Dempsey, doesn’t have much of that, though it does reestablish a diminished Bull as a physical threat. Itami, still adjusting to the WWE style, is coming along quite nicely. Beyond his match against Tyler Breeze, this is my favorite effort of his under the WWE banner. Dempsey, when he’s not being asked to feed into Baron Corbin’s horrible-looking big dude offense, is convincingly tough, and he spends the whole match beating up the man formerly known as KENTA. Itami, long used to the sort of punishing big dude offense that is quite popular in Japan, makes Dempsey look like a monster at times, particularly when the two collide head-on. Itami only needs a tiny opening to get his kicks in, though, so all of Dempsey’s bullying is for nothing. Itami’s dropkick variations are enough to win him the match. Celebrating on the ramp, though, Itami is ambushed by Tyler Breeze. Not happy with his loss to Itami at Takeover, Breeze tries to embarrass the Japanese superstar by taking a selfie of himself with Itami’s prone body in the background. But he can’t get the angle right, even with the aid of his selfie stick, and Itami comes right back on him. Breeze is able to escape Itami’s wrath before taking too many kicks, and it looks like we’ve got a real issue between the two. In my fantasy booking scenario, Breeze recruits Dempsey in his effort to derail Itami’s career, promising him a makeover in return for his protection. That’s what I want—a queer HBK/chubby Diesel team-up scenario. Chop chop, NXT.
There’s a promo video for The Brian Kendrick, who is this week’s special return. It’d be great if, instead of spoiling the fact that Kendrick is tonight’s return (something they did because, when taping four weeks of television at once, a big return like this will be spoiled online), they had him meet backstage with NXT General Manager William Regal, perhaps set up a reason why Kendrick is immediately wrestling the #1 Contender to the NXT Championship. The one thing I don’t quite understand about NXT is its aversion to promos that last longer than thirty seconds. Not that the show isn’t good without them, but as a developmental space it seems worthwhile to see how well these characters do in longer skits and angles. Also, I want more William Regal, especially if he’s no longer part of the announce team. As tired as I am of the General Manager gimmick, Regal is a big exception.
The Lucha Dragons, looking to regain their Tag Team Championship form, wrestle against the blue-chip team of Tye Dillenger and Jason Jordan. Before the bell rings, however, the WWE Network feed is hacked by Solomon Crowe. He does every former indie darling’s debut NXT promo, which is to say that he’s all about that NXT Championship. He mashes one of his hot dog colored fingers to the screen of his tablet computer and we’re back to the ring. That’s not a good advertisement for the security of the Network, but I’ll flip if he threatens to release the credit card information of everybody who subscribes if Regal doesn’t give him a title shot. In the ring, Jason Jordan is able to handle the speed and agility of Kalisto and Sin Cara quite handily. He’s pretty clearly the breakout member of this tag team that nobody cares about. He tags to his partner, who is pretty sure he’s got things even though the Dragons are able to quickly overwhelm him. Jordan calls for a tag, but Dillenger tells him to relax. When Dillenger finally goes for a tag, Jordan is done with him. He drops from the ring apron and bails, leaving Dillenger to fend for himself. He very quickly loses. After a commercial break, Tye Dillenger is still in the ring. He is really, really mad at Jason Jordan and demands he come to the ring so they can settle this 45-second long rivalry. Instead, he gets Baron Corbin. The two have a match. It’s a Baron Corbin match, though, and Dillenger just got beat up by two dudes, so he eats Corbin’s finish and goes home. Later, in a 10 second promo, Jason Jordan says that he did what he did because he did what he did, and he’ll explain himself when he’s ready. It’s really weird how this tag team break-up angle is happening with a team that has never mattered to the overall fabric of the show.
In other promos, Charlotte, despite taking the loss at NXT Takeover: Rival, is confident going into her rematch with Sasha Banks, since Sasha has never beaten her one-on-one. Finn Bálor is ready for Kevin Owens, but can’t afford to look past The Brian Kendrick. Rhyno is backstage, looking like a tough old bastard over-burdened by his muscle and desire to cut people in half. He explains that he’s back because NXT inspired him to find the fire and drive he once had, and because he likes crushing fools with the Gore. Again, and particularly for the likes of Charlotte and Finn Bálor, it’d be great to see these run a little longer than one question and a 30-second reply. To return to the NXT/World Wrestling Federation comparison, feuds were frequently continued via backstage interviews that functioned like a conversation, and the interviewers themselves had identifiable personalities and ongoing relationships with the talent. “Let me tell you something, Mean Gene” is as much a part of the wrestling lexicon as Hulk Hogan’s three demandments, and the old WWF presentation style filtered over onto ESPN, where SportsCenter anchors had their own tics and catchphrases. It’s something that’s coming back into the main product through figures like Renee Young, but slowly. Similarly, I wouldn’t be averse to a full-time return of picture-in-picture promos during the early parts of matches. I like a lot of the characters on NXT, and any way I can see and hear them is good, both for me as a fan and them as a performer.
Despite any assertion to the contrary, the NXT women’s division is not booked as a response to what’s happening on Raw or SmackDown!, but the work being done in developmental does hint at some hope for the future. Bayley’s character wouldn’t be given the time of day on Raw, but here she’s been subtly progressing as an in-ring character for some time now, from her beginning as a hug-loving comedy character who made her way into the hearts of the NXT Universe to her current place as a skilled wrestler trying to achieve her dream of championship glory. Lynch, too, has adapted to her aggressive, grungy gimmick rather well, despite whatever misgivings Corey Graves has about the kind of music she listens to. I really like Bayley here, using old-school sledgehammer blows and keeping constant pressure on her opponent without looking to the crowd for approval. She goes for a belly-to-belly suplex off the turnbuckles but is shoved off and snaps her arm on the rope. She keeps fighting, but her weakened arm leaves her vulnerable. Lynch counters out of another belly-to-belly and catches Bayley in an armbar, which she transitions into a nastier-looking armbar for the win. This has been an interesting pattern in the women’s division of NXT, the use of submissions that become a more effective variant of the submission, and I really like it. It’s like when Kurt Angle started adding a leg grapevine to his ankle lock to trap his opponent, only here its not part of the wrestler’s normal routine. It’s an added bit of drama that makes Bayley look better for not tapping out to the initial permutation of the move, and makes Lynch look more sadistic for finding the next variant.
Though a significant amount of time on the show and online was spent building to The Bryan Kendrick’s re-debut, the opening half of his match against Finn Bálor is mostly about the unsettling presence of Kevin Owens, who provides guest commentary. The vibe of NXT when Owens is around is much different from when he’s not. While nobody on the commentary team doubts him when he says that he wrestles for his family, it’s his sadism that everybody is upset with, especially considering his friendship with Sami Zayn. Owens is actually pretty phenomenal in this role, adding a lot to a match that is worked slowly to accommodate the storyline at the commentary table. Kendrick tries to get back into the ring at one point by flipping up and over Bálor and tweaks his knee. When Bálor gives Kendrick some spact to recover, Owens tears into him. “That was a gift,” he says, which is true. “That’s why Finn Bálor won’t beat me.” It’s really good, both in establishing Bálor as a face and Owens as a bully, family or not. From there, Alex Riley, a man formerly known as the “Varsity Villain,” questions Owens’ methods and says that, as a man, he wouldn’t have done what Owens did to Sami Zayn. Owens decides to leave commentary. Just the way everybody at the table is blocked, shoulders slightly turned from Owens, does a great job of putting over how little the champion is liked by those covering his career. It takes away from what’s happening in the ring, as the camera stays with commentary during several audibly loud bumps.
That disconnect between in-ring action and Owens’ storyline aside, Kendrick and Bálor have a pretty good TV main event. Unlike Rhyno’s re-debut last week, which was all about the image of Rhyno as a returning monster, Kendrick is decidedly a guy on Finn Bálor’s level—if NXT existed in 2009, he would have been its unquestioned ruler. That Bálor didn’t take advantage of Kendrick’s knee comes back to haunt him for a bit, as Kendrick is able to work a slick tornado DDT and nasty-looking tiger suplex in around Bálor’s dropkick-heavy offense. He’s unable to hit his finisher (Sliced Bread or The Kendrick, depending on your level of familiarity with the guy), but turns around and takes a huge lariat from Bálor. That lets him hit his big dropkick into the corner and his double stomp, and Bálor is your winner. Kevin Owens is back out on the ramp, watching Bálor celebrate. Bálor wants the champion to get into the ring, but Owens has other ideas. He keeps eyeing Alex Riley, who can see doom approaching on his monitor. Owens grabs Riley by the lapels of his suit jacket and hurls him over the commentary table. It’s a good-looking bump Riley takes, perhaps the most impressive of his career, and it adds another layer to Owens’ status as a widely unliked champion. Bálor looks on as Owens makes his way to the back, content that his attack on the ex-wrestler sent a message to his next challenger.
Hideo Itami def. Bull Dempsey via pinfall. GRADE: C+
The Lucha Dragons (Sin Cara & Kalisto) def. Tye Dillenger & Jason Jordan via pinfall. GRADE: C+
Baron Corbin def. Tye Dillenger via pinfall. GRADE: N/A
Becky Lynch def. Bayley via submission. GRADE: B
Finn Bálor def. The Brian Kendrick via pinfall. GRADE: B