Last week, NXT aired another live Takeover special, which means that this week was used to hit pause and take a deep breath before soldering on to the next two-hour event that convinces the bored, jaded folks constantly threatening to cancel their subscription to the WWE Network to keep hanging in there for more of that good stuff. Considering that two out of five of Triple H’s prized NXT stars—Sami Zayn and Hideo Itami—are out of action with injuries for awhile, that pause is warranted. But if anybody tuning into a regular episode of NXT for the first time after Takeover was expecting the same kind of breakneck-paced action of that show, then this week’s show is a lesson in tempered expectations. It’s not so much that anything about NXT this week was bad. It’s always a solid hour of wrestling, able to tell its stories in clear, concise, and (mostly) compelling fashion, featuring at least one match that’s worth remembering, but when NXT pumps the breaks, it really pumps the breaks.
Kevin Owens is, of course, preparing for his first match on the main roster, which is, as you may or may not have heard, against John Cena. After putting Sami Zayn out of action last week and crushing John Cena with another pop-up powerbomb, he’s got a lot of momentum on his side and he knows it. He hits the ring to begin the show, entering to Zayn’s music, which he says will never be played again. I don’t envy Owens in this spot at all, as he has to address a lot of moving parts in this promo: Zayn, John Cena, Samoa Joe—and that’s before NXT General Manager William Regal comes to the ring to make clear that he doesn’t appreciate what Owens has done as champion. Their brief exchange is great—I love Owens’ character, a bad man who really believes that his actions are good, and Regal is one of my favorite wrestlers and personalities ever. The NXT General Manager is a thankless role, one that doesn’t get a lot of airtime (which means that it’s honestly a waste of Regal), but this week William Regal makes it count. He’s tired of watching Owens beat his roster up to the point that they have to take a stretcher out of the arena. Last week they teased Regal vs. Owens and brought out Samoa Joe. This week their disagreement brings out Solomon Crowe. Crowe is still newish to NXT but is no stranger to Owens, the two having met in the indies, but their rivalry is considerably less storied than the one between Owens and Zayn, so Owens plays Crowe like a nobody. Crowe’s gimmick is that he’s a computer hacker, but in the ring with Owens he is all nebbish babyface, mad about what Owens did to Zayn. He questions Owens’ moral turpitude and “earns” a main event match against the champion. Owens vows that, just like his other rivals, Crowe will leave the NXT Arena on a stretcher.
With Kevin Owens being pulled in so many directions, NXT has also been focusing on its strong women’s division in a way that no other wrestling promotion on television has proven themselves capable of. After a match of the year candidate against Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch was the subject of NXT‘s best video package, spotlighting her journey from a young woman with a dream to her show-stealing match last week. Alexa Bliss’ sudden allegiance with NXT Tag Team Champions Blake and Murphy means that Carmella will be physically involved in the issue surrounding those titles, and Bliss has an edge to her character beyond the default girl-next-door bubbliness she debuted with. It’s a vaguely defined edge, though, as Blake and Murphy, despite being an able team, don’t really have characters themselves beyond being kind of dirty and maybe into dubstep. That’s been one of NXT’s major failings for me, is how beyond former indie darlings and high concept characters like Tyler Breeze, most of the roster is interchangeable. The point, I suppose, is whether or not they can go in the ring, but it’s nice when NXT provides a template for the lazy, downtrodden Raw and SmackDown! writers so that a call-up isn’t forced to stand around pumping their fists in silence like the Lucha Dragons.
The strongest work this week was put in by Emma, who has taken NXT’s other female cliché (a “change in attitude”) and run with it much farther than I would have expected given her goofy, dance-centered character. That she flopped so hard on Raw and was at the center of a weird shoplifting saga that resulted in her being fired and rehired in short order, so it’s within the realm of believability that her change of attitude is motivated by something real. She’s been saddled with Dana Brooke, who is super green. I wasn’t particularly impressed with her at Unstoppable, and, standing ringside, all she really has to do is flex her rather impressive muscles. Her role, like most roles women play on WWE program, is not unfamiliar to anybody watching Raw or SmackDown!, as Tamina Snuka has been playing it since her debut, for the Usos, A.J. Lee, and now Naomi. While it’s a good idea, a sneaky, bitter heel looking for help in their crusade against another woman, the lady version of the Shawn Michaels/Diesel relationship has yet to really play itself out. There’s no denying that NXT is a much more satisfying experience when it comes to women’s wrestling, but a sketch of an idea is still a sketch of an idea. Why does Dana Brooke do the things Dana Brooke does? Who is she? For that matter, who is Alexa Bliss and why is she hanging with a pair of mean dudes after spending so much time as a bubbly cheerleader who called her moves things like “the sparkle splash?” I appreciate how much NXT focuses on women, but beyond those who’ve had careers outside of NXT or who came to it attached to their father’s legacy, that “focus” often means just being on screen while something else happens.
Actually, that’s become something of a noticeable problem on NXT as time passes and certain stars get called up to the main show: Beyond Triple H’s acclaimed, no-brainer “leaders of the new school” signings and those who had a character before their arrival, the show is almost shockingly bereft of depth. So many of the WWE-bred NXT regulars, like poor Tye Dillenger, look and wrestle in this beyond flavorless manner that suggests there’s little more to them than being dropkick fodder for Finn Bálor. Solomon Crowe represents something of an experiment, a hybrid of WWE’s predilection towards hiring buzzed about indie wrestlers who wouldn’t have stood a chance of signing even two years ago and their penchant for goofy gimmicks. Looking at Crowe, it’s more than a little hard to buy him as some cyberpunk hacker on the fringes of society, and that character did not mesh well with the ancient babyface fire he was meant to channel in the opening segment of the night. As Sami Callihan, he wrestled main events on the indies against Kevin Owens (née Steen), so tonight’s NXT main event is another that’s happened before, but not under the WWE’s bright lights, and not in the WWE’s gadget-heavy ring.
In one sense, it was actually kind of refreshing to see a formerly big match-up turned into a tune-up for Owens as he heads into the biggest match of his life at Elimination Chamber. 1.3 million or so people subscribe to the WWE Network, and Owens/Cena is an exclusive to that platform, but over the past two weeks he has brought his unlikely presence to the largest possible audience for wrestling in 2015, and is, in fact, being billed as the next big thing for it. And it’s not just Owens’ career that’s in the balance here, but the perception of NXT as a brand. WWE has tried and failed to market outsider offshoots of itself for a long time now—Shotgun Saturday Night, the revival of the ECW brand, and the original concept for NXT were failures because, despite branding, they felt a lot like WWE, just with the lights dimmed down a bit. NXT as it is now does not have that problem, as WWE has succeeded in building a bubble universe, an arena full of people whose fervor for what they’re seeing would rival the crowds at an ROH, PWG, AIW, Chikara, or Beyond Wrestling show if there wasn’t such an overbearing sense of mandatory fun at the NXT Arena. Moments like the confrontation between Owens and Samoa Joe are cool, but I think it’s time to recognize that they’re not cool because of anything the WWE is doing, unless we want to say (to admit?) that what WWE is doing is piling money onto a product whose presentation has been mastered by other promotions for a decade plus, and at an operating budget that would make Triple H laugh. It’s not enough to put Samoa Joe and Kevin Owens in the same ring together—the rest of the show, for it really be that much better than the main roster, needs to be clicking at the same level as its indie stars. If that seems like an unrealistic expectation, well, that kind of comes with the territory of booking an indie promotion on a million dollar budget.
WWE NXT: 5/27/15, Tampa, Florida
Emma (w/Dana Brooke) def. Bayley via submission. GRADE: B-
Blake and Murphy (w/Alexa Bliss) def. Elias Samson & Mike Rollins via pinfall. GRADE: C+
Finn Balor def. Tye Dillenger via pinfall. GRADE: C
Kevin Owens def. Solomon Crowe via pinfall. GRADE: B-