Hype for this show includes the NXT women’s four-way match and the NXT title match between Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens. I love the atmosphere of NXT. The whole arena, here in Orlando, Florida, has a different vibe to it than any other WWE show. The crowd chanting “NXT” makes it feel like an ECW show or ROH. I dig the set up as well with it being a ‘dark’ version of the WWE. Different lighting, a smaller arena, even different ring ropes. It helps to distinguish the product. Kevin Dunn must hate it. Hosts are Rich Brennan, Corey Graves and Jason Albert.
Hideo Itami vs. Tyler Breeze
Itami came up short against Finn Balor last week only to get jumped by Tyler Breeze, upset that Hideo beat him but couldn’t get past the former Prince Devitt. Tyler has a selfie-stick so he can tape his own entrance, which is suitably douche-baggy for a heel. Breeze deliberately appeals to the ladies, which guarantees him heat with the men-folk. Itami is toned down from his NOAH-based character KENTA but he still throws plenty of kicks. The basic structure of the match is Itami beating the shit out of Tyler until Breeze goes after the leg to eliminate the kicks. That includes the Ringpost Figure Four of Bret Hart, followed by a modified Sharpshooter. You think he was a Hitman fan as a kid? Hideo gets in another GTS teaser, which the fans go nuts for. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him ‘taking it back’ seeing as CM Punk isn’t even wrestling anymore and freely admitted to stealing the move off KENTA in the first place. Hideo bringing the Fighting Spirit is pretty cool, as you never see small guys no-sell in the WWE. Tyler gets dropkicked in the corner and finished with the Busaiku Knee Kick. They tried a little teaser psychology with the knee but Hideo just shrugged that off and finished the match with ease. It’s clear who’s being booked as a big prospect and who’s being booked as ‘a guy’.
Final Rating: **1/2
Bull Dempsey vs. Baron Corbin
This is NXT’s equivalent of a hoss-fight with the two biggest guys in NXT smacking each other around. The effort levels are superior to the main rosters big guy fights. Corbin has hardly broken a sweat in NXT so this is a chance to get a look at how he’ll fare long term. He’s been well protected. Corbin is further protected here by kicking out of Dempsey’s arsenal although he botches a lariat over the ropes and the crowd get on his case a bit. There is an unforgiving element to any hardcore crowd. It’s all part of the experience. Dempsey grabs a chair but runs straight into End of Days. Corbin picks up the win. It’s hard to tell which one of these guys will be a big break-out star based on this but they are both trying hard to look strong. The concern of course is that they’ll be dwarfed by the real ‘big guys’ (Dempsey is 6’ 2”, Corbin 6’ 6”) on Raw but hey, that’s New York for you. Odd they did nothing with the no DQ stipulation here.
Final Rating: *3/4
NXT Tag Team Championship
Blake & Murphy (c) vs. The Lucha Dragons (Sin Cara & Kallisto)
Blake & Murphy recently upset the Lucha Dragons for the titles, just 2 weeks ago. Buddy Murphy is Australian, part of the WWE’s eclectic global recruitment policy. Wesley Blake is from Texas. Sin Cara, botchmaster that he is, blows one of his first spots to the ire of the crowd. Kalisto then botches a dive to really piss the crowd off. Lucha-libre can be very clanger heavy. The Lucha Dragons have to work hard to get the crowd back, which had been electric before Sin Cara’s error. Blake & Murphy are a solid enough team and don’t let the Lucha Dragons drag them down. Kalisto finally gets his act together and starts popping off spots. Once the mojo has been found, the match is significantly better and involves a lot of quick pins and counters. Murphy puts Sin Cara down with a brainbuster and Blake, who’d tagged in blind, hits a frogsplash to retain the straps. Good choice of champions. They’re better than the Lucha Dragons. Blake & Murphy looked good. Shame about the early mistakes.
Final Rating: **
#1 Contender’s Match
Finn Balor vs. Adrian Neville
It’s been a privilege to watch these two develop from Indy stars in the UK, who always looked destined for greatness, into NXT superstars. I remember getting Neville booked in Birmingham and paying for the privilege of watching him steal the show. Balor I got to see a lot less when he wrestled in the UK but as Prince Devitt he became a phenomenon in New Japan, almost cracking their glass ceiling by competing with the likes of Hiroshi Tanahashi, despite being a cruiserweight. Balor’s NXT entrance is sensational and he already has the showmanship of the Undertaker or Triple H in that respect.
Neville has certainly slowed his match down since joining the WWE but Balor never worked at an insane pace, instead intent to make his spots mean something. So he carries that over and combined with the face-paint it gives him that X-Factor. The crowd are expecting them to use the ropes but instead they trade on the mat, showing healthy technical skill. I like that when either man goes up top, they’re knocked off by their speedy opponent. Balor starts to bring the personality and him stalking Neville around ringside reeks of stardom. The crowd are drawn into the match more as they go for strike duels, and Neville is the second person tonight to do Fighting Spirit, no selling a Pele Kick in order to flatten Balor with a superkick. Corkscrew Phoenix Splash off the second rope from Neville, which is ludicrous but the kind of thing he’s capable of, gets 2. Balor comes firing back but nothing will keep either guy down. Red Arrow gets knees with Balor hooking a cradle…for 2! I love the desperate kicking of the legs from Neville making it look like a definite finish. Balor goes up, hits the Double Stomp, and he’s the #1 Contender. Interesting match, which started out slow but built into something worthwhile. I dig the sheer number of near falls they put in there. The crowd chanting “match of the year” may be a bit presumptuous as I can think of three matches from January that were better. Still, a fine effort and the second best WWE match of the year so far.
Final Rating: ****1/4
NXT Women’s Championship
Charlotte (c) vs. Bayley vs. Sasha Banks vs. Becky Lynch
I bet Paige is begging for at least one of these girls to get called up to the main roster. Probably Charlotte, who’s an outstanding wrestler and genetically superior, considering her Dad is Ric Flair. The crowd are into all of them but it’s Charlotte who dominates. “Bayley’s gonna hug you” is a wonderful PG chant by the way. Becky and Sasha form an alliance but they can’t both pin Bayley, which is where trouble starts. Sasha takes some slick bumps, often landing either on her neck or flying through the air into a massive flatback. It’s commendable but likely to lead to neck surgery. Charlotte’s powerhouse destruction of everyone is remarkable business. They are all good characters but Charlotte is different class. Sasha is perhaps the most inventive of the four though and hits her knee drop in the corner on Charlotte and Becky. Bayley plays the role of plucky underdog and she’s popular due to this. Super rana on Charlotte is perfectly executed. All these girls take good bumps. As they knock lumps out of each other the crowd go for another “NXT” chant. The tension builds as the falls get closer and closer and the psychology of the way it comes together is cool. Like Bayley hitting the Hug Superplex, Sasha stealing the pin but Charlotte kicking out anyway. Charlotte almost goes out to Sasha’s Crossface but as she’s flagging Sasha switches to a roll up for the pin and the title. There were moments where someone had to stay down selling for too long. That’ll always be an issue in multi-person matches but all the girls were booked perfectly. Perhaps only Becky Lynch’s angle came up short. Banks certainly earned her win with the bumps and creativity. Sasha hugs it out with Charlotte only to shove her away and hold the belt high. Charlotte’s teary-eyed dismay is sensational. She wanted to pass the torch, Sasha just wanted to take it.
Final Rating: ***3/4
NXT Heavyweight Championship
Sami Zayn (c) vs. Kevin Owens
I like the way the WWE has pulled the personal history of Zayn & Owens, Indy darlings, together to make this far more epic than it would have been if a newcomer had just walked into NXT and challenged the champ. The back-story is what makes this. Their history together, as a tag team, as best friends and as enemies makes this special without any work from the WWE. They had this rich history handed to them, going back over 10 years, and they used it. Not just fabricated a new story but used the existing one. It’s something I’ve been begging for WWE to do for years.
They milk the crowd right at the start, listening to the noise and building tension without contact. It’s some seriously old fashioned heel work from Owens and leads to Sami hitting a dive over the ref onto Owens on the floor. Which is perfect; a dive must have a logical reason for existing or it’s just a random high spot. Zayn knows his best tactic to get the match over is to take massive bumps off everything Owens does. He rag dolls every single spot to make Owens look like a monster. For me Owens plays this too Old School and is very deliberate not to steal anything from Zayn in terms of reactions, even though the crowd is big on duelling chants and cheering heels anyway. The crowd get a “kill, Owens, kill” chant going too, clearly familiar with Kevin Steen’s prior career on the Indy circuit. Owens dismantles Zayn, cuts off his air supply and crushes his ribs sporadically. Sami’s wobbly legged selling makes it look like a matter of time before he’s beaten. Owens continues to destroy Zayn with bigger and bigger spots like the Cannonball. Sami’s spots are desperate by comparison, like a fluke half & half suplex where Owens lands on his head. To see this sort of thing in a WWE ring is both absurd and wonderful. Swanton from Owens! Knees up from Zayn! That can’t be good for Sami and his knees. Owens bails to avoid the big HELLUVA Kick. Sami swaps out for the Arabian press to the floor. Sami bounces his head off the ramp on that and staggers during the follow up Helluva Kick. The idea being he’s been knocked silly by the ramp. POPUP POWERBOMB! Sami kicks out. With Sami selling his head, Owens pounds his face in with punches. It’s great storytelling as the fans are genuinely concerned about Zayn’s wellbeing. Two powerbombs leave Sami almost motionless and the girls in the front row are in tears. Owens continues to hit powerbombs and the ref calls it as Zayn can’t continue. Crowd begin to chant “bullshit” for the non-finish but Owens is awarded the belt via referee stoppage! Holy shit, what a ballsy booking decision that is! Some of the fans have a look on their face like Ellis Mbeh (the wide-eyed guy in the front row) after Brock Lesnar broke the streak. This was the Vader-Sting of NXT. It’s one of the most brutal babyface annihilations seen in mainstream wrestling. Comparable to Lesnar’s destruction of John Cena last year.
Final Rating: ****1/4
Verdict: I must admit I was a little worried after the first three matches, fearing for the overall quality of the card and that pressure would cause a lot of mistakes with more eyes on the product. I shouldn’t have been concerned. NXT are determined to put on the best wrestling show possible and they’re doing a superb job of booking ongoing storylines, building characters and having great matches. It’s exactly what you want from a wrestling promotion. It makes me clamber for the day when William Regal is picking talent for the entire company and Triple H is booking it. He’s got a combination of an Old School mentality and an urge to take the best moves of young guys and turn it loose on the WWE’s audience. Trying to change audience mentality isn’t easy and won’t happen overnight but every time NXT put on a show that annihilates the quality of the other WWE programming it’s a wake up call to the main roster. The only problem the WWE have is that nobody is fucking paying attention to this! Apparently Vince McMahon has NXT on in the background when he’s “working”. Is the future of the company not considered relevant to work? What the hell “work” is so important to Vince that he’s ignoring his own shows? His own contracted talent? Maybe I should be relieved he doesn’t care about NXT as it allows it to carry on like this and not get ruined by his outdated mind-set. Thumbs up, obviously, like every NXT special.