WWE comes under rightful criticism for a lot of things, but NXT is not one of them. The way the group have handled their “development” league since Triple H took the reins of the project has been a joy to behold. Every single of the NXT Takeover specials on the WWE Network has been a hit, full of exciting happenings, logical storytelling and, most importantly, some tremendous wrestling. Tonight’s show is hotly anticipated after weeks of speculation over main event challenger Sami Zayn’s health, Kevin Owen’s decimation of John Cena two nights ago on Raw, and rumours of a rather momentous debut. The card is stacked and the crowd is as hot as ever at Full Sail University. Your hosts are Rich Brennan, Corey Graves and Byron Saxton.
NXT Championship Number One Contendership Match
Tyler Breeze vs. Finn Balor
WWE’s story is that Hideo Itami was attacked in the parking lot earlier today, thus taking him out of this match. They show fan captured footage of Itami writhing on the ground and Kevin Owens walking past simply commenting, “That’s a shame.” It’s great that they do things like this on NXT, because it almost feels like Smoky Mountain Wrestling. It’s much more believable than a cameraman just happening to be there. Of course, most have known that Itami was injured for some time, and Triple H even pointed out that he would be “represented” tonight.
Finn’s entrance is even more epic than usual, because he has added a bat cape with spikes on it to his ensemble, prompting a “holy shit” chant from the crowd. When you combine his entrance, charisma and his in-ring ability, I don't think it’s a stretch to say that Finn Balor is perhaps the greatest wrestler on the planet. His whole body is covered in paint tonight, including an intricate eye drawn on his back and bloody scratch marks on his leg. “That was awesome,” reckons the NXT audience. It was. Rich Brennan doesn't quite get it, but Corey quite rightly points out that it’s the demon side of his personality manifested physically. I suspect Michael Cole won’t get it either when he eventually gets demoted (sic) to Raw.
This is just a straight singles now, with no replacement for Itami. Given the aforementioned Triple H comments, I am a little surprised not to see a third man. Rumour strongly suggested that a certain former TNA and ROH Champion might be inserted into the mix in his place. I guess plans change. Breeze is a talented guy and a perfectly decent opponent for Balor, though he is nowhere near his level. Then again, few are. He is a willing and able bumper though, and he is not afraid of taking some of Finn’s more brutal moves, such as a double stomp from the apron to the outside. And chops. Vicious, wonderful, Chris Benoit-esque chops. He gets cut off with a Breeze superkick - because he is a wannabe Shawn Michaels in many respects - for a near fall, and I guess we are already going into the big moves sequence. The finish attempts come thick and fast, with both guys avoiding the other’s moves and catching roll ups, then Breeze sending Balor into a turnbuckle that he earlier exposed for a heart-stopping near. Finn heads to the outside and hits a big dive off the entrance way, with the smart ass crowd chanting, “Please don't die,” as he does. The smarks might get irritating quickly if they try and put themselves over all night. Back in the ring a dropkick into the corner is followed by the double foot stomp for the win and the number one contendership. The prospect of Owens vs. Balor is mouth watering. Fairly good match, but it was all Balor. Breeze doesn't have enough in his locker to match him in the same way as the truly great NXT workers do.
Final Rating: ***
In the crowd, Stephanie McMahon is sat next to a dude from Game of Thrones and marking out for Finn Balor. She simply mouths, “awesome,” while applauding his victory. Following that we get footage from NXT’s hugely successful live tour, which makes them seem like ECW at its peak. It’s certainly the same vibe. A lot of the talent that leaves NXT for the main WWE roster suffers much the same fate as ECW guys that the WWF signed back in the day too.
Dana Brooke & Emma vs. Charlotte & Bayley
If anyone was wondering where Emma went, well, here she is. Frankly, she is better off in NXT. All of the women are until Hunter is able to convince Vince McMahon and Kevin Dunn that women’s wrestling doesn't have to be a joke. It’s remarkable to see how different Emma looks in NXT. Rather than the bumbling incompetent goof that she comes across as on Raw, she looks smooth and able. A lot of it is down to who she is working. When you are in there with the Bellas it’s difficult to shine. They work this strictly to formula at first, with Bayley taking a shoeing but showing her spunky fighting personality that has made her so popular. Charlotte cleans house on the hot tag, thoroughly outclassing her opponents. She is to them what Balor was to Tyler Breeze. The girls are pretty good, but she is so much better. Charlotte locks Emma in the figure eight, Bayley skips underneath her bridge and hits a Bayley-to-belly then Charlotte finishes Emma with the Natural Selection. A little sloppier than most Charlotte matches due to the inferiority of her opponents, but it was still better than any Divas match on Raw this year by a mile.
Final Rating: **
The camera pans across some new NXT signings sat in the crowd, and one Uhaa Nation gets a massive pop. He seems over the moon about it. I am looking forward to his imminent debut. WWE keeps getting it right with their signing of hot indy talent to flesh out the roster. After all, they need people to replace the guys moved to the main roster.
Rhyno vs. Baron Corbin
Another wise move from WWE has been brining in guys like Rhyno, Brian Kendrick and other former stars who can still go to work with the young talent. Keeping someone like Rhyno away from the main roster where he would be lost in the shuffle and making him exclusive to NXT is a good call. They do so much right with this branch of the company but so much wrong on the main roster shows. It boggles the mind. There is one reason and one reason alone: an out of touch Vince McMahon who has no idea what modern wrestling is. JR would probably refer to this bout as a slobberknocker, as it’s two big bulls pounding on one another. In truth it is not all that thrilling. I don't get Corbin. He is oddly tall, sure, but he has a terrible body. He is lean and fairly undefined, and while I certainly don't think wrestling should be a bodybuilding contest, it does make him look far more weedy than a guy his size should. After mostly Corbin dominance, Rhyno mounts a comeback, though Baron isn't the easiest guy to manoeuvre and he struggles to take some of his moves. Rhyno goes for the Gore, but Corbin sees it coming and prevents it with a clothesline, then his impressive End of Days finisher gets the job done. I can’t complain about the young talent going over in the booking, but I think Corbin is the wrong guy to be pushing.
Final Rating: *1/2
NXT Tag Team Championship
Blake & Murphy (c) vs. Enzo Amore & Colin Cassady
Enzo and Cass are ridiculously over. I suspect it’s a gimmick that will be lost on the masses if they make the main roster. Some of the NXT gimmicks that have been called up like Emma and Adam Rose simply don't translate. Enzo explodes out of the blocks with a hard crossbody and a beautiful dropkick, then gets out of dodge when both of the champs head into the ring. He tags Cass, who shakes off two vicious chops from Murphy and counters a DDT with a throw right across the ring. I like to see a big guy using his size properly like that. Enzo tags back in but gets cut off courtesy of a hard clothesline on the apron from Murphy, and the match heads to formula. That’s a little disappointing after the women did the same thing earlier. Blake & Murphy are a tidy duo though, and run the tried and tested well. I enjoy tag teams that wear similar attire and work together well, and they tick both of those boxes. They remind me of classic tag teams from a previous era, like a modern day Heavenly Bodies, perhaps. Enzo makes the hot tag after a planting DDT, and Cass looks impressive on his hot tag. He eats up the ring with his huge legs, covering so much space so quickly that he appears to be everywhere. The challengers look to have the match won with their rocket launcher finish, but Alexa Bliss gets involved, turning heel by taking out Carmella on the outside and then shoving Enzo off the ropes, allowing Blake to pin and retain. Entertaining enough, though nothing groundbreaking.
Final Rating: **1/4
Eva Marie is shown in the crowd. Why is she here? She is not welcome; she can’t wrestle.
NXT Women’s Championship
Sasha Banks (c) vs. Becky Lynch
They really build this up like it is something important, even giving both girls pre-entrance walks to gorilla with dramatic music in the background. It’s the little things that can make the difference in perception. It is also a self fulfilling prophesy. If you treat something like it is important, others will too. If you treat something like it is a joke, it’s a joke. It seems so simple, yet the chasm between the NXT women and the WWE Divas remains enormous. They do the Jerry Lynn-Lance Storm pin sequence to start, then Lynch goes for her armbar, only for Sasha to scurry out of it and sell fear. Great way to put the move over. Becky looks superb in the early going, exhibiting flashy innovative offence and a menacing ring presence, but Sasha gets back into the game by driving her arm-first into the apron. The increased aggression works well for her, and she follows that up with a vicious looking armbar in the ropes. She has found her groove and starts to control the pace, tenaciously keeping hold of Becky’s arm and contorting it in ways an arm shouldn't bend. At one point it looks like Lynch’s arm might snap, it’s twisted all the way around. To see such viciousness from a woman in WWE is a rare treat. You can definitely see the Ronda Rousey influence in there. Sasha continues to relentlessly target the arm, but Becky desperately fights out, making it to her feet while Sasha still has her arm and finally shaking her off with a one-armed electric chair drop.
Becky mounts her comeback, but Sasha returns fire with a speedy sequence of her own, then they jockey for position with counters and counter-counters aplenty. It’s great wrestling. Both have bad arms, and Becky makes things worse for Sasha with a hammerlock suplex, a unique armbar that Ronda would be proud of an a goddamn exploder suplex onto the arm. Now, Brock Lesnar would be proud! Sasha stays alive and goes for a suplex of her own, but Becky switches it in a smoother than silk sequence into her armbar. Sasha survives and makes the ropes, but everyone bought that as the finish. Sasha desperately shitcans Becky to buy herself some time, then throws caution to the wind with a one armed dive through the ropes. It doesn't go so well, because Becky, just about, catches her and sends her into the steps. Becky smells blood and goes up top, but gets caught with Divorce Court and immediately locks in her Bank Statement crossface move for the tapout win. What a wonderful match. Absolutely breathless from the opening bell, full of things I have never seen, some glorious arm work and with a strong storyline thread running throughout that kept me emotionally invested. This was better than most male matches, on this show or any other. For WWE women, given how the company usually treats its female performers, it was something else. I hope Eva Marie was watching that and thinking, “I’m in the wrong business.”
Final Rating: ****1/2
Kevin Owens (c) vs. Sami Zayn
I sure hope Sami’s shoulder is fully healed and he isn't risking a long-term stint on the sidelines by competing here. Owens turns up wearing a John Cena shirt, a nod to his impending match with the U.S. Champion at Elimination Chamber in little over a week. It’s a fight to begin with, with Owens trying for his powerbomb into the apron and Zayn countering with a direct assault on his face. Zayn is more focused and aggressive than ever before, matching his always violent opponent in that regard. He sends Owens into the crowd and Sami follows for a brawl. Owens again tries for his powerbomb, this time onto the concrete, but Sami grabs the guardrails around the tiered seats to prevent it. Back to the ring, and Sami continues to pummel Owens, murdering him with a half nelson suplex. Owens can’t get anything going, missing his cannonball and getting suplexed into the buckles. He has no choice but to seek solace outside the ring, but Sami follows and suplexes him on the outside. Sami is on fire and completely in control, but Owens catches his with a desperate powerbomb onto the apron. Immediately, Zayn is in trouble and referees check on him, but he doesn't move. Owens doesn't care, and pounces on Zayn with repeated punches and stomps as doctors try and check on him. It’s wonderful heel work, very reminiscent of Brock Lesnar when he was mauling everybody.
As the doctors try and assess Sami’s neck and shoulder, Owens again comes at him, hurling him into the steps. He promised beforehand that Sami wouldn't be seen again after tonight, and he is trying to make good on that promise. He drags Zayn into the ring and intends to finish him off, but NXT GM William Regal jumps in to talk sense into him. Owens won’t listen so Regal grabs him by the face, but receives a vicious headbutt for his troubles. Owens is the best heel in the company. Easily. He decides to finish Sami off for good with a steel chair, only for SAMOA FUCKING JOE to make the save. Now there is a sight I never thought I would see in WWE. Superb hire from WWE though, because the guy has dominated the non-WWE scene for the past decade or so. Like Owens, Zayn, Neville and Itami before him, he has name value from outside of the company that means something to this audience and will guarantee quality matches on this show for the foreseeable. He looks to be in the best shape he has been in for years too. Naturally he is over immediately and in a big way. They save doing anything physical for a later date, simply going nose to nose as the building shakes with anticipation. Owens backs down and leaves, then comes back and leaves again, promising they will do it another time. The only negative to come out of this is that the way the angle was done, and indeed the way Sami dominated the match and barely took any bumps, suggests that Zayn will be out for a while and his injury is serious. That’s a real shame for him because he was on fire, and he certainly doesn't need WWE believing him to be an injury-prone guy like Daniel Bryan. That will nix any potential future push forever if he gets that tag with Vince.
Final Rating: ***
Summary: Tremendous. With not a bad match on the card and with the lesser contests kept brief, this was another remarkable effort from the NXT crew, who once again proved that they are superior to the main roster in almost every way. Even with the long-anticipated debut of TNA legend Samoa Joe, it was the women who stole the show. I hope Stephanie McMahon was watching closely as Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks assembled one of the best wrestling matches in WWE all year. Perfect storytelling, near-flawless execution and a crowd fully invested into every minute made it an NXT classic. Hopefully in years to come we will be talking about it as the match that changed perception of women’s wrestling in WWE, rather than looking back and longing for these days again because the two competitors are jobbing to Nikki Bella and Eva Marie in three minutes on Raw. As with practically every NXT special, you need to go out of your way to see this.