Since I last looked at an NXT event here, TakeOver: Fatal Fourway, the brand has developed beyond any reasonable expectation to, in a way, rival the main WWE brand by bringing a fresh, modern take on pro-wrestling to a more mainstream platform (and I speak as someone who really only closely follows the mainstream in this regard).
So, on Friday 1st April 2016, NXT reached a new height as it opened WrestleMania weekend and set the bar for what was to follow very high.
The show started off with a package that, once again, drew parallels between the past and today. It highlighted some of the most famous wrestlers to come out of Texas, from The Fabulous Freebirds and the Von Erichs to Stone Cold Steve Austin and JBL and then hyped what we were about to see which, on paper and in the minds of many dedicated fans, is the best show WWE has put on in a long time and surpasses even the WrestleMania to come.
Cutting into the arena we were greeted by the now standard NXT announce team of Tom Phillips and Corey Graves. Graves has grown from an awkward former wrestler to a great heel colour commentator and, while his relationship with the straight play-by-play man Phillips is far from perfect, it is growing and both men did a fine job across the show.
The arena was set up, like all NXT shows in larger arenas so far, with a lower level screen and set that allows the character of the arena to come through. For my money this is far superior to the now all but identical sets we see over and over again on the main WWE shows.
Without much ado as soon as we cut to the arena the theme music for American Alpha hit leading into the opening match…
NXT Tag Team Championship
The Revival: Scott Dawson & Dash Wilder (c) vs. American Alpha: Jason Jordan & Chad Gable
Looking every bit the new Team Angle (for those who remember the glory days of Kurt Angle) Jason Jordan and Chad Gable were greeted like heroes by the Dallas crowd while their opponents, aping the likes of The Brainbusters, got a more subdued but suitably negative welcome.
Early on it was clear this match wasn’t going to follow the standard path of seemingly all WWE tag team matches these days as it was genuinely back and forth between the two teams. In this both had their moments but, while Dash & Dawson are impressive both in moves and character their style, harking back to the past, is less flashy so what stuck with me really in this segment was the work of Jordan & Gable.
Gable, as always, broke out some excellent ‘amateur’ style moves before a fantastic set of double team moves including a double dropkick, double German suplex spot that was a highlight.
The Revival did eventually get the upper hand and, despite a couple of blown spots, worked things well. Even these blown moments were quickly forgotten and glossed over thanks to great work from both teams, though a ‘Botchamania’ chant from the crowd was a special moment.
As the match neared its conclusion we were treated to series of genuinely hot back and forth near falls, but it was some excellent smooth action from American Alpha that led to their finishing combo-suplex giving us new, and very popular, NXT Tag Team Champions to kick of the show on a high.
Despite losing The Revival very much came into their own here as well, finally starting to fulfill on the hype surrounding their ‘throwback’ style.
As the teams left the ring we got a shot of non-WWE/NXT Japanese performer Ibushi in the audience which got a big pop from the crowd and was the first of several appearances hinting at possible things to come.
Baron Corbin vs Austin Aries
While Corbin’s entrance was largely un-memorable (save for a Mad Max-esque twist on his usual vest) the arrival of Austin Aries, the first of two major debuts, got a huge reaction. Once the match began though there seemed to be a genuine mix of chants for both men in the opening moments.
Very much built around the size difference between the two men, Corbin played the hard-hitting monster heel while Aries had the more interesting and varied offence though his style and hype didn’t really fit the underdog role that seemed to be needed.
This gave the whole match a slightly off-balance feel to it, like many of Corbin’s have had in the past, as his inexperience and what seems to be a limited move set, means all opponents have to work within that. Despite this Aries did his best and got a few nice moves in, including a great looking low suicide dive clothesline, but from either side little has stuck in my memory even six hours on.
The closing spot of the match was a nice one as Aries reversed Corbin’s End of Days ’finisher’ into a roll up, but I couldn’t help coming away from this one thinking it was somewhat hobbled before it even started.
Bringing in a new star like Aries he had to win, but with Corbin being built into a monster he had to stay strong in the eyes of fans, unfortunately this meant that whatever happened would end up somewhat disappointing and lackluster.
Thankfully this was the only match on this show to suffer from this problem while it could be argued that almost every match at WrestleMania could be faced with this.
From the end of that match, that certainly didn’t feel like the end of the feud between the two, but thankfully the sense of excitement suddenly skyrocketed as we saw a great video package hyping the first of three main events…
Sami Zayn vs. Shinsuke Nakamura
After the video the one man confirmed to be pulling double duty this weekend, Sami Zayn’s, music hit and the crowd sang along like I don’t think I’ve ever heard. The man dubbed ‘The Heart and Soul of NXT’, was coming off an epic series with Samoa Joe and has staked his claim on the so-called ‘main’ WWE shows as part of the match for the Intercontinental Championship at Wrestlemania.
Here though part of the excitement could certainly be down to the anticipation for the man he was facing, the second big debut of the night.
As the lights went out a chant of ‘Nakamura’ began and an excellently pitched new piece of entrance music hit, heralding the arrival of the ‘King Of Strong Style’, former IWGP World and Intercontinental Champion, Shinsuke Nakamura.
As he made his way to ring, all his trademark poses and postures flew off the screen and as he let out his ‘Yeaoh!’ cry against the ring ropes I genuinely had goosebumps. A lot is made of Nakamura’s uncanny ‘charisma’ and I had been skeptical of how it would translate outside of the rather different confines of New Japan Pro-Wrestling. But, even before the match began it was clear that it was translating just fine, and even during the match, where he silenced the crowd with a gesture or taunted Zayn as only he can, it was clearly working just fine.
The match itself was as near to perfect as your ever likely to see with both men delivering at a top-level and Zayn in particular upping his game to match that of Nakamura. The contest was back and forth for 30 minutes with the crowd electric and engaged throughout, but it was an extended series of traded forearms, on paper a rather basic moment, that elevated it to a new high.
As Nakamura’s ‘strong style’ approach took its toll Zayn sold it masterfully and gave as good as he got, but the match was booked to perfection with Sami hitting some signatures but, crucially, missing others, while Nakamura eventually hit several of his culminating in the renamed Bomaye knee strike (now seemingly called the Kinshasa) to pick up the win.
After the match Nakamura approached Zayn and the two men shook hands and embraced in a moment that signified, and truly felt like, the ‘passing of a torch’ as Sami heads up to the ‘big’ show and Nakamura comes into NXT.
In the end I can’t find the words to quite describe how good this match was so I would advise anyone with even a passing interest to give it a watch as it is clearly going to be a candidate for match of the year, not just in NXT but in all of pro-wrestling, taking Nakamura up to two on that list already, following his clash with AJ Styles at NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom back in January.
With very little time to recover another excellent video package cut in to hype the following…
NXT Women’s Championship
Bayley (c) vs. Asuka
No one could envy Bayley and Asuka having to follow Zayn and Nakamura but the women put on a great show from their arrival in the arena, with a new mask and robe for Asuka’s mysterious entrance, to the upbeat positivity of Bayley.
While Bayley has been involved in some of the best women’s matches in recent memory (if ever), for her NXT career so far Asuka has predominantly squashed opponents in relatively short and repetitious order.
From the off this match had a legitimate and scrappy feel between the two fan favourites (though undeniably Bayley was the stronger ‘face’ of the two). In this both women showed a greater range than previously with Bayley really showing a new side to her game to match Asuka’s style. In many ways this was reminiscent of what Sami Zayn had done in the previous match with Nakamura and there are several parallels that can be drawn between the two.
As the pair traded holds and strikes it came down to Asuka’s self named hold (a version of the crossface chicken wing) that after much fighting finally ended Bayley’s reign as champion. In a well judged piece of booking though Bayley didn’t tap out to the hold, instead ‘passing out’ to its sleeper like properties, maintaining her reputation as a ‘never give up’ style hero.
With the so-called Diva’s Revolution seemingly back in full swing Asuka taking on the mantel of champion offers a potential new freshness to the NXT women’s division, but I can’t help but think a rematch to this will be coming up in the not too distant future.
Before the promo video for the NXT Championship match begins we get a shot of another non-WWE/NXT wrestler in the crowd, former TNA star Bobby Roode who is currently a ‘free agent’ and rumour has suggested might be coming to NXT – unsurprisingly, this was greeted with great enthusiasm from the crowd.
Finn Balor (c) vs. Samoa Joe
Having already fought for the title at Takeover: London in December, since then Samoa Joe has grown into even more of a monster heel through a great series of matches to determine the number one contender against Sami Zayn (and Baron Corbin) while Finn Balor has continued to develop his character as a hard fighting good guy and leader of his ‘Balor Club’ of fans.
Here though it was Balor in Demon mode who made his way to the ring referencing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to a great reaction and genuinely turning up the intensity of his character from the start.
Very early in the match Joe and Finn clashed heads, splitting open Joe’s eye in fairly spectacular fashion. This looked worryingly set to derail the main event as, given the WWE’s now PG rated content this needed to be cleaned up and the cut sealed as quickly as possible.
However, credit goes to both performers for working this into the match as much as possible and Joe really using it to feed the anger of his character while the crowd, in a somewhat disturbing (but suitable given the emotions going on) moment, chanted ‘Let them bleed!’.
While blood used to be a major part of wrestling main events it is far less predominant now, particular in WWE, for two reasons. First is the aforementioned PG rating, that can be debated until the cows come home, secondly, and to my mind far more reasonably, is the potential health issues blood injuries can lead to for everyone involved. I would however be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit that I think a bit of ‘colour’ can really add something to a big match like this, and it sure did here.
Again the match was back and forth with the crowd invested throughout and the two showed why they were headlining with every signature being hit (with the exception of Finn’s 1916/Bloody Sunday DDT) and a great story being told across the bout that further elevated both men’s characters to new heights.
Much like the Wembley match from December this ended with Balor retaining the belt but in less than dominating fashion. While this may be the end of their feud for now (its been going on for the best part of the last six months) it made both men look great and cemented Samoa Joe as a monster heel in WWE circles that can wrestle and fight like few others.
While Shinsuke Nakamura and Sami Zayn certainly was the show’s centerpiece and highlight, it would be hard to argue with the overall quality of the whole show (with the arguable exception of Corbin/Aries).
This has set WrestleMania weekend off on a real high point that I think will please the dedicated fans more than the big show itself, though of course the product of both is vastly different, but no matter how you look at it, I’d be very surprised if anything this weekend comes close to Zayn and Nakamura.