Interesting time for NXT - a show that started out as a way to get television exposure & experience for the men & women in WWE's Developmental program that is now that AND an ECW-replacing, Ring of Honor-killing touring machine.
A large percentage of its trademark women's division just got promoted to the main roster, even as one of the three still holds the brand's title...and just as a 'reality' show star more known for her hair color than any pro wrestling skills is set to join the show.
The men's title has only recently been passed to the seventh wrestler ever to hold it, and he's being thrust into a rematch with the previous holder...a man currently in limbo between NXT and Raw, and the main roster's main event and mid-card scenes.
With rumblings that the talent without an independent wrestling pedigree isn't developing fast enough and worries that a name veteran brought in to make a splash is disappointing, the Florida team has five shows to set the stage for their biggest event ever - TakeOver: Brooklyn in front of ten thousand plus on the eve of SummerSlam.
No pressure, right?
Irishman Finn Bálor pinned Kevin Owens 1 - 2 - 3 in front of his second home, the Tokyo, Japan crowd who came out to see the WWE Network-exclusive Beast in the East show on July 4. Tonight will be the first we've seen of Finn on anything other than the promotional circuit since claiming the crown. KO, on the other hand, has had plenty of exposure but not a lot of wins. His most recent loss ended with him tapping out to a John Cena STF rather than claiming the United States championship as he promised. Even as Owens' status on the main roster is in question, he's already set to main event the next TakeOver as he attempts to become the first two time NXT champ.
Tonight: Should be fairly straight-forward. NXT usually doesn't get too clever - in a good way. The new titleholder will come out to soak in the adoration of Full Sail Live, talk about wanting to be a fighting champ and be interrupted by an Owens who has become increasingly unhinged by a month of losses after six months without any.
The trick: Though this week's rumors have made this easier, especially with the brand's internet-connected audience, Creative still has to convince us that there's a chance they'll flip the belt back to Kev in Brooklyn. That's never happened before, especially following a coronation like Bálor's and what had looked like a full-time promotion for Owens.
They also need to figure out how to showcase guys like Samoa Joe & Rhyno who should stay around the belt if for no other reason so that it means something when they put younger workers over, and products of the system who have nowhere to go but the title at this point, like Baron Corbin & Tyler Breeze.
NXT Women's Division
Current champ Sasha Banks survived a friendly challenge from Charlotte last week, meaning that she and her last two challengers for the belt are all part of the main roster "Divas Revolution" that Stephanie McMahon, Michael Cole, Ric Flair, Jerry Lawler and every WWE employee up to and including the ghost of Lord Alfred Hayes can't stop telling us about.
Forgotten member of the "Four Horsewomen", Bayley, has a broken arm, but has been wrestling in a soft-cast. She has an ongoing issue with the recently returned Dark Emma and her running buddy, fitness model Dana Brooke on her plate. The roster's other veterans, Carmella and Alexa Bliss, are mostly focused on managing their respective tag teams right now.
Meanwhile, a couple of recent additions from the independent scene, Jessie McKay and Cassie McIntosh, have debuted in competitive squashes and look poised to flesh out the scene. Plus, Full Sail fave Blue Pants is on standby - and just might get the call...
Tonight: Total Divas star Eva Marie makes her (re)debut on NXT after spending some time training with The Brian Kendrick. A promo last week established her as a heel, so having her beat a fan favorite could make her a Big Bad almost immediately.
The trick: Is, of course, how successfully Kendrick's training was. I have avoided spoilers, but my Twitter didn't break after these shows were taped, so I guess she must be okay. One problem is is that while putting her against Old B.P. would draw heat, Leva Bates (the performer working the Blue Pants' gimmick) isn't exactly a ring general. The other problem is that Eva Marie's character would seem to negate the need for Brooke's character. Does NXT need two delusional heel fitness model types?
Another thing that should be addressed soon is the championship. Every NXT follower including me thinks Bayley will get her turn with the women's championship now that her contemporaries are revolution-ing on the main shows, but this wouldn't be the first time we all thought she was about to get the rub only for Creative to go another way. If they are going to shoot for a crowd-pleasing moment in Brooklyn for the Hugster, they'll want to start the build to that soon - possibly by definitively wrapping her feud with Emma & Dana.
Other stuff to keep an eye on:
- The Vaudevillains, Aiden English & Simon Gotch, are the surprise #1 contenders to Blake & Murphy's tag titles. Other than everybody wanting the gold, there's no story between the two teams as of now.
- A new team that looks to have a bright future, Chad Gable & Jason Jordan, picked up a win last week, but don't have a story. Crowd pleasers Enzo Amore & Colin Cassady just got nudged out of the title picture by the 'Villains (who aren't actually heels). And the beginning of the last taping spent time establishing Mojo Rawley & Zack Ryder - the Hype Bros - as a viable pairing.
- Bull Dempsey still eats at his feelings, which concerns General Manager William Regal.
Note: I know some folks have come looking for a more definitive match listing - we strictly avoid NXT spoilers here at Cageside central (except when we don't - you can find one of those instances here). If WWE.com releases or the performers tweet more information on anything that's officially going to take place on tonight's show, that'll be updated here. If anyone wants to put a match listing in the comments, please use spoiler tags.
What do you see coming from NXT at this critical point in its history?
Sound off below, and be sure to stick around tonight for results, discussion and analysis with all your fellow Cagesiders!