When a collection persons as varied as Mauro Ranallo, Hideo Itami, Adam Jones (Tool guitarist, not Bengals corner/R-Truth tag partner or Orioles outfielder, version), Larry Zbyszko, Sasha Banks & Michael PS Hayes are in attendance, you know it's a big night.
General Manager William Regal kicks us off by addressing last week's incident with Baron Corbin during the introduction of Austin Aries. While Regal wanted to suspend the Lone Wolf, Aries talked him out of it, asking instead for a chance to teach him a lesson in the ring. The GM booked the match for Dallas on Apr. 1.
From there, it's straight into our main event (which, despite Tom Phillips and Corey Graves admirable sell that both an American Alpha vs. Vaudevillains match and Asuka & Bayley tagging against Eva Marie & Nia Jax would also take place in the episode, was pretty clearly going to take up most if not all of the hour as soon as Joe's music hit).
Methodical start as both Joe and Sami Zayn look for an advantage. That comes in the form of brutal strikes from the Samoan Submission Machine, but despite blistering chops, bruising sentons and more, Zayn will not stay down. Sami makes a few brief comebacks, including one which culminates in a Koji Clutch attempt and another with a sprigboard moonsault to the floor.
After more than twenty minutes, Zayn fought off one Muscle Buster, but when he tried to run the ropes for his tornado DDT, Joe ducked. Countering with the STJoe, he connects with his finisher and takes the lead.
- That William Regal is good. A WWE authority figure who doesn't talk about himself, his family or "the business" for twenty minutes... what a concept!
- Interesting decision to record at least some of the commentary this week, despite the show being filmed back in January.As I alluded to above, pretending we were going to get this match and two major tag bouts on the card was kind of annoying, but I suppose it created doubt for some as to how long this match might run while also selling future episodes. Going out of their way to present the match as actually taking place on Mar. 9 (saying they'd both worked The Arnold; Sami was on Raw "48 hours ago") was different and will be watching to see if they continue going forward.
- Not sure exactly what the best way to tackle this episode is, so I'm sticking with the standard format to mirror the structure they gave us, but these reactions may bounce around. In general, the issue is this - responses to the reports of this match before it aired and even after fans had a chance to see it last night varied greatly. I've seen everything from "match of the year" to "over-inflated and self-important".
- This opening stanza played a large part in those latter critiques, I'm sure. They started slow, and this was emphasized by the many commercial breaks taken before the first fall. Your feelings about breaks on a service you're paying for aside, those ads may have helped break up what would have otherwise been the wrestling equivalent of a wall of text, but they probably compounded frustrations fans who already found the in-ring action a bit tedious.
- Me, though? I pretty much dug it. Twenty minutes was a long time, but liked that it was presented as both men knowing each other so well that they had to really work for an opening (as opposed to a more generic "feeling out process"). Also thought it was smart to flip the usual two-out-of-three falls script away from one-quick-pin-each-so-we-can-just-have-a-regular-match.
- This also allowed for a real showcase for Phillips and Corey Graves, who handled themselves extremely well. For my money, Tom has the most natural chemistry with Corey, and this proved they can handle a pay-per-view (PPV) type contest without jokes or (too much) reminding us about other angles. Sure, they could call "moar movez", but they were an integral part of the story - especially when they acting impressed by the length of time before the Joe got the first pin.
The official give Zayn a moments rest, but as soon as action resumes Joe is on him immediately. Sami looks groggy, but manages to fight off several Muscle Buster attempts and repeatedly waves off the referee. Eventually, a drop kick and headbutt earns him a breather as Joe's head has to be checked for a cut.
His aggression in trying to get things restarted earns Sami a warning, but Joe uses the opening to re-take the advantage. In the midst of more strikes and suplexes, Zayn gets a nearfall on a roll-up, but otherwise is beaten down. Samoa Joe tries to take the decision via countout, whipping his opponent into the steel steps and nailing him with an STO on the floor, but the former NXT champ keeps beating the ten count.
After Joe fights off several power moves, Sami finally connects with suplex and follows it up with a front flip tope. Back in the ring, Zayn takes a punch to get it, but is able to use Joe's momentum against him and apply the Koji Clutch. This time, they're in the middle of the ring, and Joe taps to end the second fall more than a half an hour into the match.
- Often have this conflict with Sami, where I believe his selling would drive me crazy if anyone but him were doing it. That's not really specific to this match, just wanted to share.
- The second fall featured more cool tweaks of the formula. Joe's countout strategy made a ton of sense, and I loved how both guys sold the effects of the first twenty minutes. Especially from Sami's side, where it wasn't so much that his opponent was blocking moves, but Zayn was too spent to execute them.
- While not quite Kevin Owens, Samoa Joe's expressions of exasperation when the Likeable One refused to die were pretty great.
- At the same time they were playing with convention regarding the stipulation, both guys were using the extra time to really reinforce their characters. Sami is a human crash test dummy who won't give up. Joe is a professional inflicter of pain. No need to re-invent the wheel.
Exhausted, the men trade strikes. Zayn keeps momentum with a Blue Thunder Bomb which gets two. Joe dodges a weak Helluva Kick attempt, and a battle on the ropes ends with a Sunset Flip from Sami.
Joe ends up on the floor, and it's he who is almost counted out a couple of times, once following Zayn's signature dive-through-the-ropes tornado DDT. Another finisher attempt by Sami is countered, and a powerbomb from the Samoan Submission Machine sets up several holds, including a high Boston Crab, crossface and an armbar which targets the recently surgically-repaired shoulder of the Likeable One.
Making the ropes with a foot earns Sami a break, but a rapid assault leaves him looking woozy again. He barely pulls himself up to answer the ref's call and is immediately met with knees and kicks. Zayn "hulks up" and grabs Joe in his own submission, but it's the Huntington Beach native who gets a foot on the ropes this time.
After running into a corner exploder suplex, Sami once again goes for the Helluva, but Joe dodges and locks in the Coquina Clutch. In the middle of the ring and with Zayn fading fast, the referee calls for the bell. Samoa Joe will again face Finn Bálor for the NXT title at TakeOver: Dallas.
- One kneejerk criticism - and if I didn't have to write this immediately after a first viewing, this may not stick, but - it would have been nice if there'd been one stretch of the match where the pace really picked up. As it is, the third act was what came the closest, but even endurance machines like WWE pro wrestlers are bound to be worn down at some point.
- They used that to their advantage, too, of course. The lackluster Helluva Kicks especially made sense considering all that had preceded them, and integrating them into crucial counters means they were intended that way.
- "THINK OF YOUR CAREER" is the most 'Reality' Era NXT taunt ever.
- One of the internet talking points about the match before tonight was that it lost the crowd, and people were getting up to walk around toward the end. While there's always a chance they played with the sound when they added the commentary, but it seemed like Full Sail was invested. More likely, back before Sami appeared on Raw, and spoilers & rumors about what he'll be doing in North Texas at the beginning of April hit the screens, they were shocked he lost. Even with a match against another face looming, and Zayn's NXT history of coming up short despite his heroic efforts, most folks figured he would get a title shot when he came back from injury.
- They'll have their work cut out for them finding a new way to sell us on Finn vs. Joe II, as well. I'd recommend letting the big guy talk, because that's never a bad idea. But that's also largely what they did last time, so we'll see how well it works for the rematch.
Tough to come up with a grade, even more than normal. Watching the match, I didn't love it. But I appreciated it, and wasn't ever bored by it. My hunch is that I'd find more to like on repeat viewings, but with so much wrestling product to keep up with these days, I don't know that I'll find the time anywhere in the near-future (still have a reportedly epic Lucha Underground Triple Threat to watch, I've heard).
I'm glad this episode was made, as it's a type of show WWE doesn't do very often. Joe and Zayn went all out for it, and avoided cliches. But, whether it was the length, the crowd, my knowledge of Sami's future or something else all together, it didn't make me sit up and say WOW. So, I'm on the fence a bit - as usual.
Which side are you on, Cagesiders?