TakeOver: Dallas was the end of an era in NXT. Mentally, I’ve been dividing NXT into seasons (possibly a holdover from its gameshow roots.) The first season began with Episode One at Fullsail Arena and ended with NXT Arrival, the Hulu era where NXT was a well kept secret instead of a hardcore favorite. The second season started a week later and ended with NXT TakeOver: R Evolution, concluding Sami Zayn’s title hunt that had been the year’s dominant storyline. Then came TakeOver Dallas, which definitely had an air of finality and rebirth to it: two debuts, two title changes, likely the last TakeOver of Sami Zayn, and the general air of change to the product.
Now seems like as good a time as any to look back on NXT’s short but storied past. Like a lot of people, I got on the NXT train when I kept hearing about this amazing two out of three falls match between Cesaro and the former El Generico. That was late 2013— never did I expect a show that featured babyface hippie CJ Parker squashing nameless jobber Baron Corbin would become the complex product we’re offered today.
I hope to write a few of these columns, but let’s start with the most important one: a definitive list of the tenTakeOver from worst to best. Even the worst NXTTakeOver is still a pretty damn good show, though, and these are little more than my opinions. Because of holy shit long, this one will be split into two entries.
10. NXT TakeOver: Unstoppable (Aired May 20th, 2015, from Full Sail Arena. The Sixth TakeOver. Main Event: Kevin Owens (c) vs. Sami Zayn for the NXT Championship.)
Maybe I’m unfair to this one— it fell during one of the most difficult and stressful periods of my life in recent memory. Unstoppable feels to me like the "forgotten" TakeOver, sandwiched between the much more memorable Rival and the magnificence of Brooklyn. It was around this time that I penned an article called The Decline of NXT, and Unstoppable’s mediocrity was a big contributor to that.
It’s not a bad show. I’d rather watch it twice than watch any given Battleground event. What it did feel like was a show sacrificed to the altars of Slow Burn and Circumstance. Becky was hastily turned face to give Sasha a credible non-Bayley opponent, Hideo Itami’s injury took him out of the Number One Contenders match (and as contemporary rumors had it, he was a shoe-in to win that match,) and Sami Zayn blowing out his shoulder on RAW damaged the main event in ways big and small.
The first match was Finn Balor vs. Tyler Breeze— a number one contenders match that had to be hastily restructured to account for Itami’s injury. The match was perfectly fine, as you’d expect from two workers of that caliber, but I dare any one of you who hasn’t seen it recently to recall a spot or moment from it. The best part had to be Breeze’s entrance, with a cadre of supermodels turning the NXT Arena into a Milan runway.
The middle of the card felt totally forgettable. Bayley and Charlotte teamed up against Emma (who had yet to totally put her heel character together) and a green-as-goose shit Dana Brooke. Baron Corbin took on Rhyno in a snoozefest of a hoss fight— matches like this are what makes Corbin’s meteoric improvement in recent months so shocking. The show picked up just a bit with a tag title defense between Blake and Murphy against Enzo and Big Cass: a defense that saw the debut of Alexa Bliss’ heel persona. While we can all agree that Miss Bliss is, to word it gently, slamming bamming bootylicious, at the time it felt like a cop-out. Interference finishes are for weekly TV, not TakeOvers.
If the show ended there it would have been garbage, but fortunately our twin title matches were there to save the day. Well, mostly Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks shocking the world with a smart, exciting, and engaging barn burner that stole the show. I wasn’t as hot as many people were at the time on the match, with some occasions of botches (wouldn’t be a Sasha match without ‘em) and wonky psychology cheapening the story for me… but both women truly gave it their all and put on the best women’s match yet (a feat that would soon be broken, but hey, it was cool at the time.)
Then came the main. Hoo boy. I was a much more ardent defender of Rival’s title match than many who found it confusing or strange… but this was a rematch. We knew Sami was injured, and the tone of the Rival title fight made it clear that Owens was going to win, and probably put Sami on injured reserve in the process. Sami did all his big spots and then Owens powerbombed him in a faster but much less engaging version of their match at Rival, and then SUDDENLY SAMOA JOE.
Don’t get me wrong. Samoa Joe’s awesome. But it was a perfect opportunity to build more heat on Owens and instead they brought out a new guy with no build or foreshadowing or even payoff. NXT had already put itself in a precarious position by making their main event a sequel… and while it’s hard to screw up Owens vs. Zayn, this was the closest WWE ever came to doing so. We wouldn’t see Sami again for half a year, and it’d be a long six months without him.
Like I said, Unstoppable wasn’t a bad show… but if it weren’t for Becky and Sasha exceeding all expectations it very well would have been. If you missed it, give that match a look. The rest is frankly skippable, or was done better elsewhere.
9. NXT TakeOver: Fatal 4-way (Aired September 11th, 2014, from Full Sail Arena. The third TakeOver. Main event: Adrian Neville (champion) vs. Sami Zayn vs. Tyson Kidd vs. Tyler Breeze for the NXT Championship.)
Arrival and TakeOver were both very, very good shows— maybe even great ones. For a little while it seemed like NXT could do no wrong, best exemplified by the four men in the main event. News of huge stars like KENTA, Prince Devitt, and Kevin Steen being signed made the future of the brand seem even more exciting than the present. It was a simpler time.
But all the hype masked quite a few cracks: a non-existent tag team division, a shallow women’s division with a limited champion, and a general lack of depth to the roster beyond the top of the card. Earlier and later NXT shows would do a better job of booking around these flaws than Fatal 4-way did.
The first match was the Lucha Dragons ending the yearlong reign of The Ascension, a reign that was less about how tough and impressive Konnor and Viktor are and more about how there was literally nobody for them to wrestle. Kalisto had yet to truly adapt his hypersonic lucha to WWE rings and Sin Cara is a shrug and a fart in the wind on his best day, so the match was fine but lackluster.
It paid off in a big way just a little later, when The Ascension interrupted Hideo Itami’s debut and he replied by kicking them to death. It’s easy to forget how great Itami is in a world of Nakamuras and Asukas, but his workmanlike strongstyle and phenomenal athleticism have me salivating for his return. Nothing reminded me more of how much I like him than this simple, effective segment.
Also on the undercard: the first of many Baron Corbin squashes, this one on CJ Parker (a cool moment at the time since Corbin didn’t get an entrance and it seemed like the squash would go in the other direction,) Enzo Amore against Sylvester LeFort in a goofy hair vs. hair match which didn’t even end in LeFort being shaved, a second squash match between Bull Dempsey and Mojo Rawley… eesh. Not exactly a murderer’s row of match-ups.
Again the women would come to save the day. Bayley has always been a better in-ring storyteller than straight worker, and she and Charlotte told a compelling story about Bayley trying to make up for her physical inferiority with grit and heart… ultimately failing, but winning Charlotte’s respect. I didn’t care for the match at the time, but upon a rewatch I came to enjoy the match quite a bit more. It had modest goals and a short runtime but it was one of the best ten minute matches I’ve seen.
Then came the main event, which fell just short of being a masterpiece. Rather than the "DO ALL OUR MOVES" chaos of a main roster fourway, this match had a compelling and well-told story. Tyson Kidd is the cagey veteran who isolates the weak link in the match (Sami Zayn, rocking an 0-2 TakeOver record.) Sami is the plucky babyface who fights with everything he’s got, but in the end is outsmarted. Tyler Breeze is talented but arrogant and loses his cool when his moment to win comes and goes. And Neville is the champ who knows the odds are against him and takes an extra half-step to win by pulling the referee out of the ring to avert a Zayn three-count. It was everything a wrestling match should be: fun, exciting, rewarding, and smartly booked. All it lacked was the emotional oomph of NXT’s all-time great matches, which is probably why it isn’t talked about much these days.
So that was Fatal 4-Way. A good women’s match, a great debut, and a stellar main event. The undercard was as forgettable and lacking as any, but these highlights saved the show and are well worth your time.
8. NXT TakeOver: London (Aired December 16th, 2015, from the SSE Arena in London, England. The ninth TakeOver. Main event: Finn Balor (c) vs. Samoa Joe for the NXT Championship.)
London had big shoes to fill. NXT’s first away game was Brooklyn and, well, we all know how that went. Worse, London fell just a few days after the one year anniversary of R Evolution, the original Best Show Ever. Brooklyn and Respect (the show that fell between Brooklyn and London) both featured major debuts and major angles. While London was by no means a failure, it did feel much more low-key and unexciting than the shows on either end of it.
The London crowd definitely gave the show a different feel with their football chants, and the show started strong with Emma taking on Asuka (who I love more than words can possibly express) in a sleeper hit. We expected a good match, but what we got was yet more smart booking as Asuka overcame every clichéd heel trick to choke Emma out in a back-and-forth contest.
The show is also unique for having its best match involve neither Sami Zayn nor Sasha Banks (probably because neither of them were on the main card, although Zayn did make his return during the preshow.) Enzo and Big Cass took on Dash and Dawson in what is for my money NXT’s best tag match ever. Full of emotion and catharsis, The Realest Guys in the room threw everything they had at The Revival. The Air Enzo near fall is one of my favorite near falls of all time. There have been good and bad tag title matches, but this was truly the first essential one.
As was a trend for 2015 TakeOvers, the show lost steam with a Baron Corbin match— but his showdown with Apollo Crews was solid and had a few fun moments. It had the misfortune of following the stupendous tag match and it went a little long, but it’s hardly a stinker.
So this show sounds pretty good, right? Why’s it all the way down here? In truth, there were no bad matches on the London card— but with the exception of the tag match, there weren’t any great ones either. Take a look at our main events: Bayley carrying Nia Jax (who was so green I kept expecting her to try to sell me frozen peas) in an enjoyable but rote "plucky babyface against monster heel" title defense and Finn Balor being outshone yet again by Samoa Joe in a main that would have felt more in place at Supercard of Honor than at TakeOver. I honestly don't have much to say about it. It was a wrestling match. Two guys did moves to each other, and then one pinned the other. The end. No amazing storytelling, no amazing spots. Just some crisp moves and a clean finish.
Perhaps we’re spoiled— a card that has four good matches and one great one is eighth? But while London was a very consistent show, it wasn’t a very extraordinary one. It just sort of… existed. "Here’s some good wrestling," it said. No classics (not even the tag match.) No cool debuts. It felt like a really good indy card, and I guess I don’t watch NXT for that.
7. NXT TakeOver: Rival (Aired February 11th, 2015, from Full Sail Arena. The fifth TakeOver. Main event: Sami Zayn (c) vs. Kevin Owens for the NXT Championship.)
I had so much trouble placing Rival, and I agonized over whether it should go here or as Number 8. Mainly because Rival elicited an emotional response from me that few other wrestling shows can match... but like Unstoppable and Fatal 4-Way, the awesome ending can’t make up for the weak undercard.
In what was quickly becoming an NXT tradition, we started with the worker’s match: Hideo Itami vs. Tyler Breeze. The match was solid but unextraordinary, and felt more like the main event of an episode of NXT TV than anything else. Things quickly went downhill from there. A four minute match between Baron Corbin and Bull Dempsey that felt twice that length, a tragic botchfest between Blake and Murphy and The Lucha Dragons— there must have been a timing miscue or something, because this match badly exposed all four men’s weaknesses and left a bad tastes in everyone’s mouths. There’s a case to be made for it being the worst TakeOver match of all time barring minute-long squashes.
It was only in the second half that the show put itself together, and when it was on it was on. Finn Balor vs. Adrian Neville was Balor’s first real in-ring test, and he put on an underrated gem with Neville. I don’t think there was anyone in the WWE who was on Neville’s level from an in-ring standpoint around this time. Every move he did was crisp, his timing was pixel perfect, and he woke the crowd back up after the disastrous tag match. Balor looked good too, but in what would quickly become a trend he was outshone by his opponent.
Then came the women’s match. I’m glad I already got to talk about the men’s Fatal Fourway, because this match was in many ways a counterpart to it. Less action packed but more reliant on psychology and call-backs, it was every bit as good as the main event of Fatal 4-way. Charlotte, who is an unstoppable Ubermensch (Uber…frau? My German is not great) is quickly taken out by Becky and Sasha, building off their alliance— but heels are gonna heel, and the alliance soon breaks down. Caught in all of this is Bayley, who is fighting her very hardest but once again comes up just a bit short. Sasha wins in the end by holding Charlotte in the Banks Statement for a full minute before rolling her up… you can’t tap out a former gymnast by contorting her body, but you can agonize her enough to hold her shoulders down for three. Bayley tries to get into the ring but comes short. Genius. Just like its men’s equivalent, this match is eclipsed by later matches that built off of it— I personally think it’s hugely underrated in the pantheon of great NXT matches.
And then… the main. Zayn Owens. Generico Steen. What started in IWC in 2004, what spilled into ROH and PWG and CZW. Steenerico. I hate your fucking guts. Mask versus Career. Wrestling’s Worst Nightmare. The Ladder War. And now, Owens entering R Evolution as an on-fire babyface and leaving as the most despised man in Florida.
The rivalry between these two men is something that is truly one of a kind. No feud in wrestling’s history (with the possible exception of Flair and Sting) is as long, as storied, as complex, as key to defining two of the best wrestlers in the world. Sami Zayn had his best year ever in 2014. KO’s heel character was so incredible that he warped the show around him. The noblest good guy against the most despicable bad guy for the richest prize in NXT.
Lots of people don’t like this match. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I absolutely love it. It oozes emotion, and moreso than that it truly could have gone either way. Do you cut Sami’s title reign short or do you cut Owens’ momentum down with a big loss so soon after debuting? The match started with a true air of uncertainty.
It was a nasty, savage, heartless brawl. Owens spitting on Sami’s carcass is etched into my brain for good, because for a moment I forgot that these two human beings love one another and I thought for a moment that the resentment Kevin Steen feels for Rami Sebei beating him to WWE was real. That’s wrestling at its finest.
The finish is often what people call on to criticize it. Owens hits Zayn with powerbomb after powerbomb, until Sami’s doing his uncanny valley glassy-eyed sell and oh my god does he have a concussion. I watched with my hands clutched over my mouth as Owens didn’t just beat Sami, he mauled him and disrespected him and tried to end his career. Then the ref calls for the bell and awards Owens the title. Matches almost never end on TKO, so there was some confusion both in the arena and to the viewer at home. But as soon as Owens hoists the belt in the air, there could be no doubt. Sami’s title reign is the shortest in NXT history. Long live NXT champion Kevin Owens.
In the process of writing this article, I talked myself up from ranking Rival as 9th all the way to ranking it 7th. The first half of the show was truly miserable, actively bad. The second half was superb, a roller coaster that grips and doesn’t let go until the credits roll. What do you call a movie with an awful first hour and an amazing second hour? It has to be middling, I suppose. Rival is forever destined to be the problem child of NXT TakeOvers, but for me, it’ll always be special.
6. NXT Arrival (Aired February 27th, 2014, from Full Sail Arena. The first TakeOver. Main event: Bo Dallas (c) vs. Adrian Neville for the NXT Championship in a Ladder Match.)
Nothing like the first time. A few logistical questions out of the way first: no, Arrival was not formally branded as a TakeOver, which makes it the odd one out. Yes, the stream froze during Tyler Breeze’s entrance and we were all stuck staring at his gorgeous face for fifteen minutes (there are worse fates.) And yes, from a purely objective standpoint this show should probably go somewhere around Number 9.
But it’s easy to forget the significance of Arrival. The onus that was on this show was tremendous. Firstly, it was the first major test for the WWE Network. The service had just launched and countless were predicting that it would fail miserably, either crashing at a crucial moment (such as during Wrestlemania 30) or simply failing to turn a profit and burning all of WWE’s pay-per-view bridges in the meantime. Arrival had to go well to assuage these fears.
Secondly, it was the first big exposure to the NXT product. Most people had never even heard of the Hulu show, but NXT was set to be the Network’s flagship program. People who plop down ten bucks a month for wrestling want to watch wrestling, and NXT is the only place you can (legally) watch it. In other words, NXT had to stick the landing. The fate of the company rested on Sami Zayn’s skinny shoulders.
Okay, that’s a stretch, but not a big one. Fortunately, the opener delivered in a big way. His match with Cesaro came during Cesaro’s first super hot streak, when his heel alliance with Jack Swagger and Zeb Colter was crumbling and he was slowly turning into the King of Swing we now know and love (let’s pretend the second half of 2014 and the first half of 2015 didn’t happen, alright?) He and Sami put on nothing short of a classic. While it falls short of the 2 out of 3 Falls match they had a few months earlier (and that’s one of the greatest wrestling matches of all time so they can be excused) it was still a tremendous accomplishment for both men. The post-match, when Cesaro rolled into the ring and gave Zayn the respect he so desperately craved, gets me every time. Watch it if you haven’t. Watch it twice.
The rest of the show was going to pale in comparison, but that’s okay. They smartly put as much space between Zaynsaro and the main event as possible. That match was the only one that really played off the history of the two men, the other matches could be viewed with no idea who Emma or Neville are without much issue.
Mojo Rawley and CJ Parker’s three minute match was bad, but it was the perfect cooldown to get the crowd primed for the night’s big surprise: The Ascension’s mystery opponents were none other than Too Cool! Scotty and Sexay looked like they had stepped through a time portal from the year 2000, and unlike the New Age Outlaws (who were stinking up the main roster at the time in an awful nostalgia run) they were just as quick and crisp as ever. Their match with The Ascension was no Furnas and Lafon vs. Kobashi and Kukichi, but it was a fun and fast six minute match that gave The Ascension a convincing win over a popular and established team. See Vince? This is how you use your part-timers.
After that, it was time for the women’s match with none other than Stephanie McMahon to make the introduction. While Paige vs. Emma didn’t set the world on fire, it laid the groundwork for future classics with strong storytelling and a full range of moves that you’d never see main roster Divas execute (that sick powerbomb from Emma! The debut of the PTO!) A year later, the Divas Revolution was in full swing— it started here. You might even say Paige and Emma started the Divas Revolution.
Tyler Breeze and Xavier Woods gave us a non-match (Rusev came out and annihilated them both, this was back when he wrestled in brown Fruit Roll-ups and with no shoes) and after that it was onto the main event. Bo Dallas and Neville are both hugely underrated performers, but this was neither man’s best night. The ladder match didn’t suit either man’s style (Neville works best with a lot of space and not a bunch of hardware cluttering the ring, Bo’s specialty isn’t creative or unique offense) but it did imbue the match with the feeling of being something special. The match is only really worthwhile from a historical perspective, or if you love ladder matches. It’s far from bad, but nothing groundbreaking.
Arrival’s match quality was below London’s, but it made up for it with the feeling of importance. The event felt significant, like we were watching something special and unforgettable unfold before us. Five years from now, when Zayn is Helluva Kicking Cesaro for the title and Okada is Rainmakering Jimmy Havoc at NXT TakeOver: Tokyo Dome, we’ll know that this is where it all got started.
That’s it for Part One! Lots of words up there… Part Two will probably be just as long, too. I hope to make a series of this as well as provoke discussion of NXT’s history. Agree or disagree with my rankings, or my opinion of a match? Let me know in the comments!