Two things seemed to dominate the conversation heading into the eleventh NXT live special, the show whose name was revealed as TakeOver: The End of the Beginning during the opening video package.
One, which started with the frankly ridiculous rumors that NXT would cease to exist following this show, was that the first TakeOver back at their home base of Full Sail Live in Florida since the Fall of 2015 would somehow represent a major change. In what, no one knew, but with the upcoming main roster split and the ongoing transformation of the brand into both a means to develop talent and a way to sell tickets, it was fun to speculate.
That introduction fed into that line of thinking, too. Retracing NXT's history back to Seth Rollins pinning Jinder Mahal to become the first champ got even naysayers and cynics thinking, "maybe nothing will be the same after tonight?"
The other talking point centered around how the run of really good-to-amazing TakeOvers had to end at some point. And this one - the first since ArRIVAL without a member of the Four Horsewomen of NXT and built around a program in Samoa Joe vs. Finn Bálor that, while it's had its moments, has often felt more like Cena/Orton than Cena/Punk - was probably where it happened.
While The End... likely won't go down as anyone's favorite NXT live special, it was another fun show that most people will rank in the middle to bottom of their personal lists. But the streak is very much alive and well, because this was a good show.
And it answered doubters about its quality by not delivering on the teases of changing things up. The End... succeeded by following the TakeOver formula. Which means this show was a hit, but the next few months will likely be just as uneven and prone to growing pains as the those that lead up to last night, and Dallas, and London.
But we'll have time to talk/complain about that later. Let's dig into why WWE Network delivered a reliably good time on Wednesday night.
The Revival defeat American Alpha via pinfall following Shatter Machine to become the NXT Tag Team Champions
A staple of TakeOvers has long been a mid-card bout which steals the show. It's no surprise Chad Gable, Jason Jordan, Scott Dawson & Dash Wilder did it in Winter Park. But even though we saw it coming, you couldn't have predicted the fifteen minutes of wrestling nirvana The Revival and American Alpha served up as the second match of the night.
Pretty much any way you want to analyze wrestling, these guys delivered. All four men came out literally and metaphorically swinging, with a rapid-fire opening salvo which featured the teams battling to a stand still in every combination; using brute force, strategy or acrobatics. The heels eventually calmed things down with cheap shots, and we were treated to The Revival's excellent old-school tag psychology and Gable's wonderful portrayal of the face in peril.
It's a testament to their, I'll say it, artistry that even though they used spots and hit beats we've seen before and knew were coming, like Chad slipping between both Dash & Dawson's legs to reach JJ for the hot tag, they integrate them with new ones such as Gable countering The Revival's attempted powerbomb/clothesline with a belly-to-belly suplex. They also rework sequences so a crowd-pleasing spot like the tandem ankle locks from the Alphas happens early in the match.
As a guy who's thoroughly in the bag for The Revival, I have to point out that in addition to being the closest we'll ever get to Brain Busters 2.0 as wrestlers, they also never waste an opportunity to communicate to you who they are. The joy they displayed when they thought they'd wounded Jordan toward the end makes even someone rooting for The Revival pop when they're foiled, and Dawson ends up being thrown into a German Suplex from Gable.
In retrospect, the build kind of telegraphed a title change, but that - combined with a lot of well-executed nearfalls and false finishes - made the crowning of the first ever two-time tag team champs as special as it deserved to be.
Shinsuke Nakamura defeats Austin Aries via pinfall following Kinshasa
Asuka defeats Nia Jax via pinfall following a series of kicks to retain the Women's championship
These matches had the challenge of following the standout affair of the evening, and the task of setting up what I presume will be the title feuds heading into Brooklyn in a couple months. Those weren't the only outside factors they were dealing with, either... the men's match was wrestling with the ghost of Nakamura's debut in Dallas, while the women had the spectre of the most popular performer in the brand hanging over it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ladies answered the challenges a little better - at least in my book. Almost as great as the legacy of these events themselves is that of great women's bouts at TakeOvers. Nia & Asuka rose to the occasion despite the champ's backstage training segment being drowned out by Bayley cheers, and half of their hype video being dedicated to the Hugster.
Asuka is a Brock Lesnar-like attraction without a Paul Heyman. I know she has folks who root for her, but there are a lot of viewers like me who forget how much we get sucked into her particular brand of terrifying violence in-between her big matches. Even being drawn in doesn't mean we're pulling for her, which is where the sometimes muted reactions she gets come from. She's not a traditional babyface, but we can't take our eyes off her.
Jax isn't quite a full-blown Superstar yet, but she's not far. The best thing you can say about her is that she gets better with every performance. For a woman who was modeling two years ago to become someone who can be convincingly led to ten minute title bouts is no small feat. With a willingness and ability to learn, WWE will turn her looks and presence into millions of dollars. If you can't craft a story around the way she throws opponents around the ring, you need to find a new job.
Both women built well from the story coming into this - that Nia wasn't scared of Asuka and the champ didn't know what to do with that. The finish, if a bit out of nowhere, was a powerful moment that crystalized the angle. Jax has too much swagger for her own good, screamin in the face of someone in the Empress of Tomorrow won't stop kicking you in the head until you stay down.
I'm a little concerned that two title losses might mean Nia will be getting the Dana Brooke accelerated promotion, but I think she's more prepared to handle it than Brooke. Not sure what the long-term plans are for the champ, but her next move is a super-intriguing and potentially main event-worthy rematch with Bayles.
On the men's side, other than the impossible task of re-creating Shinsuke's arrival to NXT on WrestleMania weekend, Aries and Nakamura had too little story coming in - and their match struggled with that throughout.
This felt very much like an indy supercard bout, and the announcers from the pre-show through to the match itself sold it that way. Unfortunately, that's not enough if fans don't agree, and it took a while for the performers to convince us this was as big a deal as Renee Young, Corey Graves and others kept telling us it was.
Not knowing why they were fighting other than "bragging rights" creating a barrier to investment that wasn't fully overcome until a third of the way through a nearly twenty minute match. Being unclear on whether or not Aries would cut corners also instilled doubt rather than suspense, and that didn't change until he countered a kick into a shinbuster and really started to work Nakamura's leg.
We can assume that, having survived A-Double's assault (which included a painful-looking Death Valley Driver on the apron), Swagsuke will move into the NXT title picture. Aries remains fairly adrift, but can use this to further sell the chip on his shoulder.
The differences between these two matches, other than length, boiled down to context. Everything was better defined in the Women's title match, and as a result, it was every bit as good as the men's one, despite not having as much talent/experience between the two performers.
Samoa Joe defeats Finn Bálor via pinfall following a Muscle Buster from the second rope to retain the NXT championship
I love Joe. I respect Finn, even if I don't feel a connection to him as a character. But for a series that's gone on as long as theirs has, and has been sold as epic by the promotion - I just haven't been blown away by any of their matches.
It's not a lack of chemistry between the workers, or a deficiency of story. They're capable of electric moments between one another, and the build to this show was some of the strongest NXT's offered in the men's ranks since Sami Zayn got hurt.
There's always something missing, though. Here, the biggest thing I could put my finger on was a disconnect between the rules of the match and the build to it.
After entrances designed to ramp up the tension and sell the animosity between them, Joe and Finn start out slowly in the cage. Then the champ goes to escape, which... fine. Even though he hasn't been portrayed as someone looking for the easy way out, he's a bad guy. It really irked me when Bálor went to bail, though.
The title is important, and it's what's driven this whole rivalry. But William Regal put them in a cage to protect those outside of it. How does allowing them to escape achieve that goal?
I will say they made good use of the environment during the portions of the bout where they weren't trying to escape, and really sold the aggression that's involved in wanting to throw someone into the steel. Spots like Bálor's sling blade off the ropes and even Joe's attempt to Razor's Edge Finn into the cage freshened things up.
Even with a sick move like the elevated Muscle Buster that ended it, this felt a little anti-climactic compared to how it was sold to us. This was good when it needed to be great to payoff the angle we were always told was bigger than it seemed.
Andrade "Cien" Almas defeats Tye Dillinger via pinfall following running knees
Paul Ellering's new charges decimate American Alpha after their tag title loss
I initially got more excited about the opener than it probably deserves in retrospect, but after a day of telling people I didn't think TakeOver was going to suck, I was really excited to just be having fun watching wrestling.
Almas debut win over the Perfect Ten is every bit as deserving of my "indy supercard" critique as Aries/Nakamura, it just didn't have the same expectations, as evidenced by its placement on the card and the fact it only got five and a half minutes. It was a good teaser of what to expect from Andrade in terms of ringwork (while revealing nothing about his character), and confirmed that Tye is the successor to Tyler Breeze - and they better get to positioning him as someone who can serve as a main event gatekeeper ASAP.
The finish to this wasn't satisfying at all, partially because it came abruptly after a cool spot where Dillinger Superkicked his prone opponent and we thought he might build off that, and partially because I don't know if Almas' knees look like they connect enough to buy them as a finish.
But in Andrade's debut and the potential rise of Tye up the card, it gave us something to be excited about moving forward - as did the arrival of both Gzim Selmani & Sunny Dhinsa and their manager, Hall of Famer Paul Ellering.
Our newest tag team, who went by the awesome name Authors of Pain on the house show circuit, creates a lot of possibilities. We've been hoping for a push of the entire tag scene since the Dusty Rhodes Classic, and with these guys, TM-61 and Tommaso Ciampa & Johnny Gargano, we may finally be getting it.
Rumors peg American Alpha for a call-up, but they'll clearly want to answer this challenge, and Triple H's post-show Facebook interview hinted at there being more to the feud with the new tag champs.
There are things we want to see more of going forward, like these men.
There are things which will frustrate us, as we're likely heading into the usual post-TakeOver taping where not a lot happens as they stall before setting up their direction for the next event.
Folks we don't want to see go will be called up, along with some we don't think are ready. Wrestlers we don't think fit on NXT will be signed.
So it doesn't seem like it was The End... of the Beginning, or anything else. NXT abides. And as long as that means entertaining live shows every couple months, that's not a bad thing at all.
What did you make of the latest TakeOver, Cagesiders?