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WWE NXT recap, reactions, video highlights (Jan. 24, 2018): With a bang

For a more detailed recap, check our live results post here.

Velveteen Dream directs his own video for a promo about his main event showdown with Johnny Gargano, then No Way Jose def. Cezar Bononi via pinfall after a pop-up punch to win his return match. After a package for Adam Cole’s Extreme Rules match with Aleister Black in Philadelphia, Bianca Belair squashes Latoya Allsop.

Well, this is one way to open your ‘go home’ show.

Long-time Cagesiders know I’m not a big Jose fan. Nothing personal, and I don’t believe he sucks or anything. But my thinking when his music hits goes along the same lines as Nigel McGuinness’ commentary. In fact, I’m just jealous I didn’t come up with the “walking siesta” line. Point is - you’re not gonna get a big pop out of me for No Way’s return to television.

But I’m not sure who you’re gonna get one out of using time on the last show before a Network special to reintroduce him with a win over a prospect like the Brazilian. Bononi did not look great here, either. Some of his offensive transitions just fell apart, and the Atlanta crowd didn’t appreciate either man’s rest holds. I remember Cezar looking better against Andrade “Cien” Almas, which... duh... but also not a mark in Jose’s favor.

Now, I love Bianca Belair, but I have some of the same issues with her more one-sided squash. The -EST looked pretty good, and got in at least a couple of those power spots she always does which make your jaw drop (lifting Allsop while chickenwinging both her arms for a disrespectful slam was a real highlight). But maybe squeeze one of these bouts onto an earlier episode? Both the previous Center Stage shows were packed with goodness. Move some of that to the first fifteen minutes of this edition in exchange for Jose/Bononi.

Ah well. At least they were at the start of the show. And that Cole/Black hype piece was great!

Percy Watson conducts a sitdown interview with Women’s champ Ember Moon and her challenger on Saturday, Shayna Baszler. Things get tense, but no punches are thrown.

Am I going crazy, or was Showtime actually pretty good in this role? I don’t dislike his commentary as much as some, or at least I think it’s improving. His teaser and intro for this segment from the announce desk weren’t stellar, but I thought he delivered a natural-yet-professional performance as an interviewer.

Both the wrestlers brought their best, as well. Not sure either of their bests are ready for prime time yet, but Ember didn’t take any steps back from the strides she’s made since WarGames, and Baszler’s been given a character she can succeed with at this stage of her development.

From a purely fan perspective, I found myself siding with Shayna, because I dig an “I don’t have to explain anything to you” badass. Moon is learning how to work her gimmick, though, and the more they emphasize the pro-sportsmanship and honor elements over contact lenses and “look”, the better.

In a short amount of time they’ve established this as a solid conflict, and this made me more interested in seeing them fight. Pretty sure that was the point, so, well played.

The second part of our look at TM61’s history chronicles their NXT run and Shane Thorne’s 2016 knee injury and rehabilitation. After he and Nick Miller say they don’t think WWE fans have seen the real TMDK/TM61 yet, they vow to win the tag titles. They’ll be in action next week. Authors of Pain destroy a pair of enhancement talents before their scheduled match starts, and cut promos saying they were sending a message to Undisputed ERA about what’s going to happen in their championship match Saturday.

Second part wasn’t quite as compelling as the first, but it does feel like we know the men behind the act a little better after these few minutes. Really thought they were building to an announcement that they were going back to the name TMDK (The Mighty Don’t Kneel), and I’ll confess to being a little bummed when that turned out not to be the case.

Overall, I think both parts demonstrated the challenge Miller and Thorne face connecting with the WWE audience. The Universe, as it were, isn’t sure what to do with guys who can flat out go in the ring while being alternately funny and intense outside it. They’re like two Finn Bálors without The Demon to lean on as a shorthand to inform fans they’re being serious now. I don’t think it’s impossible for them to climb higher - I hope it’s not - but these videos may have reinforced their issue rather than eliminated it.

And we finally got a squash which built to something in Philadelphia! It wasn’t much, and mostly stood out as a reminder of how great I think Rezar is at emoting in character, but... I’m now more excited to see them battle Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly for the belts this weekend, so again, good use of a couple minutes.

We’re told Lacey Evans will face Nikki Cross next week as well, then Johnny Gargano def. Velveteen Dream via submission with Garga-No Escape to hold onto his title shot in Philly. Andrade “Cien” Almas and Zelina Vega make their way to the ring for a staredown and to taunt Gargano. After the champ tries to cheap shot Johnny, they battle until Gargano is sent to the floor. He crawls back into the ring while Almas is posing and wins the next brawl, posing over Andrade with the belt while Vega screams at him.

Heading into the main event, this was a pretty disappointing show for me. Not bad, but nothing compared to the really good episodes we’ve gotten the past two weeks. But Dream, Almas, Vega and Johnny Freakin’ Wrestling showed up at the end and sent us into TakeOver hot.

Not sure what else to say about Velveteen at this point. He’s managed to take a character which shouldn’t work and turn it into one of the more fascinating ones in the company. He’s essentially a tweener, and not just because some NXT fans want to cheer him. We’re convinced he believes what he’s saying, and he backs up that bravado in the ring - not with wins (yet), but in every other way that matters. His promo delivery/cadence irks me, but as with Kenny Omega, I’m not sure that’s not the point.

Really glad he’s getting a TakeOver match (even if I’m disappointed and a little confused that nothing’s coming out of the Lars Sullivan/Roderick Strong/Killian Dain set-up). “Deserves” is an overused word in pro graps, but it fits here. His first feud against a non-indie all-star will need to be analyzed pretty closely, as working with Black, Gargano and now Ohno is a (excuse the pun) dream come true for a young Superstar. But I can’t wait to pick whatever he does after Saturday apart. He’s as exciting a young talent as I can think of in recent memory.

El Ídolo can do a lot with a little, and his facial expressions and body language are more than enough to make you want to see someone kick his ass. His business associate can talk the talk, but she’s also great cackling at a rival when she thinks her guy has the upper hand or melting down when he loses it.

Tying all this together is the best babyface in the company. While I’m far from a “cheer the heels” type, as mentioned with regards to the women’s title interview above, it is hard for me to really bond to a true-blue babyface. But from last week’s speech to this week’s match and the fallout, Gargano proved he can get even jaded fence-sitters like me on his side 100%. That hasn’t happened since “Yes Movement” Daniel Bryan, and NXT Sami Zayn and (sniff) Bayley.

At first, I wasn’t in love with this match. But after the second commercial (perhaps that was part of the problem) it found another gear, and really drove home its psychology and themes - without beating us over the head with them: Dream’s drive, Johnny’s fire, the strategy of working the arm to set up Garga-No Escape.

With his win streak and #1 contender status intact, it also made perfect sense for Gargano to handle himself with a little swagger after his never-say-die attitude allowed him to take control of the champ. It made for a perfect final scene before the showdown in The City of Brotherly Love.

Where I have a feeling things are going to end horribly for our hero.

Only the final 20 minutes lived up to the standards of the first two Center Stage episodes. But those were essential.

Grade: B

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