NXT’s latest live special, TakeOver: Philadelphia, will come our way Saturday, Jan. 27 at 8PM Eastern on WWE Network, so we’re here to help you get ready for it.
The black-and-yellow brand will ride into Wells Fargo Center just two months after November’s WarGames show in Houston. But a lot has changed since Survivor Series eve...
Two titles changed hands in Texas, and neither of the previous champions has been a factor in what followed. On the men’s side, Drew McIntyre was injured in his loss to Andrade “Cien” Almas. That prompted General Manager William Regal to put together a quick tourney to determine a new #1 contender. New Women’s champ Ember Moon claimed the belt Asuka vacated when she was promotied to Raw in a similar fashion at the last TakeOver. And with a wide open field, a challenger who just debuted on Wednesday nights forced her way into a quick championship opportunity.
Undisputed ERA won WarGames, but Bobby Fish and Adam Cole didn’t claim the straps until after the live special because they weren’t on the line at that show. Authors of Pain will represent for the old guard by trying to become two-time champs.
The undercard is a mix of old and new - from a veteran in his second stint in WWE to a Tough Enough contestant who made his name in the final stretch of 2017. With a deep pool of talent who only know wrestling from the Performance Center and an all-star team of indie signings, change could become more of regular feature for NXT in the new year. Even with another TakeOver coming up in a little over two months, screen time will be at a premium for everyone from current champs to top prospects.
We won't know how the landscape will look after NXT’s nineteenth Network special, but we can start getting ready for the show by looking at what brought us here... and make a few guesses.
Johnny Gargano vs. Andrade “Cien” Almas (c) - NXT championship match
How we got here: Cien’s start in WWE was a bumpy one. Figuring his good looks and in-ring talent would make him a natural fan favorite, he debuted as a babyface and fans revolted. It took a while, and a heel turn, and the addition of Zelina Vega as his manager, but everything finally clicked in 2017.
Still, not many predicted he’d win the top prize on the brand at WarGames. Even without the unfortunate injury to McIntyre, it’s felt like a good move, as Almas and Vega are an arrogant duo its easy to hate.
In reality, Gargano’s journey since signing has been relatively smooth. As a team and as opponents, he and Tommaso Ciampa immediately made a splash in 2015’s Dusty Rhodes Classic and the following Summer’s Cruiserweight Classic tournament. They’d eventually capture the tag titles in a series of match-of-the-year candidates with The Revival and AoP, but with Ciampa dealing with injury and the fans speculating on a replacement for him in the #DIY team, the Sicilian Psychopath snapped. In betraying and viciously assaulting his friend, he made Johnny’s kayfabe life hell.
It’s been a long road back from TakeOver: Chicago. Gargano disappeared for a time, and struggled to find his confidence as a singles performer. Setbacks included two thrilling losses to Andrade, something the champ and his business associate have been sure to constantly remind him of since he won the #1 contendership in a Fatal 4Way.
The circumstances of that win - he was a late addition to the tournament due to an injury to Velveteen Dream, and despite taking care of the intruders and giving his fellow fan favorite a chance to recover, he did pin Aleister Black after Undisputed ERA attacked the Dutchman - recast some doubt on Johnny Wrestling’s worthiness. He seemed to dispell that doubt again with a win over Dream and then by outsmarting and outbattling the champ in the closing segment of the ‘go home’ show. The fans are behind him. His wife Candice LeRae just joined the company. Even in kayfabe, things are finally going Johnny Wrestling’s way.
But is he one Zelina mind game, and/or Ciampa appearance, from losing his shot?
What to look out for: The exact nature of Ciampa’s injuries and his timeframe for recovery were never officially revealed by WWE, but lots of folks are speculating he’s close to being ready to return. So much so that the assumption is he’ll at least be able to cause a distraction, interfere or lay a post-match beating on his former tag partner.
While we watch for The Sicilian Psychopath - or a save from LeRae should Vega get too involved - we should be treated to a hell of a match. Both of the previous Almas/Gargano matches were barnburners, and the higher profile should do nothing but turn up the heat.
Would NXT go for another quick title change after McIntyre’s short reign? Is it the right time to strap Gargano, or should he chase/deal with a blood feud for a while longer? That uncertainty only adds to a great story and what could be a classic between two talented performers with great chemistry.
Ember Moon (c) vs. Shayna Baszler - Women's championship match
How we got here: Though she could never manage to defeat Asuka, Moon was presented as the biggest threat to The Empress of Tomorrow’s dominance over NXT’s Women’s division. For some that was a convincing angle to build Ember with, for others it was a cop out. No matter, with a win over Peyton Royce, Kairi Sane and Nikki Cross at WarGames, she claimed the vacant title and the Ember Era began.
How long it will, or should, last is another subject. She definitely seems to be finding her footing as a fighting face, welcoming all comers and standing up to those who don’t adhere to her code of honor and fairplay. Whether someone should be on firmer ground before they become champion is the question.
Luckily, NXT’s given her a tailor made opponent to emphasize her character. Mae Young Classic (MYC) runner-up Shayna Baszler hit the scene by choking out the women who beat her in that tournament, then proceeded to terrorize Performance Center training sessions and televised matches until she baited Moon into a championship match.
Playing a badass of few words is a perfect fit for the former mixed martial arts professional. That background, and her friendship with Ronda Rousey, have put Baszler in this position. But would putting her over here while she still has a lot to learn be any better than what Ember’s critics say NXT has done with her?
At its core, this is the story of a hero standing up to a bully. And that’s a great basis for a program. But there are a lot of questions outside the storyline which make this interesting.
What to look out for: Baszler performed well in The MYC, but she didn’t show off much variety. A TakeOver title match should call on her to do more. How she handles that, and how well the champ helps her with the challenge, will be something to keep an eye on.
In-ring work isn’t Ember’s issue, but her act up until now has largely been focused on her finisher above all else. This will give her a chance to integrate her heroic character into a match against a villainous foe. How she pulls that off may be as important to her future as whether she wins or loses.
Hard to predict either the match quality or the outcome, but at least there should be a lot for us to consider on both scores. And signs of how NXT will book the women’s division from here, depending on whether we leave Philly with a fighting face or a monster heel as champ.
Undisputed ERA vs. Authors of Pain - Tag Team championship match
How we got here: These teams have some history - they were both in the historic main event of the last TakeOver, for instance - but it still kind of feels like the team they both should be feuding with isn’t here.
AoP lost the titles to SAnitY in Brooklyn, and still haven’t gotten a straight-up rematch. It kind of doesn’t matter now that Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly beat Eric Young’s unit for the tag titles, but still...
Undisputed ERA did run-in on Akam and Rezar’s chance to take the belts from SAnitY, so that’s another piece of history. But now EY, Killian Dain and Alexander Wolfe are still owed their rematch against Fish and O’Reilly, because along with Adam Cole, the former reDRagon took them out backstage before that match could go down.
In the midst of all that, Paul Ellering’s boys made it clear the really wanted the championship back. After taking care of Street Profits, they sent a message with a dismantling of a pair of local talents on last Wednesday’s episode. Undisputed says they’re not concerned, but seeing as they were thrown around the two cage set-up by the big hosses in Houston, they’re probably lying.
What to look out for: Other than a good old-fashioned clash of styles, the focus will be on how AoP is booked, and what that means for their future.
The former champs have come a long way. Their ring work is more than solid, and they’ve even started to take the microphone from their Hall of Fame manager more and more. Once you lose a belt in NXT, you’re usually on your way up the WWE ladder. But five months after Brooklyn, Akam and Rezar are still here.
Is it to put over Fish and O’Reilly in an even bigger way than they’ve been to date? Undisputed ERA is in a weird position where they’re set-up as power players, but they haven’t been given one of the winning streak gimmicks NXT loves. Over the last few months, the champs have looked more like dominators while their stablemates taken a big loss. Most observers are expecting a win for the ERA and a promotion for the Authors. Even if they’re right, how that happens could be just as important.
Aleister Black vs. Adam Cole
How we got here: Cole’s aforementioned big loss was a clean one to Black, in a qualifier to determine which of them would head to the #1 contender Fatal 4Way eventually won by Gargano. He got revenge for that by leading Fish and O’Reilly in a charge which eventually cost the Stoic Satanist his title shot, and this match was made.
Not content to wait for Philly, Aleister answered an open call for tag title challengers after Undisputed ERA took out SAnitY before their contractual rematch. More interference by AC managed to rattle his balanced outlook, and his losing his temper to chase Cole cost his partner Roderick Strong the match. That lefted Black fuming even more, and it was at that point Regal added an Extreme Rules stipulation to their bout.
Fitting both for the city where their match will take place, and the personal nature of their rivalry. Before their match, Cole set out to prove the then-undefeated Superstar wasn’t deserving of the praise he was getting. But when he challenged the Dutchman to show him what he had, he got a Black Mass. What’s followed has been a petty man’s quest for revenge... and it’s been pretty great.
What to look out for: This could be seen as a de facto #1 contender’s match, so there’s a lot on the line. Like his stablemates, Cole’s been presented as a big deal even though his win/loss record, and critical reviews of his performances, don’t necessarily back that. A strong showing here would increase his standing with fans. A win would be even better, and probably get him in the title hunt.
Black seemed ready for the championship scene back before he started his Autumn-long rivalry with Velveteen Dream. No one regrets the greatness which followed, but he still seems overdue for a main event program. A win here and shot in New Orleans might be the last chance he gets if rumors about plans to use him at the next level sooner rather than later are correct.
And then there’s the plunder, which should be fun. Get your “We Want Tables” chants ready now.
Kassius Ohno vs. Velveteen Dream
How we got here: Tough Enough’s Patrick Clark debuted this gimmick to a lot of groans, including from this writer. He’s changed pretty much everyone’s minds with a committed performance that plays with vainglorious (and gender fluid) heel cliches in new ways, and ability to flat out go in the ring while weaving his character into matches.
His rapid rise was stalled with an undisclosed injury, but he returned with a vengeance to challenge Gargano for the #1 contendership (seeing as Johnny took a spot he exited due to being hurt). In taunting Gargano into taking that match, he disrespected the man Johnny beat in a qualifier - Kassius Ohno.
After Dream came up short against Johnny Wrestling, Ohno met him backstage to see if he’d changed his tune about how “easy” it would be beat both men. VD, of course, hadn’t, so now Kassius will be trying to teach him a lesson in the squared circle.
What to look out for: Velveteen is probably the most buzzed about star in NXT right now, and this will be another opportunity for the 22 year old (!) to steal the show with someone who’s been in the business a lot longer than he has.
Ohno returned to WWE in 2016, and has struggled to establish his place since. It’s clear the bookers view him as a gatekeeper for the top of the card, and that’s almost certainly his role here. But his performances haven’t always lived up to the expectations of fans who’ve been watching him over the last decade-plus, or the hype those expectations created for fans who didn’t know him as Chris Hero.
This is a chance for both men to solidify their roles, and hopefully entertain the heck out of us in the process.
That's our rundown of what should be a fun night of pro wrestling... however it measures up to the events which preceded it. Check out our predictions post from earlier for lots of opinions on how the action might unfold.
Will we see another changing of the guard in Philly? Who will cement their position for New Orleans, and who will risk fading to the background? Are any acts saying goodbye on Saturday night? Where will this TakeOver rank in the show’s illustrious history?
Let us know what you think about those questions or anything on the Philadelphia card below!