Usually, if something becomes as routine as the quality of NXT’s live WWE Network specials have over the past four years, we’d get bored with them.
That TakeOvers (and arRIVAL before it) are routinely excellent mitigates that quite a bit. That they’re entertaining in slightly different ways helps, too. Amazingly enough, they’ve also been getting BETTER.
In reviewing one of their semi-quartlerly events in 2017 or the year prior, I remarked that an issue with a string of otherwise really good shows was that the main event matches were just okay or good. The NXT championship in general was being outshined by usually a tag or women’s match. Samoa Joe vs. Finn Bálor and Bobby Roode vs. Shinsuke Nakamura weren’t bad matches, and there was usually at least one in their series which was quite good, but none of them could hold a candle to what we got in Philadelphia on Jan. 27, 2018.
That’s probably not fair, as Almas/Gargano III will certainly remain in Match of the Year discussions for the next eleven months. It was one of the best NXT matches ever, in a class with Zayn/Cesaro, Revival/#DIY and Banks/Bayley, and really featured just about everything you could ask for from the artform of professional wrestling.
More on that in a minute. But the point is that after Adam Cole and Aleister Black took years off their lives for our entertainment in the penultimate bout of the show, it was remarked in the Cageside offices that they’d be a tough act to follow. Johnny Wrestling and the NXT champ were more than up to the task, and that’s amazing.
It’s also pretty much all you need to know about “should I watch this?”
So if you haven’t seen it yet, go do that. Then come back and break it down with us.
Andrade “Cien” Almas defeated Johnny Gargano via pinfall after an avalanche hammerlock DDT to retain the NXT championship; Tommaso Ciampa sent a message to Gargano after the closing credits
Because identifying moves and grasping the technical aspects of wrestling performance isn’t my strong suit (and why we have the best in the business, ReverendKain, on staff - go read his live blog of TakeOver: Philadelphia here), I over rely on “just go watch it” for really good matches. Hell, I just did it above.
It’s really all anyone can say about this one, though. These two are among the best wrestlers in the world by any metric, and Gargano is probably the top babyface currently working. They also have amazing chemistry with one another, evidenced in part because Andrade knows exactly how to act smarmy when he’s shutting down a fiery comeback from Johnny Wrestling.
From the opening standoff to the last nearfall, I wouldn’t change anything about this. And that includes who won.
Triple H and team’s decision to keep the title on Cien rather than give the audience “what they wanted” was immediately a topic of debate after the show. I understand those that wanted to celebrate NOW with Gargano. But I felt every ounce of pain and disappointment he displayed after the referee finally counted three. Johnny earned that, in a kayfabe and real sense, with his stellar performance. And you can be damn sure I’ll be back to see his next shot at reaching the moutain top.
Personally, I had more questions about the decision to bring Ciampa out for a single swing of his crutch. But leaving an episode of a serialized drama with questions isn’t a bad thing.
There are a lot of ways NXT can go from here, and I want to see all of them. I haven’t been as invested in a performer/character since Daniel Bryan’s WrestleMania 30 run - a story that was made sweeter by how many times we thought we didn’t get “what we wanted” in the year preceding it. Really, even if they never crown Johnny (and, don’t worry, they will... someday), as long as he’s wrestling with people of Almas’ skill level, it’ll still be great.
Don’t sell El Ídolo short, either. He’s an integral part of NXT’s main event resurgence, and at least one of the reasons I’m not too worked up about the outcome on Saturday night is because he and Zelina Vega deserve more than one turn at the top of the show. His blend of character and athleticism is a match for Gargano’s. While I do want them to #FightForever, I also want to see Almas get to dance some more with Drew McIntyre. And Roderick Strong. Plus Trevor “Ricochet” Mann. And the guy who won the almost-match-of-the-night which came before his instant classic.
Aleister Black defeated Adam Cole via pinfall following Black Mass
These crazy sunnamagums.
If you’re gonna have Paul Heyman intro your Philly show where you have an Extreme Rules match on the card, this is bound to happen, I suppose. Cole and Black put on the kind of match which probably generates conflicting responses within a lot of viewers. I know for me while watching a no DQ battle like this, even while I’m marking out I’m thinking of the long-term consequences of some of these spots on the performers. And even when I’m cringing when something like Cole going tailbone first onto a ladder happens, I’m also fired up about what I’m seeing.
This was more than just painful looking and dangerous action, though. Time was taken to build to those things, and even in the midst of the carnage to remind us we hadn’t simply been plunked into a match with this stipulation... these guys not only dislike each other, but they’re in one another’s way in pursuit of a main event spot. Even the run-ins by Cole’s Undisputed ERA partners Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly and SAnitY weren’t just over-booked chaos. They made sense, as Undisputed’s been a bigger thorn in Eric Young’s faction’s side than anyone else on the brand since they arrived as a unit in Brooklyn last August.
After cleaning up in the Year-End awards which kicked off the night, Black is ready for the next step. It would be surprising if he wasn’t mixing it up with Almas for the belt soon, and that should be a fantastic clash of personalities and talent. Cole’s starting to make people notice why he’s been projected as a future WWE star from his earliest appearances for Ring of Honor, too. Over the past two TakeOvers, he proven there’s nothing he won’t do to get a match over. The character beats he excels at are shining through, as well.
Almost any other night, this is the one we’re talking about. But both of these men will be the first names out of our mouths after lots of future shows, and they have nothing to regret about this one - except maybe a couple of those bumps.
Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly defeated Authors of Pain via pinfall following a roll-up (O’Reilly on Akam after hurricanrana-ing him into Rezar) to retain their NXT tag team titles
Interesting choice of opener, but probably the right one - and not just because it allowed the reDRagon boys to get involved in Cole’s match later. There was a different flow to this than those final two matches, and it might have garnered a different reaction or seen to be designed solely as a change of pace if it was placed elsewhere.
Psychology was on display from the start. Undisputed targeted Akam’s leg early. He did really good work selling it, and Rezar showed some great fire when he eventually got into the action. This was a classic undersized-heels-take-down-larger-opponents tale, executed by really talented people.
More than the closing matches, the first three bouts on the card were snapshots of what NXT in 2018 is - a standalone promotion made up of a mix of homegrown talents and independent/international superstars. It’s a different but equivalent thrill to see folks we recognize like Fish and O’Reilly getting a chance to show a larger audience how great they are, and watching talents we’ve seen develop before our eyes like Akam and Rezar put it all together.
Expect to see Kyle air guitaring his belt on the way to the ring for a while. What’s next for AoP is less certain, but considering how far they’ve come from their Dusty Rhodes Classic winning days - where they were reliant on opponents to help them to decent matches - the sky could be the limit for Paul Ellering’s young charges.
Velveteen Dream defeated Kassius Ohno via pinfall following a Purple Rainmaker
There’s not much praise left to be heaped on Dream, but I do feel obligated to say how wrong I was about this gimmick every time I write about him. It wasn’t so much that I was doubting Patrick Clark - although why anyone should expect a 22 year old to be capable of what we’ve seen from him over the last six months, I don’t know. But I thought the character was a dead end. Fortunately, Clark and the team at The Performance Center have a ton of ideas for how to make the act work in a variety of setting, matches and feuds.
Case in point, deciding to don boxing trunks (with Muhammad Ali and his opponent’s face on them, natch), pop in a mouthpiece delivered to you by members of your entourage and promise to knock out knockout artist Kassius Ohno. Velveteen’s celebration when he connecting with an early punch that made it seem he might actually win in under 30 seconds as promised was a highlight, but the bout had other moments, despite a few rough patches.
After WWE released a video proclaiming Ohno a “wrestling genius” earlier in the day, I was almost expecting a victory for the veteran here. The crowd loves Dream, and win or lose, that’s not likely to stop any time soon with performances like this one. For Kassius, this was almost a step back after his great recent showing with Gargano on the weekly show. But that was Gargano, and we’ve already talked about his skill level.
What was reinforced for us in this one is that Clark is a special talent, and he’ll be entertaining us while making a bunch of money for himself and the company for years to come.
Ember Moon defeated Shayna Baszler via pinfall with a roll-up to retain the Women’s championship
In theory, this was a great idea. Moon’s status as an honorable, never-say-die flagbearer for the division was reinforced, as was Baszler’s sadistic technical pedigree. But solid story and clever finish aside, it just didn’t come together.
In large part, that’s because while Shayna carries herself like a champ, she can’t wrestle like one yet. Not only is she fairly limited in the ring, she also struggles to consistently apply her MMA holds in a way that looks painful but remains safe for her opponent/performing partner. Several stretches here seemed designed to make sure the match took up the right amount of time without her having to do too much.
There’s a lot of pressure on Ember to follow in Asuka’s footsteps (something we were reminded of tonight by how the Raw Superstar cleaned up at the Year-End awards despite missing a third of the year), and she’s responded well to that recently. But in Philly she tried a little too hard. Her selling of an arm injury inflicted by Baszler veered too close to cartoon-ish. Compare her performance to Gargano’s. Again, not entirely fair because Johnny is operating at the highest level in the business, but Moon is in an even more important position than he is as champion. She should be capable of getting close to the same level of investment and emotion from the crowd, and she’s just not. At least not at this point, with this opponent.
One to grow on for both wrestlers. But with folks like Kairi Sane, Bianca Belair, Dakota Kai, Abbey Laith and the strangely-missing-from-this-card Nikki Cross floating around, and LeRae just signed, there may not be a ton of time for learning atop the division.
The Women’s match was a bit disappointing, and it wasn’t the only blemish on the night. Production continues to be an issue. I thought the rapid cuts and zooms were a result of WarGames’ two ring set-up, but they remained a distracting element of the Philadelphia broadcast. And with Nigel McGuinness out sick, Maura Ranallo’s grating quirks and Percy Watson’s shortcomings were quite apparent on commentary.
Which is even more of a testament to the quality of the storytelling and action put together by the wrestlers and creative team. I almost always enjoy the hour I spend with NXT each week, and I actively look forward to the two and half hours of TakeOver every 2 - 3 months.
Even when it’s “just” really good, the black-and-yellow brand is reliable. And in a crowded wrestling and entertainment landscape, I’m grateful for that.